Posts filed under ‘Approaching Paganism’

Vocational Paths: Warrior

Next in Approaching Paganism- Vocational Paths: Warrior

As with elder, I think this needs be a role defined by specific cultural traditions and organizations. If you feel a calling to a warrior path, in what context will you walk that path? Which community, tradition, deity etc. will you do warrior work for, and what does that entail? I am not a warrior myself, but even if I were, I still couldn’t answer those questions for you. Here are some factors to consider, as well as some ways different people and traditions define warriorship both in Greater Neo-Pagandom and broader U.S. society (I’m always interested in hearing about non-U.S. perspectives, just basing things on what I’m familiar with)

  • Mundane/Paid Profession/Job/Career- a person who serves, has served, or plans to serve in the military, police, fire departments, emergency personnel (EMT, paramedic) park/forest ranger etc. Such a person may go into these fields as part of a spiritual calling, or discover/explore the spiritual dimensions after going into it.
  • Practitioner, Teacher or Master of a particular martial arts form- it could be a hobby, a form of exercise and self-defense, various Asian martial arts traditions typically have some culturally-specific philosophical concepts involved, at least if they have haven’t been watered down into American Mixed Martial Arts…(Puke!)
  • Devotee of a war-associated deity, hero(es), warrior/military dead- I know various people that have taken up martial arts and other forms of physical fitness as ways to connect with and serve a deity or spirit. Some, but not all of such folks identify as warriors, or as priests of the deity.
  • Roles at rituals and festivals such as warding/guarding the edge of a ritual space, working security at a festival or other Pagan event, being an advocate of abuse victims/survivors in Pagan and broader communities.

Ethics & Norms to Consider-

  • Are Peaceful/Spiritual Warriors a thing? Do nonviolent political activists count as warriors? This is debatable- I’d say be aware of what context you are in- Reclaiming Witches perhaps, Heathens/Asatruar, not so much.
  • Gender- some people think warrior automatically means male, a rite of passage to manhood involves “becoming a warrior” and so forth. I also see the “strong woman equals warrior” meme among certain feminists, both religious & secular- or conversely “women should be/are inherently peaceful” among certain feminists and anti-feminists alike! Nope. People of any (or no) gender can be warriors, and people of particular genders *don’t have to be* warriors if that’s not their inclination.
  • People in, or formerly in the careers discussed above may or may not identify as warriors in a spiritual sense. Calling someone by a label they don’t want is not “honoring” them. Being individual humans, they will have varying emotions and opinions about their experiences, please respect give space to them accordingly.
  • Be careful about attaching cultural associations to “warrior” that are not yours or bringing them into the wrong cultural context. (E.g. would you wear your karate gear as ritual garb?)
  • Historical re-enactment, role-playing games and the like are fun hobbies, but they are not necessarily part of your religion.
  • Observe rules/laws at rituals, festivals and people’s homes about what (if at all) weapons are allowed, how they should be secured, children and pets as factors, etc.
  • Being a warrior is not an excuse for being a bully, bad behavior etc. In fact, many warriors have codes of ethics that they strictly adhere to!

Part II will be links and commentary from people in various warrior traditions.

January 16, 2016 at 11:47 pm 1 comment

Shamanism Part 3- Other Words, Other Worlds

I encounter with relative frequency, individuals calling themselves shamans or having an interest in shamanism in both online and offline settings. I suspect most of them are not Evenki or Tungus Siberian folks, though there is the occasional exception. I would humbly propose to other well-meaning defenders of indigenous cultures that screaming cultural appropriation! at these New Age “shamans” is probably not the best approach, especially if they are not actually the ones leading the weekend sweat lodge retreats and publishing books on Shamanic Wiccan Druidry. Instead, let’s have conversations.

Is there a better word to use than shaman?

What are you trying to describe with the word shaman or the adjective shamanic?

A role serving a particular community as a spiritual specialist who does lots of intense spirit work, healing and otherworld journeying?  What tradition do you work within? Are there more culturally specific terms?

A solitary path that involves intense spirit work and otherworld journeying? Spirit worker, mystic, hedge witch/wizard/warlock

A belief/worldview involving plant, animal and other spirits?  Animist

Some Potentially Very Bad Reasons for “Deciding” to be a Shaman include…

Connotations of “Noble Savages” who are more “in touch with nature, what it Truly Means to Be Human etc.” in contrast to This Corrupt Urban Industrialized Disenchanted society that I still don’t want to leave cuz indoor plumbing and electricity are nice… Please unpack your cultural assumption baggage again- some books that might help:

Playing Indian by Philip J. Deloria

Orientalism by Edward Said

Books, articles and classes on postcolonial theory, postcolonial feminism, anthropology, cultural area studies (American Indian, East Asian, African diaspora et al.)

