(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.

An hour in the life of a… priestess?

Blogging Priestess series: #1

Now playing:

Woke up this morning and the streets were full of cars
All bright and shiny like they’d just arrived from Mars.
And as I stumbled through last night’s drunken debris
The paperboy screamed out the headlines in the street:
Another war and now the pound is looking weak,
And tell me have you read about the latest freak?
We’re bingo numbers and our names are obsolete –
Why do I feel bitter when I should be feeling sweet?

Hello, hello – turn your radio on
Is there anybody out there? Help me sing my song
Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learn how to use it’s gone…

Woke up this morning and my head was in a daze
A brave new world had dawned upon the human race,

But words are meaningless and everything’s surreal –
Going to have to reach my friends to find out how I feel.
And if I taste the honey is it really sweet?
And do I eat it with my hands or with my feet?
Does anybody really listen when I speak,
Or will I have to say it all again next week?

Hello, hello – turn your radio on
Is there anybody out there? Tell me what went wrong
Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learn how to use it’s gone…

– Hello, Shakespears Sister*

The Morning

“We’re bingo numbers and our names are obsolete…”

This morning I woke up crying. (This isn’t a rarity for me, although the further we get into medical explorations of my sleep disorder, the more I’m very occasionally allowed a few sleeping pills, and that helps. I’ll sleep better tonight. Not so many of those pesky dreams.)

Then I went onto Facebook and twitter to check that none of my disabled friends are (more) suicidal (than usual) today from battling in the long war society is raging against us. I remember when I used to go onto Facebook and twitter to procrastinate from work. Now I can’t go near them a lot of the time, for fear of what I’ll read – ‘benefits’ measures get ‘stronger’, and we are pushed ever further towards the edge of the cliff. Falling off, one by one.

Next: remembering that I have no support worker this morning. (There’s only so much money for these things.) I pondered how (if) I was going to have a shower today. (I have so much more running/hot water privilege than almost everyone else on the planet. I must not let myself feel self-pitying about having to go some days without. But still.)

Then I remembered that I won’t get any help making breakfast and lunch today, what with absence of support worker, and considered my various lifehacks that resist a society that creates our vulnerability and refuses to support us through it. These are usually linked to my financial privilege, because it’s what I have that can help make this life work — I go to a cafe, park close to the door, struggle in, and let the low-paid exploited precariat compensate for a stripped-away welfare system (that our parents knew would last forever), and do my privileged, non-manual knowledge work. We oppress and are oppressed. It’s the way of this world and its systems… for now.

Then I finally get to thinking through the state of my body. It hasn’t been doing well recently. Over the past couple of weeks I have done a lot of driving to meet people, to help people, to be with people. I helped a friend whose father has died to clear out his house, just for a couple of days (I really wished I was up to staying longer). I wouldn’t change that, though, despite how much pain I’m now in. My friend is disabled herself. Most of her friends are disabled. We come, and we probably cause far more problems than we solve, but we give our bodies as an offering to the causes of friendship and resistance against oppression. And then an email from a family member who is going into hospital and who I want to help… and thoughts turn to other family members and friends I would like to support far better than I do, or just to offer more time and energy to sustain our friendship… There is a sense in which I do much of this bodily harm to myself, willingly and knowingly. (Oh how the DWP would love to hear that.) But only because I insist on maintaining my integrity and links to community in a world where systems of disability oppression are self-sustaining. Systems of oppression are embodied, not abstract. They break us, again and again. We carry on.

Then my partner sends me a message about a clarification on government policy on disability ‘benefits’ (they come across these things in their job), and I’m crying again. Because I may have to write that 40+ page application to renew my ‘benefits’ at exactly the same time I have to hand in my thesis. It’s a kind of strange irony – or is it the opposite? The famously appalling benefits process (that destroys lives and self-esteem and leads to suicide, that disability scholars and activists and many others have critiqued in much detail, to little effect) may catch up with me (again) just when I am trying to make my dent in these systems, my little attempt at critiquing oppression. That I will be most degraded by the state, for its own very conscious purposes, at a time when I will be on the last push to get out my biggest stab at resistance against this stuff. It’s… oddly fitting. And fits this government’s ideology perfectly.

The Moment

And now here I am in my shrine room (well, the shrine corner of my office). And because of all the chaos in my life at the moment, it currently looks like this.

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I was hoping to meditate. I don’t know how effective that will be.

On the other hand. I honour a deity of Chaos. And whenever I try to be tidy, to go with the mainstream, to stay in control, she swallows the ground beneath me and vomits up a new mountain. I die and am reborn every thousand years. I come from stone, and to stone I shall return. Either follow in the wake of my blast, or get out of the way.

And everything shifts into a bigger perspective.

The Concept

I am pondering the concept of ‘priestess’ at the moment – planning to start a new blog series here on it very soon. I am thinking about issues such as: is this a gender-essentialist concept? Is this a female-subjugating archetype? Can a Jungian archetypal approach to the Work ever be a useful one? What about the connection of ‘priest’ and its variants to hierarchy – does that have any relevance anymore, and does it continue to oppress the powerless? And, then, if any of these can be resolved in any meaningful way: what is the Work of a priestess?

