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.

M is for… Mighty Monster Trees (and Massive Mountains and Moo-ing Mascots)

“Why, who are you afraid of?” said Peter. “There’s no one here but ourselves.”
“There are the trees,” said the Beaver. “They’re always listening.”

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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That’s me, towards the bottom left of that picture, standing beneath a California redwood. You can tell by how it’s, um, quite big.

Our second week on the road and our second day in the Redwoods, and I decide I want to take a short walk among the trees on my own. We parked the RV on the side of the not-inappropriately-named Avenue of the Giants, and I was directed towards the map. “OK,” said SJ (who is used to that thing where I get lost). “Do you see this path here?” I did. “And do you see how it leads onto this larger loop with the interpretive trail*?” I did. I could even see how to get from one to the other and back again. And just to make really sure, I took a picture of the map on my phone camera. Easy peasy.

So off I set, an intrepid explorer with two sticks and a bit of a walking distance limit. And at first, all was well. I found the trail (where the signs shared helpful facts about how old, tall and weird each redwood was). I looked at some trees. I stood inside a few others.

At which point I realised some things. One, that I’ve never stood inside a tree before. Two, that I’ve definitely never stood instead a tree that bloody huge before. And three, that these trees were monsters. And I don’t just mean in the 300-foot-tall, 2000-year-old sense. There was something incredibly primal and alien about them. Reaching out to them was like opening myself up to a vortex that I could have lost myself in forever. I stopped, but I still felt very much like they wanted to eat me. Spider-and-fly stuff – if the spider was several thousand times bigger and vastly older than the fly. Come into my parlour…

It was at that point that I realised I was horribly lost.  I had reached the place where I thought I had entered the trail from, but all I could see was thick, brambly undergrowth. There was no way of identifying the little path that led back to the van. I walked around and around the trail, much further than I’m meant to walk (I was in some serious pain afterwards!), all the while surrounded by those strange, seductive trees that wanted to swallow me whole. On getting back to the main car park for about the third time, I checked my little photo of the map and saw that I could get back to the van on the road. I started walking.

And here’s the really odd thing. All the while, I was only a couple of minutes’ walk from the van. From civilization. From the perception – the illusion – of safety.

We’re never all that far from the dangers that our ancestors lived with all the time. We’ve just shoved ourselves inside several tonnes of metal, bricked ourselves into boxes, buried ourselves in concrete. Safe as houses?

I did a lot of connecting, these past few weeks, with my goddess who stands between chaos and cosmos, between destruction and creation. In local folklore, she is said to have given the human race our powers of consciousness and thought – those egos that make us think we can separate ourselves off from the land around us, when we’re really just hiding under the covers from all the monsters under the bed. That line that Bhearra walks is liminal, shifting, illusory. We’re always just around the corner from chaos. That’s what I learned in the Redwood forest.

And now, some happy pictures of beautiful mountains, lakes and sea-shores. Which were all much less scary. (Apart from the plants that eat insects – those were also fairly terrifying.)

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Crater Lake

 

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Big Sur – Route 1, southern California (the cow was the honeymoon mascot)

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Those weird California wetland plants that eat insects

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A place that made wonderful, terrifying gnomes and fairies from local wood. (See how happy SJ was to be there. I, on the other hand, loved it. I really wanted to buy a fairy and take it home and put it on my land/sea/sky altar. Alas, this was not within my economic powers.)

Mount St Helens

Mount St Helens. Bloody huge.

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*While in America, we discovered the joy of the ‘interpretive trail’. In plainer English, this means ‘there will be signs explaining what you’re looking at’. Handy.

D is for… Deities: Defining the Divine

Disclaimer: This post is about my experiences. I sometimes have difficulty communicating the idea that I’m talking about *me* alone, and not trying to universalize any of my ideas. But this post is just about me. Me me me. Got that? Good. :P
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I’m a polytheist. I actually believe that the gods exist. Really and truly, and outside of our minds, and everything.

Why yes, I am that naive. ;)

cailleach bhearra

Cailleach Bhearra, as imagined by the Irish Film Board.[1]

Continue reading

Ancestors

Last night I dreamt of my grandfather. I quite frequently do – he was an important influence in my childhood, and I remember him often. He is one of the reasons I value education. Having left school at 15 because of poverty, he did years of night school to gain his degree and ended up with a great job in the Civil Service. He loved languages and creativity – he wrote the most fantastic stories – and I think he had a spiritual side that he didn’t talk about much. His stories about the woods near his house gave me inspiration to see forests as living, enspirited places.

In the dream, I had run into my Grampy somewhere random, a hotel I think. He had been living under a false name in a new city. He was tight-lipped about why he hadn’t contacted me for ten years, but he was very pleased to see me (and especially pleased that I’m doing a PhD, partly funded by the money he left me). He was different: more serious, with only occasional flashes of the humour that he was well-known for, but absolutely himself. It was a strange dream – I was remembering that he had died and that I’d been to his funeral, but I also knew he was sitting in front of me. I’m not usually that analytical in dreams. Mostly, I was just pleased that I could talk to him again.

