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Going Home

September 10, 2011 3 comments

A view of Crete from Navigator of the Seas, 08/26/11

Last week, I got back from a seven day cruise in the eastern Mediterranean which was followed by several more days in Rome (and a day trip to Florence). We traveled to Sicily, Athens, Kusadasi in Turkey, then to Chania in Crete before returning to Rome. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d never been on a cruise before, but I jumped at the chance admittedly because I’d always wanted to go to Greece. My roots as a teenage Hellenist were screaming at me that I needed to go. This was pretty much my dream vacation, and despite the fact that I went with my family (born again Christians of the most obnoxious sort, to a one), I had an amazing time.

I have Many Thoughts about this trip, and I’m still processing, while getting over a cold bug to boot, but in a lot of ways it felt like a pilgrimage of sorts, that I was coming full circle back to the place I started. Because when I first started learning about Paganism as a young teen, I identified as a Hellenic Wiccan. Nowadays, my path is more…eclectic, and even though I sometimes loathe calling it that because of the various flakes and lack of scholarship that sometimes go hand-in-hand with it, it’s really the best way to describe it. I haven’t actively identified as a Hellenist in some time, even though I would so totally wear a “Hermes is my homeboy” shirt. He looks out for me a lot, even though we don’t really have any kind of formal arrangement. (Though at this point, I really ought to make it official.)

Even with the eclecticism, and the ever-changing nature of my path, I always seem to gravitate back to the deities of the eastern Mediterranean region. It’s my spiritual “home” for lack of a better term. So physically going to those places was really profound for me, in a way I wasn’t really expecting since it’s been so long since I actively identified as a Hellene.

A Herm at the Athenian Agora, carrying the infant DionysosGreek symbolism and mythos have always been hugely important to me, even before I knew there were actual Pagans still in the world in modern times. I always say that the single most influential book in my spiritual development was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, which I read for school in the fourth grade. Even though the myths were sanitized for the most part, because it was a children’s book, the illustrations were really what hooked me. They’re ginormous and colorful and have a way of drawing the reader in, making the stories come alive. Those stories and characters were real, and relatable to me in a way the Bible stories I was fed in Sunday School never were. And one thing that struck me about the Bible stories is that God was just so very angry all the time. By contrast the Greek gods in that book weren’t distant and vengeful, though they certainly had their share of fits. They were actively involved in mortal lives (for good or for ill), and they were delightfully human in their foibles. They bickered, fell in love, played pranks, and mourned people they cared about. As a kid, it really resonated with me. It made sense to me. And one of the last pages of the book had a bleak image of broken statues, explaining how the gods were forgotten, and it made me cry harder than anything I’d ever read as a kid. How could anyone just forget them like that? It was baffling to me, and so sad.

Fast forward to my first explorations of Wicca, and when the time came to “pick a pantheon” as it were, it was a no-brainer for me. The first deities I ever worked with as a fresh newb were Apollo and Athena. They were always the two that jumped out at me as a kid, particularly Apollo, since I was always brainy and musically inclined. And they spoke to me. I sang, I played violin and keyboard, and I was a burgeoning writer; Apollo was poking me before I even knew what that was. And as a girl that was always a “brain” and into nerdy male-dominated pursuits, I could relate a lot to Athena. She was instrumental in what I like to call my “Bathroom Floor Epiphany” when I was sixteen, and for that I’ll always be grateful to Her. My first Craft name was Morboriel Parthenos. This is generally what I went by online, and is the name I was published under in New Generation Witches. The “Parthenos” there was deliberate, it was an identification with Athena. And even after I got sort of disillusioned with Wicca, I still called myself a Hellenist. But then I fell away from active practice, and, well, things got a bit complicated and I was disconnected from that for a long time.