You have what Western medicine classifies as a mental illness, chronic illness or other disability. Therefore, shaman *must be* your spiritual calling!  You have a shaman-sickness! You are specially/chosen or “marked” by the Gods/Spirits/Ancestors! Your suffering, isolation etc. now has meaning and It All Makes Sense Now!  OK, let’s slow down. I admit this one is a little close to home, as I myself qualify as neurologically divergent in various ways (autistic, epileptic, ADHD, etc.) I believe this *does* make my spiritual perceptions and experiences unique and different in various ways, but I’m hesitant to jump to the conclusion that This Means I Must Have a Special Cosmic Destiny!!!

For one, I know plenty of other people with the same conditions as well as other disabilities that do not have any such spiritual inclinations and get pretty darn irritated when they get the “You are Special Child of God” or the other extreme “You are possessed by demons!” crap from people or similar Pagan/New Agey versions- “You’re an Indigo Child”, “You did something bad in a past life, and this is your punishment”. There does seem to be a higher than average number of Pagans with various disabilities and medical conditions, how much of that is self-selection or by Higher/Lower Powers That Be is up for debate.

You are transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual, intersex, asexual, kinky, yada yada…and once again this gives you a magical ticket to shaman-hood. In various cultures- yes shaman-type roles are often associated with gender-bending/blurring/fluidity and sexual “otherness”,  though it’s important to remember that late 20th-21st century Western identities like I just mentioned above are different from alternate sexual and gender identities found throughout human history and contemporary cultures around the world. We can certainly find a lot of inspiration and ideas from these various identities, and learning about them can put into context how we view GLBTQ+ identities in our own cultural settings, and how they can have collective and individual spiritual meanings and roles. But likewise, a gender/sexual/romantic minority might see their identity in a completely secular manner, or see their identity as mostly incidental to their spiritual role and development.

October 5, 2015 at 10:00 pm 4 comments

Spiritual Specialists vs. General Practitioners

Next in Approaching Paganism, let’s talk about spiritual specialists. Not clergy, not priests, though those are overlapping categories, but every tradition has a different concept of what that means, and every person who becomes Pagan brings their own baggage and assumptions about what they mean. As a result, conversations about the roles and duties of “Pagan clergy” in a broad community context are generally a mess. But priests, witches, shamans, seers, magicians- these are all various types of spiritual specialists. The concept of layperson, or a laity necessitates a clergy class, so instead, I’ll contrast the specialist with the general practitioner- yep like a doctor. A better analogy would be a homeowner who knows enough about plumbing, carpentry and electrics to fix most things him/her/theirself. But every once in a while, a major problem occurs and the homeowner has to call in a plumber/electrician/contractor to fix it. Also, sometimes the homeowner knows how to fix a problem, but doesn’t have the time to do it, having a day job and all.

So, here’s a layout of common “ingredients” to being a spiritual specialist- some combinations work better than others…

Training

*Self-study & practice

*Informal study & practice with peers

*Taught by family members/elders of oral tradition (folk customs, healing techniques etc.)

*Has taken various one-shot workshops & classes at festivals & conferences

*Formal training by a group (coven, lodge etc.)

*Training in an Eastern martial art, spiritual discipline like yoga, Zen meditation, etc.

*Academic training at a seminary

*Academic study of religion, history, cultural studies, language in graduate school

Service to Community

*Celebrant or Officiant (weddings, funerals, other rites of passage)

*Pastoral care work- as a volunteer or paid chaplain (visiting & counseling people in hospitals, hospice care, assisted living, prisons, jails, the military, praying, studying or leading ceremonies in those settings)

*Liturgical leader/performer

*Teacher of adults and/or children

Service to a Deity/Spirit/Group of Spirits

*Shrine or temple keeper (set-aside purified space, not just a table in your bedroom)

*Prophet/mystic with an intense connection to the spirit/deity

*Shares information with public about deity/spirit/tradition to encourage worship, maybe leads rituals specific to their cultus but not general community festivals

*May involve monastic lifestyle with possible rejection of mundane/broader community work, rejection of regular human romantic/sexual relationships & having children

Magician/Seer/Spiritual Healer

*Advanced practitioner of magic, divination or healing

*May do these types of work for others for pay, favors, other services etc.

