(Pt 2:) My Polytheism

There’s a beautiful trend happening. People are writing about their polytheisms, people whose polytheistic practices are diverse, varied, multiple, weird, different from what we’re told (recently) that polytheism ‘should’ be. (See Jack’s post here, and Kiya’s post here, and the wonderful My Polytheism blog which is collecting a lot of this writing – and I hear that Jolene Poseidonae wants more people to contribute to it!)

Like a lot of these brilliant writers, I have been really concerned by the gatekeeping and crypto-fascist stuff coming out of those who would paint themselves as ‘leaders’ of polytheism. As though it were a cult and they were the gurus. As though it were a singular religion, with rules that we all share, and which they can write.

For me, part of this mess has been positive. My Lady is pointing me at the roots of modern cultural polytheisms – roots which are mostly nationalistic and fascist, if we are completely honest – and asking me if that’s what I want to be part of, even as it moves beyond that. For that history will always be with it. I’m thinking about that, and it may take some time. These things can be transformed, She says – but is that the Work you want to do?

Because you see, my gods are not particularly bothered how I worship them and what I call myself. And my ancestors definitely aren’t. It’s for you, they whisper, and I, barely hearing them, shake my head like I were brushing off flies, and pour out my offerings on shrines that Irish gods never had, and that they certainly don’t have now. And what paltry offerings they are – whiskey and mead and scraps of food.

And they don’t mind – it’s what I need. And I believe they appreciate those little offerings, paltry as they are. But there’s a sense that, when I’m ready, there are far bigger things waiting for me outside the four walls of the room that houses my shrines to the beings of Light that dwell in the secret places of the land. And far, far bigger things waiting for me beyond the four walls of my current ways of thinking and doing and worshipping.

My gods do not live in any shrine inspired by modern polytheism. No offering of whiskey is enough for them, and no trinkets that remind me of them could ever fill the deep, dark spaces they have made in my heart.

Then what do you want? I ask, perturbed, frustrated.

You, whispers Beara, my dark Lady, whom I had the gall to name myself, whose tales I have twisted as she has led me to, in whom I have found a depth of chaos and justice that no constructs of ‘ancient lore’ can describe. For it can only be found in the places she dwells – in the wind in the trees, at the seashore in a storm, on a wild island, on the mountain. And in the deepest pool of chaos, beneath the Tree.

Anything (and everything) you want, says Dovinia, ancestress-goddess who crosses divides between land and people, and finds me lost, somewhere in the depths between.

The Adventure, winks Manannan mac Lir, who does not care if I put the accents on the right places in his name, for all names and stories could only ever be an echo of the sound of the sea on the rocks in a mighty storm – and a wry, friendly fisherman watching from the shore in a bright yellow hat, so easy to miss in the heavy rain. He offered me a box once and asked if I wanted to open it. I’m not sure I’ve even cracked the lid yet.

They ask me to challenge the deepest parts of myself that do not want to offer hospitality to the stranger (or wants to fetishise them* until my hospitality is far more about me than about them). The parts of me that withdraw into tribal instincts – where what is mine must stay pure and unsullied by others, and what is yours must be mine if I think it is good, and condemned as alien and wrong if I do not. The parts of me that are racist, colonialist, internally and externally disablist, internally and externally homophobic, transphobic, classist, elitist… the list goes on. The parts of me that secretly like that most of my gods are Irish and that I rarely venture out to meet others. That I rarely look beyond my little boxes. That I call myself a thing and ignore how it oppresses others. Because to look at that oppression is difficult, and may involve Work that I’m just too tired to do. (The parts of myself that use ‘I’m too tired’ as an excuse far, far too often.) They call me to challenge all these things in me, for only then can I even begin to challenge them in others.

This is my offering.

They ask me to give all of myself to a cause without end, from the depths of my frustration and pain, in disability campaigning that alienates me from my community – and leaves me deeply hurt, unsure if I should go on with such work that makes people stand against me, vocally, if very boringly. But I will, because order needs chaos, rising up from the dark pool beneath the Tree, or nothing ever changes. And Beara nods, and approves – but only long enough to ask for more.

