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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Following the Pleaides

 As some people are aware for the last four years I have been researching the Pleiades from a spiritual perspective and working to create a system of rituals connected to it. As we approach the four year anniversary of the experience in Iceland which led me onto this path I wanted to recap how things have gone so far. 

image of Pleiades by NASA, public domain

I've talked about the approach I was developing to honouring the Pleiades in the past (here and here), beginning in 2018 after the initial experience that drew my attention to it; eventually I compiled that material into a book titled Living Fairy. for those unfamiliar and who don't want to read the indepth explanation at the links the short version is that while visiting Iceland in September of 2018 I and several friends had an experience after wandering outside late at night. We saw what appeared to be a large number of Otherworldly beings moving across a hillside in the darkness and the Pleiades glowing blue just at the horizon like a bonfire. Later in discussing it with my friend Cat Heath we both concluded it represented a ritual celebration by those Powers, which we theorized was tied to the Pleiades - specifically the acronychal rising of the Pleiades which we had witnessed. And from there I was sent on this path to connect the dots as it were between fairies, the Pleiades, and ritual. 

Over the last four years I have established four main ritual dates:
The conjunction around May 14th: The Darkening
The heliacal rising around June 24th: The Return of the Queens (or just the Returning)
The acronychal rising September 22: The Way-Opening
The culmination November 20th: The Rade
With those dates I created a series of rituals which connect to each and tie into a new kind of mythology around them, inline with my practice of Fairy Witchcraft. 

Additionally I noted that every 8 years the Pleiades are conjunct with Venus, a planet which can be seen as a star-like object in the sky and which is associated by some people (including myself) with a fairy goddess called the Queen of Apples. This occured in 2020 and I chose to call it the Great Gathering and created a ritual specifically for it as well. It will happen next in 2028.

One of my main struggles across the last four years has been working out the precise timing which continues to be a challenge. The dates for these events vary by latitude and while they are generally around the same times each year, with a slight and slow drift, getting the dates worked out has been a bit hit or miss for me. I don't have much experience with astrology or astronomy and haven't yet found a good program or app that can tell me when the Pleiades will be conjunct or rising, but have been slowly working it out through direct observation.
I've also found myself tending to look for close correlating solar holidays - equinoxes especially - as they are easier to track; but they aren't as accurate for timing the Pleiades. I realize some of that desire is simply to stay a bit aligned with the more popular pagan approach to holy days, which is something I need to let go of. 

On the other hand, I have had a great deal of success with the rituals themselves. While my previous experiences with pagan rituals provided a handful of intense numinous experiences my work around the Pleiades has proven to be quite intense and inspiring. So far even the least active of the rituals I've done has involved a noticeable change in the temperature around me, a stilling of the sounds, and a rise in the wind. These results have also been noted by other people working the ritual cycle, suggesting that it is the dates themselves, and perhaps the ritual structure, that are effective.
My struggle to date the events with technology has also been a success in a way because it has forced me to directly connect to the constellation by tracking it visually as much as possible. I have found a lot of value in that and in nurturing an awareness of the constellation itself beyond its symbolism.
Finally I've found that working with this has deepened my own spirituality and connection to the Othercrowd. There is a dance-like rhythm to this cycle and it speaks its own mythology to me as I go along, a story of the 7 fairy queens travelling through the year, the sky, and our lives. 

This year's acronychal rising will begin my fifth year working with this system and I remain excited to see how it continues to play out and shape itself. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

Tolkien, Stereotypes, and Diversity

 I've written here before about representation and racism in fairy media and later expanded that into a full length article which was published in Witches & Pagans magazine under the title 'The (White) Elephant in the Room: Race & Identity in Fairy Lore'. In both of these pieces I emphasized the diverse descriptions of fairies, elves, and other Otherworldly beings that we find across folklore and the way that such diversity is largely ignored by those with an agenda towards an imagined pale skinned, blond version of folklore or warped to vilify a group within a game structure to play into real world prejudices. I do think that its vital for people to look beyond the popculture surface of fairylore to appreciate the diversity of the material - and will continue to advocate for a wider understanding of this. But within this wider discussion I think we also need to be honest about the way that these beliefs are and can be twisted to support particular agendas.

