Monthly Archives: April 2014

“Goth Zodiac” Art Series: Taurus

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One of my hobbies is drawing little pictures, generally of Goths. I’ve started a new “Goth Zodiac” series on deviantArt, and this is the second one of the series, Taurus (I’m uploading one per month according to the ruling sign). You can view this series and my other art here.

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Religion and Healing

Image For about six years now, I’ve had a condition called POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), which basically means I develop a very rapid heartbeat when I stand up, making me dizzy and (occasionally) faint. It’s not a life-threatening condition and luckily I only have it mildly, so it’s just a nuisance more than anything else.

Although there isn’t a cure for POTS, in most cases it does go away very gradually, and over the past year I have noticed my symptoms improve little by little. But even more recently, since I’ve started practising paganism, I’ve noticed my symptoms improving a lot. I haven’t had a near-fainting episode for months (I used to have them several times a week),  and it used to be the norm for me to experience visual distortions or have moments when I couldn’t understand what someone was saying to me – this is really, really rare now. I’ve been experiencing more normality than I have done for the past six years, and it’s really only been this good since I started following the Pagan path.

Now, I don’t think that the gods have miraculously healed me as some kind of “reward” for my new-found devotion; not at all. I am neither important enough not devout enough to warrant that! And there’s plenty of other people out there with far more serious conditions out there who live a far more pious life and they never recover. I don’t honestly think we can give the gods 100% responsibility for our own personal well-being.

What I do think is that the very act of following a religion can be extremely beneficial mentally and physically. Performing ritual and prayer is relaxing, comforting and at the same time invigorating. Prayer gives you the opportunity to reflect on your day, your life and your loved ones, which is all very healthy. And the feeling that you are actually in contact with the divine, and getting in touch with the spirits of the earth, nature and the universe itself, is wonderful. And this feeling of serenity, inspiration and purpose is excellent for stimulating the brain’s pleasure centres, giving your body a big old healing dose of endorphins.

What’s more, the Pagan lifestyle is inherently a healthy one. It encourages healthy eating, getting outside the house, and staying active through ritual, crafts and other activities that help to connect you with nature’s forces. Since getting into Paganism, I’ve been taking more walks in nature, gotten into to a little gardening, attended more Pagan-related moots and events, and generally been more active. And all of this, I believe, has really helped me recover.

Of course, all this can be applied not just to paganism, or even to religion – any way of life that makes you passionate and inspires you to live a more healthy and fulfilling lifestyle is inevitably going to make you feel good. But different things work for different people, and for me, it’s paganism.

And if, just if, the gods really do help those who try to help themselves (as I mentioned in my previous Earth Day post), perhaps I have been lucky enough to have been blessed by the powers that be with a helping, healing hand. If that is the case, I thank you.

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Pros and cons of outdoor ritual

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Above is a photo of my very modest altar to Inari Okamisama, the Japanese deity whose many associations include rice, rain, fertility, prosperity and foxes. The altar, which is outdoors on a window sill to the side of my house, features four small offering dishes for the “four essentials for life” according to Shinto (water, sake, rice and salt), a basic homemade shimenawa (rope with shide paper charms attached that denotes a sacred place), a bell and two white fox statues that symbolise Inari’s messengers.

I think that having a personal altar outdoors is unusual in Japan. It’s not uncommon for devout Shintoists to have a kamidana (a Shinto altar) within their homes, but to my knowledge this is traditionally kept inside, not outside. However, public Shinto shrines are always outside, because nature itself is considered a “shrine” in its own right.

I’m in an unusual position, however. There are no recognised public places of Shinto worship in the UK, so I’ve had to compromise by having my personal shrine outside. What’s more, I decided to venerate Inari and create this altar in order to honour the foxes that live, and have no doubt lived for generations, in the local area; it was originally their home, and feel I have to thank them somehow for sharing their territory with us. Therefore, an altar located inside the house doesn’t seem right if it’s specifically for the foxes who live outside.

I do think that Pagan or Shinto worship should preferably take place outdoors – both are religions of nature after all, and being outside allows you to hear the bird song, smell the breeze, feel the sunlight and be in touch with the natural world. But there are of course disadvantages to having an outside altar.

