Search This Blog

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Influence of Fiction and Hollywood on Paganism

       I've been pagan for a couple decades now and I've observed a couple trends over that time. One of the most perplexing to me is the way that popular fiction - by which I mean novels, television, and movies - shapes and influences paganism. The reason it perplexes me is because the things that get picked up and absorbed into the pagan paradigm are often based in plot points and rarely fit well or make sense (to me) in actual practice. I've had friends argue, however, that this reflects a normal growth and evolution within the wider community, creating the dynamic which is modern paganism. From this viewpoint modern paganism is woven as much from current fiction and popular culture as it is from past mythology and belief.
     I'll provide a few examples of things that I have noticed and the sources I attribute to them, based on apparent corollary relationships. This isn't a scientific study, just personal observation. 

     Within a few years of the release of the movie The Craft I noticed an upswing in people condemning love magic as dangerous, calling on the made-up deity Manon, and a sudden trend towards people looking for an elemental balance in their groups, either using zodiac signs or affinity to elements. After Practical Magic came out I noticed a huge surge in people claiming to be natural witches. The Mists of Avalon (book and later movie) created a belief in a division between female witches and male druids (exacerbated by another fiction novel marketed as non-fiction), and forehead tattoos . The Charmed television series provided an array of beliefs I've run across in the pagan community, including the belief that magic shouldn't be done for personal gain, that familiars guide and protect new witches, in "whitelighters" as healers, and that each witch has a special power.
    Thor and the Avengers movies as well as the comics are other good examples. How many times have I seen, recently, people saying Thor and Loki are brothers, even though that's a complete modern fiction? That Sif is a warrior? People who have never read the Eddas or any other Norse myth are incorporating Marvel Thor's mythology instead. 
     And then there is the way that some modern pagans have redefined fairylore based on popular fiction and movies, so that fairies become exclusively tiny winged figures, and guardians of nature. I'm giving a side eye to Fern Gully and the Tinkerbell movies here, although they are only the most recent pop culture result of a slightly older trend going back to the Victorian era.
      Why does any of this matter? Well, what I struggle with is the way that many of these beliefs are not rooted in anything and cannot be explained. When I asked someone telling me that Druids had to be men and I should be a witch why that was so he could only say because it was "how it was always done" even though that isn't true outside of fiction. When I asked someone claiming familiars protect and guide new witches how her cat does that she could not explain except to say that it was what her friend told her. When I asked the woman who was lecturing me about never doing magic for personal gain but only ever to help other people why the old cunningfolk were paid for their services; well she just gave me a dirty look and stormed off. When I asked the girl telling me that she needed someone who was an "air" person to complete her Circle why she needed elemental balance - what would happen when she had it? Would the group size be limited to 4? What about traditional covens of 13? - she couldn't tell me.
     Paganism already suffers from a lack of understanding of our own beliefs and cosmology; many people repeat beliefs by rote not from a place of comprehension. And we should understand what we believe, the meaning and purpose behind what we say. We should know why we do what we do. Grafting on beliefs that are rootless, that have nothing behind them except an author's need to forward or complicate a plotline, does not help us; in fact can only hurt by muddying already misunderstood waters. You can't explain a belief that is based in the writers need to keep their characters from solving things too easily, or which was meant to set up the main conflict of the story. That is fiction - our religions aren't.
   The thing is I love pagan fiction and I think its wonderful - I love that it guides people to eventually finding the religions. I love that the quality of pagan fiction is getting better and that we have more and more books and movies which more accurately reflect the real beliefs, especially the old fairy beliefs. But when the line between the entertaining fiction and the actual religion blurs to a degree that people are practicing the fiction, without understanding it for what it is...that's where I see the problem. It frustrates me to see some of it, although it may be an inevitable evolution of religion based on how we tell our stories now - we don't grow up on the old myths and tales we grow up on Charmed and Disney Tinkerbell...and that shapes our beliefs. I enjoy pagan fiction quite a lot, but I understand it for what it is - entertainment.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Samhain isn't pronounced Sam-hane and other truths

