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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review - Carnival Row

There's been a lot of buzz since last year about amazon's series Carnival Row. The premise, as advertised, is a Victorian-esque world where fairies and humans live side by side with fairies mostly limited to a neighborhood called Carnival Row; a series of murders occurs which the main character is trying to solve. This is the summary of what we know going into the series, and obviously is the type of thing that appeals to me in general.

Carnival Row Title Card, fair use, source: wikipedia

I watched the entire 8 episode series through once and intend to rewatch it at some point but I've been asked a few times for my thoughts on it so I decided to write a short review here. I'll start with what I did like, then get into what I didn't, then what I found to be problematic. I am going to try to avoid spoilers here so this will be a bit short on plot details but it will include things specific to the series and world itself.

Let's begin with what I liked.
   The series is visually stunning and it's very clear that its budget was put to good use. The aesthetic is neo-noir steampunk throughout and I loved the gritty realism that was achieved in a show featuring various fairy beings. It seemed to go easy with the CGI which I also thought was a wonderful choice as in my opinion CGI is overused and often can take away rather than add to the quality of a piece. Practical effects when done well are always going to be more believable. The sets are perfect for the tone of each scene and the attention to detail in the background and costuming is wonderful.
   The acting is high quality for a serial piece, on par with the best of what's out there for anything else. The roles seem to be well cast and each player does a good job of embodying and conveying their particular character.
  The show takes on various serious 'real world' issues, particularly racism, xenophobia, and the impacts of war on populations. While I may argue it does so in an excessively heavy handed manner I do respect the attempt and liked that it wasn't afraid to go there. I also liked the, admittedly limited, inclusion of some diversity in characters sexual preferences and relationships.
   And finally I will say that, whatever criticism I'm about to give following this, I am happy to see more urban fantasy on television and reaching new audiences and I loved the idea of mashing up neo-noir, urban fantasy, and horror.

Now let's talk about what I didn't like.
  I feel that there is a serious lack of world building in the entire series. While it is true a person can read the bonus trivia with each episode to learn more in the actual episodes and overall series there is very little to no effort to explain what I consider important details about the world of Carnival Row. I mean basic things like what is the Burgue? Is Tirnanoc an island, nation, continent, what? It took me quite a while to figure out that this wasn't alternate earth but supposed to be an entirely different earth-like place and that's not a good sign. Also some serious plot holes that just annoyed me. For example, what did that sailor see since it obviously wasn't the actual big bad of the series? How did the library end up in the Burgue if the Pact took over that area before it was found? Can fae just not hold a gun? Are they technophobes? Because it seemed very strange that they never used any human tech to fight even when it meant their own kingdoms falling. I also had a serious issue with the final few episodes and why the main target wasn't actually targeted and killed when he should have been; the last victim made no sense and that whole section just felt like bad writing.
  Episode three was just oddly placed and disruptive, however necessary it was to fill in plot. I can understand why they chose not to begin with that episode then flash forward 7 years for the rest, but giving us two episodes 'present day' then a full episode 7 years in the past then back to everything present day just did not work for me personally.
  The plot itself is predictable to anyone who has read a lot of urban fantasy or high fantasy, and I was disappointed by that. As someone who probably reads far too much of those genres this meant the show felt like awkward self-insert fanfiction rather than anything refreshing or new. I have also read a lot of fanfic so I can usually feel the difference pretty quickly. The only original thing I found was the idea of fae without any real magic and that just seemed like an easy out to explain why humans had taken them over so easily.

And for the problematic.
   So. A key premise of Carnival Row is that fairies are real and live side by side with humans, in a place called 'the Burgue' in an alternate world that resembles ours during the Victorian era-ish. The fairies there are refugees from a different place which was overtaken by war, named in the series as 'Tirnanoc' and including places like Anoon and Mag More. The Fae folk themselves which we see in the show are primarily human-sized winged pixies, called pixies or fae, and Fauns, called 'Pucs', and Centaurs. Later in the show we will see kobolds depicted as squirrel sized animalistic beings, and trow which are kind of like the trolls in The Hobbit. A lot of this is purely invented, some is actual myth, and some is using names from actual folklore but for entirely new fictional creations. The series for some reason decided to blend equal parts pure fiction with names and places from existing Celtic (particularly Irish) mythology in a way that honestly makes the mythology parts look like fiction. There is also at least one place where the Irish language is used for the pixie characters language, when they refer to the human soldiers as 'faan-troigh' which I assume is Google translate minus the fada for 'wandering foot' [fán troigh]. For obvious reasons this genuinely angers me as it forwards the rewriting and warping of existing mythology, but also as writer Orla ní Dhuíll very rightly said in her recent piece 'Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish Is Discount Elvish' it is bad writing and lazy to simply shove some Irish or Irish myth in as a shorthand for fantasy.
I genuinely do not understand why the writer didn't just make it all up, rather than taking random bits from a few things to graft onto his fiction. It left a bad taste in my mouth. And for those who are shrugging this off as they read it please read Orla's article linked above and give this some serious thought. There are ways to incorporate myth and folklore into fiction and do it respectfully and well, or innovatively and well - I'd point you to Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, Peadar Ó Guilín, Ruth Frances Long, Ron C Neito, Kevan Manwaring among many others - but this is not that. This is furthering an appropriative approach that hurts the living material and culture and reshapes how mainstream culture understands these things. Irish folklore - and more widely material from other Celtic language cultures - are not just shortcuts to signal 'fantasy' to viewers or give something an exotic flavour.
   I also was very uncomfortable with the fact that most of the human characters were white and most of the people of colour were fae; except of course the lead(s). The only significant main character* who was human and a person of colour was the main antagonist, which is also clearly reinforcing some unfortunate stereotypes. Another secondary human character who was black and fairly significant was infected with a supernatural illness that made him, basically, a type of fae. While I hope that was a further attempt at social commentary it unfortunately plays into some ongoing issues that both Hollywood and fiction have struggled with in how people of colour are portrayed or included in work. This show failed the DuVernay test even with Tourmaline in my opinion and it's worth noting that the only points black characters interact with each other (twice in the whole series that I saw) it's a child talking to their father, and a very awkward tea time scene without any real direct dialogue between the black actors. Social commentary is valuable but not at the expense of forwarding already problematic tropes like the 'magical negro'.

Ultimately I neither loved nor hated the show. I think it had its good points and it also had its bad but I am still unhappy with the issues I mention here as problematic. Yes I am overly critical where folklore and myth are concerned but I enjoy a good suspension of disbelief and fun show as much as anyone. I liked Sirens and I enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; I even love Charmed which is the height of campy ridiculous television. But this is different and in 2019 we should expect better even from our fun entertainment.

*I will note in fairness there is another human character introduced late in the series played by an actress who is a person of colour and whose character is ambiguous. Nonetheless the majority of human characters are played by non-poc actors relative to the actors playing fae characters. In such a visually striking show this is notable.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Some Advice For Former Christians About Unpacking Christian Baggage

I've never made any secret that I wasn't raised Christian but rather grew up a secular agnostic, with all the fun of Santa and a magic chocolate delivering bunny. I actively got into paganism and witchcraft around the age of 11 or 12 and have been practicing since; I didn't make an effort to learn about Christianity until I was in my 20's. This gives me a different perspective on some things than people coming from a different background and sometimes that difference is more obvious than others. In particular it tends to be highlighted for me when I am accused of having Christian baggage - as I pointed out on my social media, if anything it would be more accurate to accuse me of non-initiatory Wiccan baggage - and also when I see particular ideas or concepts in paganism that do seem to be influences from the outside. I thought it might be helpful from this perspective to offer a couple suggestions for people coming from Christianity who are trying to let go of their former religion.

