Month: July 2012

Druidic rarity and conferences

I’m back from the Keltria conference.

It was lovely to connect with fellow Druids, this time in sunny (and oppressively hot) Georgia. We shared laughter, insights and ritual techniques, and above all, fellowship.

And for me, that last is my favorite part. Druids are rare in my local Pagan community, and quite possibly in the larger Pagan community in general. In metropolitan areas, the population density is such that you’ll find at least a few other folks sharing your path. In less densely populated areas, suburban or rural, it can be difficult. Pagans there, as with most anywhere, tend to be Wiccan.

I have no problem with Wicca per se, but it’s not my path. I’m a polytheist. I don’t believe that all Goddesses are one Goddess (whom I jokingly refer to as the Great Marshmallow Mother) who is the moon and earth, or that all male Gods are ultimately one sun and fertility god. In other words, Aphrodite, Kali Ma, Nu Kua and the Morrigan are, in my mind, not all “aspects” of one deity; the same holds true for, say, Mars, Krishna, Perun and Coyote. I honor a female sun and a male moon, which is the reverse of the Wiccan community.

To be snarky, I hate conversations in which someone inevitably calls Brighid a moon goddess, since all goddesses are ultimately one Goddess who is the moon. Usually, I nod politely and bit my lip very, very hard to hold back the words. Because no matter how well-phrased, those words would prick; people hate to be corrected. And who am I to correct them? Wiccans have a different system, one that works for them. It would be akin to a Presbyterian correcting a Pentecostal.

Before I discovered Druidry, I did participate in Wicca; it was the only option available, and better than nothing. But I was one of those folks uncomfortably shifting my feet back and forth, grumbling, “Isn’t there a better (for me, at least) way?” This path has always been about my love for the Gods, not about magic(k). I can see how that last draws people — the prospect of power, or of attaining desire — but such power and attainment for their own sake has always seemed hollow to me. I have a different motivator, I suppose.

To get back to the point: gatherings such as these, despite the expense of travel, are worth it. You see you’re not alone. And perhaps I’m a Luddite, but I don’t think fellowship can thrive solely on the Internet; the Web consists of words shorn of the subtlety of intonation, and the person’s innate character. The Internet is a lifeline for members of smallish faith paths, but to grow, you need more that just a lifeline. You need the sustenance that comes from a human voice, a human face and a shared rite.

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Misanthropy and bad poetry

The very day I was born, I made my first mistake, and by that path have I sought wisdom ever since. — Ganesha, in The Mahabharata

When I was in college, I wrote a poem that became somewhat popular in certain circles. I forget the exact title, and don’t feel like fishing out my old poetry notebooks from the closet at the moment. But the premise is this: as uber-responsible First World citizens eager to create utopia and heal our wounded planet, we … should starve ourselves to death. That’s right: just off ourselves and let nature and the oppressed peoples of the world have it all.

Now, I was around 20 years old at the time. Radicalism and 20-year-olds are natural partners, like gasoline and matches. But still, even then, I wasn’t personally serious about what I’ll call the “Jain solution.” I struggled — and still do — with the concept of right action, of living up to one’s ideals, of creating a just society, a fair world. My interior engines have always run off a certain high-grade idealism.

Our individual choices can change the world, we’re told, one person at a time. But even then, I saw the limits and frustration inherent in that philosophy. You can make all manner of personal sacrifices, follow an OCD-type checklist of “right things to do,” drive yourself absolutely batty in pursuit of ethically appropriate food, housing, professions — and still, the glass jar of the world remains cracked, and Pandora’s ill spirits are still buzzing around. People suffer and starve, hurt one another and themselves.

It’s almost natural, then, that we question our value as a species. Wouldn’t the universe be better off without us? How many conversations have you had, fellow Pagans, which involved the sometimes-yearning concept that humans will eventually kill themselves off? How many times have you groused about groups you consider ignorant — religious, political, nationalistic — and mused about whether humans deserve to exist at all, considering those groups?

I’ve been guilty of it, too, says the redfaced poet. But I’m trying to be more mindful.

If the behavior of certain Americans or Syrians or what-have-you makes you doubt human worth and continued existence, does that mean Canadians deserve annihilation too? The Swedes? Poor people in Burkina Faso? If you think a certain political party or religion should be wiped off the face of our Mother, what about person X who is a member of this group and has done X number of good things for his or her neighborhood?

When I’ve brought this up in anti-(fill in a group) conversations, I’ve been told I’m an apologist for said group and that I’m making it personal and thus missing the point. The point, I suppose, is to paint with a broad brush: This is evil, bad, “Other,” and above all, Not Us. But the broad brush really should be reserved for houses, ceilings and other surfaces, not living creatures.