This is my offering.

And they ask me to do the most simple things, that are the most difficult. Continuing to show up, even in the too-bright, scorching days of a summer ruled by Balor, where my world and my mind feels like it is falling apart. Keeping going, when the doctors are unkind and unhelpful, when the university administration is neglectful to the point of my desperation, when the mountain of work is terrifying to look up at. To keep pulling out that next transcript to analyse, Cuchullain-like (but with no super-strength to help). To accept the many gifts that They give me. To believe my spouse loves me. To keep lighting the candle on the shrine – because that is what I need, and my need is great.

This is my offering.

My polytheism is social justice. My polytheism is critical theory. My polytheism is Hannah Arendt and bell hooks and Sara Ahmed and Robert McRuer and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and Sharon Betcher and Nancy Eiesland. My polytheism is stories – sharing the stories of those who are not heard, because my privilege means my voice is louder, and this is what I can do. My polytheism is research into disability and Christianity, that I have never walked away from in six long years, through circumstances having forced me to attend three universities, all of which have made it very hard to work as a disabled student – because I made a commitment, and because the stories of my participants need to be told. My polytheism is hospitality, keeping my vows, showing up, and really trying hard not to raid the cattle of others.My polytheism is the modern stories that inspire me that I am afraid others will laugh at, and so I relegate my feelings about those to other places, and pretend I am not inspired by Buffy and Angel and X-Men and Night Vale and a reimagined Narnia where a queen calls to me. My polytheism is not even sure it’s all that different from monotheism, some days, when the voice of the One whispers through and in the voices of the Many. My polytheism simply is, a belief in many gods, because many gods made themselves known to me. And oh, how they made themselves known!

My polytheism is nothing like yours. And that’s OK. It’s good. It’s beautiful.

Now please – tell me about yours?

(Don’t worry – part 3, on disability, miasma and polytheism, is still on the way… :) )

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Image: ‘Bright Flame’ shrine. Images of Brighid and Our Lady Breaker of Chains, with flowers (from my garden) and candles, plus memorial and inspirational items.

*Currently reading Sara Ahmed on the fetishisation of the stranger. I recommend it.

A Gaelic polytheist reacts to ‘Miasma’ (Pt 1) – The Song of Amergin

This is a poem about the source of my gods’ power – and mine.

I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the eagle on the rock.
I am the flash from the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the word of knowledge.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
– Song of Amergin (mythical Irish invocation – taken from several translations)

To my gods, the earth is not foreign, or hostile, or unclean. They were here first. Longer ago than I can imagine, they dwelt in every atom of the earth. They infused it, welcomed it, loved it, with all its dirt and all its mess and all its blood and all its sex and all its death. Long before we started trying to reject our humanity (in the vain hope that that would somehow make us more spiritual), my gods moved deep within the playground of primordial pre-human muck. Dancing in the dirt, living in the trees, shagging under proto-mountains, feeling their way through the darkness, experiencing embodied reality.

Read the Song of Amergin again, if you are willing. Who is ‘I’? I have no idea. I don’t know if Amergin is channelling a particular god here. Yet the Song drips with divine influence. And isn’t that the point? Arriving in Ireland, the human Amergin accesses the same power as the gods. He does that so well that he defeats them. As he describes it, it is the power of the earth that he invokes – deep, dark, messy, mucky, embodied earth. Brought forth from primordial chaos, and one day to return to it.

The Three Realms are connected. Land, Sea and Sky – we belong in all of them, and so do the gods.

My gods dwell in the rivers, the sea, the mountains, and even in the swirling chaos of urban life. To come close to them, I need to come to closer to the earth – not wash the earth off me in some misguided attempt to ‘purify’ myself. My spirituality, like the power of the gods, arises from what is earthy in me. My deep, earthy, spiritual matter. To some polytheists and pagans – and especially, I think, to Gaelic polytheists – the earth is not something that we need to ‘rise above’. Humanity is not something we have to put aside in order to honour the gods.