I want to preface this though by saying a few things first. I don't personally care if you syncretize your paganism or witchcraft with Christianity or any other monotheism. Syncretism has been going on forever. I also don't care if you personally actively blend Christianity into your beliefs and practices. Have at. Whatever works for you. What I do care about is people looking down on other people for the aspects of their former religion they may be unconsciously dragging along with them and the way that many people who converted to paganism from Christianity have come with preconceived notions that can be harmful to others. Particularly to others that don't share those ideas or ingrained assumptions.

The idea of 'Christian baggage' shouldn't be a pejorative used against people but something that you either choose to actively work with or actively overcome.

So. That said, here are some suggestions from an outsider for people coming into paganism from Christianity who want to be aware of what they are bringing with them. These are all based in my years of observing from the outside if you will and the things I have seen people focus on or be bothered by that baffle me, and which I assume then are shadows of their former belief system. These will not all apply equally and may not all matter equally to everyone and that's fine. But I do encourage people to give some serious thought to this.

  1. Don't jump to assume that everyone shares your own background and ingrained Christian associations due to growing up in a Western culture. There are some deeply ingrained cultural things that one can argue are rooted in Christian thought but in my experience the vast majority of things that former Christians assume affect non-Christians actually don't. If you are a former Christian instead of telling your never-Christian friends what you think must influence them, try listening to them instead when they talk about their own experiences. 
  2. Take time to reflect on how much you are centering Christianity in your own life, even as a pagan. In my experience this often occurs through people defining themselves as against their former religion, ie if they associate Christianity with prayer then as a pagan they don't pray, if they associate Christianity with submission to deity then they make a point of not kneeling or bowing to deity, if they associate Christianity with a personal connection to deity then they are vocally against such a thing in paganism. There is, of course, nothing wrong with preferring not to do or believe any of those things by choice but be aware of what is influencing that decision. But most if not all of these things can be found across world religions and in belief systems that predate Christianity including pagan ones. Be careful not to create a new spirituality that is simply the inverse of the old, which indicates that the old still has power over you
  3. On the other hand, be aware of how much you are shaping your paganism to look exactly like your former religion but with a Goddess instead of God. Just as you should be careful not to make a new faith that is based in animosity towards the former one you should also not strive to recreate the former one with new names slapped over the old (unless that's your goal). In either  this case or point #2 you are still keeping your old religion central in your life because everything you are doing is based on it one way or another. 
  4. Another step in decentering Christianity which I imagine will take longer is to work on not allowing it to still have power over you. Paul Huson's book Mastering Witchcraft addresses this by encouraging new witches to recite a Christian prayer backwards, something considered blasphemous. If you don't want to have any Christianity in your paganism but still feel wrong about doing certain things your new religion embraces or uncomfortable around some pagan imagery then you need to look at why that is. Basically while you should be able to be generally respectful towards any religion you shouldn't feel any more or less concerned with Christian myth, belief, or practice than you do with any other religion you don't follow. 
  5. Look at how often you use Christian mythology as examples for things or rely on Christian imagery. No, this is not just Western culture, this really is a reflection of Christian upbringing (with very few exceptions). If you aren't Christian why do you say 'damn it'? Why call on Jesus? Why use Christian theology or cosmology to explain concepts? (and yes people do this, because I have had to ask on many occasions to have something further explained because I don't know what the speaker was talking about).  I still don't understand what sin even is or the spiritual implications of forgiveness; Christianity has its own language of terms and idioms and these are not clear to people outside that sub-culture. It may take conscious effort at first but you can change the expressions you use to reflect your new spirituality.
  6. Don't assume Christianity is the default for everything. Yes Western culture tends to be majority Christian populations but the idea that this means Christian is the default is something I have only found in former Christians, perhaps because they were raised to believe that. As a non-Christian growing up I never assumed anyone's religion until they told me what it was, because why would I? 
  7. Don't shift Christian cosmology into paganism*. This may be more of a pet peeve, in fairness, but I'm seeing it more and more so I want to include it here. There is no pagan Heaven. There is no pagan Hell (except actual helheim which is something else entirely). The Gods don't save us, whatever that even means. 
A basic list here, and I'm sure it could be added to. I suppose it could all be summed up as 'look at how you are still centering Christianity in your life and find ways to stop doing that'. Obviously since I'm not coming from that background I am not the best one to offer ideas of the nitty-gritty how to there are even point out more in depth ways that former religions show up in new ones but hopefully this at least offers a start for those who want to shift entirely into something new. 

Editing to add: these points are specifically aimed at individuals trying to work through their own issues with their birth religion. Dealing with issues relating to wider cultural and institutionalized Christianity is a separate topic and one that does not fall under the purview of this article. While we may choose to root out these things within ourselves or not, looking at the wider impacts of cultural institutionalized Christianity often reveals problems and abuses that must be confronted en masse and resisted or over turned on equally wide scales. 

*unless of course you are syncretizing the two, but that's something totally different. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Ritual for the Heliacal Rising of the Pleiades

Continuing with our series of rituals for the cycle of the Pleiade we have arrived at the next one, the heliacal rising of the Pleiades after their conjunction with the sun. This marks the time when the stars are once again visible in the sky just before dawn and occurs now between June 18th and June 24th. I have roughed out a ritual that people can use if they'd like, in line with the others in the series. You can choose to do it early in the day, close to when when the Pleiades are in the sky now; you may also choose to celebrate the night before, perhaps including some midsummer traditions like a bonfire into your celebration. My own preference is to celebrate on the 23rd into the 24th, the liminal time just on the edge of both the end of the Pleiades rising and also the end of the solstice alignment. 
  As I mentioned in my previous post on 'A New Holy Day Cycle' this holiday acknowledges the return of the Pleiades to the sky after a 6 weeks absence. I have been calling it the The Return of the Queens, or the Returning. My own personal mythology around this event ties it strongly to the previous holiday where the Queens travelled out into our world, symbolized by the loss of the stars from the night sky. Now we see them returning from their travels, leaving our world to return to their own. When the star-fire that is the Pleiades returns to the night sky the Queens have returned to their celestial Courts, figuratively speaking.  This ritual also acknowledges another sacred star, Aldebaran, part of the constellation of Taurus which has been tied to the mythology of the Pleiades in many cultures. Aldebaran appears to follow the Pleiades through the sky - hence the meaning of the name in Arabic - but I call it the Hunter, after one of the liminal Gods in fairy witchcraft. In this case of course he isn't hunting the 7 queens but protecting them as they travel across the sky. 
 I have tried to keep this ritual fairly similar in outline and flow to the other ones, to help with the continuity. I will use a similar format in all of the rituals for this series.   

Find a good space open beneath the sky. If this is not possible due to weather concerns try to set up an altar near a window or perhaps arrange some appropriate artwork near your ritual space. However if necessary this entire thing can be done as a visualization exercise. My own outdoor altar for ritual work usually contains space for offerings, water in an appropriate container, candles, and a token representing the Fairy Queen I honour.
Bring some food to offer, perhaps honey cakes, and clean water to pour out.
Create sacred space as you see fit if you wish to. I usually do this now by moving counterclockwise around my space sprinkling water and chanting to open the way between worlds. There is no right or wrong here as long as you aren't warding out the same spirits you are trying to invite in, so go with whatever you feel most connected to as a method.
Invite in any Powers you wish to but remember this is not a ritual for named Gods unless they are explicitly associated with the Good People of one culture or another. This is a time to invite any goodly inclined spirits, allies, Fairy Queens or Kings in. We invite, we don't invoke, evoke, or compel. They either come as we call or they don't.
I might say something like: "I call to all goodly inclined spirits, spirits of the land, spirits of the air, Fair Folk who would be my friends, Friendly ones who aid my liminal path, Fairy Queens and Kings, My wonderous Lady ---, Queen of stone and well, I invite you all to join me here As I honour the journey Of the Queens and the Return of the stars" You can tailor this initiation as suits you and whatever Queen or Spirit you are calling.
After this is done wait a moment and observe. Use all your senses to note if there is any perceptible response to your call. This may be obvious, such as the wind picking up or the temperature changing, or it may be a more subtle feeling of presence.  Don't rush but wait until things feel settled before moving on.
Say: "Today the Seven Queens return to the sky
Moving from daylight to darkness Rejoining the stars, proceeding
The great guarding light of the Hunter*
Their bright blue fire a blazing torch
a beacon in the predawn night sky
a new cycle begins in the growing darkness
As they tread again the celestial path
The gates are open, may
 They be opened wider
The Queens look upon the land
May they bless what they see"