One disadvantage is the practicality. When it’s raining heavily, it’s far from pleasant to be spending time standing and praying outside, and much harder to get into the right spiritual frame of mind. Additionally, as they are exposed to the elements, outside altars need a lot of maintenance. I often find myself having to clear the altar from cobwebs, dead insects and bird droppings. What’s more, the most common way to mark a sacred place in Shintoism is to use the shimenawa as mentioned above. Because the shide should be made from paper, they get damaged very easily in the rain and have to be replaced frequently.

But for me, the greatest disadvantage is how self-conscious I feel in presenting offerings and prayers at my altar. Luckily, the altar is located in quite a secluded part of our courtyard, so the chances of being seen are fairly low. But still, the courtyard can be seen from neighbour’s windows, and it’s also a communal area for other residents of our flat (they don’t tend to use it much). And this is what interferes with my prayers and rituals most of all.

Everyday Shinto ritual, while quite simple and quick, is necessarily demonstrative. First, I give a slight bow as I approach the altar. Then I ring the bell to “awaken” the kami, and make two low bows to show respect. I then clap twice, and on the second clap I join my hands and prayer. After praying (which I only do for about 30 seconds or less), I make one further low bow, and then one slight bow before turning away.

It’s a nice ritual and feels very respectful when I am fully at ease. However, when performed at my not-so-private altar, my personal feelings really interfere. I am constantly worried about being spotted by the neighbours and find myself looking around after ringing the bell or clapping to see if I’ve attracted any unwanted attention. This is really distracting and I feel bad that I am not concentrating fully on my devotions as a result. But I can’t help but worry about what my neighbours will  think if they spot me. To those not familiar with Shinto, or indeed any other forms of Paganism, it must looked fairly ridiculous for someone to be bowing and clapping at some fox statues. And what if they are strict Christians, and in their eyes what I’m doing looks like idolatry? Will they be offended?

It’s sad that I feel this way, while in Japan one never needs to feel self-conscious when offering these kinds of prayers at an outdoor, public shrine – it’s considered a very normal, natural and admirable thing to do. I wonder how many other Pagans who perform rituals or prayers outdoors feel the same way? It may seem like quite a trivial matter, but feeling self-conscious is perhaps one of the biggest challenges I face in deepening my spirituality.

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Filed under Musings & Miscellaneous, Rituals & Festivals, Shinto / Japanese Religion

Reflections on “The Golden Bough,” Sir James George Frazer

ImageThis is a real book of irony. It’s considered essential reading for anyone interested in the anthropological perspective of magic, religion and folklore, which extends to Pagans. It’s been used over and over as a reference by those practising witchcraft or reconstructing earth-based religions (as well as the writers behind the original “Wicker Man” movie). And yet, Frazer makes it pretty clear from the first chapter that the whole purpose of the text is to treat magic (and by extension, religion) as a kind of “false science,” a primitive substitute for the real thing (what is not so explicit, but fairly clear to the modern reader, is that the ultimate message of the book is to demonstrate that Christianity is just as “false” as any other religious or magical system).

And yet, it is still a tremendously compelling work for those for whom magic and religion (especially paganism) are real and present in our daily lives. Strangely enough, this book actually helped to re-affirm my beliefs and the importance I place on ritual, rather than shatter them.

One reason for this is Frazer’s passion for his subject. He may have believed that superstition is nonsense, yet he clearly had a deep appreciation for the mythology, folklore and religious rites of the many, many cultures included in his exhaustive study. His enthusiasm is contagious; while the book is rather stodgy in terms of how many little anecdotes it includes to demonstrate a point, I couldn’t help but find them fascinating.

Another reason is that this work demonstrates something that resounds with many Pagans – that all religions have the same basic principals at heart, making the magickal and religious experience universal to all people of all cultures. Motifs such as sympathetic magic, the death and rebirth of the king/god, vegetation spirits, and the relationship between the sacred and taboo are all explored in great depth spanning cultures from all over the globe and from every time period, from classical mythology to Pacific tribes to European village customs. The links that Frazer forges between these cultures are intriguing and convincing.

As an academic work, many of the ideas in The Golden Bough have since been discredited, and the modern reader cannot help but question some of the frankly unbelievable accounts of certain tribal practices (I suspect 19th century academics weren’t subject to as much scrutiny as to their sources or as much peer review as they are today). Nevertheless, if approached with both an open mind, and a grain of salt, The Golden Bough is not only an inspiring read – it is enjoyable and highly thought-provoking. In my opinion, definitely a must-read for any Pagan, even if it was never intended to be read as reference material for reconstructing pagan practices.