*May train/teach others in this type of work

General Practitioner

*Researches and designs own rituals

*Teaches own children, peers, members of their group

*May teach occasional workshops, write articles or keep a blog but does not lead a group or do this as a living

*May practice magic, healing, divination for self, close friends and family

*May do peer ministry- visiting other Pagans in hospitals, mentoring and sharing information

Super-Volunteer/Queen of the Church-Ladies/The Committee Meeting Ain’t Over til She Leaves

(Not to be sexist- I do know some menfolk that play this role as well! Every volunteer org has one or more…)

*Chief event organizer, except on the day of the event, in which she is busy vending Pagan bling, doing Tarot readings, leading workshops and/or speaking on panels

*Career is designed strategically so she can get weekends & evenings off. Hopefully a gig that will also allow her to get free food/paper copies/other relevant discounts. Always asks for the week of Pagan Spirit Gathering off about 2 years in advance.

*Things don’t get done because everyone else on the committee/coven members etc. assume she already did them.

*When she has a major family/health/career change, Pagan Pride, Samhain or the local festival Just Doesn’t Happen.

*A minimum of 3 cats or other animals is require for this position, as is an entire spare bedroom or basement for storing of annual event or coven supplies. Said supplies must not be put in waterproof containers..

In Sum

I typically reserve the word “clergy” for people who have more formal training, serve a community, and in a American context usually have legal status so they can marry people. I know in other countries, you can’t just pay X amount to the Universal Life Church and suddenly you get to marry people- they are more picky about what counts as a religion. Across the board, it means “person who is recognized as clergy by the community they serve”. Just paying the fee, and buying a stole does not clergy make.

A priest/ess on the other hand, may primarily serve a deity or group of spirits/deities, rather than a community as such. The training and experience required will depend on the tradition they follow. And while I don’t have a problem with people creating their own personal religion, declaring yourself a priest of your own religion that consists of no one else seems very silly at best, and disrespectful to priests of other traditions at worst.

The Super-volunteer example is what happens when general practitioners don’t step up/wheel up to the plate and pitch in. Everyone has different talents, skills, levels of experience and personal/familial needs that have to be balanced out. I’ll give some suggestions on how this can work in my next post.

My Related Posts:

Functions of Pagan Clergy & Leaders

What is a Pagan Elder?

Food for Thought:

Ordination? But….We Don’t Need Clergy by Byron Ballard (some Pagans need clergy, some don’t)

In Support of Our Own: Understanding Unitarian Universalist Idealization by David Oliver Kling, discusses the pros and cons of Pagans becoming U.U. ministers and chaplains.

Why My Aunt Judy Isn’t a Pagan (Or, How Far We Still Have to Go) by Raven Kaldera

July 8, 2015 at 12:44 am 5 comments

Patron Deities- Are We Talking About the Same Thing?

It’s common in Pagan communities to hear people talk about their patron or matron deities. Within Neo-Paganism this could have a couple of origins- patron saints- who are regarded as in being guardians of a particular profession, family, area of life (ex: a type of illness) place, or specific person. Another origin may be the Holy Guardian Angel, who is called upon in Thelema and some types of ceremonial magic(k) more generally. The concept of a personal guardian spirit that watches over someone all their lives is found in many cultures, but I feel that is a different, though related topic to that of patron deities.

An important thing to remember, however is that the term “patron” is used many different ways and may even have more specific meanings for particular traditions. Therefore, it’s best when in a pan-Pagan community space- be it online or in person, to think of “patron” in the broadest possible sense, and narrow down from there as a person shares more about their practice and theology. Having a patron (or patrons) is not a requirement to be a True Pagan ™ though it may be encouraged, recommended or required in particular traditions.

Common Uses of Patron

A- Deity that a person feels closest to, and is their all-purpose “go to god” (this what I have with Brighid)

B- Deity that a person has formally dedicated themselves to serve, typically by swearing an oath- either temporary as for a year and a day like dedicating to a coven, or for life.

C- Dedication or devotion to a deity that involves being a priest/ess or monastic-like lifestyle. In this case, the person may still use the term patron, but typically more commonly call themselves a priest or devotee of X. The relationship is often seen like that of a parent and child, or a spouse or lover.

Assumptions and Misconceptions

There is often debate about whether a person can choose a patron or must wait for “signs” that a deity has chosen them. I think either side can be taken to an extreme with people assuming that is someone chooses a deity, then they must have randomly chosen one out of a hat for shallow reasons or at the other end, people worry about not having had enough of a dramatic “Burning Bush” type experience.

