Tag: paganism

Review: The Paganism Reader

Like many of the books on paganism and related subjects that I’ve reviewed here recently, The Paganism Reader, edited by Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, was a loan from a friend, now returned. I don’t have it here to refer to, in other words, which is a little sad – I’d have liked to pay tribute to its comprehensiveness by being comprehensive and thorough myself.

In any case, The Paganism Reader brings together a selection of texts that have informed various flavours and philosophies of paganism in the last century or so. The works range over a much larger span of time, though, from Apuleius’ Golden Ass (160-170AD) to a couple of remarkably down-to-earth essays by modern Pagans: “Finding your way in the woods: the art of conversation with the Genius Loci” by Barry Patterson and “Entertaining faeries” by Gordon Maclellan were particular favourites. (It seems, however, that Maclellan is a white man calling himself a “shaman”, gah. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s an essay in the book entitled “What happened to Western shamanism?”, although I don’t remember anything about it.)

The book also contains extracts from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – famously the inspiration behind the Church of All Worlds – the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the entire Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (which is a trip, let me tell you) and work by Margaret Murray, Doreen Valiente, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, among much else. Another of my favourites was “Initiation by ordeal” by Judy Harrow – a look at military service as a modern-day initiation ceremony, a marking of the border between childhood and adulthood, examining the ways it succeeds and fails in this capacity.

I don’t know enough about the field to say with any accuracy how comprehensive or balanced this book is as a look at paganism and its sources, but its list of contributors is certainly impressive, and there’s a lot of texts here I feel grateful to have had ready access to – things like The Book of the Law which I would never have sought out on its own. It’s not really an introductory text: it won’t give you an accessible overview of what paganism looks like now. As a collection of sources, though, it’s wide-ranging, useful and enlightening. I wrote recently about how I’d like pagan authors and their readers to be much more mindful of where their traditions and beliefs are coming from, to avoid appropriating things that aren’t ours to take; having The Paganism Reader on the shelf strikes me as a great place to start.

Review: The Land of the Green Man

Short post today because I don’t have a ton to say about Carolyne Larrington’s The Land of the Green Man, except that it’s delightful. It’s a tour around the folklore of the British Isles, looking at local tales of selkies, black dogs, giants, banshees and more. Many of these tales are tied to specific landmarks: churches, chalk drawings, mountains, stone circles. Larrington’s interested in the stories as ways of explaining the origins of such landscape features, but she also reads them in terms of what they have to say about such universal subjects as sex, death and our relationship to the natural world.

I enjoyed this as a work of comparative folklore that’s very attentive to the specificities of place: it’s even got a handy map in the front showing the locations of the tales it looks at. And as such it can perhaps help us rebuild relationships with the landscapes we live in, in this increasingly urbanised age. A few weeks after I read this I visited the Rollright Stones – one of the closest sites featured in the book to where I actually live – with my family and told them the story of the witch and the king and his knights. It was an immensely powerful experience being up there on the ridge of the world, with those stones that people have honoured for generations, feeling connected to those stories that go back centuries if not millennia. Remembering the places our folklore comes from keeps it alive; and in some way preserves the spirit of those places too.

In short – if you’re interested in storytelling not just about the British landscape in general, but about specific places within Britain, in how British people have connected with their environments since the Middle Ages and earlier, The Land of the Green Man is a good place to start.

Review: Fire in the Head

Can we talk a bit about cultural appropriation in Neopaganism?

Because it’s everywhere, it seems. Take sage smudging, which is ubiquitously recommended across the Neopagan net (including at the generally-reliable Learn Religions) as a way of cleansing or purifying a sacred space such as a ritual circle. Very few of these resources mention that sage smudging is originally a Native American practice, and that at least some Native Americans are not happy about its widespread adoption/appropriation.

I found this out last week. I’ve been reading and thinking about Neopaganism (though, thankfully, not practising sage smudging) for eight months. What else could I be doing that is harmful without knowing it?

Look, Neopaganism is not an established religion. Even reconstructionists are filling in copious blanks with their own personal gnosis, which, yes! do what works! let a hundred flowers bloom! but also, “if it works, it works” is not an excuse for taking traditions we have no right to and stripping them of cultural context. Which is exactly what’s happened to sage smudging, it seems to me. Yes, I personally need to be more careful about researching the history of ubiquitous Neopagan practices; but I think Neopagan writers also need to do better at identifying the cultural contexts for these practices.

Which brings me onto Tom Cowan’s Fire in the Head, subtitled “Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit”. According to his website, Cowan “combines universal core shamanism with traditional European spirit lore”. I don’t want to get into these concepts too much, I am very much not an expert, but “core” shamanism, it appears, was basically invented by Michael Harner, a white American who took some drugs, read some books, wrote down some similarities he saw between Native American spiritual practices and Siberian shamanism and asserted these as universal (and therefore contextless) shamanic principles. I mean, this is pretty much textbook cultural appropriation: stripping minority religious practice of crucial cultural context in order to make it appealing to white wealthy Westerners. (Here are some people talking about Harner’s work from a Native American standpoint.)

