Colonialism, Pagan Spirituality, and Us

There’s been a discussion going on about colonialism, on a druid website I sometimes read and contribute to. I have newly developing but important thoughts on the subject, and I thought I should write about them here too – because colonialism and neocolonialism and druidry and Paganism are all mixed up together in complex ways that I believe we need to address.

Note: these are very challenging subjects and thoughts. When I first encountered them, my instinct was to dig in my heels and become defensive. Surely I’m not a coloniser or a racist. I’m a good person. But that kind of thinking is dangerous. We can be good people and be benefitting from colonialism, and even extending its power through our Pagan practice. We do these things unconsciously, because we are part of complex power structures. It’s so important that each of us challenges ourselves on these things… I’ll reflect a bit more on that at the end of the post.

As I’ve said before. I think everyone should read the work of Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and colonialism (and gender) in the Goddess movement in Glastonbury, although her conclusions relate to other Pagan movements too. Her academic work can be found here, and she recently wrote a short general summary of what she’s been doing, which can be found here. She is a colleague of mine and we have talked about this stuff a lot. She has really challenged me, in a way that I think all druids should be challenged, to think more about justice and oppression.

Colonialism is a tricky thing. It’s easy to ‘jump’ back to Roman times in our mind, and think, oh, ‘we’ lost ‘our’ traditions then. But it can be dangerous to identify solely with those pagans, who are not us and are not in our historical situation, when there is so much history in the middle that we need to know about and take responsibility for. As a result, we can too easily forget about things that we need to learn about and from – including Britain’s role in colonialism. We are colonisers, as much as we were colonised – we just did the colonising in other places, and received a huge amount of benefit back here. We continue to benefit from the oppression of other nations and peoples. That’s called neocolonialism.

We must be mindful of Paganism’s tendency to lean on concepts of nationalism that may be harmful to others. For example, are we using symbols and stories that Britain has used in domination of the rest of the world? This can be very harmful to people of colour, immigrants, and others who may want to join our movements. Pagans of colour are often excluded, told to find ‘their own’ traditions (as I wrote about before – an incredibly stupid and racist thing to say) and often do not feel welcome in our very white Pagan movement. But they should be welcome. And welcome is about a lot more than just being ‘friendly’.

In short, colonialism is not something we can just skip over and pretend didn’t happen. What ideologies are we using in our attempts to reclaim older traditions? Do these ideas and stories draw things that have been used to oppress other people? If so, I want nothing to do with them, as I am a druid focused on justice for all. This is difficult, challenging spiritual and emotional Work, rooting out our own relationship to colonialism and how we continue to benefit from it. I think it’s among the most important work we can do, in our work towards the healing of all people and our druidic concepts of healing the land.

I think that our relationship with the land is damaged when we oppress others, here and elsewhere. British colonialism, even though it mainly took place far from these shores, was incredibly harmful to the earth (and to communities of people) in other places. We have benefited and gained at a cost to others and their lands. That benefit on our part, and suffering on the part of others as a result, continues today. The land we live on knows, feels and remembers that, I believe. That’s a personal spiritual view… but one that I often ponder. What do we need to make right, that has gone wrong before? It’s easy to stand on the land and feel all spiritual and connected, and then go away and not act in a way that truly lives out our connection with all life. Is spirituality having any impact on our real life? If not, it’s worthless.

And this is not about feeling guilty for the actions of our ancestors, by the way. It’s about taking responsibility for how we benefit and continue colonialism today.

As a person of Irish origin, I find it difficult when British people try to overlook centuries of oppression of others, and forget it ever happened. Yet the Irish are also doing this today, as much as the British, and forgetting their own oppression as they oppress others. I have a mixed heritage, and I am both a child of colonisers and the colonised. My ancestry, body and life hold the results of both these things. We all do. We all have to live with these contradictions. We may not ‘feel’ like colonisers, but every time we lean on stories or ideas that oppress others, every time we benefit at a cost to other groups or nations, every time we encourage nationalism in any way, we are colonisers. It is possible to be both colonised and a coloniser.