Miasma?

There has been a conversation, in response to Many Gods West, about ‘miasma’, and about how we all need to use and work with this concept/practice. This is a Greek concept that I do not understand very well in terms of actual practice (because I am not a Hellenic polytheist). It’s to do with purifying yourself. As the concept has been explained to me, it’s about removing from yourself the things that the gods do not like, because they are holy and we are human.

But that’s a concept from an entirely different religion from mine. I think that, in the joy of finding a polytheist community out there, we can sometimes forget that we are not all one community. We are all working from within very different spiritual systems. Gaelic polytheists are not on the same religious/spiritual path as Hellenic polytheists, nor as Heathens, nor as Kemetic polytheists…

And in that forgetting, we forget some of the most important things about honouring our gods. I do not serve ‘all the gods’. I serve my gods – the ones who I believe reached out to me. Not for any reason of socially constructed Romantic concepts of ancestry, or ‘cultural purity’ (*vomit*). I serve those particular gods because (I believe that) I chose them and they chose me. No other gods have called me but they. There is no grand command sent down from on high that I need to honour a Power that I don’t relate to, in a way that I can’t understand. If I wanted to, I could – it would probably involve me going through something akin to a conversion process, since the way (for example) a Hellenic polytheist thinks about their gods is not the way I think about my gods. But I don’t have to.

And that means no one gets to impose their way of thinking about the gods onto me.

In fact, I have sacred taboos against honouring entire pantheons of gods. And that, at least in part, is because of what I would have to do to honour them. Things which could violate some of my most sacred virtues and vows – like hospitality, honouring the earth, or my own concepts of justice.

Throwing Off What I Don’t Need

I am already pure enough, just by being part of the earth. I don’t believe I have to cleanse myself of human or earthly things.

But there are things I need to do, if I want to become more fully human.

I need to throw off anything I do not need, anything that does not serve me, or that does not serve the gods. That is how I can move in better harmony with the pathways of the Xartus, the great tree of life. I need to seek justice, not injustice. I need to offer hospitality, probably my highest form of spiritual and community practice, which I fail at all the time, but which I can only hope to get better at.

I also need to do some things that are useful to me, based on my own experience. For me, protection and connection are important. Being around my gods every day, if only briefly, and making offerings to them regularly. Having a hearth shrine where I light a fire (a tiny candle-shaped one in my case!) that is the centre of my home. My Brighid’s cross above the entrance to my home. The ritual of hospitality (there it is again) that I need to try to offer to those who come through my doors. Other rituals that I do as the year turns. The prayers I say daily that build up a connection between me and the Sacred Three. The fires I burn at key times (and sometimes burning certain things, like juniper). And, most important of all, without which none of these things would matter: seeking justice in all things, in all my actions, in all my work, in all my interactions with my community. These are all small things, and probably look very insignificant to a lot of people. But they are important for me, for connection and for protection.

And all of these are about reminding me that I am human, and connected, and embodied. That I am living on and with the earth, and that I only exist as part of my community. They’re not about forgetting my humanity.

If I need to lose anything, I need to lose the things that are un-human about me. My tendency to get really selfish, to forget about hospitality and the importance of community. My ability to get wrapped up in myself and what I need, and ignoring what others need. My ability to ignore what I already know about who needs justice and how I can act more justly, and (worst of all) to pretend I’m a warrior for justice when I can be a terrible coward who avoids the hard work it requires.

There are monsters within me, fomori of the heart. I need to throw off what I don’t need, that keeps me mired in the monstrous, and keeps me from the gods and the community.

But, again. Nothing to do with miasma.