Put out the offerings you have brought and pour out a bit of water.
"I offer sweet honey cakes [or whatever you are offering]
And pure, clean water
To the Queens
To the Good Neighbours
To those beings that
would aid me
to the spirits of air
and of earth"

At this point if there is anything else you would like to do in your ritual - sing, dance, chant, divination, meditate, journey - do it. When you feel ready to say goodbye, say:
"The 7 Queens return to the sky
The Queens have travelled our world
And return again to their own
Standing in the space between
Our worlds are intertwined
As they have been and will be
Praise to the Queens,
May they bless us
A good word to the Fair Folk
May they cause us no harm"
Pour out the water that is left. Say
"May my words praise the Queens
May may actions show respect to the Good Folk
May my allies stand with me
May there be peace between me
And the spirits of the air and earth
May there be friendship between me
And all goodly inclined spirits."
Take down your compass/circle or sacred space however you normally would. In my case here I'd walk it clockwise sprinkling a bit of earth or leaves and asking that the space be returned to its former state. Take down your altar. Leave the offerings out. Perhaps take a moment to stop and listen, look, feel the energy around you. See if there is anything worth noting or any sense of presence. 
Ritual Feast
Part of my own celebration will include a feast or ritual meal. This is inline with some older practices that would incorporate ritual feasting into the celebration of holy days. My plan is to have a special meal featuring fresh vegetables and fruits, and ideally anything that could be wild gathered or otherwise harvested this time of year (obviously that would vary greatly by region). A portion of that meal will be set aside and then left out as an additional offering. I will also take omens about 12 hours after the ritual to get a feel for how things went and the wider energy going on.  
If the theories and previous experiences with these rituals hold true then the time of the heliacal rising should be one of intense energy and potential interaction with the Otherworld. Even though we are celebrating it as a time when the Queens are returning to the Courts, symbolized by the return of the Pleiades to the night sky, this isn't an instantaneous switch - just like the summer solstice marks a pivotal point where the daylight starts to wane slowly, the heliacal rising marks the point when the Pleiades begin to shift back into the night from the day but this is a process. They will not be fully in the night, from dusk until dawn, until the culmination in November.  

*Aldebaran 'the follower' also called the eye of the bull for its position in Taurus. Aligned in fairy witchcraft to the Hunter. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Q & A With My Fiction

I'm still working on the next book in my fiction series, progress being slowed by several other contracted projects that have deadlines. But I thought it would be fun here to do a question and answer on social media for my fiction, to tackle any and all question people might have about my 'Between the Worlds' series.

The following may contain spoilers for those who haven't read the books or have only read the first couple.

Vyviane asks: Who is your favourite non-main character to write about?

My answer: Probably Jason although I must admit that Salarius aka Sal is also one that I enjoy a lot more than I expected to. That's probably why he keeps hanging around.

Mara asks: When will we get more about Allie's mom?

My answer: I'm currently working on book 8 which is an anthology that will include a story about Allie's mother. She is also going to show up in book 9 (which I hope to write this November) where we'll see more of her interacting with Allie and (hopefully) get a better idea of how the two courts interact with each other.

Izzy asks: Where is Ciaran from? How did he end up in Ashwood?

My answer: Ciaran is originally from Scotland but he emigrated in the 17th century after being forced to make a promise to leave his original home. He was in Ashwood before the Sundering and decided to stay even though he doesn't particularly like either the elves or the world of Fairy. He has always been the sort who lived largely in mortal earth and he dislikes the structure and rules of Fairy society. As to why Ashwood - he just liked that particular pond and that area enough to decide to settle there; it suited his needs at the time.

Vyviane asks: What are some things our elves that live in human world now really enjoying and they won't admit it? Like does Bleidd eat Fruit Loops?

My answer: Bleidd really enjoys driving cars and has a bit of an obsession with sports cars, which he won't admit because they are human made. He's actually much better with every aspect of automobiles than other elves and has even adapted some magic to them beyond the basic protection enchantments the Guard uses. Being careful about the iron he can handle most car maintenance himself and even manage some more complex repairs. 
Jessilaen has developed a love of human movies, particularly horror movies which he watches with Jason who is a huge horror movie fan. Otherwise he is still fairly new to human culture, which he finds a bit baffling and often confusing. He does admit to loving the movies but he doesn't realize humans see them, usually, as low budget affairs; he views them as 'art' and is impressed by modern human methods of storytelling which we would call b movies. He also has a significant obsession with christmas trees.

Izzy asks: What were Jess and his brother like as children? Were they children together?

My answer: Zarethyn was a very focused child who spent a lot of time working on his magical skill. He wanted to join the Elven Guard from a young age and put a lot of energy into working towards that goal. That ambition and drive is why he is now a captain. Jess has always been, well Jess. He is often easy going with things that don't matter to him but has an intensity of emotion that marks him as unusual among his peers. He is passionate in a culture that looks down on excessive emotional expressions. Jess as a child had more difficulty hiding his feelings and was prone to acting on impulse, something that he can still sometimes struggle with. He is fiercely loyal but it is his heart that drives him, whereas his brother is ruled by his head.
Zarethyn is significantly older than Jess and was an adult when Jess was born. This isn't unusual in Elven society but from a human perspective we might say that he was more of a father to Jess than a brother. Jess loves him unquestioningly and Jess is probably the most significant person in Zarethyn's life (because most of his focus is on his job).

Aleja asks: Are there any other half-elven people in town?

My answer: A few, such as the girl named Jenny mentioned in book 2 'Lost in Mist and Shadow'.  It's more common in Allie's world to see people who have one human parent and one non-elven fey parent because the elves are unlikely to spend more than one night with a person while they fey may form longer relationships or even marry humans, but there are cases like Allie's were a human and elf manage to produce a child together. Usually if the mother is human the child is raised in the human world and may not even know who their fey parent is, because of their approach to fatherhood. If the mother is elven however they would be raised in Fairy and, as Allie notes in the story, because the elves don't have any exceptions for these circumstances a half-elven person with an elven mother would be considered fully elven, while one with a human mother falls into a strange greyzone culturally and is often viewed differently.
Because the Sundering took place in 1914 there are also a small number of second generation mixed blooded people, who may have a single human or fey grandparent.

Izzy asks: What do Jess and Bleidd do when they are hanging out together?

My answer: When the two are alone together it varies between things that would be typical in Elven society or human society. Jess's comfort zone is the elven society things, which may include playing chess, reading, talking, or practicing various skills together (in their case mostly martial). Bleidd sometimes pushes him to engage more with human culture, which Bleidd enjoys at least superficially, and so they also watch movies together, walk around Ashwood, and sometimes play video games with or without Jason. Elves are suckers for games of skill of any type by the way.

Vyviane asks: Are you going to branch out from Between The Worlds and write some new fiction? If so, what are your interest?

My answer: I plan to do another book or two in the same world as Between the Worlds but with different characters. I also have some ideas for fantasy storylines. Ultimately I enjoy writing fiction and when this series wraps up, likely with book 9, I'm sure I'll have other things to write about.