    I should probably have titled this post "Grumpy Old Polytheist Ramblings". But there's a lot of so-called educational memes floating around the community right now that are a lot more opinion than fact and I finally decided that it was time to address some specific points. With facts.
    Samhain is pronounced "Sow-win" or "Sow-wen" in Irish and Samhuinn is pronounced "Sah-vihn" in Scottish Gaidhlig; there are of course minor variations with different dialects but in no Celtic language is it pronounced "Sam-hane". As far as I can tell pronouncing it that way comes from non-Irish speakers reading the word and applying English phonetic pronunciation rules to it. But lets be honest here - that doesn't make the mispronounced version correct. That's like me pronouncing "America" Uhm-ehr-ee-suh" and saying that's a legit pronunciation that should be accepted because that's how I read it phonetically. Or for that matter like me saying p-hon-eht-ih-cullee is an okay way to say phonetically. At this point there are enough resources and online pronunciation guides that there's no reason for people not to get Samhain correct. I mean seriously people everyone insists on using the Old Irish spelling for Lughnasadh but people manage to say it Loo-nah-sah just fine, so lets stop acting like mispronouncing Samhain is an okay thing to do.
   And no, there is absolutely no Samhain God of the Dead, or Sam Hane God of the Dead either.
   And, for the record, there is no ancient Celtic tree zodiac (or animal zodiac either), and the whole "Tree Calendar" thing was made up in 1948 by Robert Graves - the Druids never used it and wouldn't have had any clue what it was if you could somehow time travel back a couple thousand years and ask them about it. The Tree Ogham is a real thing but it had nothing to do with dates or months, just with associations between Ogham letters and specific trees; there's also a Bird Ogham where each letter is associated with a bird, and Pig Ogham, and so on. I guess Graves didn't think the Pig Ogham was romantic enough to base a calendar system on...
    Speaking of hard truths - let me burst another bubble for everyone. There is no Celtic pantheon. Really it's true. When you see those lists of deities labeled "Celtic pantheon" in all those books its really just a random list of deities from the different Celtic cultures hodge-podged together. But here's the problem inherent in that - a pantheon by definition is the gods of a specific religion or people, and there was *never* a single over-arching Celtic religion or people. Celtic has always been a term of convenience for describing similar groups based on shared cultural themes, art, and related languages. The mythology, even for the so-called Pan-Celtic deities like Lugh/Llew/ Lugus who are found across the different Celtic culture is different. The Morrigan was a major deity in Ireland but there isn't any evidence of her in Gaul; we find Cernunnos in Gaul but not elsewhere. Even within a single culture their were regional Gods who might be known in this location but not over in this other location. The reason that matters is that in a pantheon you should be able to find stories of the Gods interacting with each other, or at least appearing together, there should be a cohesion of belief and cultus that only occurs in groups of deities that have a genuine unifying factor. You might be able to argue for an Irish Pantheon or a Gaulish Pantheon, but understand that Celtic as such is pretty meaningless for religious purposes.
   Also, although we may not like to admit it, yes the ancient Celtic cultures - and pretty much all ancient cultures - practiced human sacrifice. This isn't some kind of nasty propaganda, its just a fact. When we're going around trying to act like that sort of thing never happened because it goes against our modern mores it just makes us look kind of silly.
   And since I'm on a roll, the Good Folk are not elementals and not all of them are nature spirits. That whole twee little garden sprite thing is a very Victorian idea. They aren't angels, and they also aren't our special spirit guide friends. Some of them may care about humanity at large but a great many them don't. Sometimes they help us, but sometimes they harm us and we can't just decide they are all sweet and gentle and make it be so.
   One final note, on the subject of hard truths - there is a difference between an opinion and a fact. An opinion is how you feel about something. In my opinion dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate. A fact is an objective reality. Chocolate is made from cacao beans. The first example is my opinion, other people may disagree or have different opinions and that's fine; the second example is a fact and is not open to someone else's disagreement. In other words you might think milk chocolate is better than dark, and that's your opinion which is fine, but you can't just decide that chocolate is actually made from coffee beans because that simply isn't true. In spirituality some things are opinion, and some things are facts. Its really important to know the difference between the two.
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." - Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Thursday, September 17, 2015

excerpt from my current work in progress

I'm a bit behind on blogging and translations because I'm in the middle of a new book draft for Pagan Portals: Brigid. The idea of doing more goddess-themed Pagan Portals was suggested by someone on my facebook author page and my publisher really liked it, and asked if I'd be interested in writing about Brigid. I'm about 14,000 words into the 25,000 word draft and its about all I've had time to work on, excluding real life child care (the never ending work-in-progress). So today I thought it would be fun to share a small excerpt from the new book in progress. Although the main focus of the book is specifically on the pagan Goddess Brighid it's inevitable that saint Brigid will have to be discussed too....