The point is: It really is personal. The people whom you hate or disagree with are, indeed, just that: persons, with names, pasts, loved ones, and good qualities along with the bad. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean those positive qualities aren’t there. Hell, even if they aren’t, there is the potential for beneficial action, and that’s something. No one and nothing is pure; we are all vases laced with cracks, water flecked with mud. Christians may call that sin, but I call it simply the reality of living creatures. We aren’t Platonic constructs and can never be.

I regret that poem. It was cheap, an easy shot, an easy solution. It’s a lot harder to do the messy work of life — which is all about mistakes, reparations and compromise. The work is what makes any endeavor — spiritual, physical, creative — valuable. And it ain’t easy.

May I continue to learn from my mistakes.

Rain prayer to the Dagda

Rain down, o Father!
The grass is yellowed,
the cattle thirsty.
Small birds cry for you

to dip the ladle
into your cauldron
and with a sharp shake
set the jewels to fall.

Rain down, o Father!
Your club low, dragging
makes thunder’s rumble
and slakes the streambed.

Oak of Two Blossoms —
pluck its strings and sing
the chorus of frogs
the tune of the marsh.

Set the frogs to sing
and insects to hum
your coming — sing out
to rain’s percussion.

A processional —
pageantry of green
awaits, if you come.
Rain down, o Father!

Do we have a right to travel for fun and spiritual profit?

I finished prepping for my southward trip to the Henge of Keltria’s annual meeting at the end of the month. And an expensive trip it is: flying out on a Thursday to Atlanta and returning Sunday morning. It necessitates not only airline tickets, but a hotel room for a few nights and a rental car, all now arranged.

And I wonder: do I have a right?

My husband and I discussed this a bit at our annual sojourn to Drum’n’Splash. That event, which lasts the better part of a week, is held at Four Quarters Farm, a Pagan church. The church member who started the enterprise is a believer in the peak oil phenomena, which can be summarized as such: 1. We will run out of petroleum shortly. 2. Alternative energy will be unable to fill the gap, either because a lack of political will or, simply, “it sucks.” 3. This will create a maelstrom of declining harvests, riots and, ultimately, mass death, during which industrial society will be utterly destroyed and we will be thrust back into the pre-industrial age, dependent upon farming, weaving and barter. Straw hats and suspenders are optional. 4. The virtuous will survive. (Don’t they always, in Armageddon scenarios?) 5. You can become virtuous by living a post-apocalypse lifestyle right now.

Now, I love Four Quarters Farm and find the staff and attendees to be lovely people. But I’m not a Peak Oil Believer ™. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna, but I have faith in human ingenuity. Yes, oil will run out. But I do believe in alternative energy, and that progress is being made on those fronts. (As it happens, due to my day job, I’ve seen some of that research firsthand.) Birthrates will ultimately fall as education becomes more common for people, particularly women, across the world.

And time is a spiral. It may appear to loop back, but it never really does; it’s a process, and goes forever forward. We aren’t returning to the days when we all lived like the Amish. Perhaps I’m a bad Pagan, but I don’t want to return to such a state anyway. I rather like living in a world where we don’t have to work 24/7 for basic survival, and where education and even (gasp) arts, music, religion, hobbies and intellectual pursuits are possible. I like living in a world where we can regulate our reproduction, and where women aren’t regulated to an existence as mindless clothes-making and food-preparing baby machines. Where “survival of the fittest” and “nature red in tooth and claw” aren’t the driving forces of human society. Where the weak are cared for and educated. Not to mention indoor plumbing, modern medicine, etc.

Is modernity perfect? Hell no! But agricultural pre-modernity was, for many people, hell. People died young. Women often died after repeated childbirth. (No birth control then, you know, unless you wanted to tell your husband where he could stick it, and not in you.)

I wouldn’t want to live in the world the Peak Oil folks imagine, especially coupled with violence, mass death and societal breakdown. Quite simply, if that scenario plays out the way they predict, I’ll happily take the next ticket to the Otherworld. “Here, shoot me and take my stuff! Best of luck to you.” Life has to have a value beyond that of mere survival.

But I am aware of the resources I use traveling, resources that could be spent in better ways. Airplane fuel is probably the worst part. My husband and I drove five hours to Drum’n’Splash, and that wasn’t lost on us either. We brought that up with another attendee who was discussing environmentalism: do we have a right?

“Well, you can’t just stop living your life,” he said.