Many Religious Paths

I was having a conversation about why people need gods, with modern druids, recently. Modern druidry is incredibly diverse on the issue of (poly)theism – it’s an orthopraxic religion, not an orthodoxic one – we are druids because of what we do, not because of what we believe. (Which is how I can be both a Gaelic polytheist and a modern druid at the same time. There aren’t conflicting belief systems there.) Someone was talking about not believing in gods, in part because they aren’t keen on the ‘lists of associations with gods’ that you can find on every other cheaply-made witchy website on the internet. (That’s got nothing to do with my gods, I said, though I don’t know if anyone heard…) But I have no need to change their minds about deities. Their spiritual/religious ways are their ways. My ways of relating to the gods are mine.

And you know what’s really nice about modern druidry, with its orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy? No one tried to change my mind, and I didn’t try to change theirs. No one said “Oh but you must think about the gods this way.” And that’s how I know where I want to find my community.

And this was an interaction with someone who is agnostic on the subject of deities. This ‘miasma’ stuff – this is coming from polytheists. People who claim to value the gods – but who know nothing of my gods, and have no right to speak on their behalf. Nor to try to convert me to their way of thinking.

You are the Mountain.
You are the Wilderness.
You are the Wild One.
You were the there when the sea first drew breath
and the land rose up from its depths
and the sky settled on the horizon
You will be here until the land drowns,
Until the sea rises up and swallows her whole,
Until the sky falls and the world burns…

– My own invocation, of Cailleach Bhearra of the Beara peninsula – part of my dedication oath

Stay tuned for a follow-up post to come, about the problems of the concept of ‘miasma’ for people who are disabled, or ill, or stigmatised by society…

 

31 Days of Offerings – Day 17-18: Community Redefined

31 Days of Offerings(1)

Offerings don’t have to be a solely Pagan affair. We do too much separatism, for people who claim to believe that the world itself is sacred.

Last weekend I was heavily involved in helping to run this conference (see also here, where a group that participated has reviewed it), for which I’ve been on the planning committee most of this year (and I do a lot of their publicity, and was their social media person, and tweeted on the day, and, and…). I’m still recovering! I’ve not really talked about this much in Pagan circles, because, well, Christian.

But I grew up in a Christian context (actually I was about 30 when I left church), and I believe my Wyrd is tied to that community. It is part of my Work. I’m not doing a PhD on Christianity and disability for my health (and definitely not for my wallet). I believe I have a calling, and activism around disability and churches is part of that calling.

Photo: St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London

Photo: St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London

Other offerings I give to a broad interfaith local community include inter-faith educational work, work with the Druid Network, and various other things that I do with the aim of improving dialogue between religious communities and serving the local community generally.

Ultimately, as well as an offering to the people around me, this is also an ancestor offering. Most of my ancestors were Christians. Social justice and Christianity was important to many of them, I gather from stories told about a few of them.

My exploration of the story of Narnia and its less-acceptable characters is all part of this tangled web of a spiritual-religious journey that never ends. My relationship with a very liminal deity probably is too.

I am a proud non-active Anglican (while also a polytheist and modern druid), living on the edge of the community that is itself living on the edge of the churches: the community of disabled Christians. Religion isn’t always about belief. In fact, in most of the world, it isn’t really. We’ve taken American evangelicalism and tried to apply it to Paganism as well as to every other religion in the world – but religion for most people is about action, much more than belief. Do the stuff. Embody your practice. Be.

Liminality. It’s not just about Otherworlds. ;)

You know me? You don’t know me

I am not a reconstructionist.

There. I said it. I feel better now, I think.

I was strongly drawn to reconstructionism in the beginning. It seems so academic. (The fact that most academics would find what reconstructionists do rather… inaccurate and confusing, is an entirely different issue.) It seems so clear. Got questions about a deity? The answers are out there, waiting to be uncovered by (usually amateur) archeologists/linguists/folklorists/mythicists.

Except they aren’t. And I feel, increasingly, that this is not a way to do religion or spirituality.