For the past two weeks I’ve been doing 12 days of ancestor meditations. I dedicated my ‘folding table’ altar to them for the period, setting the altar out in a style inspired by another culture’s ancestor veneration approach. As a starting point, this approach did the job I wanted, which was to focus my mind on the ancestors for a specific period of time. I didn’t manage to do 12 completely consecutive days, for health reasons – but I mainly did four days on, a day off, rinse and repeat. I tried to meditate at sunset each time, but that was impossible on days when I was in the office, in which case I did the meditation before bed. I used a modified version of an ancestor meditation from the BDO bardic grade material.

Since the beginning of my exploration of my Pagan path, I’ve found it difficult to connect with ancestors. Honouring gods was not a problem, which surprised me, having come from a monotheist tradition. But I’d heard the myths of these gods since childhood, so it wasn’t so difficult to talk to them. Ancestors, though, were another thing entirely. A lot of Christian groups have a major prohibition on attempting to contact the dead (others less so, what with the saints, but I didn’t find saint-honouring traditions until I was a bit older). I can’t deny that the thought of ancestor work made me a lot more nervous than other aspects of Pagan/Druid practice – which, realistically, should have been equally nerves-inducing. Human beings: not really very rational creatures. I did have a fairly successful ancestor meditation that a priest friend led for me, which made me realise that talking to my ancestors is not as difficult as I thought. Since then, I’ve found that spending time at my ancestor shrine is a more useful experience than it was – but it’s still difficult.

And then I was in Ireland over the summer, in the Beara Peninsula, where my ancestors come from. A goddess that I believe my ancestors worshiped (UPG) was very present there. And, after some work on my part, so were my ancestors themselves. Back in Britain, though, they were much quieter again. So when a friend told me about his ancestor meditations based on a voodoo altar setup, I was interested. I didn’t want to indulge in cultural appropriation, though. I like hoodoo, but voodoo is a complete mystery to me, and I don’t really have time to study either of them in depth at the moment. So I just took some inspiration – a sustained period of meditations, a dedicated altar with belongings and photos of my ancestors, and food and drink offerings. I have some Irish whiskey made in the Beara Peninsula, I made the black coffee that my grandfather loved, I offered chocolate one day (since Grampy was also a fan of that), and on other days I left other food depending on what I felt inspired to offer.

It’s hard to explain the effects of the ancestor work, either during the meditations or at other times during the 12 days. Suffice it to say that things happened. I did much more writing than I usually manage each day – academic and creative non-fiction alike. I started working with Ogham, including having a good idea about how to take it further, and I did some interesting work with my tarot deck. I was asked to contribute to creative projects, and had others accepted where I’d been waiting on a decision. I suddenly got very decisive about Druidry, and joined ADF formally – I’ve been doing a lot of ADF-style work recently, based on materials they’ve made public, but for many months I’d been really unclear about what direction to take my Druidry in, until I started these meditations. Simultaneously, the British Druid Order set up a support system for their Bardic Grade students, something I’ve been waiting for, as I’d been finding it hard to work on their course without help. And while my health was as dodgy as ever, I somehow felt more able to cope with the severe pain and other illness symptoms that I deal with every day – which is an amazing gift.

Did I experience my ancestors? That’s the really interesting bit. Outside of specific meditations, I only feel their presence occasionally. I’ve been learning a language for the past year-and-a-bit, because I’d like to be able to communicate better with my bilingual partner’s family – and just sometimes, during lessons and practice, I feel like my Grampy’s pleased that I’m taking his linguistic interest forward. (The difference is that he was great at languages – he spoke fluent Spanish and French, decent Welsh, and wasn’t bad at a couple of others, while I am absolutely rubbish at them. But I think he likes the fact that I’m trying!) And sometimes I feel a general presence of anonymous ancestors. But mostly, it’s the gods that I connect with in daily life. I’m not honestly sure that I felt the ‘mystical presence of the ancestors’ much more, in the rest of life, than usual.

But in the meditations: yes, absolutely, I believe that my ancestors responded and were present. I got different (and very interesting) messages and ideas each time. Decisiveness about directions was the order of the day. My visualisations were much more vivid than they usually are – I have some difficulty visualising, most of the time. One night I desperately needed sleep but attempted the meditation anyway, and was told quite firmly that they would rather I was looking after myself. One night I focused very strongly on my grandfather, and had a very thought-provoking request from him – that I have no idea how to honour, but I will try. On other nights I focused on other family, and felt the need to stay more in touch with cousins overseas and at home. And on some nights I just had a general sense of ‘ancestors’ who I thought of as ancient and mighty. Power and numerousness. And the idea that there are projects in store for me that I will love. And that I should have more self-esteem and be more proud of the good work that I do in the world. And do more for my community…

Like I didn’t have enough to do. ;)

Ancestor altar

Are the dreams about my grandfather relevant? There’s a nice mundane explanation – I ran into an old university lecturer last week, who I knew in my undergraduate days, and who did rather remind me of my grandfather. Reconnecting with old influences was on my mind, and that’s probably the extent of it. But maybe not. Still, I dream about him often, and the dreams often feel quite significant. If it’s only that I think he would be pleased that I’m doing the education thing that he loved so much, I’m glad I had a little reminder.