Some polytheists (especially some Heathens and Hellenics) argue against the idea of patrons, claiming that they are not historical and are influence of monotheism, particularly American evangelical Christianity a la “my personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. I do think there are some folks who have rather immature relationships with their patrons, especially when they seem to expect them to swoop down and rescue them from any screw-up they make- I call this phenomenon “My Little Loki/Hermes/Bast”, et al or My Little Totem for that matter.  But there are historic examples of close personal relationships with deities in many cultural contexts- for both priestly and lay practitioners. Having a patron also does not mean the person stops being a polytheist, they generally will worship a variety of spirits and gods, with particular focus on the patron(s). That said, henotheism- the worship of only one deity (or form of deity) while acknowledging the existence of others- or even occasionally honoring them for festivals is an acceptable norm in certain traditions such as Kemetic (Egyptian) religion and Hinduism.

Culturally Specific Terms

Heathenry & Asatru: Fulltrui–  in Icelandic fulltrui means trusted friend or fully trusted one

Essay by Morgan Daimler on Fulltrui

Hinduism: Ishta devi or ishta devata– in Sanskrit this means cherished or beloved deity- an individual chooses a form of God to focus their devotion. Looking for websites about this, but I’m not sure which ones are the best sources on Hinduism…

Kemetic Orthodoxy- in KO (note that this is a specific organization, not all Kemetics belong to it) there is a rite of Parent Divination which determines which of the Netjer- the Gods that the person will serve.

Note: I consider the topic of patron deities to be more of a 201 level, especially I haven’t gotten much into theology yet, but this is a very common topic beginners ask about on fora, and they often get many mixed messages! So I thought I’d sort things out a bit here. Not all forms of Pagan practice and belief necessarily involve deities, and some info here could also apply to relationships with other types of spirits such as totem or power animals/plants/fungi, ancestors etc.

June 24, 2015 at 11:24 pm 5 comments

Getting Started in Various Polytheisms

If you aren’t sure what tradition you will be following (or creating!) this is a nice way to compare things a bit before you dive head-first into something! Remember also, that polytheist and animist practice doesn’t have to be based on a particular cultural tradition- either historic or living. One example of a modern, polytheistic religion is the Otherfaith, involving worship of eight Gods and a multitude of spirits. Though I’m not a follower myself, I find it fascinating to watch the development of the Otherfaith, the reflection of human diversity in their Gods (or rather are we reflections of the Gods?) and my discussions with Other People has added a lot of insight in my own attempts at finding modern inspiration.

General

A list with lots of resources- Pagan 101

Polytheism 101: Building a Shrine, Offerings, 

Devotional Primer– advice from an eclectic heathen

Keeping a Daily Practice: 7 Keys to Success by Dagulf Loptson

Indo-European Polytheisms

Guide to Gaelic Polytheism

Longship– Beginner’s Guide to Heathenry- pan-Germanic

Hellenic Polytheism

Daily Devotions– suggestions for each day of the week. On the main blog page, she posts each day the day of the week activities as well as hymns for deities/spirits associated with that day of the month, festivals etc.

Roman Polytheism

Non-Indo-European polytheisms

Natib Qadish– Canaanite polytheism

Daily Prayer

Kemetic Polytheism (Egyptian)

Kemetic Starter Guide

Ritual

Hinduism

Super Simple Daily Puja

Shinto-

Minzoku Neo-Shinto– great introductory e-book about folk Shinto, this is also a great place to look for ideas on adapting polytheism to modern life

Shinto Resources

Non-revivalist/reconstructionist polytheisms

Otherfaith

Venacian Faith

Modern American Polytheism– this can be combined with various other pagan/polytheist traditions.

June 10, 2015 at 9:53 pm 7 comments

Shamanism Part 2: Is Cultural “Neutrality” Possible?

One of my questions for thought and discussion in my last post was-

“Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?”

Most of my questions don’t really have “right or wrong” answers, because they are designed to make you think, question your assumptions and work on developing your spiritual path. I admit this one however, was a bit of a “trick question” intended to test what assumptions you might have of cultural neutrality.

From a social science standpoint it’s impossible to be “culturally neutral” or truly “generic”. I often see American Pagans attempting to do this, especially within a particular region- this is “generically North American Indian” or “generically Asian”. The results are often very watered down, ineffective and often offensive and mis-representative of hundreds of distinct ethnic and regional cultures, all in one ritual or book! The pan-Indian ritual will be Disney’s Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves,  and the pan-Asian ritual in the next room ends up looking like a cheap hippie version of this Katy Perry music video.

Basically, to be “culturally neutral/generic” you need to stop being human. Humans, are by definition social animals and need each other for our physical survival and mental sanity. Culture is by definition, shared and co-created over a long period of time. If you are still thinking “But I don’t have a culture!” I suggest you read this article- Body Ritual among the Nacirema and that might help you to view things differently!