But why not? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Stop using resources and having children, opt out of industrial society and live in accordance with our ideal model, the world of our ancestors?

I don’t believe in the peak oil end times scenario, but I do believe in conserving where I can. Is the Keltria trip justified? I’m not sure; I suppose it depends on how you’re making the judgment. I certainly want to go and meet with my co-religionists; Keltrian Druids are few and far between. And ultimately, spiritual community needs to be more than virtual, in my view. There’s something special and irreplaceable about meeting other humans face to face, exchanging ideas with voice and gesture, doing ritual with each other in the flesh. That’s what society is.

What’s your view?

the Divine Composter

For Meán Fómhair, I have a tradition.

The ritual is always the same, whether I celebrate with others or in solitude. We (or I) paint ourselves with symbols and dance with weapons in honor of the Morrigan.

Her name has been rendered as “Great Queen” and “Phantom Queen”; both are true. In some respects, she is the Irish Kali Ma, the death-bringer and devourer, the dancer at the funeral ground, the slayer of cocky heroes, the carrion crow. Sometimes, she is considered the same as Badb (“bahv,” the battle crow), Anu, the horse and sovereignty goddess Macha (whom I worship separately, and not as part of the Morrigan), and Nemain, who is associated with battle-frenzy and panic, but who may have originally been the protector-goddess of groves, Nemetona.

My personal relationship to the Morrigan is … conflicted, which is appropriate, one imagines, for a goddess of conflict. It would be easy to adopt the Christian stance and say such as goddess must be evil, the same stance of the lily-white Westerner viewing an image of Kali garlanded with severed heads and belted with severed arms. Violence, death, war — are these not evils?

And what is evil, indeed? The common quip is that it’s “live” spelled backward. Dictionary.com lists its proto-Indo-European root as upelo, meaning “overreaching bounds,” in the sense of uppity folks. Evil is that which crosses boundaries, turning the order of the world — what the Vedic Indians called rta and the Irish (according to Aedh Rua) an fhírinne, the Cosmic Law — into chaos.

And the Morrigan is, in many senses, the bringer of chaos — the Red Woman who tricks you into breaking your geasa,or vows, ensuring your destruction. But in a sense, you bring that chaos on yourself by being uppity, overreaching bounds — what the Greeks would call hubris, which means “insolence.”

Her chaos and death-bringing do more than destroy heroes. She is the force that defeats the Fomhoire, the elder gods from the sea, giving the victory to the Tuatha De Danann. She chants a prophecy describing a golden age of prosperity followed by the inevitable end of the world, when the social and natural order breaks down into chaos, suffering, dissolution. As translated by Whitley Stokes:

I shall not see a world that will be dear to me 
Summer without flowers 
Kine will be without milk, 
Women without modesty, 
Men without valor, 
Captures without a king… 
Woods without mast, 
Sea without produce… 
Wrong judgments of old men, 
False precedents of brehons (law-speakers), 
Every man a betrayer, 
Every boy a reaver 
Son will enter his fathers bed, 
Father will enter his son’s bed, 
Every one will be his brother’s brother in law…. 
An evil time! 
Son will deceive his father, 
Daughter will deceive her 
mother.
In Greek myth, this would describe the Age of Iron, in Hindu tradition, the Kali Yuga. And what comes after the dissolution? The slate is wiped clean and the Golden Age begins again, a new cycle set to ultimately devolve and repeat, devolve and repeat.

On the surface, the devolution into chaos seems like the very definition of evil. But it’s also a part of the natural cycle, akin to the plants breaking down in the compost bin, providing fertilizer for the next round of life. And so, I think of the Morrigan as the dancer of chaos, breaking apart order through death, pain and challenge. I associate her not only with order-disrupting violence and war, but with more mundane processes: digestion and excretion (yes, shit), decay, compost. She’s the Divine Composter, and I don’t mean that in a sacrilegious sense.

She is a force to be reckoned with, and not avoided; avoiding her just makes the situation worse for you, ultimately. In ogham terms, she is h’uath, terror, the teeth of the wolf, the surgeon’s blade. And so, each year I swallow my ambivalence and show her my respect. Love is more difficult, but I’m working on that — and am honest about my deficiency in that quarter. We’ll start with respect and the seed of understanding, and work from there.

summer break

I am indeed alive and here, but in the midst of my summer break. Summer is a time for the fire of doing, of activity — the beat of the drum, and not so much the solemnity of poetry.

And so. It’s been a tapestry of drums, music and sweat, hikes through the woods and, today, slipping into the water.

I hope to post more significant stuff again shortly.