Neocolonialism is alive and well right here and right now. We continue to oppress other, less powerful nations and gain benefit as a result of it. It affects how we behave towards others here in the UK too. Just look at the racism going on against immigrants and Muslims in this country today. It happens because of our inheritance of colonialist ideologies and what we have learned and believed from generations of thinking that ‘Britannia rules the waves’. I think the land holds all of this history, knowledge, experience and pain. My focus, as a druid, is on healing the land and contributing to the healing of all the people who live here, all the wonderful wealth of people who have been coming and going from these shores for countless generations. After all, we are an island nation, and we have never had one static ‘tradition’ or belief. No country has, but Britain has a particularly diverse history of influence of many groups and tribes and peoples. We need to celebrate that, rather than leaning on one interpretation of a history that is mostly made up by (white) Romantics and which is nostalgic for an era that may not even have existed.

I will be happier when I see a British druidry with many people of colour involved in it, and when I see real diversity in druidry, not just a sea of white faces (not to mention groves full of nothing but straight people and able-bodied people and binary-gendered people and neurotypical people and middle class people). Then I will feel less like I belong to a tradition that buys into ideologies related to colonialism and neocolonialism. I will feel like I am truly following the Virtues I identify with as part of my spiritual path(s): Hospitality, Integrity, Discernment, Justice.

This article, by Vibha Shetiya, gives another insight into the concept of what ‘our’ traditions are, and whether they can really be related to our ‘ancestry’, which is never from only one place. She says ‘I’m just me’. Britain is a complex, mixed place that holds many histories and much pain of many people. Can we not recognise that we have a very complex ancestry, and indeed that concepts of ancestry and ‘our’ traditions are extremely difficult things that come with a lot of baggage?

This is also giving me thoughts about ancestor work and colonialism and Paganism and history. I’ll share more of those in another post, I think.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is very difficult stuff. It’s not easy to take it on board. But I believe it’s part of the Work of a modern druid, if we claim to be spiritual and aim to be awake and aware, to feel the pain of these realisations and confront them anyway. Let the darkness of colonialism and oppression in me be exposed and rooted out by the Light. Isn’t that the whole reason I’m a druid, working in a spiritual tradition of justice? I think it should be.

To Answer a Call


Photo by looking4poetry (CC).

It’s easy to follow the wave of emotion in a crowd. When I’m on a protest march, with the energy all stirred up by the hundreds or thousands of people speaking in one voice with me, then it’s easy to take a stand. No one’s going to push through the crowd to tell me that I’m wrong. I’m safe among allies.

But after the stirring demonstration, after I go home, when I’m all alone and faced with decisions… What do I do then?

What does it mean to change your life in response to the call of a deity? What does it mean to answer a call to change the world for her? Continue reading

Are We There Yet? Assessing the Road Ahead

This is my first post for the Cauldron Blog Project, for which the topic is ‘Resolutions, Habits and New Beginnings.’ It’s also my first ‘A’ post for the Pagan Blog Project 2014. (Yes, I’m doing that again! I might not manage two posts per letter, especially since I’m doing two blog projects at once, but we’ll see…)

I’m very good at saying ‘It’s about the journey, not the destination’. In reality, I’m impatient. I want to get somewhere. I sometimes forget to stop, take stock, and remember that I always am somewhere. Continue reading

X is for… the *Xartus. (Or: Trees, Wells and Hazelnuts)

Mannus seized Yemós; he struck him hard. Mannus took the knife and said the words of the sacrifice. He divided the body and from it made the world. From the skull he made the sky, from the brain the clouds, from the eyes the celestial lights, from the hair the plants, from the flesh the soil, from the bones the rocks, and from the blood the rivers and streams. The Cosmos was ordered, the Xártus established.

And when the world was made, Mannus lived in it, ruling as king and priest of it.

But the soul of Yemós took the final journey to the land on the far side of the river of memory, the flowery plain surrounded by high walls of earth. There he now sits and rules as king.

– Reconstructed Indo-European creation myth, from Deep Ancestors, Ceisiwr Serith, 2009 (p.21-22). Continue reading

V is for… Vision

1. the faculty or state of being able to see.
2. the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.

1. imagine.

– Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed.)

I read the Morrigan’s prophecies in my Samhain ADF ritual this week.

I shall not see a world that is dear to me… Continue reading

Druidry 2013

I had an absolutely fantastic time at the Druidry 2013 conference yesterday. It was diverse and fascinating, with input from lots of different druid organizations and styles, and much food for thought. I wasn’t feeling too well, but I managed to stay awake and interested throughout, which is a sign of how good it was! Continue reading

Q is for… Quiet Quotidian Work

I’m probably going to go fairly quiet over the next 2-3 weeks.