I love looking for clues in the stories of the land. My deities can all be spotted there, or at least, shadows of them – including Baoi (Beara), Dovinia/Duibhne (of the Corca Dhuibhne people), and the Three Sisters (Lasair, Latiaran and Gobnait-who-is-sometimes-Inghean Buidhe-or-sometimes she’s-one-of-the-others-and-sometimes-she’s-Crobh-Derg). But they are, as you can see even when I just try to say their names, not all that easy to pin down. The Three Sisters are deeply rooted in the land around Cork and Kerry, and if you ask the locals about St Latiaran, they will know who you mean, and they will tell you stories about her that you’ve never heard before. But these deities also have precedents across the water and across Ireland. Does that make them any less local? No. It makes them a far bigger mystery than they first seem. The clues are there, but they will slip out of your hands when you try to grasp them. Continue reading

The Age of the Hermit

“You shall go with me, newly married bride,  
And gaze upon a merrier multitude;  
White-armed Nuala, Aengus of the birds,  
Feacra of the hurtling foam, and him  
Who is the ruler of the Western Host,  
Finvarra, and their Land of Heart’s Desire,  
Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,  
But joy is wisdom, Time an endless song.  
I kiss you and the world begins to fade.”

– From The Land of Heart’s Desire by WB Yeats

I had a strange dream last night.

It was bin day, and I was sitting outside with the rubbish bags. (I don’t know why.) The bin men came and picked me up with the rubbish. This led to my sad demise. The thing was, nothing actually changed. Everyone could still see me and talk to me. I ran around trying to persuade everyone that I was, in fact, dead, and could someone please do something about it? A funeral or an investigation, maybe? “That Naomi,” a friend of mine said to another friend, while I was within earshot. “Always the attention-seeker. This time it’s death, is it? Typical.” Continue reading

Pagans, Quantum Physics and Rationality

In my experience, Pagans are amazing at skepticism, logic and rational argument – when it comes to other people’s religious or spiritual beliefs. Most Pagans that I know could tell you a lot about how Jesus is not the only dying-and-rising god that ancient societies ever thought of, or how Christmas was influenced by pre-Christian pagan traditions.

But many of these Pagans are not so good at deconstructing their own beliefs on certain things. People with fantastic minds, who I love talking to, and who I’ve heard demolish other people’s ideas, somehow often fall short of that intelligence and philosophical sharpness when it comes to common Pagan beliefs. Their own beliefs.

And one of the worst ways this happens is when the topic of quantum physics comes up.

Quantum Physics: Proof of Magic?

This week, Fire Lyte linked to this post on his Facebook wall.  The response was… interesting. Lots of people trying to prove that the writer of the article didn’t know anything about quantum physics. Not looking at their own beliefs.

There are repeating comments that I hear on this subject a lot. Comments that are loaded with logical fallacies. I’ve heard statements from Pagans on quantum physics that demonstrate the following fallacies:

Argument from complexity (similar to an argument from ignorance): “Science is proving so many weird and complex things! So quantum physics could prove that my candle magic caused my pay rise!” Yes, it could, though the probability isn’t high, given what we know about quantum physics so far. Now come back to me when it does prove that and when we have evidence of this. Yes, science is proving some complex and weird things these days. We cannot use that to assume that it will prove what we want it to prove.

Argument from silence: the idea that, since something cannot (yet) be disproved, it is proven. “The universe is a weird place. There are things in the universe that we will never be able to explain. We just can’t know everything!” We cannot argue that, because science shows that there is much about the universe we don’t understand, it proves that anything is possible. It specifically doesn’t do that.

Ad hominem attack: an attack on the person who is writing/arguing, rather than on their arguments. “That person doesn’t know anything about quantum physics!” Doesn’t prove that you do. This argument should at least be followed up with “And here’s a link to some evidence that I’m going to use to argue my point. It is reliable because it is published in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is backed up by these six other articles from six different reliable journals, and this conference paper, and this statement from the scientific community.” If not, you haven’t proven anything by attacking one individual, rather than focusing on their argument.