I know some of my co-religionists were wondering about my choice to include shamanism in my Approaching Paganism series. Most of them would simply state “shamanism is practiced in some Central Asian cultures, and if you’re from outside of that context, you just shouldn’t use the word”. I understand and empathize with that position, but the fact is I am explaining modern Neo-Paganism in its many varieties as it is, rather than as I would like it to be. I might have an easier time influencing people who are totally new to Paganism(s) and shamanism in any form, but by simply accusing people of cultural appropriation, I’d be shutting down any potential conversations with Western/non-indigenous people who have been following a neo-shamanic path for years. Being an American who gets politically and socially classed as “white”, I have a lot of opportunities to challenge racism and cultural insensitivity from people with similar backgrounds. But I have to find the best way to use those opportunities to calmly invite people to learn more and challenge their assumptions and sense of entitlement, rather than just shutting down conversations by playing “I’m a Better Ally Than You!” trump cards. And I realize, that I in turn always have more to learn about these issues myself!

It also seems a bit hypocritical to me to judge people too harshly about this, since after all I call myself a Druid. A lot of people in broader Neo-Pagan-dom would consider that “fair game” simply because it’s of European origin, but it’s more complicated than that. There are living Celtic cultures, and while they don’t have a continuous unbroken tradition of druids, they still have opinions about people who call themselves “Druids” particularly when they come from English or Anglo-American cultural backgrounds and think they are entitled to grab anything pretty and shiny with knotwork or tartan patterns and call it “Celtic” without bothering to learn anything more about distinctions between Celtic cultures, languages and their histories of suppression and erasure.

June 3, 2015 at 8:06 pm 2 comments

Shamanism- Part 1: Origins, Spread of Use of the Term

Going back to the Pagan Pride definition of Paganism(s) that I use in my first Approaching Paganism post- one component is-

Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magickal practices

We’ve already covered magic, but what’s shamanism? Well, that is a complex and rather controversial question!

Basically, a shaman is a spiritual specialist within the context of a hunter-gatherer culture- especially Central Asian, Mongolian or Siberian, who engages in altered states of consciousness (or trance) to make contact with the spirit world for purposes of healing, discovering information, or facilitating transitions between life and death.

When I first entered the Neo-Pagan scene in the Twin Cities area, it took me several years of exploring and research before I found out that shamanism had nothing to do with North American Indians, in spite of how people often presented it to me. I encounter people who say things like: “Hi, I’m Starry Owl, I follow a Cherokee shamanic path, and like my name, my totem animal is the Owl.” If “Starry Owl” was hanging out with actual traditional Cherokees, she would probably get some strange and possibly offended looks (or maybe just a lot of eye-rolling…) The word shaman comes from the Evenki language in North Asia, and came to be used by missionaries and later anthropologists for spiritual practitioners of other neighboring peoples, and eventually more globally for indigenous peoples around the world. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade’s book- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, greatly popularized the broader use of shamanism in anthroplogy, even if that was not his intent!

Michael Harner, a New Age author later wrote Way of the Shaman, beginning the Core Shamanism movement in wealthy, industrialized countries. He claimed that shamanism could be boiled down to certain essential core traits, that could be used as a framework to create a culturally neutral shamanism so it could be adapted by Westerners without ripping off any one indigenous culture. He based his “generic shamanism” on a combination of Siberian shamanism as described by Eliade, with spiritual techniques and cosmology from the Jivaro people of the Amazon. Harner kept making money by writing books, and running workshops marketed towards mostly white middle/upper class Americans and Europeans. Many indigenous activists, traditional spiritual practitioners as well as anthropologists and other scholars (indigenous or not) have accused Harner of cultural appropriation, that is taking practices and ideas from indigenous cultures and exploiting them for personal gain and profit. Harner has claimed that he has in fact, helped indigenous people who have lost parts of their shamanic practices with his Foundation For Shamanic Studies.

Some Key Differences Between Classical Shamanism & Neo-Shamanism

From here on out, I’m going refer to Evenk, Tungus, and other closely related Siberian spirit-work as classical shamanism, and some Western New Age or Neo-Pagan ecstatic/visionary spiritual practices (including but not limited to Core Shamanism) as neo-shamanism.

Being a Shaman is a Calling- Not Generally a Choice

Sometimes there are particular “signs” that a child- often at puberty, sometimes at a younger age, may have certain abilities or has been chosen by spirits for a particular role. The child (with parents’ approval) will then commonly be singled out for special training by an older shaman. In many cultures, the shaman-in-training will also learn general skills that everyone else in the community learns, as they will for the most part be making their living as a farmer, herder, hunter, craftsperson etc. In some cases, in larger communities, a shaman may be entirely supported by the community and devote themselves mostly to spiritual pursuits. Sometimes this also happens as a result of cultural change, and interest from outsiders in shamanic practices, (spiritual tourism) which can have mixed effects on the culture. A shaman that has a more liminal role, at the edge of society- revered and respected, yet also feared and perhaps only called upon in times of great need. Sometimes this fear is added to due to influence from other religions and cultures.