Miscellaneous: I had several people ask about the characters musical tastes, i.e. Vyviane wanted to know if anyone listened to pop music, Mara asked if Jess listens to Taylor Swift, and Izzy wanted to know if Jason listened to Hatebreed. So to answer that in one place:

My answer: So, as it happens elves are not big fans of digital music or the radio because the tech in Allie's world is about on par with our world in the 1990's and the sound quality isn't good enough for them - basically their hearing is acute enough that even decent quality human recordings sound flat and false to them. You'll note the antagonist in book 7 complaining about the music in the club he went to. They prefer live music as much as possible. That said Jess likes music that is upbeat and which one can dance to, although he does generally prefer instrumental music. He's the sort that always listens to the lyrics and feels them if you know what I mean. Bleidd does like rock of any sort but prefers it live; he has been to several concerts by alternative and heavy metal bands with Jason and Syndra and he enjoyed the experience.
Jason likes heavy metal so yes we can say he listens to Hatebreed, in canon. But if anyone in these stories had a secret obsession with Taylor Swift it would also be Jason. He's multifaceted. 
Allie won't ever admit it but she feels the same way about recorded music that the elves do, for the same reason. Nonetheless at work she listens to the radio, a general pop station, which is the only station that comes in in Ashwood. Her own preferences are wildly eclectic and she can enjoy everything from classical to neofolk.

When is the next book coming out?
I'm hoping to have it done and released within the next few months. Its been taking a lot longer than I anticipated because of other obligations, and I apologize for that. It is getting done, just slowly.
I plan to write book #9, the next full length novel in the series, in November and have it out early 2020. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Cautions For Pagans Who Want to Honour the Fae Folk

My friend Seo Helrune has recently been blogging about ancestor cultus and I recommend checking out the series of posts they have out so far. Reading the series and especially their take on the pitfalls of ancestor veneration has inspired me to write my own post here about the problems that can come up for pagans incorporating the Fair Folk into their practices or who are trying to set up the equivalent of a cult for them.

Some of these points may seem obvious or self evident but they are all things I have run across, more than once, from various people. Clearly those people would disagree with what I'm about to say. I'm saying it anyway. This can be understood though as my personal opinion based on my own study and experience, but I stand by them.

So, if you want to incorporate the Good People into your pagan or witchcraft practice, here's some things I'd be aware of:

Lack of Boundaries - I'm repeating Seo Helrune to start but I think this one is an important one. Many, many people seem to approach dealing with the Fair Folk as if they are harmless, kind, higher beings* who only mean us well and therefore should be given carte blanche in a person's life. And I'm sure there are certain types of spirits and even some kinds of fairies that do fall into the 'harmless and helpful' category. But not all of them by far. And it is really dangerous to just offer a blanket invitation to anything and everything Otherworldly because you think they won't hurt you and are all sweetness and light - or they won't hurt you because you are a witch and that somehow offers you special protection. It doesn't. Boundaries and warding are not only your friend but are absolutely essential.
However tempted you are to just freely invite in anything you perceive as a fairy because its a fairy, really don't do this. At the least treat them like you would a human being, with appropriate caution until you have a sense of who and what they are.

Animism =/= the Fairy Faith - Well, not directly anyway. I'm increasingly seeing this direct equating of the Fairy Faith and animism and its concerning. It's kind of like saying Witchcraft equals Wicca. This is of course partially true because the Fairy Faith can and does easily incorporate into animism. But animism isn't the exact same thing as the Fairy Faith and that's an important distinction that has to be made. Animism is simply a term for a belief in an enspirited world. The Fairy Faith is the system of beliefs and practices around fairies and the 'practices' part is an essential aspect to it; despite the faith part of the name it isn't just believing that Otherworldly spirits exist. You can say that animism is part of the Fairy Faith but the Fairy Faith isn't synonymous with animism. If you want to incorporate the beliefs and practices of the Fairy Faith into your paganism cool but just be careful not to blur the lines and start to assume that the practices are also a hallmark of animism. Animism is really diverse and not limited to the western European/Celtic fairy faith practices.

We Don't Worship Fairies - We may worship deities associated with Fairy, including the Tuatha De Danann who are also said to be Kings and queens of Fairy hills, but we don't worship fairies in general. I think part of this confusion may come in because we do offer things to them and give them a reverential respect. Or atavistic fear. We offer to them to keep on their good side and to avert potential harm. We offer to them not because we worship them but because they are owed a portion of the harvest, and also its a pretty effective way to appease anything that's annoyed. We respect them because they can and will impact our lives for good or ill if we don't. But we don't worship them the way other religions worship Gods. It's a nuance but its an important one.

Fairies Aren't...A Lot Of The Things People Say They Are - There's massive confusion about what the Good Folk are, which is fair because it's a confusing subject. I mention this because I see a lot of people who try to incorporate fairies into their practice by pigeonholing them into a specific narrow category, usually nature spirits, elementals, or some kind of earth angel. This is really problematic because then the person moves forward as if all fairies are only and entirely that narrow thing. Which of course they aren't. So another big tip to moving forward in creating a practice with the Good Folk is acknowledging the diversity and that while you personally may only or by preference interact with a small specific group there is actually a lot of other possibilities out there.

We Don't Rule Over Them - Listen I'm just going to be blunt here I am immediately skeptical anytime I see a person claiming to be in a position of power over the Good People. Especially if its implied that position is based on caretaking in some sense. They don't need us to care for them. The meme that goes around in december talking about christmas trees being based in a tradition of bringing a tree in to give a forest spirit a warm place in the cold is total crap. The people who talk about being in charge of fairies in a certain place or of leading a group of fairies? I'm not buying it. There are methods based in ceremonial magic to command, compel, or bind fairies that's true but that doesn't grant a human rank or inherent authority over the Fair Folk. There are also cases of humans with fairy familiars but again the human doesn't have authority over that being - in fact usually the fairy was assigned to the human by the Fairy Queen and one might argue they are there in part to keep an eye on the human.

Respect Matters - Probably tied into most of the other points above, but another big mistake I see many people making is a simple lack of respect. The majority of these beings aren't twee 20th century flower fairies or the goofy fairies found in modern kids tv shows. These are beings who have been shown a level of respect for thousands of years because they can seriously mess a human up. They won't all do that and some kinds are more benign than others as was mentioned but, many can and will bring illness, madness, maiming, or death sometimes for no other reason that it amuses them to. Take the Slua Sidhe for one example of that. If you want to interact with these beings safely on any level then respect is vital. Even if you feel like you have a group you deal with that is of the small harmless sort don't forget they aren't all like that and don't let your guard down or drop the company manners.

Effort Matters Too - Far too many people jump into fairywork with no deeper knowledge about fairies than the plot of their favourite young adult novel or game and they never go any further. They treat it all like a game as well, making things up as they go along based on what they personally like or feel like doing. The truth is if you as a pagan or witch want to seriously get into this it is going to take some effort. There are good books and blogs out there to be found (avoid any that hit on the points already mentioned) and there are good youtube videos and podcasts. If you are going to get into this any deeper than knowing what to do and not to do to keep from getting maimed then you are going to have to put effort in. Lots of effort. There's no other way.

Well, that's some of my cautions and suggestions anyway. Do with them as you will.

*I'm not going to compare them to angels here because I read the Bible and angels are really scary.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Conjunction of the Pleiades: The Darkening

We are moving forward in the year and I am continuing to frame out a series of rituals for the cycle of the Pleiades. We have arrived at the next one, the conjunction with the sun which occurs around old Bealtaine (mid-May) - this year on May 14th. I have roughed out a ritual that people can use if they'd like. I'd recommend doing it during the day, when the sun is up as this is also when the Pleiades are in the sky now. 
  As I mentioned in my previous post on 'A New Holy Day Cycle' this holiday is the time when the Pleiades disappear from the sky for the next 6 weeks. I have been calling it the Darkening. My own personal mythology around this event is about the Queens travelling out. When the star-fire that is the Pleiades disappears from the night sky the Queens have parted ways and left their Courts. Maybe they are travelling on earth. Maybe they are searching for something. Maybe they are sowing change or strife or beginnings or endings. They each have their own agendas.  I call the 7 Queens by titles:  Queen of the Greenwood, Queen of the Wind, Queen of the Wave, Queen of Winter, Queen of Flame, Queen of Horns, and the Crane Queen. 
 I have tried to keep this ritual fairly similar in outline and flow to the other one, to help with the continuity. I will use a similar format in all of the rituals for this series.   

