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 12-14: Reflections On Daily Religion and Being Too Many Priests

31 Days of Offerings(1)

While giving offerings over the past week, I’ve been having more thoughts on the touchstone of daily religion, brief practical offerings, and the giving back of everything I do. A lot of Pagans are trying to live in a mostly-Christianity-inspired devotional world of personal deity relationships and mysticism. But actually, most ancient pagans were nothing like we are, and would have been far more focused on the day-to-day than the mystical.

We are all trying to be priests. Where is the role for faithful laity, and why do we discourage practical, daily religion? And what about the difference between the way we relate to different gods, as well as to the spirits and the ancestors?

Which is not unrelated to the place my thinking went next:

Why is ‘having too many shrines’, and by extension ‘having too many gods’, sometimes a taboo in the Pagan and/or polytheist world?

These are most of my shrines (at the moment):

IMG_0752001(4)

001(3)IMG_0783IMG_0784

 

 

 

 

Above – top left: shrine to Cailleach Bhearra and Duibhne – centre: seasonal shrine currently dedicated to Latiaran and the harvest cycle goddess of Munster – top right: hearth shrine including an area for Brigantia – bottom left: three out of four levels of my shrine cabinet, with the hearth shrine at the bottom, the ancestor shrine in the middle, and a shelf for Manannan mac Lir, Macha and the Morrigan above that – bottom right: the shelf above that, dedicated to the avatars of Sophia (who are a mix of gods and spiritual ancestors), including Arianrhod, Jadis, Mary Star of the Sea, and St Catherine. And that’s not including my little corners dedicated to the house spirits and land spirits, or the basic candle and offering bowl in the kitchen…

When I hear people complaining that another Pagan has too many gods, or worse, hear someone saying it disparagingly about themselves, I have to wonder where we get that idea from. It seems to go back to that idea that we all have to be mystics, saints, oracles, prophets and priests – with ALL the gods we engage with.

One goddess, I believe, chose me to go a bit deeper with her. But I have far more simple purposes with every other god I honour – and there are a lot. I honour them to keep their stories alive, as with Latiaran on her tiny shrine with her bee candle. I honour them to keep my home re-enchanted, buzzing with the reality of the Otherworld. I honour them to keep me connected. I honour them because they are there, and they are the gods.

My gods are everywhere — immanent in every tree and hill I pass, in every interaction I have with my fellow human beings, in the tarmac on the roads and the bricks and mortar of my home. So I tell their stories in their many shrines, from the candle on the kitchen windowsill and the little box in corner of the bookshelf, to the ornate table at the entrance to my study.

May my home always be filled with the stories of the Shining Ones.

31 Days of Offerings – Day 4 & 5: Offering Too Much

31 Days of Offerings(1)

It is possible to offer too much. Sometimes I give more of myself than I can sustain for very long. Eventually, my life spirals out of control and I stop doing anything useful, either for others, or for me.

On Sunday I made no offerings. I was a bit too busy being in that state of intense anxiety that means actual human functioning is a bit out of the question. At the end of a week where I’d been headed in that direction for days.

On Monday I decided to begin again at the beginning.

Photo: newly-organised shrine

Photo: newly-organised shrine

New shrine cloth. A bit of reorganisation of some items. Putting up some pictures I got in the Beara Peninsula this summer, but hadn’t done anything with yet. (I still need to get them framed, but it’s a start.) Moving some things out of focus, other things into the centre.

Settling in for the long dark.

And in the centre of the storm, an eye of perfect calm. Such an incredible contrast of peace… from a many-layered chaotic goddess.

It’s my experience that Cailleach Bhearra doesn’t much care about her shrine – she has the mountains as her playground and a sea-god for a husband, after all. The shrine is, really, for me – a place where I want to stop and meet her. It needs to be a little wild, but not so out of control that my human spirit is too afraid to stop there a while and meet with her wild soul.

A bit like with my life, really.

My Goddess has a Sense of Humour: Random thoughts of the day*

IMG_20150401_084035Asking Her why I feel blocked in a particular situation led to: my need for a miracle (the Star), the suggestion that I do a deal with the Devil, the Empress and Emperor side by side (Beara looking the Christian god in the face, hand on hips, going “Is she yours or mine?”), and the Hermit (me, getting in the way of myself). That’s all a pretty good picture of how I’m feeling at the moment.

The above picture shows the Battlestar Galactica tarot deck I’m working on. It’s not finished, but I already adore it. I’m currently working on Wands, which are a difficult suit to start with. Lots of Gaius Baltar, for some reason. I also want to start on a Narnia oracle deck soon. That should be easier: grab the characters, let them speak.

On an entirely different note: I was just discussing April Fools with another person with Asperger’s, on twitter. We agreed that we rather hate it. Tell us something and we’ll believe you. Why wouldn’t we?! Metaphor. I find it difficult.

What I’m reading at the moment: Devoted ed. by Alkistis Dimech (wonderful), When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by Tanya Luhrmann (also very good, though I keep forgetting it among all the other things I’m reading), The Poet’s Ogam by John-Paul Patton, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life by Meredith McGuire (excellent) and The Druid’s Primer by Luke Eastwood (review to follow as soon as I finish it). I want to write more book reviews at this ‘ere blog, so let me know if you’d like me to share my thoughts on any of the above.

In pain and illness news: Things are really quite bad at the moment. I can’t do much with my right arm (too much sitting at the computer typing – what’s a postgrad student to do?) and my lower back is all messed up as usual. I’m pondering how these things relate to embodied spirituality, at the moment. I’m learning so much from my participants, whose bodies frame and contain their spiritual lives much more than mine does.

In otheIMG_20150401_102627r news: Dilly Cat!

This is a shot I took lying on the floor alongside the bed in my office. She likes ‘under the bed’ a lot at the moment. But she’s willing to come out for cuddles when it’s quiet.

*I’m hoping ‘Random thoughts of the day’ posts will be a new series here. You will be hearing more pointless ramblings from my life. Rejoice.

Polly the Sensible, and a Map for the Journey

“Stop,” said Polly. “Aren’t we going to mark this pool?”
They stared at each other and turned quite white as they realised the dreadful thing that Digory had just been going to do. For there were any number of pools in the wood, and the pools were all alike and the trees were all alike, so that if they had once left behind the pool that led to our own world without making some sort of landmark, the chances would have been a hundred to one against their ever finding it again.

– The Magician’s Nephew

She was quite as brave as he about some dangers (wasps, for instance), but she was not so interested in finding out things nobody had ever heard of before; for Digory was the sort of person who wants to know everything, and when he grew up he became the famous Professor Kirke who comes into other books.

– The Magician’s Nephew

Continue reading

Sovereignty… and Hugs

This may be one of the most honest posts I’ve ever written. Since the theme of the moment seems to be ‘honourable communication’, though…

I hate hugging. Can we just start there?

OK, and now that we’ve got that out of the way.

At Druid Camp (which was wonderful, and I’m going to write about soon), there was a closing ritual at the end. It closed with “Let the hugging begin!” Continue reading

Shamanism

I posted this over at the Druid Network’s social site recently. I realised that it was as long as a blog post (sorry, TDN people!) – and I thought it was worth sharing here. This is the reason why I’ll never use the term shamanism. While I don’t expect others to agree with me, I do think it’s important that Druids and other Pagans *think* about the language and techniques they use, and decide in an informed way what they are going to do about issues of social justice relating to their spiritual work. After all, as the Druid’s Prayer says: “Grant, O gods… the knowledge of justice, and in the knowledge of it, the love of it.”

Continue reading