Shamans Serve a Specific Community

Classical shamans serve their particular ethnic and geographic culture. They do not generally perform ceremonies or other spiritual duties for people outside of that community. As mentioned before, this has changed in some places due to pressure from Western spiritual tourists. Neo-shamans typically follow a solitary path for emotional, spiritual and psychological self-fulfillment (sometimes shamanic practices are regarded as being therapeutic) and they usually don’t serve a broader community, unless it’s to teach neo-shamanism to other people in workshops, write books, etc.

Shamanism is Often Seen as a Difficult Path, Not a Fun Thing to Dabble In

Various cultures have the concept of shaman-sickness, the idea that various physical and mental symptoms have a spiritual cause indicating a shamanic calling, and a trans-formative process that a person must accept exists in multiple cultures. This is a lot like the ordeal of initiation I discussed earlier in my post on mystery traditions, and indeed mystery traditions may have shamanic roots. This of course makes things messy quickly when a culture with these concepts is in contact with Western medicine, and doctors see the “patient” as having physical problems that need treatment, while their family members view it as a spiritual matter.

Gender and Traditional Shamanic Roles 

In classical Siberian shamanism, the role is typically performed by men. In other cultures, the shaman may typically be a woman, or can be of either sex. Sometimes a person who is regarded as neither man nor woman- or who is biologically male but *socially and spiritually* considered a woman, has a shamanic role. In neo-shamanism, while perhaps stereotypically seen as slightly more masculine, people of any gender are typically accepted as being able to be shamans.

Being Descriptive, not Prescriptive

I am a social scientist of sorts (political science to be precise) so I tend to try to at least initially describe social phenomena in such a way that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. As in “this is what some people do, what they call themselves, some possible reasons reasons and motivations for why they do it” rather than initially labeling that behavior as good or bad. As you can see here, what was once a culturally specific term has become more widespread and imprecise in meaning, which has the potential to spread misinformation about various cultures and traditional religion, and sometimes distortion and commercialization in cultures that are often struggling for their very survival. To be frank, New Age and Neo-Pagans are probably going to keep calling themselves shamans in both ignorance and knowledge of the origins of the word, especially since they are usually far removed geographically and culturally from people who have a more direct claim on the term. Flatly condemning people for doing that will probably not change their minds. Instead, I suggest we work on changing the culture of “Anyone who reads a book/takes a workshop is Now a Shaman!” (Though we can certainly add Witch, Druid, etc. to that list!) More on that in Part 2.

Questions for Thought/Discussion:

Where did you first hear of the term shamanism? How was it defined and presented to you?

Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?

Is the spread of interest in shamanism in wealthy, industrialized countries helpful or harmful to people in those countries, as well as indigenous cultures around the world? Can it be both?

What influence do New Age/Neo-Pagan publishing, workshops, classes, festivals and conferences, and spiritual tourism (i.e. to sacred sites, gurus, shamans etc) have on your spiritual development?

June 2, 2015 at 12:23 am 3 comments

Mystery Traditions/Religions

Many religions have a distinction between exoteric– or outer knowledge available to all members of a religion, and esoteric, inner knowledge only available to a smaller class of initiates as part of a mystery tradition or mystery religion. In many cases throughout history and various cultures, this pool of potential initiates could only be from the noble or priestly castes. In others, such as many of the mysteries of Greece & Rome, they were available to any free citizen (some only to men or to women)

To be considered for initiation, a participant must be seen as spiritually, physically and psychologically ready for the intense, trans-formative and ecstatic experiences involved. An initiation often involves an ordeal– a difficult and possibly dangerous test. If a prospective initiate does not pass such an ordeal, this means a denial of initiation at that time or for the rest of this life. It is called a mystery because not only is it secret, but because the participants have gone through an experience they cannot describe to others. In several of the Greek & Roman mysteries, it was believed that one could only gain entrance to the afterlife- or a better afterlife by going through these mysteries- hence they were very popular.