Shifting the burden of proof: “Can you prove to me that quantum physics doesn’t cause magic to work?” No, I can’t. But the burden of proof is on you, not me. As Carl Sagan said, “Extrodinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

– Correlation proves causation: thinking that, because two things coincide, then one must be caused by the other. “Every time I get acupuncture I feel better. This must prove that quantum mechanics causes it to work.” That’s great. There may be all manner of reasons why that treatment is helping you. I have enormous faith in the badly-named ‘placebo effect’, which would be better called ‘the human body’s self-healing effect’. When I go for reflexology and acupuncture, I’m working on my body’s self-healing mechanisms. Also, quantum physics exists. There’s absolutely no reason why one should have anything to do with the other.

(Note: This is stretching the bounds of the correlation fallacy, a bit. I think it’s relevant. Tell me if you disagree!)

Mind projection fallacy: i.e. because this belief matters to me, it’s relevant to everyone – and my opinion is worth more than your facts. “I believe quantum theory proves magic, and my opinion is just as valid as any scientist’s”. No, no, it’s not. Come back when you’ve studied quantum theory to doctorate level. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to the experts.

False equivalence: “Homeopathy causes a quantum leap in a person’s physiology” (a direct quote from someone I know) – using the term in a way that scientists don’t use it, and confusing two different meanings of the word in the process. Here, the informal term ‘quantum leap’ has nothing to do with the physics term ‘quantum’. The statement is basically nonsense. (Sorry.)

I suspect there are many more logical fallicies in these arguments that I haven’t spotted yet. Have you seen any others? Let me know!

Your Mind Turned To Mush

You have an amazing mind. We all do. We’ve all won the lottery when it comes to consciousness, to quote Simon Clare. Evolution, one of the most exciting processes on the planet, has gifted us with thinking minds. Unfortunately, human beings get very attached to our irrational beliefs, again for reasons of evolution and our past survival. In the distant past, being able to see the pattern of a tiger moving between the trees was probably vital for our survival. Now, though, we hang on to that pattern-finding faculty even when it’s not necessary. We see patterns and call them magic. And we have all the right in the world to believe in magic. (I do!) What we can’t do, because we’ll never succeed, is argue that there is objective proof of that magic in science.

Why does it matter? Because we look like total idiots when we do it. Ultimately, if you want to make logical fallacies all over the place and demonstrate that your mind has turned to mush, you go right ahead. It doesn’t bother me. But you’re wrong. And if you want to be right – as your constant arguing suggests you do – then you may want to go away and educate yourself about science. Use that fabulous mind of yours – especially about your own beliefs. If you don’t, someone else will.

You won’t lose anything. You stand to gain a lot, though.

On another level, I guess I want to be a member of a religious/spiritual group that doesn’t talk rubbish. I was a member of evangelical Christian churches for a long time. My bullshit meter eventually exploded. I happen to think that the Pagan community can do better. Our community should be full of thoughtful, intelligent, well-read people who test our claims against reason, reality and science. I’ve met us. We’re clever people!

Faith Can’t Be Proven

Ultimately, some things will always be about faith, and unprovable. I believe in fairies, for fuck’s sake. What I don’t do is try and prove fairies with science. (Though now I want to draw a picture of gleeful fairies preventing me from proving them through science by messing up all my experiments.)

You have the right to your beliefs. Your right to impose those beliefs on others is much more limited. “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”

And if you’re trying to persuade people of something using science, you’d better have a damn good grounding in what that science means. I don’t – I have GCSE science grade B (i.e. I know that plants contain chlorophyll and some basic formulae about mass and force). What I do have is a Master’s in Sociology and I’m a couple of years away from a doctorate in Religions. I stick with what I know, which is learning everything I can about why we believe what we believe. And what effect that has on the rest of society. That matters to me. I believe it should matter to all of us.

Now there’s a belief that’s probably full of logical fallacies…!

If you like podcasts, a great one on rational thinking, logic, philosophy and religion is the Reasonable Doubts podcast. And they have a wonderful Polyatheism section where they go over the highly unlikely pagan myths of the past. They’ve just started a three-week series on Cuchullain. Enjoy!

I’ll leave you with a link to a relevant article. Problem-Solving ‘Magic’ of Quantum Physics

Cross-posted to Accidental Auguries.