Brigid – Goddess and Saint
Our modern understanding of Brigid is largely the result of a blending of the features of the pagan Goddess and Catholic saint (Clark, 1991). There is a sharp divide among scholars on the subject with some like Kim McCone stating that saint Brigid, particularly in her later stories, shows a clear separation from the pagan Brigid, while others like Marie-Louise Sjoestedt say that the saint is an accurate preservation of the Goddess. This makes it difficult and at times almost impossible to untangle one from the other, particularly from material that dates to the transition period when Ireland was still nominally pagan and not yet entirely Christian. We can see this for example in the proliferation of both mythic figures and saints named Brigid as well as the characteristics of the early saint Brigid which clearly reflected earlier mythic patterns, such as providing food and drink to those in need (McCone, 2000). In the Lebor Gabala Erenn we are told that the Dagda is Brigid’s father and that he also had a son named Aed; interestingly saint Brigid also was associated with a person named Aed, in this case a fellow saint. Saint Aed was said to have founded a monastery with buildings dedicated to saint Brigid and saint Brigid was said to have invoked the name of saint Aed to miraculously cure a headache (McCone, 2000).  Those seeking to connect to the Goddess today will have to decide for themselves what they feel genuinely reflects older pagan beliefs and what may have evolved in the later Christian period.
   Saint Brigid was reputed to be the best brewer in Ireland, and her association with beer, ale, and brewing were shared by her counterparts the Welsh Saint Ffraid and the Scottish saint Bride. This particular association may reflect and older pagan belief connected to Brigid of Smithcraft, as it was not uncommon for smith deities to also be Gods of brewing. The Irish smith God Goibniu, for example was associated with brewing as well as smithing. Goibniu had a special mead or ale called the fled Goibnenn, “drink of Goibniu”, that conveyed the gift of youth and immortality to the Tuatha De Danann (O hOgain, 2006). Similarly the Welsh Gofannon was a brewer as well as smith and the Gaulish Secullos, the “Good striker”, although not known explicitly as a smith God was depicted with a hammer and associated with wine.

    Saint Brigid is most strongly associated with Kildare where her church stands near her sacred healing well; the church itself features a perpetual flame tended by Brigadine nuns. Although the perpetual flame cannot be traced with certainty back to the Irish pagan period Brigid’s British counterpart Brigantia had a temple under the guise of Brigantia-Minerva which also featured a perpetual flame (Puhvel, 1987). The Irish saint Brigid and the Scottish saint Bride are believed to be both the midwife and foster-mother of Jesus Christ and both are very strongly connected to childbirth, potentially reflecting older mother Goddess concepts.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Read All the Things!

  Those of you who enjoy my translation efforts, don't worry I have some interesting bits about Tech Duinn and Donn coming out tomorrow, but today I wanted to shift back a bit into a more discussion style blog.
    I've noticed a trend lately of people asking for opinions about books and getting some strangely territorial responses. What I mean by that is responses which seem to assume there is one - and only one - book worth getting on a particular subject. It can get very Highlander-esque ("There can be only one!") with people advocating for one book and putting down others like there was some sort of epic prize to be won.
my son with volume 1 of Air n-Aithesc a peer reviewed CR journal. He has good taste in reading material