Wicca and witchcraft in most forms are both mystery traditions. It is certainly perfectly valid to practice many forms of Paganism in an exoteric manner- focusing on celebration and regular devotion- as a layperson, or simply in a tradition that does not have a clergy/laity distinction. Other traditions of Paganism exist only in esoteric form, and one must be initiated to participate. In Wicca- there are typically 3 degrees of initiation, and the third makes you eligible to lead a coven and initiate others. Many covens have what is called an Outer Court, which includes people who are not yet initiated, or have only their 1st degree. The Inner Court is reserved for members who at least have a 1st degree. Lots of Outer Court material has been released to the public- starting in particular with Rites from the Crystal Well by Ed Fitch, Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. As a result, Wicca- or as traditionalists may call it Neo-Wicca* has spread like wildfire. Though solitaries frequently self-initiate, I believe the term *dedicate* is more accurate, and think initiation is something that must be done by another person, generally within a group structure like a coven, grove or magical lodge. I’m not Wiccan, however so really my opinion on this is moot, though we do have initiation in various types of Druidry, such as ADF, the organization I belong to.

*Note: some people will consider the term “Neo-Wicca” to be derogatory, use with discretion. Non-traditional, eclectic or non-British Traditional Witchcraft (BTW) are less controversial terms to use.

Mystery traditions and religions are also found outside of Paganism. Christianity arguably started as a mystery religion, and in some cases still is- particularly in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This is even more so for priests, monks and nuns. Likewise in Buddhism and Hinduism, there are regular practitioners as well as members of more esoteric sects. Mormonism is also an interesting case- a regular member of the LDS church attends services at a ward, similar in set up to many Protestant sects. But if an adult Mormon fulfills certain requirements, he or she can get what’s called a Temple recommend, and gain access to special ceremonies in the Temple. This is modeled after Temple-era Judaism’s Holiest of Holies, and also has influence from Freemasonry, as their prophet Joseph Smith was a Mason- like Gerald Gardner. So bizarrely enough, Mormonism is in some ways Wicca’s distant cousin.

Questions to reflect on:

What’s the difference between exoteric and esoteric?

Do you need to be initiated or become part of a mystery tradition to be a Pagan?

Do you need to be initiated or become part of a mystery tradition to be Wiccan?

In *your opinion* is self-initiation valid? In what tradition(s)? Under what circumstances and why? (No right or wrong answer here!)

Does the religion of your upbringing (if any) have a mystery tradition or esoteric aspects?

May 22, 2015 at 3:22 am 1 comment

Nature/Green/Eco-Spirituality isn’t always Pagan

Like all the Centers of Paganism, the Nature-center definitely extends beyond the bounds of Paganism. There has been a general rise globally in ecological awareness in both secular and religious contexts, and Pagans have most certainly played a role in the latter. But seeing nature as sacred and worthy of protection and/or preservation is not a uniquely Pagan feature!

In my opinion, making an effort to conserve resources and be ecologically mindful is just part of being a good citizen of planet Earth. You can have some theological rationale for it, like regarding the Earth as a living being (the Gaia hypothesis), being a steward of the Earth (as in the Abrahamic faiths) seeing everything as divine (pantheism) or see many spirits as being part of nature (animism) You can even combine some of these beliefs as many people do. Or you can simply regard the Earth and all its creatures (including humans) in a scientific manner. I think the important thing is what you do, not why you do it!

For indigenous people, the issue of sovereignty and habitat preservation is important to maintain traditional relationships with the land, animals and plants- and thus their cultures. For example, with global climate change, the warming of Arctic areas is having an adverse effect on the reindeer herds that the Saami people of Scandinavia & Russia depend on. Closer to home (for myself) the Idle No More movement led by First Nation people in Canada has been gaining steam, including some support from polytheists and Pagans.

One approach that can be easily incorporated, regardless of a person’s location and culture, includes scientific information and gives a lot of space for various theological views and practice, is bioregional animism.

The intersection of ecology and religion (and socio-political implications related to it) is very broad and complex, so I’ll go into more specific aspects of it in other posts. For now here’s a preliminary list of reading to get you started. (To be frank I have not read most of them- with the exception of Creation Spirituality!) As time goes on and I read more, I will post reviews- for one I am very interested in Lupa’s works.

Books-

Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality & the Planetary Future by Bron Taylor

Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey

The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature by Emma Restall Orr

The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythyms of Nature by Starhawk

Plant & Fungus Totems, New Paths to Animal Totems, DIY Totemism, other works by Lupa- see her website Green Wolf for more info

Ecoshamanism by James Endredy

Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality, other works by Matthew Fox (from a Catholic viewpoint, but much of it applicable/inspiring to people of other traditions

Bibliography of Earth-based Judaism– Tel Shemesh

May 19, 2015 at 1:37 am 5 comments

Ways Religious Syncretism Happens

Syncretism is when you combine two things together to create a new thing, and it’s very common in many religions. It happens both historically and in modern times, for a variety of reasons. I’ll start by discussing historical examples, and will cover ways to approach syncretism yourself in another post.