Now, for me at least, if Neopaganism is about anything it is about context. Context and specificity: the idea of deity as immanent, present in all aspects of life, however mundane; connection with local landscapes and local ecosystems. I suspect that’s sort of where Cowan is coming from with the Celtic angle, but that’s still a category error, since in fact shamanism isn’t transplantable from the cultures where it was developed. (Incidentally, Cowan’s website says that he studied with Michael Harner.)

In short, I think the shamanism aspects of Fire in the Head are invalid and damaging. I think dressing core shamanism up in Celtic clothing so that Western readers can feel more comfortable because it’s “their” heritage is misleading and appropriative. I do not think you should read, much less buy, this book.

However – given the fact that I have read the book –

As a study of Celtic myth and motif, it does have some gems, such as the discussion of decapitation (cf. the magical head of Bran the Blessed) and of missing limbs, which it posits as a marker of an encounter with the Otherworld. These connections are occasionally tenuous, but as an ex-literature student I find them useful in showing possible approaches to the mythology, things to look for in constructing readings, Cowan’s bullshit conclusions notwithstanding.

But, seriously. Don’t read this. And don’t neglect your critical thinking skills.

Review: Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism

Isaac Bonewits’ Essential Guide to Druidism is an exceptionally entertaining book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Bonewits is a major figure in recent Neopaganism: his name’s cropped up in most of the reading lists in the books I’ve read, at least, and he founded the ADF, the largest Neopagan Druid organisation in the US. He is, in other words, An Authority.

The Guide doesn’t really cover the philosophy of Druidism in any great depth; instead, it discusses its history, both ancient and recent, suggests some liturgies and practices, and looks a little at the state of Druidry today.

The first three sections of the book are devoted to history. Bonewits identifies three different eras of paganism: Paleopagan, the “original tribal faiths” that were (or are) practised as “intact belief systems”; Mesopagan, religions based on perceived Paleopagan practices that are also heavily influenced by monotheism and dualism; and Neopagan, new religious movements seeking to distance themselves specifically from monotheistic faiths while drawing on Paleopagan and Mesopagan ideas. Some of this discussion can get a bit dense: the Paleopagan section especially goes deeply into anthropological detail about the roles of people in Indo-European societies and how those roles tie into Paleopagan faiths, none of which I have the knowledge or background to evaluate.

Once out of the Paleopagan weeds, however, Bonewits’ irreverent, down-to-earth approach comes to the fore as he imparts gossip from the recent history of Druidism, rants about the various con artists and cultists operating in Neopagan communities and describes some Druid rituals. Here he is on “Fam-Trad” Druids, people who claim to be descended from Druid families and that such descent has bestowed special magic/religious status upon them:

“…although some supposed “Fam-Trad” Druids may speak a modern Celtic language, not one of them that I’ve met so far has been fluent in Old Irish, able to recite their ancestry for twenty generations, willing to compose alliterative Old Welsh poems on request, prescribe twenty-seven uses for oak bark, oak leaves, and acorns, etc.”

His down-to-earth, sceptical practicality is a refreshing antidote to the vaguely spiritual, unscientific woo that seems to pop up in a lot of Pagan writing. I am reassured by down-to-earth Pagan writers, down-to-earthness being at least nominally a core principle of Paganism.

I mean: probably don’t only read Bonewits if you’re looking for an introduction to Druidism; you want something a little less granular, a little more accessible, as your entry point. But if you’re craving some humour, some scepticism in your Pagan reading, then yes, come here. I also want to seek out his Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca, which I think will be a little more applicable to my own Pagan path. (I would probably enjoy being a Druid, but a) there aren’t any groves nearby and b) I can’t subscribe to the gender binary God/Goddess concept, so, there’s that.)

Review: Paganism: A Very Short Introduction

Part of Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introduction series, Owen Davies’ Paganism: A Very Short Introduction whisks the reader through approximately 12,000 years of religion, beginning with the burial rituals of the Upper Paleolithic and ending with modern Wicca and Neopaganism. It charts the pagan pantheons of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the early inroads of Christianity into Celtic and European paganism, the imperialist dubbing by Westerners of various religions from around the globe as “paganism” and finally the rise of the Neopagan movement in the twentieth century.