   First of all, book recommendations will always be highly personal. The book one person loves another person may not be able to finish. So there is that, and we should never forget that a recommendation is really just an opinion about what someone liked. In some cases it isn't even about whether the book is good or bad, just whether it resonated with that person. My preferences tend to extremes - either dry and academic or highly engaging and experiential; some people may like one or the other but many people don't like either. Just like I like chocolate ice cream, but someone else might not; that doesn't mean chocolate ice cream is bad per se.
   Secondly, what a person wants to get out of the book and their own background matters. If someone who is coming from a very neo-pagan background asks me for a book recommendation on Celtic paganism my response will be different than if someone who is coming from a CR approach asks the same question. Context mattes.
   Speaking of context. There's this strange idea that I've seen floating around that if a book is too "Wiccan*" or "New age**" it is somehow flawed or inferior. Let's get something straight here if you are neopagan or worshiping in a neopagan dynamic then there is nothing wrong with books written to cater to that market. While I may be one of the first people to jump on bad scholarship, modern pagan practice is not synonymous with a lack of knowledge of the subject. I have read some very good neopagan books and while that may not be my personal spiritual approach that doesn't detract from the quality of the book itself. I have also read some really awful books and articles written by people claiming a reconstructionist or polytheist approach, so its not as if we can or should assume that neopagan equals poor quality and recon equals good quality. It would be really awesome if we, as a wider community, could cut out the more-pagan-than-thou-better-scholarship-than-thou attitudes. It isn't a competition.
Variety is your friend

   Thirdly, it is entirely possible to recommend a book without putting down every other similar book. It doesn't have to be about how much you loved that one book because everything else ever written about the subject is garbage. I have never seen any subject where there is only one good book in existence on the topic. Also it is possible to recommend a book that you don't like - I do it all the time when I recommend Hutton's 'Blood and Mistletoe' which I can't personally stand but which I admit is a good basic survey of what we do and don't know about the Druids.
   Now in fairness, yes I have written book reviews and publicly said that people should avoid certain books *coughWittacough* for a variety of reasons. And if you have a really valid reason to tell someone not to read something - that it's plagiarism, that it's a disaster of inaccurate info mislabeled, that it has dangerous advice in it - then just be really clear on why you think people shouldn't read it. The reason really should be a lot more than just I didn't like it, or it didn't do anything for me personally.
    In the end it is a truism that we learn from all the sources, good, bad, and blah. Everything we read, every experience we have, contributes to our overall understanding. The key is to keep an open mind and always by willing to re-assess and change your view if you find out a source you liked wasn't accurate, or new information on a subject emerges.
   So read all the things. All of them.
   Ipsa scientia potestas est.

*obviously not referencing British Trad Wicca, but being used as a general term for Wiccan style neopaganism
** also not referencing actual New age material, but apparently being used as a pejorative.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Monday, June 15, 2015

Morrigan's Call Retreat 2015

A ritual honoring Badb at the Retreat

   I have just returned from the second annual Morrigan's Call Retreat and once again find myself sitting here trying to put into words an experience that is really impossible to describe. Last year the Retreat was new and smaller, fewer people, a wild and otherworldly location, and the energy of the entire weekend was a challenge to step up and answer Her call. This year was very different: more people, a new location that had more of civilization to it, and an energy that was not about hearing Her call as much as about reclaiming ourselves and our own power in this world.
   Some things did remain the same throughout. We saw an amazing mix of people from every possible background, witch and Wiccan, Druid and CR, Avalonion and eclectic, coming together to honor Her with one voice. We saw the same sense of kinship across lines that normally sharply divide, created by the common ground of a shared respect for the Great Queens. And we saw the same spirit of community ensuring that people were taken care of, that jobs were done, that when the unexpected happened there was always someone there to step up and make sure it was covered. Oh, it was far from perfect, and there was frustration and displeasure and things that went entirely off the plan but somehow the diverse strands were woven together anyway.
   The first day, as always, was the most chaotic, with people arriving and settling in, the Temple being set up through community effort and donations of material and sacred items (for the duration of the event). There were several great classes the first afternoon that I would have loved to attend, but I was teaching a workshop myself and then participating in the ritual. All of the ritual's at the Retreat are part of a larger arc, first cleansing, then challenging, then blessing; participants face the three Morrigna one at a time and, if circumstances are right and the priestess is able, may face Her in truth as She is channeled, aspected, or otherwise chooses to appear during ritual. The first night's ritual was dedicated to Badb and was very much about releasing and washing away what need to be let go of. The ritual itself was done next to a river and due to unanticipated circumstances started after dark with only a single fire at the center of the ritual space to illuminate the area. I cannot speak for the people who attended but I found it both a test of our commitment to Her and a very sacred experience.
the main altar in the temple