Find a good space open beneath the sky where you can see the sun above you. If this is not possible due to weather concerns try to set up an altar near a window or perhaps arrange some appropriate artwork near your ritual space. If necessary this entire thing can be done as a visualization exercise. My own outdoor altar for ritual work usually contains space for offerings, water in an appropriate container, candles, and a token representing the Fairy Queen I honour.
Bring some food to offer, perhaps honey cakes, and clean water to pour out.
Create sacred space as you see fit if you wish to. I usually do this now by moving counterclockwise around my space sprinkling water and chanting to open the way between worlds.
Invite in any Powers you wish to. This is not a ritual for named Gods unless they are explicitly associated with the Good People of one culture or another. This is a time to invite any goodly inclined spirits, allies, Fairy Queens or Kings in. We invite, we don't invoke, evoke, or compel. They either come as we call or they don't.
I might say something like:
"I call to all goodly inclined spirits,
spirits of the land, spirits of the air,
Fair Folk who would be my friends,
Friendly ones who aid my liminal path,
Fairy Queens and Kings,
My wonderous Lady ---,
Queen of stone and well,
I invite you all to join me here
As I honour the journey
Of the Queens and
the Darkening of the stars"
You can tailor this initiation as suits you and whatever Queen or Spirit you are calling.

After this is done wait a moment and observe. Use all your senses to note if there is any perceptible response to your call. This may be obvious, such as the wind picking up or the temperature changing, or it may be a more subtle feeling of presence.  Don't rush but wait until things feel settled before moving on.
"Today the Seven Queens leave the sky
Leaving darkness for day
Separating to their own paths
Their powers burn as brightly
Whether they stand together or apart
But our world is fuller for their presence
They ride out for good and ill
Between worlds, between time
The gates are open, may
They be opened wider
The Queens look upon the land
May they bless what they see"

Put out the offerings you have brought and pour out a bit of water.
"I offer sweet honey cakes [or whatever you are offering]
And pure, clean water
To the Queens
To the Good Neighbours
To those beings that
would aid me
to the spirits of air
and of earth"

At this point if there is anything else you would like to do in your ritual - sing, dance, chant, divination, meditate, journey - do it. When you feel ready to say goodbye, say:
"The 7 stars have left the sky
The Queens ride across the land
Our worlds are intertwined
As they have been and will be
Praise to the Queens,
May they bless us
A good word to the Fair Folk
May they cause us no harm"
Pour out the water that is left. Say
"May my words praise the Queens
May may actions show respect to the Good Folk
May my allies stand with me
May there be peace between me
And the spirits of the air and earth
May there be friendship between me
And all goodly inclined spirits."
Take down your compass/circle or sacred space however you normally would. In my case here I'd walk it clockwise sprinkling a bit of earth or leaves and asking that the space be returned to its former state. Take down your altar. Leave the offerings out. Perhaps take a moment to stop and listen, look, feel the energy around you. See if there is anything worth noting or any sense of presence. 
Ritual Feast
Part of my own celebration will include a feast or ritual meal. This is inline with some older practices that would incorporate ritual feasting into the celebration of holy days. My plan is to have a special meal featuring fresh vegetables and fruits, fish, and ideally anything that could be wild gathered this early (obviously that would vary greatly by region). A portion of that meal will be set aside and then left out as an additional offering. I will also take omens about 12 hours after the ritual to get a feel for how things went, the wider energy, and the next 6 weeks.  
If the theories behind these rituals hold true then the time between the conjunction and the heliacal rising should be intense energetically and represent a time of changes, good or bad, of endings and beginnings, and of increased Otherworldly activity. 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Priesthood in Service to the Other - Part 3: the trouble with terms

I began this series inspired by conversations I was seeing in the wider pagan community about clergy. I felt that it would be good to add my voice into this as someone who serves a different role but one which has been identified as a 'priestess' and willingly took on that word and its associations. This has opened a fascinating dialogue on social media that has given me a lot of insight about how other people perceive the ideas of clergy and priesthood in contrast to my own existing ideas. This dialogue has affirmed certain things for me and also made me reassess other things.

In part 3 I'd like to look at some of the things I've learned about the way the ideas of clergy are viewed, how those really don't apply to me (quite frankly) and discuss the difficulty that we face in witchcraft and paganism seeking accurate terms and labels for things we do. And yes, as much as we might not want to have to deal with them, labels really are useful and even necessary in interacting with others.

Crossroads at Derreen Gardens, co Cork, Ireland
So, confession. I wasn't raised Christian and while I studied Christianity later as an adult I don't have the best grasp on its nuances. In point of fact I wasn't raised with any formal religion but with a loose secular agnosticism. Because of this my understanding of the words 'clergy' and 'priesthood' come from a wider view of the words as they are used across world religions and the dictionary definitions; this is well enough in itself but it does lack the nuanced associations that come with understanding a word in specific contexts.
  After my first post about priesthood in service to the Other there were several comments made across social media where people were, from my perspective, reading in different things to what I'd said than I had intended. This came from the disconnect between my admittedly simple use of the words versus the way people who have grown up using the terms think of them. There were assumptions that I was implying an authority for myself over other human beings or that I was trying to make myself seem special. My understanding of what clergy was implied that they would only have authority of those specific people who chose to adhere to that religious tradition - a catholic priest doesn't have authority over Baptists, and an Imam wouldn't have authority over Sikhs. By my logic I didn't think anyone would assume I had any authority over other humans, which as far as I'm concerned I don't. I will advise people, I will answer people's questions, I will teach. In extreme circumstances I might intervene directly. But as I once said to some friends in the context of a Fairy Ball (riffing off the idea of a designated driver) "I am no one's designated dark court fairy". In other words I'm not responsible for other people's safety or fate in relation to the Good Folk. I have no spiritual authority over human beings and I don't want any.
I also want to clarify, since this also seemed to have caused some confusion, that my service may in part involve teaching and relaying messages but I am in no way the voice of the Other. That is impossible. No one person can speak for the Other in toto and I wouldn't trust anyone who claimed otherwise. Also while I may speak of the Other generally I am tied to a very specific group and that is where my service lies; I may have some knowledge or experience with those outside that group but my focus is specific in practice not general.

 I used the term clergy because it's a nice gender neutral term that seemed to loosely fit - by the dictionary definition of clergy* - and its one that's used in often enough in neopaganism. To say clergy or priest is something that people understand and there is an ease in that. I do create and share rituals for Themselves, and I do in some circumstances engage in group ceremonies. I was proclaimed a priestess of the aos sidhe in a ritual setting, which was one of the most profound moments of my life and feel obligated to acknowledge that. So there are aspects of the words that I did feel applied to me and which I associated with.
However the conversation which ensued after the initial blog highlighted an aspect of the term clergy that doesn't fit what I do at all. I'm starting to realize that the English words clergy and priest might not be adequate even though they are the default equivalents. I admit I was missing nuances with the words which many people clearly inherently associate with them. Its fascinating to see the layers and life the terms take on even in neopaganism because of external assumptions beyond the dictionary meanings.

