(Catching up) S is for… Saints

I don’t talk much about the saints I work with. It’s totally outside my Gaelic tradition – and, indeed, outside my druidry path. I don’t have a detailed theology of what saints are, either. They’re my spiritual ancestors – an ongoing link to Christianity, which remains important to me as part of the history of my spiritual journey and the history of my culture – even if I can no longer support its theology (or host most of its practices) in my life. They are ancestors who are often very willing to help me with folk magic, and to receive prayers and attention in exchange for protection or provision.

In the Gaelic tradition, researching saints often becomes messy quite quickly. demonstrating the fluid boundaries between ancestors, gods and land spirits in Gaelic culture. Some of the saints-as-ancestors may also be gods. St Gobnait, in my UPG, definitely has something to do with Bhéarra – I’m just not sure what. (See my post on St Gobnait for more of my thoughts on that topic.) Studying the stories of the post-Christian saints has taught me as much about Gaelic culture as studying the myths. Both may well have pre-Christian roots – but regardless, I’m not sure the Christian/pagan dichotomy really works particularly well in terms of Gaelic reconstructionism. Gaelic culture has endured on through Christianity. The saints are a complex part of this, knotted into the threads of pagan and Christian Gaelic folk culture. Neopagans tend to have mixed, slightly confused responses to the Irish saints – St Patrick is vilified, but St Brigit is considered to carry survivals of the goddess Brighid in her stories. Keeping in mind how our views of the saints are socially constructed – in this case, by our social context of modern Paganism – could be useful here. My views are just as socially constructed as anyone else’s, but I try to approach the saints on their own terms, and ask what they can teach me.

Some of my saints are Gaelic. Some are not. Some may have pagan roots. Some do not. They are all my spiritual ancestors. They have all helped me, and many other people.

St Catherine, inspirer of scholars and strong women. St Gobnait, lady of the deer and the bees, from the Munster hills of my ancestors. St Francis, gentle brother to animals and to the land. St Cajetan, of social justice and concern for the poor and jobless. Mary, mother of a god, protector of the weak – in all her many aspects. Mary Magdalene, Gnostic avatar of Sophia, teacher of wisdom, whose story has been suppressed and lost, like the stories of so many women before her – and patroness of those whose brains and neurology don’t work too well. St Anthony, of the lost. And many others. They protect me, guide me and work with me. They are my ancestors, and I honour them. I don’t need much more theology than that, really. The rest is mere detail.


Shrine areas for St Gobnait (well water and bee images) and St Catherine (spinning wheel), next to my general working area for folk magic


Saints’ shrine – upper level (right to left: St Cajetan, Mary, St Expedite, St Anthony). The configuration changes depending on who I’m working with. Not all the saints want to be a constant presence on my shrine. Some do.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

– From the Breastplate of St Patrick

P is for…Polytheism and Pagan Pride (and it’s a 30 Days of Paganism post too)

I had the opportunity to talk to Pagans about polytheism on Sunday. It was Nottingham Pagan Pride – which has fast become one of the highlights of my year – and I was giving a talk entitled ‘Beyond Earth Worship: Diverse Paths under the Pagan Umbrella’. (I went back and forth over that title for ages, and decided that while it wasn’t perfect, it would do!) On a rainy Sunday evening, in a damp tent, with a small but wonderful audience, I talked about Pagan paths that people might not have heard about, ones outside of the familiar Pagan mainstream: Kemeticism, Hellenismos, Heathenism, the Feri tradition, Flamekeeping and pantheistic paths, and some others that I mentioned, but in less detail. We talked about why these paths matter, and what diversity can do for the Pagan community. We discussed the kinds of  barriers that people from smaller paths can face, in terms of things like community and visibility. I outlined what might be some sociological explanations for the over-emphasis on ‘Pagan unity’ that can leave people feeling deeply excluded if, for example, they celebrate different festivals from the eight familiar ones.

At the end, one member of the audience, a Hellenic polytheist, made a really good point. She said that those of us who follow slightly less mainstream Pagan and polytheist paths need to be a beacon for our traditions, to those who don’t know about them. So many people didn’t know that there are still those who worship the Greek gods, she said – and then they met her. Yet I know that a lot of people have the opposite response to a Pagan community that doesn’t understand their paths and religions. Polytheists are leaving Paganism at quite a rate – declaring that if the Pagan community won’t understand them, then they’ll define simply as ‘polytheist’ and have no more to do with Pagans or Paganism. I had been talking about the related ‘dancing monkey’ phenomenon, where some polytheists have told me that they feel the need to explain and justify their beliefs as Pagan beliefs, all the time. And I still understand that reaction. But there is also another view, that resists the ‘run away!’ mentality of many modern polytheists, and that says Yes – I am willing to stand as a beacon in the mist, a lighthouse on the shore. (Or, possibly more accurately in my case, as one of those annoying flickering fluorescent lights that you have endure in the office whether you like it or not…)

Day one of the ’30 Days of Paganism’ meme asks, ‘Why Paganism?’ I skipped that question to start with. If I’m honest, I’m mostly a Pagan because that’s where the community is. There’s a lot about Paganism (or at least UK Paganism) that just doesn’t fit me. I don’t do a lot of the stuff that I see as sort of ‘New Agey’, I suppose – chakras, energy healing, that kind of thing – not because I dislike or condemn it, but because it isn’t part of my path. I don’t see my gods as archetypes, but as real, individual spirits that are worthy of my worship (and yes, I use the word worship). My spiritual practice is more about making offerings than anything else. I’m really more of a polytheist than a Pagan.