  The second day began on very little sleep and with a packed schedule ahead. I had two workshops during the day to teach and a second ritual to help with. My first workshop was directly after breakfast and was on the topic of Macha in mythology, always a fun subject. I was able to attend only one workshop all weekend and that was Jhenah Telyndru's class on Morgan and Avalon, but I enjoyed it and learned a new method of meditation called embodiment that I look forward to doing more with. I co-taught a workshop on grounding, centering, and shielding with Mayra Rickey and Melody Legaspi-Seils which I think went very well. Throughout the day I had many great random discussions with people and I both reconnected with old friends and made new ones. The second ritual was for Macha, and was - not surprisingly - the one I anticipated the most since she is the Goddess I am dedicated to. It focused on the theme of facing Her blade and declaring what you would fight for in life. One of my tasks as Her priestess is to carry Her sword in this ritual, and I am always honored to do it.
  After ritual there was a community feast and concert by Mama Gina, who is an amazing storyteller and singer that truly, I think, deserves the title of bard. Hearing her perform her song "Ruby" live raised the hair on my arms; its so much more evocative live than recorded (although that is still worth hearing too). There seemed to be a nice feeling of conviviality among everyone as we shared food and great music together. The cake that the caterer, Dawn DeMeo, had prepared for the feast was beyond amazing, and I must add that she made a second smaller cake for those of us who couldn't have the gluten/regular flour version which was equally amazing. (And yes, for anyone wondering, the first pieces went as offerings, to be sure that the Gods and spirits shared the feast too).

The epic cake from the feast
   The third day began with breakfast and a panel discussion on honoring the Morrigan, during which I hope I didn't talk too much. It's a subject I have so much passion about that I'm afraid I can't help but want to talk about it a lot. I know my fellow panelists are amazing people, and I loved the diversity of experience and opinion that we brought to it. There was a charity raffle for the Wounded Warrior Project. The raffle draw was great fun and people really seemed to enjoy it. I had donated a book or two and Wouldn't you know the one time my ticket was called it was for my own book? (They let me substitute a different item, but it was quite funny).
   Afterwards I had to prep for the final ritual, dedicated to Morrigan as Anu and to people reclaiming their sovereignty. In the ritual people were asked to come forward and place their hands on a stone, representing the stone of sovereignty, and to say out loud if they were ready to reclaim their power. This was meant to be a simple act but as sometimes happens it became a bit more complex. Everyone also received a small rough ruby as a symbol of having gone through the three rituals and claimed a place - symbolic, literal, or however each person chooses to incorporate it - as one of Her ravens. For that, truly is not for us to decide but for the individual to find meaning in, based in how the rituals effected them personally.
    In each ritual I did my best to serve Her, and Them, and my community. I wore a small silver pendant, of the type that people keep ashes in to commemorate loved ones; this pendant carries clay from Uaimh na gCat, the Cave of Cats, from Cruachan. The earth was a gift from a friend who visited there long ago, and carefully kept the wet clay that coated her clothing when she came out, saving it as it dried. I felt that having soil from her sacred place present at the rituals was significant for helping to have Her present as we called Her in to a new place. One of Her other priestesses, dedicated to Badb, bled into the river as the river took its due before the first ritual, and in the first Her people called her with chants and shouts and screams. And I truly believe she answered with Her presence.
   I received some personal messages through various means throughout the weekend, through an amazing Avalonian priestess and through omens and portents, messages of empowerment and of affirmation. It will not be easy to move forward in the strength other people are telling me I have, or that I know she wants for me but I will try. I will try.
    The Morrigan's Call Retreat was once again an amazing experience. I will never cease to be amazed at seeing so many people from so many backgrounds and who follow such different paths coming together in fellowship. Knowing that we can overcome these differences to come together and honor the same Goddesses without argument or judgment gives me such hope. And the irony that a Goddess of War can inspire such unity and fellowship among Her followers is beautiful and joyous and somehow entirely appropriate.
The river