With that in mind lets tackle a current controversy: diversity in Rings of Power

image by Zanstardust from 

There's been quite a hue and cry from one segment of the population over the diversity in the new Rings of Power show, by people who feel strongly that Tolkien meant for the elves to be envisioned and depicted only as they were shown in the Lord of the Rings movies. I'm not going to get into Tolkien lore here about why some aspects of this criticism don't hold water, but rather address a different issue: why Tolkien's work does need to be adjusted today. Because we are stuck with two different inherent issues: Tolkien himself fashioned his orcs along anti-Asian stereotypes; and Jackson's movies in turn portrayed them in ways that fed into anti-black sentiments. That Tolkien was working with an anti-Asian intent isn't in question, he himself says as much "The orcs...were squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Chance, 205, p 114). Compounding that Tolkien also described some orcs in Return of the King as explicitly black skinned, and very clearly defined orcs as irredeemably evil. Tolkien himself was elsewhere outspoken against apartheid, Nazism, and racial classifications, as well as anti-Semitism, and its likely the racial stereotypes that appear in his work were subconscious reflections of his own cultural milieu; however that those stereotypes are there is indisputable. While Tolkien, in a letter to his son, expressed that it was the evilness of orcs that made them what they were not their appearance and that they were to be found in the real world among all people, the idea of the orcs and goblins fitting these stereotypes was concentrated and expanded on in Jackson's movies, cementing a visual narrative that gave us ethereal Caucasian elves and violent, dangerous, dark skinned orcs and goblins. That this is canon isn't arguable, however, I will argue that just because its canon doesn't mean its acceptable. 

Many people argue that Tolkien was writing based on existing folklore, specifically Anglo-Saxon and Norse, and therefore his elves are based on that and should be kept true to that. I agree, and the Elves in Rings of Power are much closer to older folklore than those in Jackson's movies. There is unquestionably a great deal of diversity in older folklore and descriptions of elves, across both Anglo-Saxon aelfe and Norse alfar. The idea, for example, of various groups of elves described by colour appears from at least the 13th century with Snorri Sturluson  writing about the Ljosalfar or light elves and Svartalfar or black elves. His black elves appear across multiple stories both helping and sometimes competing with the Aesir, and have their own world, Svartalfheim, or black elf home (Simek, 2007). Although today we tend to give heavy moral weight to these colours, associating white with goodness and black with badness that does not seem to be a factor for Snorri's black elves; just as the light elves can act maliciously towards humans so too the black elves can be helpful and both groups are generally more ambivalent. When we add in the 'dusky elves' (dokkalfar), usually thought to be formed by human dead, the concepts get even more nuanced and complex. We are given three groups of elves with various colour associations - light, dusky, and black - who all have various interactions with humans and whose colours seem to indicate literal appearance but not morality or behaviour. 

 However while Snorri didn't play too much into this idea, with his black elves no better or worse than the Aesir in many stories, Jakob Grimm writing in the 19th century certainly did, discussing a groups of spirits as white, pale, and black and relating these to angels, the dead, and devils, then further connecting the light elves to angels and black elves to devils (Grimm, 1888, p 446). We cannot have this discussion without acknowledging that or the apparent wider cultural move towards strongly codifying spirits by colour associations which was clear by at least the early modern period in Europe. It is likely, in my opinion, that this did affect Tolkien's choices in his writing in the early 20th century. Arguably a Christian overlay trying to fit these older pagan concepts into Christian cosmology they nonetheless created a moral implication where none had been previously* and which fit in with racist ideologies.

Tolkien's choices in describing his orcs and goblins as well as his decision to refer to his various Middle Earth beings as 'races' and to describe them in ways that reflect wider racial stereotypes has had a huge and long lasting impact on both the genre of fantasy fiction as well as role playing games based on that genre. This has been written about in more depth and by better voices than my own here and here and I encourage readers to dig into these and the other articles on race on the public medievalist site. But ultimately the issue comes down to the stereotypes in Tolkien's work being taken, expanded on, and codified across the genre of fantasy, and into gaming based on that, in ways that amplify the racism within those stereotypes. The ideas of pale skinned beautiful elves in contrast to dark skinned violent orcs isn't reflective of older folklore, but of this early 20th century influence. It remains in the genre because it continues to be perpetuated, not because it is a requirement.

Just because an author writing almost a hundred years ago created material that played into racial stereotypes of the 19th and 20th century doesn't mean we must therefore continue to adhere to those stereotypes. Especially when we do have wider folklore and material that supports diversity among elves and a modern understanding that we cannot simplify good and evil into skin colours. The newest Tolkien spin off, Rings of Power, may deserve legit criticism on different fronts, but including diverse casting isn't one of them - if anything that is only reflecting the array of source material Tolkien was drawing on to begin with and the author's own expressed opinions against racial classifications. As Maya Angelou so wisely said: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."
We know better now and we also know the harm that incorporating human world racism into the fantasy genre has done. We must do better than to keep perpetuating it.

*I'll note discussion this is specifically about English and continental European colour symbolism; Irish colour symbolism around spirits tended to focus on different colours particularly red, green, and white

Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology vol 4
Chance, J., (2005) Tolkien and the Invention of Myth
Rearick, A., (2004) Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien's World. Retrieved from
Warmbrunn, C., (2020) Dear Tolkien Fans, Black People Exist. Retrieved from
Strurtevant, P., (2017) Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. Retrieved from 
Racism in Tolkien's Works (2022) Tolkien Gateway. Retrieved from's_Works
D'Anastasio, D., (2021) D&D Must Grapple With the Racism in Fantasy. Retrieved from's_Works