In short as I explained in part 2 there are specific ways that I serve the Other - and I am not unique in this. I know other people who do the same or similar and I firmly believe They are increasingly active in the human world and seeking people to connect to, including witches. Some of the ways that I serve them do overlap with aspects of priesthood, although perhaps not enough for me to continue using the word; I am currently debating whether I will or not. I am really grateful for the discussion that was opened up by these posts and how much its made me think - I would much rather use these terms consciously than by default.

ruins of a porridge house, Ireland, 2018

If I decide not to use clergy or priesthood what then would I call what I do? I am a witch of course but that is such a broad word as to be almost meaningless without further context applied. In specific I'm a bantúaithech but most people aren't familiar with that older Irish term - it doesn't exist in modern Irish. It does describe my witchcraft much better though with its connotations of the Good Folk and of tuathail movement. There are a few modern Irish terms that partially fit what I do but firstly I don't want to apply cultural terms to myself that were usually given by community members (not self labelled) and also even these specific terms don't fully fit. Most are meant with the intent of a person who serves the human community by intervening and mitigating harm caused by the Other. As my friend Steve rightly pointed out, my actual purpose is "primarily to keep [humans] from annoying the Other" and he's not wrong there, although there's some additional layers as well. 

The term for what I do in relation to the Daoine Maithe, as they told me, is echlach (modern irish eachlach). It means an attendant and also a courier or messenger. I've been hesitant to use this generally in part because I know most Americans won't understand it at all, and in part because I'm not sure I should use a modern Irish term for myself (just not wanting to seem presumptuous). There is no easy English equivalent though and there's a...shall we say...humorous or humbling double meaning built into eachlach that can't be conveyed in English.
The Good Folk have a sharp sense of humour.

So I don't know if I should use the term echlach, or not, or bantuáithech, or try to find another term that accurately defines what I do for Themselves in context. I have yet to find any English language word that is close at all. I hesitate to use the Irish but perhaps I need to accept that Irish is the only place to find the accuracy I want. There will always be situations where priestess will be the default because people do understand it better although I think I may avoid clergy and priest now due to the nuances so many people have for the words. In the same way I default to neopaganism to define my community although that too may be more habit and comfort than accuracy. 

As our community moves forward I think these discussions are important and we do need to work out for ourselves what words we are going to use for the varying roles we fill. This is an ongoing conversation and I am looking forward to continuing to explore these concepts and terms. I have really appreciated the  feedback and diverse points of view being shared with me. 

*clergy - a person ordained to perform sacred or ceremonial functions in a religion

Friday, May 10, 2019

Priesthood in Service to the Other - Part 2: My practice

So having written more abstractly about what I think being clergy to the Others is like in contrast to being clergy to the human community I felt like maybe I should follow that up with a bit of a more personal take on it. A discussion of what being that sort of clergy actually means in my life.
Again this is reflective of my own personal experiences and may not apply over to other people. Nonetheless I feel like sharing it may be helpful not only to illustrate what this sort of clergy actually can be but also for other people doing this same thing.

Me, an Cheathrú Chaol, 2016

I want to state at the beginning that this is not something I actually encourage people to do, although I think the Other is recruiting at this point. It is not easy or light work, and while it comes with blessings it also is a full life commitment. It changes you. It changes you physically and it changes you on deeper levels and I can't emphasize this enough. I think many people either underrate of downplay this aspect of service to Themselves when it needs to be highlighted.
Cave pulchro populo.

I will also state up front that the words clergy and priest are not the best fit for what I actually do - that would be echlach^ - but they are the closest words in modern pagan parlance.

There's a reason that I only-half-jokingly call myself the Fairy Propaganda Department*. A big part of what I am tasked to do is to carry messages and to spread information. Good information. Information grounded in actual folklore and genuine living belief, as opposed to modern fiction and fancy detached from belief. This means a lot of research, a lot of paying attention and respecting the cultures - particularly Ireland - where these beliefs are rooted and still found as they have been. It means knowing when to listen to others who know more and how to evaluate what is quality information and what isn't. It means sharing native voices and raising awareness of those people in Irish (or Welsh, or Scottish, etc.,) culture that are writing and talking about the older beliefs and keeping them alive. And it also means writing about and speaking about these things myself, and speaking up in cases where the misinformation out there is egregious and really needs to be addressed. Whether I want to speak up or not. What I've found is a lot of emphasis from them on people shedding the twee ideas and returning to older beliefs, those that are more respectful and even those that include fearing them. They don't want to be viewed as inconsequential or harmless, but want people to remember their power and what true awe is.
I am also sometimes asked to share more personal things I am told, what would be termed personal gnosis. This might include sharing a recipe from a dream which they wanted shared or a method of cleansing. I actually don't like sharing my own personal gnosis especially in open formats but this is something they insist on. They want certain things brought forward and sometimes I have to do that.

As their clergy I have sometimes acted as an intermediary between humans who are having issues with Them, and Them. In those cases my purpose is usually to identify the problem going on and help the humans to realize what they need to do to fix it. I do know how to do things like exorcizing them from a person or place, or curing elfshot, but I see these as last resorts in extreme circumstances. My role is to serve Them and help advocate for Them, not to protect the human community in general.

Another aspect of my own service is to create rituals that help facilitate their presence in the human world, and to help ground them here. I believe this is in order to reclaim places and space where their influence has been eroded. Seo Helrune wrote eloquently about this in their blog 'Restoration not Reenchantment' and I recommend giving it a thorough read. This is an issue anywhere that the Good Folk once held sway and were driven out but also can be felt in places where they may not have been initially but have moved into with the people they are connected to. I have removed iron from trees and spaces they claim or wanted to claim and I've undone energy that they were averse to, when and where I could. I've also unburdened fairy trees of rubbish in the guise of 'rags'** tied to them that was harming them - I can't not do this because preserving these trees which are sacred to Themselves is part of what I have to do.

And of course I make offerings to them. I could include that as part of my clergy service I suppose. I do make offerings as well on behalf of other humans and sometimes even to try to mitigate things done by humans. for example I once went out the site of a fire started by a carelessly tossed cigarette and did what I could to soothe the anger of the spirits there. I also will sometimes act on behalf of a group for the Othercrowd, usually for safe passage or a safe visit in a specific place.

None of the above are contingent upon my mood or feelings. I have had to do things whether or not I wanted to, and I have had to do them when I was sick and would really, really rather not. I realize how ominous that sounds, but here's the thing - at least when it comes to me but I suspect in general - when you agree to this particular service you are committing to doing what you are required to do. I agreed to be Their clergy and that means I agreed to do what they need done. Not if I want to or if I feel like it, but if they need it done.

There are prohibitions that come with this type of priesthood and they aren't negotiable. There are places I can't go and if I edge into violating that, there are real world tangible consequences. I have told the story before about the dietary restrictions so all I will mention again here is that I have had to give up two of my favourite things - coffee and chocolate - because they decided I should not have them. Why? I suspect the caffeine, which a friend suggested may interfere with connecting to them. They don't hesitate to remind me of the control they have over my body and my life, which again sounds ominous, but is a reality.  My hair isn't straight anymore, my life isn't my own anymore - if it ever really was.

It's also worth mentioning that They are possessive. They are possessive of their places and their trees and anything else that they claim, including people. Shortly after I was fully claimed by them my ties to the Gods I'd been dedicated to began to shift and within six months the first had fallen away; within a year everything else was either gone or changed so that they were my main focus. They had always been in my life, since childhood, but before always as part of a larger whole. After my initiation they became the whole.

I also want to once again emphasize that this priesthood in no way makes me special or exceptional. It's important to know your own worth and not too be too humble but I'm going to emphasize this aspect precisely because I see so many people in relation to the Othercrowd who tend to put themselves in aggrandized positions. The Good Neighbours are not impressed with us, in my experience, and they don't play to our egos unless they are playing a game - one I discourage anyone from engaging in. The Fairy Queen that I serve and the wider group of Daoine Uaisle that I am connected to are clear they need me for certain purposes and that I do have value to Them but the Queen's nickname for me, as I have mentioned previously, translates to 'maid servant' and the actual title she gave me is older Irish for messenger or courier. While its true that there's lots of historic precedent for the Fairy Queens and Kings taking human lovers (yes that happens in folklore and anecdotes) this doesn't indicate that those humans were actually special - just the opposite actually it was common enough to indicate that the human probably wasn't particularly special but may have filled some interchangeable ritual or cosmological role.