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Monday, June 1, 2015

On Being *That* Guy

  Everyone knows that guy*, the person who is always one of the first ones to speak up about paganism or polytheism, even though they don't really know that much about it. The one who puts down other religions while simultaneously complaining bitterly about religious persecution. The one who is certain that all the debunked bad history is actually true, from the Burning Times (tm) to all-male Druids, from the Golden Age of Matriarchy to the ancient neolithic Wiccans. And no amount of discussion, logic, or evidence can dissuade that guy from their very loud opinions. That guy is the one who makes more experienced people wince or roll their eyes, or in some cases lose their tempers.
   We're all quick to complain about that guy, to criticize and, if we're honest, to go after that guy one way or another: to try to prove them wrong, or teach them, to show them up, or maybe just shut them up. When that guy appears in a discussion, with their loud declarations and boundless belief, you can watch the newer people's eyes widening in confusion and uncertainty and the more expereinced people bristling and girding for battle. We commiserate with each other, present a united front, and advise everyone else not to be that guy. No one gets less sympathy than that guy.
  The thing is - we were all that guy, once upon a time. Maybe not as loudly, or as spectacularly. Maybe not at a time when social media made being that guy a ringside event that people need popcorn for. But we, at least most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, went through that phase in our spirituality where we bordered on zealot and our beliefs were like boulders, even when those beliefs were spun of wishful thinking and fantasy. Most of us have had that time when defending the faith was a badge of honor, even if we were defending it against dragons that looked a lot like windmills to everyone else. If you didn't, if you avoided ever, even once, being that guy, then good on you but I think its something most of us go through. I certainly look back now at a certain, shall we say, enthusiastic period of my spiritual life with a blush and a shrug.
   I'm writing about this today because, as strange as this might sound, I think we need to give that guy a break. When they are foaming at the mouth over things that seem like shadows to us, when they are exuberantly insisting that fantasy is history, when they are loudly declaring their personal spirituality to be the entirety of paganism for everyone, everywhere, I think we need to remember what it felt like to be in that place in our own journey. When that outer passion was maybe covering an absolute terror of being wrong, when that exuberance was disguising a desperate desire to fit in and belong somewhere. Think back to what made you that guy, once upon a time, and try to have a bit of empathy for someone else who is perhaps in that same place. And maybe ask yourself why that guy bothers you so much to begin with.
   Don't stop not being that guy of course, and don't stop living and speaking your own truth. And by all means let that guy know there are other options, other ways, and for the love of the Gods better history. But instead of doing it with words aimed like a sword point or arguments that land like fists, maybe try to listen to what's really being said, and the message behind what's being said, and answer with kindness and an open dialogue.
  It's an idea anyway.

*guy used here in a gender neutral sense, applicable equally to males or females. And yes I really do talk that way in real life.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Articles, Manuscripts, and Essays, oh my!

I have really not done well keeping up with the blog this month and I apologize. I'm gearing up for the second annual Morrigan's Call retreat next month and have also been in the middle of several larger writing projects. 
  I recently finished up my 13th manuscript, a book for the Pagan Portals series. This one, like my Fairy Witchcraft and Morrigan books, is meant to be a basic introduction to a topic in this case the topic is Irish Reconstructionist Polytheism. the final draft is with my publisher and I'm hoping the book will be released in October, although I haven't gotten a date yet. Meanwhile I'm still plugging away at book #14, a full length book on Fairy Witchcraft to expand on the Pagan Portals introduction. I am also working on my own full translation of the Cath Maige Tuired and as part of that have translated all of the appearances of the Morrigan within that story; from that I wrote a 5,000 word article which I've submitted to the CR journal Air n-Aithesc for their fall issue. I'm pretty excited about that article actually, as I think its one of my best to date. I'm also working on a second piece on ritual sacrifice and feasting in Iron age Ireland for the same journal as well as an essay on Macha as a goddess of sovereignty for an anthology due out the end of this year.
   So I've been rather busy and as tends to happen the blog is showing signs of neglect. Hopefully I'll have a smidge more time soon to get more written over here. 

Copyright Morgan Daimler