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.

Summer Harvests

It was Lammas at Druid Camp.

Alone, I would usually choose to celebrate Lughnasadh – the festival of Tailtu who created agriculture, of Lugh who prevents the death of the crops and brings the harvest. Summer games and competition and high-energy feats of challenge and pride, in honour of a proud, accomplished god.

But we were together, and it was Lammas.

11838908_10153455054656136_7401865187750280528_o

The wheat of the Lammas harvest that we were surrounded by at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

11816071_10153455046781136_3422228917104845705_o

Community-witnessed handfasting at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Druidry is very much a community-based tradition. If alone I am a Gaelic polytheist with Brythonic leanings, together with these friends I am a Druid in a community of Druids. And only communities can reap a good harvest.

And I thought back to two weeks before, in Ireland with my mother and grandmother, spending most of our time with cousins and other family. I didn’t get much time with the land, with Beara. I did more important things. My harvest was community.

2015-07-14 12.10.36

The view across the hills and down to the sea from the vantage point of my family farmhouse, dating back to my great-grandparents and still at the centre of a small farm worked by my cousins. Beara Peninsula.

I return to posts from American Pagans about rejecting Lughnasadh (by which, in this case, the writer actually means Lammas) because “most Pagans live in the US” (EXCUSE ME?!), the assertion from some corners that modern polytheism is better than modern Paganism, and other culturally imperialist rubbish that starts to bring me down. British Paganism and British Druidry are a minority voice online. Most Americans don’t know about the beautifully non-hierarchical, deeply rooted-in-our-land, strongly community-focused practice that draws from many streams of modern Paganism and other spiritualities that is modern British druidry. The loud voices shouting about their recent conferences, and whose hotel was better, know nothing about the week we spent in a field, overlooking the river of Sabrina and the ancient barrows across the hill, surrounded by sheep, having to build our own community from the ground up (and make it accessible to as many people as possible!), where the success is all the sweeter for how every person contributes in their own way. They don’t know about the talent (that Eisteddfod!), the strength, the love, the mutual acceptance and help and support, the critical thought, and the plain hard work that can bring 200+ very diverse druids together in a field and have them, by the end, become a coherent spiritual community complete with regular dramatic rituals and dances and fires and drinking of mead and telling of stories. So many stories.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

And that started me thinking about stories, and how the One Reality we all inhabit can be so very different from so many different perspectives. “We don’t need Lughnasadh,” announces someone who sees one side of the story. On the other side of the world, Lammas is the theme for 200 druids in a field surrounded by wheat. The sun at its height but showing the first signs of waning towards its long sleep. Our carefree summers making their way, like a slowly-winding labyrinth, towards Samhain and darkness and change. At the height of summer there is the seed of winter. At the height of life there is the seed of death. That’s what our harvest, here on this insignificant island where modern Paganism was birthed, is all about.

And that’s what our very different stories are all about, too. “I was right, you know, and he was wrong.” Except that right and wrong are forever relative. As a friend of mine said today: “We are all scumbags. We are all saints.” We may want to play the innocent hurt victim or the evil villain – depending on where our self-esteem might be today – but these are stereotypes, archetypes that aren’t useful beyond a certain point. I don’t worship the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, because these are useful illustrative archetypes, but not necessarily the stories by which I want to live my life. I am neither the villain nor the victim. I am neither the Druid nor the Christian. I am neither the daughter nor the wife. I am neither the sociologist nor the poet nor the seer nor the Gaelic polytheist nor the Pagan nor the wheelchair user nor the stranger nor the friend. I am all these things and more. Truth is bigger than we can imagine.

I am the universe emerging into consciousness, beginning to understand itself. (To slightly misquote Babylon 5.) And how much more am I than stereotypes and archetypes, as a result? I won’t reduce myself or others to one-dimensional pictures. I am stardust, as complex as the winds and as simple as the rain, the sacred legacy of my ancestors, the sacred ancestor of those who come after me.

This is the harvest that I reap.

Happy Lughnasadh. Happy Lammas. May summer and harvest festivals be celebrated forever, the wisdom of our forebears integrated into our new stories. We need the old and we need the new. We need all the sides of the story.

Hail, Lugh! Hail, ancestors!

Books To Read: A Druid’s Primer

druid's primer bookLuke Eastwood, ‘A Druid’s Primer’. Moon Books, 2012. ISBN 1846947642.

Eastwood has created a really interesting approach to modern druidry here. He’s done a lot of good research into histories of pagan practices, both ancient and modern. He then merges everything he’s learnt into a mix of existing and new philosophies and practices. This is a good book for anyone fairly new to druidry who wants to be better informed about some of the sources we draw on, as well as for more established druids who want to try a new approach to mixing the old and the new. It’s a very Irish-focused book, which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (though you won’t be surprised to hear that that worked well for me), but he does draw on British and other myths and folklore too.