When I moved in with Nancy, my abusive roommate, she claimed Hera as one of the house deities, since she worked with Her. Even when I was still identifying as Hellenist, I hadn’t really done any work with Hera, but I respected the rules of the house. One of Nancy’s favorite tactics for emotional manipulation was “channeling” the various deities she worked with, claiming to speak for Them (and, conveniently, Their wishes always seemed to neatly be in line with hers). I had a lot of unresolved guilt issues and a sense that I’d abandoned Apollo and Athena. I’d long since given up music (the violin because of a bitter and racist teacher I had, singing…because I don’t really know, to be honest), and I felt like I failed Apollo and was a bad Pagan. Nancy knew this. And like every clever abuser ever smelled blood in the water and went in for the kill. During one particularly ugly talking board session (one I wasn’t even participating in, just on the outside of), she claimed to speak for Athena and flat out told me She was furious with me for not working with Her anymore, and Apollo was furious with me for giving up my music. I was berated about how I was a terrible priestess and the Gods hated me and that I was never even to think about Them again. That I was utterly alone in the spiritual world. Afterwards, when we were talking about this “message”, Nancy said I just shouldn’t work with any deities at all since I’m broken and a failure and do nothing but piss Them off. And being a former Catholic and someone who still believed in Christian cosmology to some extent, she told me I should work with angels instead because they were “safer and more forgiving of screw-ups”.

Yeah, I got nothing.

Now, I’ve worked with Athena, as I said. I know how blunt She is at times. But that? That wasn’t Her. I recognize that now that it was Nancy playing games, trying to control people again like she always did. But at the time, I was so beaten down by her emotional abuse, feeling like I was a prisoner in my own house, that I was willing to accept her as an authority figure because I was so terrified of her. I was willing to believe any bullshit she claimed as a “mouthpiece for the Gods”, because if I didn’t…then what? I would be cast out, thousands of miles away from my home, with no friends. I had Stockholm Syndrome in a bad way. Just the memory of this is enough to make me cry. For as much as she bloviated and laughed off the allegations that she was running a cult (mostly because the grudgewanker with the website was even crazier and more abusive than she was), that’s really what it felt like sometimes.

Statue of Hermes at the Vatican MuseumI can’t emphasize enough the damage this one incident did to me. I was terrified even of thinking about Hellenic traditions after that. Nancy, in her infinite wisdom, decreed that I should work with Hermes because I’m a Gemini and He’s in charge of Geminis. Completely contradicting her previous statement about angels, but, well, that was Nancy for you. The hilarious bit is Hermes, being the /b/ troll he is, promptly turned up and said hi to me. Mind you, even when I was a Hellenist, I never worked with him. I mean, I always liked Him, but He was never really on my radar, which is kind of bizarre when I look back on it. He wasn’t high pressure at all, He didn’t try to put any claims on me or anything. He was just this quiet presence saying, “hey, it’s okay. If you need me for anything, just ask. Also, that chick is dumb, don’t listen to her.”

Have I mentioned I really, really like Hermes?

Anyway, I’ve since gotten actual confirmation that it was indeed bullshit, via my partner who works with Hades, but it did have a really bad effect on me. So much so that when the issue of this trip came up, I was still kind of scared to go to Athens even though the Parthenon was someplace I’d always wanted to go. What if I wasn’t welcome in Her space? I didn’t want to offend.

When we went to the Acropolis, all that just went by the wayside. Climbing the hill–and it is massive–is itself a kind of spiritual experience. It was terribly hot, being August after all, and dusty, and crowded with other tourists. But it felt like I was walking in the footsteps of the ancients, there’s really no other way I can describe it. And when I actually saw the Parthenon itself at the top, cranes and all, I was speechless.

The Parthenon, taken 8/24/11A funny thing happened then. I felt Athena. It struck me in such a profound way that despite all the tourists and the way that site has been not terribly well taken care of, that She was still there, after all this time. Her presence was, well, a little overwhelming. It was a beautiful feeling.

I didn’t know what else to do, really, so I knelt by the main plaque, kissed my fingers, touched my head and my heart and then touched the ground. I said a little prayer, I won’t even begin to pretend it was at all eloquent. I was awed and sort of wibbly and didn’t really know what to say.

