30 Days of Paganism, 2 – Beliefs: Cosmology

Right. I’m skipping day one (Beliefs: Why Paganism?) and leaving it till the end. My answer to that question is complicated, and I think the rest of the topics will help answer it. So, first things first. Cosmology.

Chaos and Cosmos

At the beginning of an ADF rite, a lot of people greet the Outsiders or the Outdwellers. I haven’t done a lot of this in ritual yet. Here’s a story of an experience of these forces of chaos, though.

Not too long after I moved into my house, I became aware that there was a Presence (for want of a better word) at the top of my stairs. Some Pagans would interpret this as a spirit (often a ghost, in my experience of Pagans). Some would talk about shadow work, confronting the darkness within myself, and how I was drawing on Jungian archetypes to shape my understanding of this work (and, apparently, focusing all of it at a particular spot on the top of my stairs…) Others might call it a house-wight, or a genius locus, or some other spirit of place. My personal cosmology leans towards the idea of spirits of place, so I wondered if I was pissing off another resident of the house with my rituals – which usually honoured greater deities, greater spirits, than them. Which doesn’t exactly mean I was taking that view literally. Let’s just say that I slip in and out of literal belief of these things. For me such Presences are simultaneously many things: archetypes, spirits of place, aspects of myself, people of the sidhe, and maybe a few other things thrown in there for good measure. We need frameworks for belief, but most of the objects of our belief are so far beyond our understanding, that it’s impossible to tie them down. We cannot cage the minute within its nets of gold.*

But without those frameworks of belief, without that order, all I have is swirling, theatening chaos. When a friend suggested that I should invite this ‘spirit’ to observe my rituals – in an approach which is very like ADF’s offerings to the Outdwellers – I started to deal better with the fear I encountered at the top of my stairs. Drawing on Gaelic myth, and working with my particularly strong belief in the Áes Sidhe, I offered (homemade) bread and fresh milk, acknowledged the Presence before ritual, and started working more regularly with the land spirits I encounter in and around my house. I also started to do that Irish thing of propitiatory offerings. There are some land spirits you can work with, and some that you really can’t. I reckon land spirits can be a lot like cats. They can’t be domesticated. But sometimes, they might be willing to let us pretend that they can be.

You can see two forces at work in Gaelic mythology – chaos and order. The Tuatha De Danann arrive in Ireland and subdue the Fomorii and the Fir Bolg, those terrifying agents of chaos, and replace them with a tribal order. And if you know anything about Irish gods and heroes, you’ll know that their version of ‘order’ wasn’t very orderly. Compared to the chaos that preceded, though, it was.

Now. I’ve heard people say that they have problems with the ‘chaos vs order’ dichotomy, because it could lead to accepting things like social injustice, bad government, abusive marriages, all for the sake of order. But I think this is a misinterpretation – or at least, it’s not an interpretation that I share. It’s not true that order is good and chaos is bad. The world was created out of chaos. The forces of chaos are still loose in the land, in its dangerous wildness. Which may be why ADF calls this ‘chaos and cosmos’ (instead of ‘order’). I like that. Neither is superior, and each needs the other. It’s just that ‘cosmos’ is where we live, usually. And eventually, we have to go back there, or we’ll be dead.

There is chaos and order, chaos and cosmos, within all of us. Chaos isn’t negative. It isn’t bad. It’s often very different from what we’re used to, but it’s necessary. And sometimes, upholding the order of the universe, of society, doesn’t mean allowing that order to become an iron cage.** It means working for its destruction. In my mythic worldview, Fomorii-like forces created the land that I live on. Cailleach Bhearra, the giant hag goddess, strode across the land, and from her apron fell the stones that would form the mountains. Terrible destruction; beautiful creation. In the Bible, order replaces chaos (just read the first couple of verses of Genesis). But in my interpretation of the Gaelic worldview, life was dependent on chaos for its very origins. Now apply that metaphor to the reality of evolution – harsh, cruel, the ultimate competition for a brief chance at life – and you see what the myth is getting at.

Personally, I see my role in the world as falling more on the chaos side than on the cosmos side. Like all good activists (and their sisters, the satirists and the seers and the prophets). And I’ve started to wonder if that’s why Bhearra called me to honour her. She wouldn’t have been my first choice for a goddess, if I’d written a list of attributes I was looking for in a deity to honour. She’s wild, terrifying, and more about chaos and destruction than about maintaining order. But from that re-balancing in the direction of chaos, a new, better order emerges. And I want to help create that new order.

And of course, it’s all more complicated than that. Because every time you try to cage Gaelic (and Brythonic) myth and worldview into a concrete system, it shimmers and shapeshifts again, disappearing into the mist. But this is a ‘way of seeing’ that works for me. At least for now.


*From ‘Sunlight on the Garden’, a poem by Louis MacNeice.

**Weber’s iron cage is interesting in this context: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_cage

5 thoughts on “30 Days of Paganism, 2 – Beliefs: Cosmology

  1. Pingback: 30 Days of Paganism, 3 – Beliefs: Deities | Léithin Cluan

  2. I love this! The paragraphs towards the end make me think of the creative chaos of things like supernovas and genetic mutation – both of which are essential for life as we know it.

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