Moving is hard work for me. I’m disabled, so can’t do much in the way of packing or lifting boxes. I’m also having to do the packing without SJ, who is in London at their new job. I have a friend helping sometimes, but I’m still having to do things that I really shouldn’t. There’s also the general stress I mentioned in my last post. And on the day before we move, I’m giving a paper at a big conference. So that was interestingly timed. I’m trying to write the paper at the moment. I keep looking for books to help, and finding that they’re in boxes. Erk.

On the plus side, we have a place to go to now! And it’s nice, and takes cats! But still with the chaos.

As you can imagine, my spiritual life and work have gone very quiet while all of this gets sorted out. A lot of my supplies and altar stuff are going into boxes. I’m left with the basics, so that I can do the daily stuff – make offerings, light candles, say prayers. Quotidian stuff. The non-flashy, not-so-exciting stuff that I’m always overlooking in my haste to do a high day celebration, or some magic, or a trance adventure, or nature work, or my next Ogham fid meditation, or… or… or…

And this is a really good thing. In the end, we all need to focus on the basic, daily work sometimes. Forget the complicated stuff. All the herbs, wood, oils, well water, river water, stones, cords, charms, prayer beads and Ogham sets are going into boxes very soon. I’ll be left with a few candles, my ADF Well/Fire/Tree representations, my paints, and the odd book. I’ll go back to basics, and let myself be very quiet. If only to balance out the chaos. I will make offerings, light candles, and say prayers. Rinse, repeat and meditate again. Quietly. Daily.

Q is for… Finding Quietude

I’m having a bit of a tricky time of it at the moment. We’ve theoretically moving house soon (but we don’t know when or where – ask anyone with Asperger’s and they’ll tell you that change is the worst thing in the world, followed closely by uncertainty, and we don’t know where we’re going and we already have people looking around THIS house and they’re going to take my garden away from me and WAAAH). And there are a number of other reasons for my disquietude at the moment, covering the whole range from floating esoteric things to cat vomit. (There’s nothing more earthy and grounding than cat vomit. It should be everyone’s post-ritual cleanup activity.) This morning I’ve ended up sitting in a corner for about an hour, cuddling Merlin and saying “fluffy… fluffy… so fluffy” over and over again. That’s a good sign, right?

So this is a very quick post, since my brain clearly isn’t working at the moment, about finding quietude when the norm is chaos. And the answer is… sometimes I just can’t. I question whether any of the very spiritual guru types out there really can, to be honest. When the world goes slightly crazy around you, and your brain doesn’t handle life well at the best of times, I’d challenge any of those deeply spiritual I can relate everything to my own enlightenment types to pull a lesson out of it. (Can you tell I’ve been reading a book by one of these? And that it makes me want to join the cat in that vomiting thing? OK then.) I’m much more keen on those writers and bloggers and sharers-of-thoughts who talk about the chaos in really honest terms — visibly losing the plot occasionally over injustices, regularly pointing out that the world is fucked up and that our own minds can make it even worse, and that there is nothing good about this. Not trying to say that everything will be better in a mythical afterlife. Not trying to pretend that ‘the learning’ makes it all worthwhile. Not trying to deny that many people just live very difficult and chaotic lives, due to all kinds of difficult circumstances – from poverty to unemployment, from illness and pain to brain structure/chemistry, and from thoughtless family members to the outright godawful selfishness and viciousness of some human beings. I have friends, acquaintances and even just people whose blogs I follow, whose lives contain all of these things and more. I can’t hear and read about these things and still believe that meditation can make it all better. Life is deeply, intensely chaotic. Pretending that we can be ‘enlightened’ and rise above it completely just doesn’t ring true for me.

My UPG of one of my goddesses is that she stands between chaos and cosmos, in that powerful, liminal space where the earth gives birth to mountains and the seas rise and swallow the land. There’s ADF theology that says that without chaos, there cannot be cosmos or creation at all. Life involves cycles, change, and highly chaotic destruction. I can’t move back home to the place I’m happiest without at least some stress. And it’s nothing compared to what some people have to go through in life, and I am deeply lucky and privileged.

And being aware of all that does not mean that I’m not sitting in a corner gibbering. But at least the cat hasn’t vomited in the last hour.

I’m going to sit in a cafe with tea and tarot cards now. Be seeing ya.