And so I stand in front of an incredibly messy shine made with human hands to a distant deity who lives in a mountain and who often pays little attention to the fragile creations of people — but who also, right now, sees the mess of boxes all around it, and approves of them far more than the pretty trinkets. The boxes that are full of things that I am ebaying for the aforementioned friend who can’t deal with them herself. That speak of the Work of – whatever I am. When I claim the space of a priestess, I don’t call on the hierarchical associations of the term — I am an anarchist (of a sort) who walks in the shadows. Nor the female/gendered ones — I am non-binary, autigender, gender-binary-rejecting, and aim to be non-essentialist in all things gender. Maybe none of these oppressive associations can be extracted from the term now. But there’s something there that has always worked better than ‘witch’ (I’m not magical enough), than ‘druid’ (I’m not white-robed-respectability enough), or any of those identities that can be reclaimed for better things than they once intended. Its shadow side speaks of standing with and for communities and lone liminal people living on the margins, shouting at the forces we call gods for support in our cause, walking alongside those who have no one to walk with them, and calling down symbolic power that was always already within us. I want to know if this archetype can be radicalised, can be useful for liminal people. But ultimately, if it can’t, the term matters far less than the Work.

I take a breath, and start on the Work again.

When you’re standing by the roadside
And it’s a long way to go
Ah, to carry me
to carry me, friend

Together in this mad land
far from truest of hands
well I’ll carry you
if you’ll carry me, friend
Oh, carry me…

If we can take the time
we’ll build ourselves a road
from what we know
each take our part
and now’s the time to start

Carry Me, The Levellers

 

*Thanks to Cat Treadwell for reminding me about this song, which was on repeat for much of my teens. Oh look, it’s on repeat again.

Below the Avon

“At the height of the Bristol slave trade from 1700 to 1807, more than 2,000 slave ships carried a conservatively estimated 500,000 people from Africa to slavery in the Americas.” – Wikipedia article on the history of the city of Bristol, UK.

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Clifton Suspension Bridge, above the River Avon. Photo: Flickr CC Pablo Fernandez

Held tight between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
there is a paradox below the Avon.
Travel south (keep driving down the M4 scourge)
and go on further south,
towards the stones we battled over, till
abruptly, a dramatic scar across the land
(crossed by a leap in engineering) leads
down to a town a river goddess holds in her embrace.

Look closer – this is not an ancient paradise:
this slaver city, built by those not privileged
enough to see the wealth their broken backs
and subjugation built for us
to sit and drink our lattes in.
And this disputed territory,
where they once manufactured drudgery
and churned out countless factory-crushed lives,
now welcomes in the moneyed: hipsters, students, suits
…and me.
Where old tobacco wealth and modern diamond-blood collide –
This latest bondage no less slavery
Than that which came before, but more invisible
to us who live so far from those who serve us now.
We can pretend we do not know that in each step we take,
on every broken paving stone, we still
walk on five hundred thousand unmarked graves.

To this most unexpected place then comes
the Pilgrim, with the Thinker at his side,
to meet this tired, reluctant Advocate.
We three so different, but with souls that see each other
in our search for those few starry points
that blaze the light of the divine into the dark.
The pilgrim-radical, his spirit gentler than I thought
a warrior’s could be, told deep-enchanting stories, while
across a silent boundary,
five hundred thousand unseen, wide-eyed faces saw one of their own,
and so did I.
The Thinker, with his questions and his eyes
that rooted out the silence and the fury both.
And me – I’m not sure what I brought.
I was all Apple phones and car keys and despairing cynicism,
yet with something slowly breaking in,
wild flowers through untended stone,
once smooth hewn but now fractured with indifference and life.

And in the hipster cafes of this contradiction
(tea £3 a pot but pennies to the farmers),
we did not whisper when we called down fire from above
upon ourselves and those who have our pity and our grief.
We had three hours to raze states and empires to the ground
and I glimpsed just enough eternity to wish for more.

What are such encounters for, and what
are we who meet each other left with
when our ships return to other powers’ shores?
What are our wandering spirits seeking
when we call into an empty, night-tossed sea
and hear an echo of a voice replying,
hiraeth* returned?

We who long for freedom
are still indentured, still indenturing.
But we are also architects.
We build,
stone on stone,
hand in hand,
our fragile, shattered bodies the material
that shapes new ground.

And I will not forget his question,
“Do you still have hope?”
and how I wished I had the time to answer
(Time, the great Oppressor),
though I tried to stumble, word on word,
a tumbling of longings for the tyrannised.
And deep below the city stones,
five hundred thousand souls cried out an echo of this pain.

And you, seeking an ancient (subjugating) city, here
Where green and pleasant valleys fall
Toward the stones we battled over (though
I’ve never been quite sure who won the fight,
now that the white-robed men of power claim the land
that still the peasants do not have the right
to walk upon);
you may find yourself
caught between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
(keep struggling along the M4 road,
an English dirge to farms sustained by bureaucratic subsidies),
where once an erstwhile Avon claimed the land as all her own,
and still she cradles those who cry below.
We claim this city too, we radicals,
we idealistic, cynical and hopeful ones,
whose voices are not silenced by this age of chains and charred remains,
though we must strain to hear the halting song of those who went before.

© Léithin Cluan, 2016. For Rhyd Wildermuth and Jonathan Woolley.

Bristol Quay. Flickr CC Ubaían.

Bristol Quay. Photo: Flickr CC Ubaían

*Hiraeth: a Welsh word for which there is no translation, but which means something like a longing for home in the depth of the soul.

The Durotriges and the Dobunni were Iron Age tribes located in the area around the River Avon, not far from today’s Bristol.

The M4 motorway is a shining testament in concrete to heartless late modern capitalist infrastructure. :P

Doorways

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doorway

The door opens first in the Otherworld.

Through coincidences and not-coincidences, through thoughts and compulsions that you can’t shake, through a strong desire for justice, the gods show you the open door. But you have to choose to walk through – and it won’t stay open forever.

And once you’re through, it closes behind you. Continue reading