I feel very blessed to be doing what I am doing and there are good aspects of it, but it is also very difficult. I've had experiences that people wouldn't believe if I told them, although at least I have witnesses sometimes - like that time we were travelling and I made some offerings at a fance only to have a fairy ring appear at the spot the next morning. Or the time I pushed a prohibition and went into a cemetery only to find my car wouldn't start; only when I finally acknowledged that I was edging close to breaking that prohibition and promised not to do so again did the car finally start (after I'd called the tow truck of course). Much of the time when I open up about my actual service to Them and the experiences I can share I feel like other people will think I am crazy, and perhaps that's why I have such fondness for the song Bedlam Boys. This is not the romantic, idealized service to the Fair Folk that some people describe but a gritty, painful, wonderful obligation. And I wouldn't trade it for anything, despite the cost.

^modern Irish eachlach. There are two definitions, and while its the messenger/attendant one that applies I'm not going to argue with the second meaning either.
*I'm not alone in this position however. We are a growing department.
** I mean literal rubbish here not legitimate rags. The rag tree tradition is an important cultural practice that has sadly been misunderstood and misused, particularly by tourists. The result is that the material tied to the trees is often not the biodegradable fabric it's supposed to be but plastic and man made materials that will kill the tree. Rags are also tied to trees that aren't even properly rag trees, but rather any tree that people randomly decide must be special in some way.

Priesthood in Service to the Other - Part 1: The wide view

Recently I've seen a lot of discussion about what exactly pagan priesthood is and should be, which is a good thing. This is a topic that needs to be discussed more often and more thoroughly in a community where many people clamour for the title but fewer are perhaps willing or equipped to do the actual work. John Beckett has written about pagan priesthood in several blogs including 'Preparing for Pagan Priesthood' and 'The Limits of Accessibility for Pagan Clergy' and Lora O'Brien has an entire book coming out this fall on the subject: 'A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood'. These are all vital aspects of the ongoing conversation and I sincerely hope that they move the wider understanding of modern pagan clergy forward.

From my own perspective, admittedly as someone raised a bit feral and without structured religion, it has often seemed to me that Pagan priesthood today is heavily modeled after Christian clergy. There is an ingrained idea that a single person can or does serve all roles - ritualist, teacher, counselor, mediator between humans and spirits, magician, organizer. I don't often see the idea of pagan priesthood specializing, or the acknowledgement that a single person may not be equipped to handle all aspects of such service. There's also a pervasive sense that the clergy person may be serving the Gods or spirits but is primarily serving the human community and in place to aid that human community and to help it grow and flourish in its spirituality.

I am not part of that kind of priesthood, although clergy I certainly am.

I can obviously only speak for myself here so I'm not trying to make any blanket statements for everyone who may feel they are clergy serving the Other* and whose experiences differ from my own. Hopefully other voices will add themselves to this discussion and a fuller picture will appear of what this type of priesthood is like. For now I will at least offer my own ideas and experiences here.

The first thing that I would say here is that this is not a path I chose and I suspect that those who end up serving the Other don't do so because they set out to. I'm not implying that I'm special in any way - I don't think I am at all and I know other people who have similar stories - but I do think that it isn't for us to decide that we are going to do this the way we might decide to set ourselves to learn a skill or train for a job. This is a calling, something that we are compelled to do. In point of fact while I can certainly look back all the way to my childhood and see a trail of interaction that logically led me to where I am now up until 2016 I was quite happily focusing on other things; my connection to the Otherworld was only a part of who I was, not the sum total of my identity. That didn't change because I decided it was going to but because They intervened, and I think that's how it tends to go. This is not a choice we make but one we can only fight against or consent to.

Whereas those who are priests/priestesses for the human community are logically focused on serving the human community the focus for those who are clergy to the Other is unrelated to the human community except when and where that human community must be dealt with for the sake of the Other. Let me give an example. Human focused clergy work up rituals whose ultimate purpose includes honouring and connecting to the Gods but which is also meant in large part to offer a meaningful spiritual experience for the human participants which facilitates their spiritual growth or feeling of connection. How much or how little this is the focus will vary, but I have yet to personally see a pagan ritual in this format whose purpose isn't at least in part the experience of the human participants. In contrast when I engage in ritual for or with my spirits it's not about me, it's about them and while I may get a feeling of increased connection out of it that isn't the point - and quite frankly I don't think they care whether I feel moved or not as long as they get what they need from it. I have had experiences when I didn't remember to offer something or do something and they simply took it, which illustrates my wider point.

Another thing I would note based on my experiences is that when the Other puts a person into a position of teaching its for their own benefit not to better humanity. The idea isn't that you are acting to help humans evolve into better humans or achieve some higher consciousness but to help Themselves regain some of their lost respect and position. And those two goals are antithetical. I'm sorry if people disagree with me there, but it's true - in our current hubris-rich, human-centred culture we can't encourage a focus on the importance of humans and act like the Other is hyperfocused on helping us be better and also return to a place where the Other was given an atavistic respect and even fear. And trust me some of them do want to be feared again.

This service is also not predicated on helping or counseling the human community in relation to the Other. Now it is true that people do contact me for guidance about problems relating to the Good Neighbours, but in this context I am not advocating for or trying to assist the humans - I'm on the side of the Other and trying to act as their intermediary in the situation. To use an analogy I'm a bit like a wildlife rehabber who comes in to deal with situations where a wild animal and humans have caused each other problems; the rehabber is trying to get the best outcome for the animal and secondarily the humans. That's basically me in these situations with the Othercrowd. I am not a pastoral counselor or spiritual therapist, I'm an Otherworldly troubleshooter.

Being clergy to the Other is also not in any way easy. My particular focus is the Daoine Uaisle (Gentry) and they are demanding, uncompromising, and unrelenting. This isn't hyperbole. Not to downplay the difficulties that come with serving Gods as clergy because I know that isn't easy either, but in my own experience there is something that is more relatablely human in the Gods, or in how they choose to interact with us anyway, that is absent in the Other. Macha might be sympathetic to my needs as a new mother for sleep and even Odin could be negotiated with but the Good People have only their own agenda to worry about. How their clergy manages to enact that agenda in the human world is the priest or priestesses problem, not theirs. They can also be unremitting in their expectations and their requirements - I have things I'm expected to do, no matter what, and I have prohibitions that I must not violate, no matter what**. This service is not easy, and it isn't something to be entered into lightly. It has a heavy cost and it only grows heavier.

Ultimately serving the Other means focusing on the Other and enacting their will, in some sense. The things that make pagan clergy useful to the human community may or may not apply to clergy for the Other but in my experience for the most part they don't overlap as much as I might have expected. To use another wildlife based analogy I might say that pagan clergy in general are like park rangers their purpose being to aid humans in interacting with an environment and its animals safely and to take care of that place, while clergy for the Other are like those people who wander off to live off grid in the woods and see themselves as part of the environment not a visitor to it. That's a very rough analogy of course but hopefully it gets a bit of the idea across.

Priesthood to the Other rather than the human community is a multi-layered thing, just as priesthood to the human community is, but it is different in essential ways. Priesthood for the human community is about serving the Gods and spirits in order to maintain balance and gain their favour for the human community. Priesthood for the Other, quite frankly, isn't concerned with the human community's overall well being. In point of fact in my experience serving the Other as clergy has only the most tangential connection to the human community and instead is focused on the Other. All those things that are usually listed as so essential to pagan clergy fall by the wayside when you are centered on beings who aren't interested in humanity at large, groups of worshippers, or even individual spiritual advancement.

This is also not a path for someone who has divided focus or who isn't comfortable othering themselves more than they may already be. It is a hard thing to do and one that once you start doing you can't - as far as I know - stop. It is consuming. It's also important. The Gods and the human community have clergy and as paganism grows those numbers grow and develop, but the Other increasingly is speaking and wants to be heard - and needs more of a voice.
They are reaching out and finding those who can serve that need.