But the problem with separating books into ‘recommended’ and ‘not recommended’ categories is that most Pagan books have parts that I like and parts that I… don’t. This book is no exception. Overall, I really enjoyed it. But let’s get into the things that I didn’t enjoy.

I’m getting really tired of books that repeat myths that we know are simply not true.

First myth: Let’s address this once and for all, shall we? The snakes that St Patrick drove out of Ireland were NOT THE PAGANS. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone thought they were, until very recently. The first reference that I can find to this idea is in Marion Zimmer Bradley – from the 1980s. It’s a modern Pagan idea. And I really wish this particular myth would burn and die. Eastwood doesn’t endear himself to me by repeating it.

Second myth, more problematic as it runs through the whole book: Modern Druidry is not ancient. Eastwood has a good grasp on the history of modern druidry, and that of ancient druidry (as far as we know anything about it). His problem is mixing the two up, believing the commonly-held view that modern Druids are the direct inheritors of the wisdom and knowledge of ancient druidry.

And that’s not entirely his fault. This myth is everywhere, after all. OBOD has its own version, as do other druid orders. But it really is a myth. Modern druidry has very little to do with ancient druidry, other than basic inspiration – and everything to do with being a beautiful modern spirituality rooted in the old sacred earth that we could do worse than embracing as, well, modern.

So now that I’ve started with the things I disliked about the book, let’s get into the good stuff – and there was quite a lot of it.

For example, he has some great chapters that merge ancient myth with modern druid ideas, such as the light body exercise. He relates the modern sun and moon cycles celebrated by most modern druids, to ancient myths that contain echoes of cosmological and solar folklore – including the myth of the Dagda and Aengus at Bru na Boinne, and the story of the Mabon. The chapter on elements is largely based on the Western magical tradition, but mixes some Irish mythology in. His chapter on healing, with botanical information on herbs/plants and their mythical and folkloric uses, is a lovely addition that I didn’t expect to see, but enjoyed.

My favourite chapter was on Ogham. This was a surprise, as I’ve done a lot of work with Ogham, using both new and old ideas on it, and I find that a lot of what’s written on it can be fairly terrible. But Eastwood’s extensive research really comes into its own here. He combines medieval and neo-Pagan sources on Ogham into a really lovely set of interpretations on each of the feda. He could have written a whole book on Ogham – as he says, he’s only had time here to skim the surface of all the sources, myths and ideas relating to it. If he does write more on the subject, I’ll read it!

As long as you’re aware of the limitations, this is a really good book with some refreshing approaches to the modern druid way of drawing on the old while being rooted in the new. I’ll be using a lot of this book in my own practice.

My rating: 7/10.

30 Days of Deity Devotion: Misconceptions and Faith

27) Worst misconception about this deity that you have encountered

I’m always very surprised when ‘hard’ polytheists will talk in one breath about how annoying it is when deities are conflated, and in the next will talk about ‘the Cailleach’ in a very archetypal way. People who see all gods as separate beings will routinely conflate the myths of many different areas of Ireland and Scotland about Cailleachean. Despite her (other) name, Baoi is not the same as them. There’s been cross-pollination of myths, and I don’t know exactly what that means for the deities in question. But they’re not exactly the same, by any means. Continue reading

30 Days of Deity Devotion: Pantheons

I’m trying to catch up with all the blog posts I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but haven’t. Continuing my series on Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra, here’s the next in the #30DDD blog series.

16) How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?

Well, to start with, talking about a ‘pantheon’ in relation to Cailleach Bhearra doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I would argue that our insistence on making a pantheon out of the Irish gods doesn’t work too well when you’re looking at local cults and traditions. Tribes and localities had different gods, and not all of those gods will have been represented in the ‘official’ medieval myths. (Especially not when you’re looking at a very marginalized area like West Cork.) Baoi and Duibhne/Dovinia are cases in point. While there is a Bui/Bua in some medieval texts, it’s very hard to say if she’s Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra. Likewise, the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is a fascinating piece that doesn’t fit particularly well with local folklore. It’s even harder with Duibhne/Dovinia, whose name is all over the Dingle peninsula on ogham stones, but who isn’t represented in myths at all, and about whom contradictory stories are told. (Some dictionaries of mythology even tell you Duibhne is a male ancestor of the tribe – while others call her the Hag/Witch of Dingle, sister to Cailleach Bhearra. So to some extent, my entire relationship with Duibhne is UPG/personal experience. Which is a bit frustrating, sometimes, when you’re talking about one of your patrons.*)

But Baoi does represent some values that are relevant to the old gods of Ireland. She’s a sovereignty figure – and sovereignty goddesses seem to have been incredibly important to the Gaelic tribes, with different queens of the land in each area. She may also be a fertility and prosperity deity, as many of the sovereignty queens seem to have been. Baoi is much more wild than some of them (based on my reading of other myths), though. She gives life and takes it away again. She’s chaos and creation. She’s a Cow Goddess with Mare Goddess attributes. She’s impressive but deeply chaotic. She’s not a tame lion, to quote a certain writer of fantasy.