I didn’t feel anger from Her, or like I wasn’t welcome on Her turf. I felt welcome. I felt peace. Mi casa es su casa, if you will. She didn’t say anything, but She didn’t need to. And it was like a massive weight was lifted from my shoulders. She didn’t call to me or ping me or anything–that time’s passed, and I understand and accept that I’m not Hers–but I did understand once and for all that Nancy lied to me, about basically everything. That my path is my own, that my relationship to the Gods is my own, and not for anyone to dictate. It’s something the Dark Lady has told me several times, over and over, but Athena confirmed it for me, and I felt really good about it.

The Library of Celsus, EphesusThat was probably the biggest Moment I had on this trip, but there were others. It’s one thing to read about these things in books, watch TV documentaries about them, and have intellectual knowledge of them, but it’s quite another to actually be there in the presence of history. I know that probably sounds incredibly cheesy, but it’s true. Walking in those ancient places, where people lived and died and worshipped every day was profound. In Turkey, we went on a private tour of Ephesus that I’d booked online in advance through Ephesus Shuttle, and our guide was incredibly well-educated and made a huge difference in the experience. The way she painted a picture of ancient life there made the ruins come alive. We saw the Terrace Houses, which were incredible. The energy there was still palpable. And one big thing that I took away from this stop, and from visiting the big Roman sites, was that syncretism was hugely prevalent in ancient times in the region, even more than I knew it was. It was deeply affirming for me, too.

As an aside, I don’t begrudge Recons at all, even though they admittedly frighten me. I understand that they find value in that particular approach, and I deeply respect the vigorous scholarship that goes into it. I also don’t pretend to have huge ~scholarly knowledge~ of these things–I took like one Classics 101 course in college. But I find the sneering at syncretic approaches sort of…baffling, to be honest. I see a place like Ephesus that was extremely cosmopolitan and diverse in population, where you see monuments and temples for all sorts of deities, and it only confirms to me that there’s nothing wrong with me for being eclectic. It was sort of the thing back then!

And it felt totally different than going to Rome and being in so many places that were once sacred Pagan spaces and deliberately turned to Christianity. I hate to sound like some dumbass fluffbunny crying about “The Burning Times” and flailing about ~teh ebol Chrischuns~ but the spiritual violence inherent in that sort of act was blatantly palpable basically everywhere I went in Rome, and it made me incredibly sad and angry by turns. The Pantheon was probably the worst, though the Temple of Romulus on Palatine Hill was just as bad. It’s what I can only describe as “Fuck You” energy. It’s no good at all.

What all this means for my path, I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever strictly work in one particular paradigm again; my worldview just isn’t like that anymore, if it ever really was. But visiting Greece awakened something dormant in me, and I’m feeling the pull again. Apollo in particular, I feel like I’m being drawn back to, which is sort of baffling to me since I’m a priestess of the Dark now. I don’t know how the Dark Lady would feel about me working with Him again, and given that I’m bound to Her, that’s sort of important. In my head, I know that She doesn’t make dualistic judgment calls about the Light, that She’s really very Taoist in that regard. But She’s also very Dionysian in Her approach to things and has a different kind of energy than He does. I don’t know if they’re necessarily compatible. It’s something I’m going to have to meditate on and seek guidance about.

There’s also some trepidation on my part because of the recon issue, and how I know I could never do that if I incorporated Hellenic ideas into my practice again. I look at the kind of wank that goes on in Heathen communities regarding people who rely heavily on UPG in their practice and wonder if Hellenists are any better (spoilers: not really). My chaote leanings don’t really help me much in this regard (hi, my patron Goddess is from a video game!). But I don’t think ignoring these stirrings is really an option, either, and maybe it’s time my paradigm shifted a little again. I don’t know, I’m still trying to figure this all out. In that sense, this trip was massively helpful to me. Anything that gets me thinking is something meaningful.

Context matters. History matters.

April 26, 2011 1 comment

As seen on tumblr: more erasure of non-Wiccan Pagans (though at least zie makes room for Recons), and more equating of Paganism with polytheism(s). Sigh. There’s not any more that I can say on this topic that hasn’t been written about–in reams, even!–but suffice it to say, despite what the New Age shelf at the local Buns n Noodles would have you believe, Paganism encompasses a great deal many more paths than Ravenwolfian Neo-Wicca. It certainly encompasses a great deal more than just “polytheism”. But this cuts to the heart of the age old argument over just what exactly “Paganism” means, and that’s not really what I want to talk about in this post. I want to talk about the racial angle to this, and why it frequently bothers me.