It’s a lot of information packed into about 120 pages, and as such is not especially helpful. It feels largely unstructured, thanks to its longish chapters and lack of any organising principle beyond the broadly chronological: I couldn’t find any theoretical or conceptual arc to hang onto through the onslaught of Facts. The use of the word “paganism” has undergone such shifts, and taken on so much baggage over the centuries, that an introduction like this is too short to cover it meaningfully. There are better, longer, more accessible introductory texts out there, although none that cover so much ground, admittedly: I think you’d get more out of reading a couple of those (say Graham Harvey’s Listening People, Speaking Earth and Carl McColman’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism) and getting a firm hold on some of these concepts than reading this and taking away a very shallow understanding of a lot of different things.

Review: Woman and Nature

Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature is, I guarantee you, nothing quite like anything you’ve read before.

Published in 1978, it’s very much a product of second-wave feminism: a remarkable extended dialogue on how the patriarchy treats women and the natural world. The interlocutors are the Patriarchal Voice itself, which is, broadly, the voice of Rationality, of Science, of everything that seeks to measure and analyse and exploit the natural world; and the voices of woman and nature, as their lived experiences and intuitive ways of knowing overwhelm patriarchy’s narrow viewpoint.

I realise that sounds hokey and problematic and cliched, but in reality this is a complex and difficult text that’s almost impossible to reduce down to a single “argument” – deliberately so. That can be seen in its very form, which reminds me most closely of Darren Anderson’s work of “creative non-fiction” Imaginary Cities: a hodgepodge of different non-fiction sources woven together to create a single driving thread of idea. There are sections on dressage; on farming; on nuclear fission; on surgery inflicted on women (content warning here for graphic medical descriptions); all drawn from (invariably male-authored) non-fiction texts. There are notes and a bibliography at the back of the book, but no footnotes within the text. The formatting is often non-conventional, as when, for example, the female voice in italics interpolates the male voice’s impassive description of a scientific procedure.

This is all deliberate. It’s a refusal to engage with patriarchy on its home ground, in the rational debates whose terms it sets and thus always wins. This is a text interested in reclaiming, and asserting the value of, modes of emotional knowledge that the patriarchy denigrates and sees as lesser.

Of course, there’s a risk with this sort of thing that it becomes schematic, perpetuating patriarchy through rigid gender roles even as it superficially challenges them. Actually the aligning of women with nature as a tool of patriarchy – if women are closer to nature that makes them “lower”, less human, less worthy – is something the book explicitly addresses. The equivalence between woman and nature here is more like an alliance: both are exploited and used by patriarchy as things that are not Man. It is a commonality of experience, not an innate commonality; an association not a comparison. And in associating woman and nature, it makes a powerful call to action to its readers: it asks us to reevaluate what we mean by “human”, what it is to live in this world, what is worthy of our attention and our respect and our love.

A word on the book’s ideas of femininity, which are a lot less problematic and gender essential than I was expecting. Although there’s a lot about vulvas and vaginas and wombs and pregnancy here, it is mostly from the patriarchal point of view; it’s not at all clear that Griffin thinks womanhood is tied to possessing these organs. Perhaps the opposite, actually. So I think the book does leave space for trans and non-binary identities, albeit not explicitly (and with the caveat that I am cis and may be reading with that bias).

All in all, Woman and Nature stands up pretty well to a modern-day reading – and is perhaps even more of its time now than it was when it was published, given our surging awareness of the effects of the climate crisis and capitalism’s exploitation of our natural resources. I’m really glad to have read it: it’s a book I want on my shelf, to re-read at will every few years.

Review: Pathworking Through Poetry

Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry looks at work from three Celtic poets – Seamus O’Sullivan, Fiona Macleod and, inevitably, W.B. Yeats – that deals with Irish and Scottish mythology, teasing out pagan metanarratives from each poem that then inform Tinker’s pathworkings – a series of guided meditations/visualisations that bring their practitioners face-to-face with Celtic deities, in theory.

The idea’s nice, but the execution is decidedly mixed.

Full disclosure: visualisation, especially in the form it tends to take in Pagan traditions, sets off my woo detectors like little else. This is a me problem, and I probably need to do a lot more reading on the role of imagination in spiritual experience to understand why it works for some people. Suffice it to say that it’s not for me, at this particular moment in time. It’s just unfortunate for Pathworking through Poetry, whose entire spiritual content is basically visualisation.

Although – it has to be said that the pathworkings seem to have very little to do with the poems and the readings Tinker constructs of them (which are themselves pretty cringey, being a mixture of extremely basic close reading and A-level speculation), which begs the question of what the point of the whole endeavour is. I did enjoy the poems themselves, as well as the bits and pieces of folklore Tinker recounts (for example, I was interested to learn that Bride/Bridget is a sun goddess; I hadn’t come across that association before). There’s a certain joy in picking up little tidbits in all kinds of different places, so for that reason I’m thankful to have read this! But it’s not something I’ll read again, or that I need on my shelf.