17) How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?

There’s evidence that she might have Norse origins. Dursey Island, which is her place, has a Nordic-influenced name as well as the Gaelic one (which could in fact be a later name). If I were more familiar with Norse mythology, I might say that she feels a bit Jotun-like. But I’m not so I won’t. ;)

18) How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality? (historical and/or UPG)

Well, it seems likely that she had a role to do with prosperity and fertility. I tend to focus on the prosperity and fertility of the land, in this context, since I’m not planning to produce any babies anytime soon. But I don’t have any personal experince of her pushing the ‘polarity’ stuff on me. In some local traditions she’s married to Manannan mac Lir, but he’s not her consort – they are ever separated by the sea, and she is left looking out over the cliffs, waiting for him.

My personal impression is that she likes creativity, including sexual expression, whether opposite-sex or same-sex.

19) What quality or qualities of this god do you most admire? What quality or qualities of them do you find the most troubling?

The qualities I admire in her are also the qualities that terrify me. She has wild, unpredictable whims – like a storm. My experience is that Bhearra is not like us. She’s very unlike us. Sometimes I feel that, while I can have a vaguely rational conversation with Duibhne, talking to Bhearra is like trying to talk to the mountains. She has such an entirely different perspective on creation, destruction, life and death that she can’t relate to some of my passing concerns. The ageless Mountain sees us as ants who live and die in a moment… Which doesn’t mean I experience her as callous, exactly – though it can sometimes feel that way. On the positive side, though, she takes the long view – and this little ant often needs that.

A Story

A child of the Mountain lived in a little hut beneath that mountain, at the very edge of the seashore.

At night, when the sea came close to the edge of the shore, it brought the winds with it. They rocked and shook the hut, the spray of the sea battering against the windows, the cold wind whistling through the cracks in the walls. She feared for her safety.

So the child climbed the Mountain.

“Help me, Lady Mountain,” she said, when she got to the top. “Your winds are battering my little hut, and I’m afraid that it won’t stay standing for much longer.”

“What do you want with a hut?” said the Mountain. “One day all things will be washed away, and all that will remain is the sea and the mountain, and then even I will be gone, and there will be nothing but land, sea and sky. You have no need of shelter. If you want to serve me, embrace the chaos. It’s all there is.”

Well, thought the child of the Mountain, while this was probably good advice, it wasn’t quite what she needed.

So off she went across the bay to talk to the Mother of the Tribe.

She found Her sitting serenly on the cliffs, watching the tide go in and out.

“Help me, Mother of the Tribe,” she said. “Across the bay, my little hut is battered by raging winds and rising tides. The Lady of the Mountain will not calm the winds. Can you?”

Duibhne laughed. “You serve the Forces of the wild, and you thought that you could escape them? You built a hut on the edge of the sea beneath the mountain, and you think you can find shelter from Her chaos.”

She went on, “If you want peace and quiet, you can leave the mountain and come and live here with me. Life with my people is quiet and safe. I tend the land where the people live, not the empty wilderness where only the wild animals can survive. Come and farm sheep here, among the people of the Tribe. Or, if you’d rather, go back to the Mountain and live in the wild with her. Your choice.”

So she built a sturdy cottage, set back from the seashore, surrounded by farmland, and lived among the people of the Tribe.

And she lay awake at night, wishing she could hear the spray of the sea that used to sing against the windows of her hut, wishing she could feel the cool winds whistling in through the cracks in the walls. She missed the thrill of the hurricanes that used to rage around her, missed the wonder of the mighty sea in its eternal dance with the land. Here the sea was silent and the winds were mild and warm. This was not her home.

So it was with a mixture of fear and excitement that she returned, one day, to the Mountain. She found her hut in pieces. She sat in the foothills and waited for the storm to roll out over the sea.

“Embrace the chaos,” said the Mountain, approvingly.

.

References

J. MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
All the other books I’ve cited on the topic of Cailleach Bhearra in this blog post series
And a story out of my own head.

*For want of a better word. I do not have one.

Interfaith

PBP2014c

Oath-breaking is an absolute taboo for me, as an Irish polytheist. I know that many ex-Christian Pagans feel that any promises they made to the Christian God were made in ignorance or in coercion. But mine was an oath that I wanted to take, where I knew very clearly what I was doing, what I was promising, and who I was promising it to. Maybe if I could have seen a couple of years into the future, I wouldn’t have taken it. But I’m only human. Continue reading