This is a series of posts exploring my personal understanding of and experience with the idea of priesthood in relationship to the Other. I encourage people to read all of them entries to get a fuller feel of the subject.

*non-human spirits under any iteration
**there is of course some crossover here with some Gods but I mention it so people are aware that this is a part of service to them and needs to be considered.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Why Do We View Fairies As Nature Spirits?

It's a widespread idea at this point particularly in modern paganism and popular Western culture that fairies are nature spirits, that is that they are intrinsically bound to our natural world in some way. This idea is often simply stated as fact, implied to have always been true, or even argued as the older or more legitimate belief. In paganism its one aspect of a current trend I'm seeing to homogenize and simplify fairies by defining them as easily as possible, erasing all the nuances and complexity that we find in the actual folklore and beliefs. It's so pervasive that I felt it necessary awhile ago to make a Youtube video addressing the confusion between fairies and nature spirits but I thought it might also be good to write a bit about it.

Waterhouse, 'The Mystic Wood', public domain

I'm not telling anyone what to believe but what does bother me is seeing people claiming that the idea of fairies as spirits of nature is ancient, from a Celtic culture, or in line with folklore. Of course there are examples of beings that we might now classify as fairies from various cultures - I'm looking at you Greece and Rome - that are heavily tied into nature and might fit the description of a nature spirit. Dryads and Naiads are often mentioned, whether they should properly be considered nature spirits or not I don't know (I don't know enough about how they were understood in classical thought) and Genii Locorum [spirits of places] get tossed in there as well. The Norse landvaettir may also be considered nature spirits by some reckoning, although again whether they fit the more modern concepts of a nature spirit the way that popular culture envisions flower fairies or modern pagans muddle elementals into it is an open question.

So what then is a nature spirit? I don't think there is any one agreed on definition of this term which is used rather nebulously by different groups. The most basic view of course is that a nature spirit is a spirit of nature, that is a spirit which inhabits or ensouls any natural object or phenomena. The world around us then is full of spirits, large and small, which most humans are simply oblivious to. Nature spirits are sometimes confused with the Indian concept of a Deva (literally divine being) or with the early Renaissance idea of Elementals (beings existing within specific alchemical elements), but again both of these terms are not directly synonymous to nature spirits anymore than fairies would be.

What is a fairy? At its most basic a fairy is an Otherworldly being, although the term is often applied more to such beings from the Celtic cultural milieu than elsewhere. The word is also often used as an adjective, hence 'fairy woman' (bean sidhe), fairy godmother, or fairy hound to describe a more specific type of being that is from Fairy/the Otherworld. While the term in modern contexts has started to take on a very specific application in some areas thanks to mass media of a small winged female sprite its wider use is still inline with the older definition which can be seen across the last 700 hundred years or so. Many, many different kinds of Otherworldly beings that are known in folklore and anecdotes under specific names from Brownies to Urisgs, from Bean Sidhe to Each Uisce, would fall under the wider term of fairy.

While many modern pagans and some non-pagan academics may view fairies, in toto, now as nature spirits that is definitely not how they have been understood across history, although as noted some nature spirits do fall into the wider definition of 'fairy'. Rather from its inception in the 12th and 13th centuries the word fairy was applied to beings from the Otherworld (i.e. the world of Fairy) that is beings who were inherently not from the human world. Fairies could pass between the human world and their own world as they chose to, could be seen or be invisible, could - in fact were known to - change their habitations regularly. They were even known to emigrate across oceans with populations or individuals something nature spirits cannot do being bioregion specific. While they may defend natural locations or things like a tree or boulder this is never done because its a tree or boulder but because it belongs to the fairies, or put another way it isn't based on a desire to protect the environment generally but out of territoriality (the same as humans fighting over territory will defend what they perceive to be theirs). As often as we see stories of fairies defending a fairy tree we see stories of them striking a person down for building on a fairy road or fouling a fairy well; its the violation of their possession of a space not the natural world they are angry over.

So, how did this current Westernized view comes about? It was a confluence of different factors rooted in upper and later middle class media and occultism, which explains why the viewpoint is predominantly found today in popculture and modern paganism, but is less common in cultures that still hold older views and understandings of fairies. A concise timeline of the shift in how mainstream Western culture viewed fairies in relation to nature:

  • Victorian Era - The Victorian era ran from roughly 1837 to 1901, encompassing the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria. It marked a period that included the end of the Industrial Revolution and many social changes including the growth of the middle class in both the United States and Britain. This period is notable for its romanticism of nature and the natural world, poetic appreciation of paganism and pagan themes, and its radical re-envisioning of fairies in art and literature. Victorian culture, divorced from actual belief in fairies, instead made them the fodder of entertainment infantilizing them, diminishing them, and gentling them in character and appearance, among many other things*.
  • Theosophy - beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century Theosophy was the precursor for the 20th century New Age movement and drew on concepts from Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Rosicrucianism. It forwarded an understanding of fairies drawn from a blend if contemporary cultural romanticism of nature (see previous point) and the 15th century alchemical classification of fairies as elemental beings. Combining these two concepts resulted in a view of fairies as tied to natural elements and strongly connected to the natural world. 
  • Edwardians - following the Victorian era we move into the Edwardian, and we see a continuation of the shift in fairies in mainstream culture. JM Barrie's Peter Pan play and book are released during this time and the infamous Cottingley fairy pictures begin at the end of this era; both typify the way that modern popular culture has come to view fairies as small, fairly harmless**, and connected to the natural world in dress, home, and appearance. Immediately following this period we see Cicely Mary Barker's Flower Fairy books emerging which crystalize all of the previous influences into a single form: the fairy as small nature spirit.
  • 20th Century Pagans - moving into the later 20th century we find these previous influences taken into different corners of paganism and appearing in diverse books. Fairies are defined as spirits of nature, often directly conflated to elementals using the classical alchemical system, and sometimes further seen as guardians of nature and guides to human evolution and right relationship with the earthly world. 
This modern view of fairies as nature spirits then is one that has been woven across the last 150 years or so initially coming from groups who did not necessarily believe in fairies but were indulging in a need for entertainment using fairies as the players on the stage, taken from there back into belief, then out again, then back in. This process has largely divorced the fairy-as-nature-spirit from the folkloric fairy, and even perhaps the actual nature spirits from the popular culture ideas of nature-fairies. 

Ultimately we can perhaps argue that some fairies are nature spirits, given how loose the definitions of both terms are, but it's an egregious oversimplification to say that all fairies are spirits of nature. We can also say that people who are seeking nature spirits and calling them fairies are getting nature spirits and this undoubtedly adds to the current muddy waters on the subject. But we must be very careful not to generalize out and assume that all fairies are nature spirits because some may be, or even because the ones that a certain author writes about or a certain person connects to are. The bulk of fairylore and modern anecdotal accounts from living cultures with active fairy beliefs show that these Otherworldly beings are not directly tied to the natural world but are travellers who come and go here.

The best way to understand fairies is to look to the living cultures the beliefs come from. Much of what we have as mainstream or popculture beliefs, while not necessarily useless, must be understood in context to really be understood. If you want to understand nature spirits, look to the world around you and work to connect to it; if you want to understand fairies look to generations of gathered knowledge, experience, and be very careful. One of these things is not like the other.

*Entire books have been written on this subject alone so I can only touch on it here but I suggest Purkiss's 'At The Bottom Of The Garden' or Silver's 'Strange and Secret Peoples' if the subject interests you. Suffice to say that some Victorian fairies did still have teeth and dangerous sexuality but the period saw a major shift in how the middle and upper class of America and Britain saw and understood fairies that has and still is effecting mainstream culture today.
** Tinkerbell was undeniably homicidal in the older source material but also unable to harm Wendy herself - she needed to trick others into doing it for her. Folkloric fairies would not have been so impotent in the same situation. There's also the famous scene where she needs the human audience to believe in fairies to bring her back to life.