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.

31 Days of Offerings – Days 6-11: Simple Steps Forward

31 Days of Offerings(1)

Day 6-7: Keeping it Simple

Water. Whisky. Showing up.

Water. Whisky. Showing up.

Well water for the well spirits, the harvest deities whose time has passed. Their shrine will stand empty for the winter soon. I listen for St Gobnait, the bee woman whose court is leaving the land. I let Latiaran’s flame burn down.

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Water. Whisky. Showing up.

Somewhere, in the depths of the ‘rinse repeat’, the universe shifts.

A dark goddess in a dark room, lighting up a flaming spiral path. October is her time of chaos, and so, my chaotic month too. “November,” after all, “is the time of my birth”*.

Days 8-9: Moving Forward a Step

The days are stressful, anxious, uncontained. I am learning that daily offerings are a touchstone. The lighting of the hearth fire was at the heart of the daily struggle of my ancestors. The lighting of a candle on the hearth altar can be mine. Not so different. We have humanity in common, huddled around our fires that come from the same source.

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One of my hearth shrines. Icons and symbols for Brigantia; Our Lady Breaker of Chains; and St Brendan. (It’s a bit of an ancestral mix.)

Days 10-11: Offerings to Me

Our friend has just had her second baby, but still has time to bake us a little cake to say ‘congratulations’ on our marriage. We share mutual offerings of time and hospitality – the most precious things in the world.

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SJ enjoying some very good hospitality.

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Cake!

And in a work context, a very unexpected prophecy from a servant of a now-foreign god (to whom my Wyrd may always be tied). I have just sat through a church service for fieldwork, irritated, wondering what the point of my being there is. But it mattered to someone that I was there. She holds back right until I’m standing at my car, then out pours a tumble of divine words of pure imbas – words that speak deeply into my Work.

On the way home I think about my offerings to the world, which go beyond religion, beyond tradition, even beyond gods. And how the world gives back, and nothing goes truly unnoticed.

*From ‘Cailleach: the Hag of Beara’ by Leanne O’Sullivan.

Piety

Well, this seems as good a time as any to start gathering my thoughts on Piety. It’s another of those ADF virtues that we’re asked to consider during the Dedicant Path year. It’s also something that there’s been a lot of talk about on the internet recently, at least in Pagan and polytheist circles. To a very tedious degree. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that – however you want to worship the gods (or honour the earth or pursue spirituality) – we are currently boring the pants off the deities. I can just see the great Powers That Be now, sitting on Mount Olympus/in Asgard/under the Irish sidhe mounds/in the heavens, rolling their eyes at their devotees who are going ON AND ON about what Piety is or is not. And maybe the pantheons are having an argument about whose worshippers are the most boring. Or telling jokes to lighten the mood. Lugh, Thor and Athena walk into a bar…

So now that I’ve got that out of my system, I’m going to talk about Piety. Continue reading

N is for… Names

True names. From Rumpelstiltskin, to the Jewish concept of not speaking the name of God, to the Doctor – we have a lot of mythic and cultural precedent for associating names with power.

I’ve never liked the name I was given at birth. It means ‘pleasant’. How dull is that? I grew up wanting a name that meant something exciting.

For a long time, on the internet, I’ve used the name ‘Sophia Catherine’. Catherine is one of my legal middle names, and St Catherine of Alexandria is my patron saint (her with the wheel) – so including that name was obvious. Using ‘Sophia’ was more of a complicated decision. Many people honour Sophia as a goddess: either as the feminine aspect of the Christian god, or a goddess in a sort of Christian pantheon. That’s not exactly how she was seen by the Gnostics, though she was very important to them. Sophia, the journey to wisdom, to enlightenment, was a principle and a process more than a person. It’s also a name that I’ve long wanted to give to a daughter if I had one (even though I more than likely won’t have children). I loved using Sophia as a name. It… fits. Yes, it’s a bit ‘up myself’ to use a name that some people use for a goddess and which means ‘wisdom’ – but it just fit.

So you can still call me Sophia anytime you want. But in an effort to try and repair the gap that is growing between my Pagan life and my so-called ‘real life’, I’m starting to use my legal name more widely around the internet. I want to write, and do other interesting things – especially once I’ve finished my PhD – and I don’t want there to be any confusion between my identities.

ADF members often take on religious names, and I’m thinking of using Leithin Cluan as that name in the future. Leithin of Cluan is another mythological wisdom-seeking figure, though she approaches wisdom and knowledge from a very different, more earthly perspective than Sophia. Ultimately, Sophia is a carry-over from my Gnostic days, when I believed that enlightenment was found through a rejection of the world. But that’s no longer my primary path to wisdom (though it will always be an important aspect of my spiritual journey). I now seek wisdom in and through the world, through the sacredness of life in all its incredible diversity. Leithin the eagle sought wisdom from the stag, the blackbird and the salmon, from the oldest animals. She sought knowledge with her five senses, as Manannan advised Cormac to do. And eventually, Leithin also discovered that the devoted, obsessive pursuit of wisdom is not everything. Sometimes, it’s better to be at home looking after your chicks.

And all that name stuff is before we’ve even got to surnames. I disliked the surname I was born with even more than my first name, and I was delighted when SJ and I changed both our last names to a previous name of my family’s, that my granddad gave up just after the war (because it was a Jewish name, and he was meeting with some serious prejudice). Now that did feel like a name that encompassed my actual identity. And I hope that returning to it was honouring to my ancestors. But my first name? Ugh…

Names are a funny thing.  I may not like my legal first name, but it’s the truth of who I’ve been for 35 years, with all my baggage, joys, frustrations, and wonderful discoveries of what life is about. I’m Naomi Catherine Jacobs: sociologist-in-training, teacher, aspiring writer, tea-lover, devoted wife, crazy cat lady, occasional singer… and druid-in-training.

Pleased to meet you.