And yet. There’s a diverse, fascinating community out there that I can be part of, that I can serve. It’s full of people that I can honour and show hospitality to, and they honour me and show me hospitality all the time. I have never once experienced rejection from them for being a bit different in my Pagan path – and while I know that other polytheists have done, I can only speak for myself.

I’m trying very hard to work out where I ‘fit’ at the moment (while simultaneously starting to plan a house move, attempting to write thesis chapters, you know, all small stuff). I wouldn’t quite call it a spiritual crisis, but it is a sort of a spiritual ‘get yourself out of the woods you’re lost in’ thing. I’m holding onto something that I believe my gods said to me a few months ago. They said I needed to dedicate myself to the Tribe. I drew a total blank at first. But I’m very slowly getting closer to understanding what this means for me. The great diversity at Pagan Pride this year, and their wonderful welcome for my talk, was a reminder that there *is* a reason why I’m involved with the Pagan community. They are my Tribe – and there’s nothing more important than that!

The ‘Say Pagan’ campaign starts here. ;)

P.S. I had a disturbing dream during a headache-induced nap today, involving crows flying through thick fog and a scary black cat. This has absolutely nothing to do with this post. I just wanted to write it down here, so that you can see how much of a ridiculous cliche my brain is. Thank you.

I have a new blog for my sociology of religion thoughts: Accidental Auguries. I might post about why I’m a Pagan there, soon, from a slightly more sociological perspective. Which means I’ll write basically this again, with a few slightly longer words, and a couple of ‘research shows’ cliches thrown in. Enjoy.

No evidence that ‘esoteric’ websites will be censored by the UK government

I am really busy, so this will have to be a quickie post – but I am working on a longer one, when I can get the information together.*

Here are the facts as I currently understand them (and I have done a fair bit of research on this, including searching for Freedom of Information requests and spending several hours trying to find reliable news articles on the subject).

1. There is currently absolutely no evidence that the UK government plans to censor ‘esoteric’ websites. Here are the facts on what’s happening. The UK government is indeed asking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer ‘opt-out’ internet filtering. The government has not suggested any categories of websites to be filtered, except for pornography.

2. No law is being passed on this. It is a government policy that they are planning to implement through the ISPs only. It will probably be left up to ISPs as to what they censor.

3. Nothing is being automatically censored. Currently, it looks like you will be fully within your rights to click ‘NO’ when you are asked if you want to filter certain categories of websites. You will be asked this when you first set up your home internet. If you click ‘YES’, you will be asked which categories of websites you want to block. You can un-select any category you want. You can still see porn if you want, or you can filter porn and keep any other categories that are offered. There is no evidence that your name will be passed to the government if you don’t want to filter websites, which is one (ridiculous) rumour I’ve heard about this.

4. The rumours of this are based on this Open Rights Group article. This is not, as some have claimed, based on a Freedom of Information request to the government, or any statement from the government at all. Open Rights simply went to the ISPs and said, what will your filters look like? They then published example categories that were offered to them. These examples seem to be categories that are already offered to private companies who want to censor websites. (For example, McDonald’s offers free wifi in its restaurants, but there are a large number of types of websites that you can’t see there. That’s within McDonald’s rights to do, because they are providing the internet service.)

5. As yet, the government doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing with opt-in [edit: I meant opt-OUT]** censorship. It seems to be planning to reply on the Internet Service Providers to decide what to offer people as censorship categories. Some of the other initially-rumoured categories have included ‘web forums’ and ‘blogs’. We don’t seem to be losing the plot over that yet, though.

6. Censorship is, in my opinion, a bad thing. I dislike the idea of opt-out parental controls for the internet. They are a very blunt instrument, a wide net that catches a lot of things that don’t need filtering. That, however, is a separate issue. I have signed a petition against this censorship. If you dislike internet censorship too, here are two petitions you can sign: this one is just for UK residents or ex-pats, and this one is more general and I believe can be signed by anyone.

I was quoted about this issue over at The Wild Hunt. (It’s towards the end of the article.)

A more detailed post will follow, when I get a chance to write one. I have asked Open Rights whether they’re willing to give a statement for the Divine Community podcast. They may not have time to do so, of course (and they have already edited their article to point out very clearly that these are example categories, so they really don’t have to). I will also try to contact the government about this – they’re even more likely not to respond, but I can only try.

– Naomi Catherine Jacobs
Co-host of Divine Community podcast

*It also doesn’t really belong on this blog. I was already in the process of setting up a sociology of religion/Pagan-community-and-society blog. I’ll get it set up faster now, and write about this there!

**For those who have come to this blog post from a referral, and do not know me or have not read my other posts: I have an autistic spectrum condition and sometimes make mistakes. A reader pointed out this one, so I have edited – but I’m not inclined to make it look like I never made the error, which would be dishonest.

O is for… Objectivity and Ontology (Sociology of Religion In Focus)

Note: This post was slightly edited for clarity this afternoon (19th July 2013). I re-read it, and decided a few things needed rephrasing.

Shh – come close, for I am about to share a secret with you… Are you listening? OK. I often pick up a dictionary when PBP-writing day rolls around. (I’m just not that imaginative.) Well, today, when I went over to the area of my bookshelves where the dictionaries are, I found myself holding my sociological dictionary.

You see, I’d just been reading this piece, published yesterday over at The Wild Hunt. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that The Wild Hunt does a good and important job. It takes current affairs and says ‘How does this affect Pagans?’, and that’s an important question, because we don’t want to end up living in a social bubble, ignorant of what goes on around us that could have an effect on our community (to the extent that we are a community). Continue reading