Syncretism in the Roman Empire– We’ll Go to War with You and Then Add your Gods to Our Pantheon!

As Romans added territory to their Empire, they encountered people who worshiped other gods. Being polytheists, they didn’t really care so long as the Gauls, Germannii and so forth obeyed them. But the Romans liked to say “oh, that god you call Wodan is kinda like Mercurius”, just as they had done earlier with the Greek gods. This is referred to as Interpretatio Romana. Sometimes these foreign gods were adopted into Roman religion, often with Romanized names. Sometimes we don’t know the original Celtic, Germanic, Iberian or Slavic name as a result. In addition various Eastern mystery cults were brought in- often by soldiers and traders- including Isis (Greco-Egyptian) Kybele (Anatolian) Mithras (Persian) It was kind of like the ancient Roman version of the New Age- ooh, cool, I’m going to try out this new religion! Complete with parents and other authority figures getting annoyed by all this weird new-fangled stuff. More on mystery cults in another post.

Colonialism, Slavery, Suppression of Culture/Religion– When people from West Africa were enslaved and taken to the Caribbean, the American colonies, Brazil, and other parts of South America they brought their culture and beliefs with them. Because they were expected to be “good Christians” (often synonymous with being an obedient slave!) they kept their traditions alive under the guise of Catholicism- various spirits were identified with saints. Theology note: in many of these traditions there is a Creator God- identified with the Christian God who is more distant, and other beings who serve Him- so the world “god” is only used for the High God, the rest are Spirits or Powers.  In mainly Protestant areas such as the Southern United States (outside of French Catholic Louisiana) African influences can be found in music, ecstatic healing and dancing, folk art, stories like Brer Rabbit and Aunt Nancy (Anansi) belief and magic. These are often referred to as Afro-Caribbean religions. *Some* followers of these faiths identify as Pagans or associate with Pagan & metaphysical communities, others group themselves more with African Traditional Religions (ATRs)- some with both. Many also consider themselves to be Catholics, and would look at you strangely if you invited them to a Pagan Pride event!

Similarly in Central and South America, indigenous religious beliefs are often syncretized with Catholicism. It’s very interesting to watch how various Catholic officials in Latin American have reacted over time to manifestations of folk religion. La Virgen de Guadalupe, (who may be influenced by the Aztec goddess Tonantzin) is totally accepted as the patroness of Mexico. The cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death, a female Grim Reaper figure) on the other hand is greatly discouraged by the Church, but has many devoted followers who generally identify as Catholic.

Conversion of Europe- Messier than Your Sunday School Teacher said it was… Now, to be clear in contrast to the mass conversion of the Americas, Christianization in Europe was not necessarily the result of colonialism. It was nasty sometimes, but it didn’t go along with slavery and genocide to quite the same degree. Within the Roman Empire, colonialism and slavery were already there, Christianity was just a nice bonus. Outside the Empire, people typically became Christian because their king or chieftain said, “I’d love to be allies with you, neighboring Christian king- sure I’ll get baptized if that’s what it takes!” and then the peasants had to at least pay lip service to Christ, even if their heart wasn’t in it. Remember, for a good chunk of European history, in many places there was a lack of formal churches and trained clergy, and most people were not literate. So often people were mostly “Christian” politically, but on a daily basis in their little villages, they were praying and making offerings to spirits and ancestors- over time more Christian language was added, and gods became disguised as saints, so in many ways not so different than the later examples I gave in the so-called New World. Actually one way we often learn of various gods and holidays and customs, is from accounts written by clerics complaining about this or that awful pagan thing those ignorant peasants keep doing! We have to keep in mind that they may exaggerate and make it sound “worse” than it was (especially if they are trying to convince Rome to send more missionaries to someplace cold!) but still it’s kind of a ironically fun way of finding information!

So likewise, if you are researching European forms of polytheism, you will likely need to research local folk versions of Christianity in whatever country and region you are studying.

Questions for reflection (this is messy so there are really no “right or wrong” answers!

How does syncretic polytheism in the Roman Empire remind you (or not!) of modern cosmopolitan cultures?

Who of the different people(s) I discussed might consider themselves pagan, Pagan, Christian, Catholic or a member of an indigenous religion? Might they identify with more than one label? Can you be both pagan and Christian? Why or why not?

What examples of syncretic folk religion are you familiar with in your own life? (Could be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist etc)

Have you noticed differences in how religion was taught officially vs. how it was practiced at home? Did this cause any confusion for you growing up?

May 18, 2015 at 2:02 am 3 comments

Older Posts


Calendar

July 2020
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Posts by Month

Posts by Category