Something that always sticks in my craw, and the reason why I was giving that answer the side eye, is the mention of Hindus and practitioners of Shinto in the same breath as Pagans. This is not to say that I don’t believe we have common ground or interests, particularly as minority faiths in a culturally Christian society, or that it’s not worthwhile to explore the commonalities between our beliefs and practices. I’m especially not trying to say that intersectionality is absent as a factor. It’s just…well, (once again) I believe that a heaping helping of white privilege prevents western Pagans from understanding how problematic it is for us to start “claiming” folks from other traditions.

First of all, a legion of various people’s bullshit Grandmother Stories from Alex Sanders down to Ed Hubbard to the contrary, Paganism in the sense(s) that we define and practice it (more correctly, Neo-Paganism according to Bonewits) isn’t even that old. Hinduism is thousands of years old. The practices of indigenous folks and First Nations tribes are similarly ancient. Even in the case of faiths that aren’t as old, such as the family of syncretic Afro-Caribbean faiths, there is still some distinct history. But with all due respect to the Recons among us (who, in fairness, I almost never see saying this shit), Paganism as practiced in the west is a relatively new phenomenon, without that kind of history. To me, this is really no different from the Mormons and their ridiculous baptisms for the dead, except it’s arguably worse because the people in question are still alive and kicking and practicing their faiths. And given the racial and class demographics of the western Pagan community, it’s problematic as hell from where I’m sitting. Sometimes I feel as though this driving need from some white Pagans to claim folks stems from the same place as the need some Wiccans still have to insist theirs is an “ancient” religion passed down from prehistory. That is, some deep-seated insecurity that practicing a newer religion somehow isn’t as legitimate as having an unbroken connection to the past. It’s the eternal search for spiritual street cred. The thing is, as odious as I find appropriation and commodification of cultures, appropriation of peoples is even grosser and gets talked about even less.

Folks, there is very good reason that many (most?) of the people who practice old non-Abrahamic religions don’t flock to the Pagan banner. Just as a simple matter of practicality, it’s not a community or a history they have any real need for–again, many of these faiths have been practiced unbroken, they have their own communities, their own histories, their own languages, traditions and ways of relating with one another. They don’t particularly need to be stuck under a foreign umbrella term defined by folks outside their communities. Hell, this even applies to religious paths that really aren’t that much older than Neo-Paganism (such as black nationalist Kemeticism). Secondly, much like the word “witch” before it, even though many folks have been trying to reclaim it with varying degrees of success, “Pagan” still has really negative connotations for a lot of people. “Pagan” was what a lot of folks were (and still are) called, “Pagan” was a weapon used to justify slavery and genocide, the destruction of art and culture, and on and on. Reclaiming the term is all well and good, but let’s not get it twisted.

Of course, this is where some skeptical white readers might resort to what the Unapologetic Mexican calls the fallacious flip. “Our ancestors were also persecuted and slaughtered by Christendom!” “It wasn’t just brown people oppressed and slaughtered by the church!” Of course, and they were–I’m not trying to minimize or downplay those atrocities at all. What I’m saying is that the brown folks of the world experienced this differently than the white folks of Europe, and this is a point that really needs to be made. For the brown folks of the world, Christianization went hand-in-fist with physical, psychological, economic and political colonization, and in many (most!) of the places where these faiths are practices, the effects are still being felt in the modern day. “Pagan” was (and still occasionally is) used as a weapon against brown folks in a specifically racialized way, and the way we engage with the term has a different history. It’s tied up in a specifically racialized clown orgy of Fail and Wrong with notions like Orientalism, and the White Man’s Burden. What I’m saying is the way it played out with brown folks was different. Racist doctrines such as the so-called “Curse of Ham” and similarly, the “Mark/Curse of Cain” were used to justify all manner of atrocities from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the conquest of Southeast Asia and other places. Civilizing the unwashed brown hordes was seen as the good white Christian’s duty. It was racialized, y’all. It still is, it just takes the form of things like the Project for a New American Century’s “War on Terra”, wholesale abduction of brown children by white, Christian American evangelicals in the wake of natural disasters in developing countries (ie: Haitian earthquake). Religious imperialism was a huge impetus behind the Stolen Generations in Australia and “Indian Schools” in the US and Canada. Context matters. History matters.

Further still–and this is especially true of the indigenous folks of North America, who have much more experience with Neo-Paganism–sometimes Pagans simply aren’t trusted. With the prevalence of Wiccans appropriating Native imagery, using Lakota chants in their circles and outright stealing plains tribal practices in general (often under the erroneous guise of “Native American Spirituality”, as if there were such a thing), not to mention a long shameful history of white “medicine men” and plastic shamans ripping off and misrepresenting indigenous practices to gullible white folks to make a quick buck, ad nauseum, is it any wonder some Native folks in NA might think twice about allowing themselves to be assimilated into the umbrella of Paganism? It’s one thing for someone to claim a label because the feel it resonates with them or they identify with it; that’s cool. It’s an entirely different story to start slapping it on people just because their practices and beliefs kinda sorta if you squint resemble yours. To me, it goes back to the right to self-determination, which I fundamentally believe is a basic human right. You don’t get to define other people’s identities. And you especially have no fucking business doing it when there’s been a very gross history of people doing that. Many of them had intentions they believed were just as “pure” as yours, by the way (google White Man’s Burden).

Understand that when you try to “claim” folks who have been practicing their religions for hundreds or thousands of years, some of whom are struggling to reclaim or rebuild traditions after centuries of racist, imperialist oppression, it’s problematic as hell. Understand that when you appropriate the suffering and persecution of sub-Saharan African “witches” by linking it to your ridiculous martyr complexes (replete with wailing about “Teh Burning Tiemz!!!11”), often with a rotten side order of White Savior Syndrome*? It’s neo-colonialism, guys. Pure and simple. Context matters. History matters. Before you try to speak on these issues, familiarizing yourself with both is necessary. Legit dialogue and understanding cannot be had, bridges of solidarity and kinship cannot be built when one half of the equation is unwilling or unable to do their homework.

Context matters. History matters.

*Bonus lulz when this comes from people who otherwise bash Afro-Caribbean/syncretic faiths as being “barbaric” and “unevolved” for practicing animal sacrifices. Have often seen comments to this effect within five minutes of each other, from the exact same commenters.

On the signal boosting front

March 2, 2011 4 comments

Firstly: thanks to the Wild Hunt for linking my crappy little blog yesterday, and welcome to the folks that found their way here. Now I might actually have to update more than once a When a Gemini Feels Like It.

One positive development that’s come out of this hot mess is that there’s been a lot of awesome discussion going on about the role of gender in Pagan paths, and trans Pagan spirituality, and I wanted to do a little signal boosting for a couple of posts that were linked in comments yesterday that deserve some attention.

foxfetch has a pretty bad ass manifesto demanding an expansion of our sacred images beyond the gender binary. Really, go read it, it’s amazing. (Though I do find it interesting that one commenter over there perceived the post as an “attack” on gender essentialism in Paganism. Funny how that seems to happen whenever marginalized people assert themselves!)

femmeguy has some interesting thoughts on the Sacred Masculine, that pretty neatly dovetail what I was talking about regarding the Feminine. Synchronicity FTW!

And finally, in the interest of fairness: CAYA, the coven at the center of the PCon controversy, has issued a statement explaining their position on gender and ritual space. I’m linking without comment, mainly because I’ve said my peace, and “OMGLOL” isn’t really constructive.  I will echo what a friend said though, which is that maybe all this attention is a sign that Lilith is working through these folks in ways they didn’t necessarily expect. Ultimately, it’s my sincere hope that people learn from all this and don’t just dismiss it as another dumbass internet flame war, though I wish those lessons didn’t have come at the expense of transfolks.

Categories: Gender, Paganism Tags: ,