 

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A Pagan Blessing for St George’s Day

ImageOn this St. George’s Day, I honour the land that has nourished me, the ancestors whose blood runs through my veins, and the Green Man, the guardian of England’s wild places.

I thank the Green Man for his protection and blessings, and ask that he gives us all the wisdom to to preserve and respect our natural heritage. Please give us the dedication and foresight to protect our trees and forests, our rivers and seas, our mountains and marshes, and all the creatures that dwell within.

So mote it be!

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Earth Day 2014

ImagePaganism is fairly vague on morality, in terms of how people should treat other people (apart from references to “an’ ye harm none” and just generally promoting being a nice person). But it is quite clear on one point – that the natural world is sacred and should be treated as such.

This is why some Pagans have come to celebrate Earth Day, a secular event originating from the 1970s, as an extension of their worship of the Earth spirits.

For the most part, I think this is a very positive thing. It reminds us of the very real threats to our world and its treasures, and also reinforces our respect and reverence for Mother Earth. That’s why today, when I made a prayer to Inari Okamisama (my patron deity), I prayed for the healing and protection of the world and for the wisdom to do my part to help the environment.

But there is one thing I worry about. When we pray, perform rituals or work magick, it’s all too easy to think, “That’s it, I’ve done my thing, no need to worry any more as the powers that be will sort it out.” But I can’t believe prayer works that way at all!

It’s like Aesop’s fable of the farmer and Hercules. The farmer was driving his cart when it became stuck in the mud. For hours, the farmer called to Hercules for help, but he did not come. Eventually, the farmer gave up and started to push the cart himself. At once, Hercules appeared and started to help. When the farmer asked why Hercules had not come before, the god reminded him that the gods only help those who try to help themselves first.

I think that prayer and ritual have the power to change the way we think and feel, and to give us the drive and inspiration to act – that’s how the gods speak to us. So from this Earth Day, I’m going to try to change my life in as many small ways as possible to do my bit. It’s not easy to live an eco-friendly lifestyle in this day and age – it requires planning, mindfulness and sacrifice. But each action I take, I’m going to try to stop and think, “Is there an alternative way of doing this that would be better for the environment?” And by trying to make my life a little more ecological, I’ll be bringing myself closer to the spirits of nature.

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Bluebells at Gravesend Cemetery

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One of my favourite places to go for a walk in Gravesend is the cemetery, which is always very beautiful and peaceful. When I went today, I had a lovely surprise – the bluebells were in full bloom.

私が住んでいるグレーブゼンドの中で散歩する時一番好きなところは、いつも綺麗で、静かなグレーブゼンド霊園です。今日霊園で散歩したときに、素晴らしいものが見ました。ブルーベルは満開でした。

Bluebells have long been associated with the faerie folk, and it’s easy to see why – with such a vivid colour, they seem to be filled with a magick all their own. They also tend to cluster around large trees, like dryads making their homes there.

昔からブルーベルは、妖精に関係があると信じられています。見るとその感じがわかります。鮮やかな真っ青で、魔法の花のようです。それに、よく大きい木の下に茂て、木の精霊のようです。

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Whenever I go to a cemetery or any place of natural beauty or spiritual significance, I try to bring with me some sort of offering to the spirits to thank them for letting me visit. Today, I brought an offering of gyokuro green tea and frankincense, and scattered it at the roots of the three largest trees and the bluebells scattered around as an offering both to the spirits of nature and the spirits of the departed that dwell in this place.

私は霊園や自然が豊かなところや聖なるところに行くたびに、精霊に感謝を述べるために何かを備えようとします。今日、玉露と乳香を持ってきて、あの世の精霊への供え物として一番大きい三本の木の下に散らしました。

In addition to the bluebells, pink and white blossom was also falling from the trees, covering the graves with a soft blanket of petals. Both the blossom and the bluebells, especially in the cemetery setting, made me think of the fleeting nature of the gift of life – both the bluebells and the blossom will be gone in a few weeks, and I will miss their beauty. But they will return again next year, reminding us that life is a cycle and does go on, although we must be patient. Until then, it’s best to make the most of nature’s gifts while they are here.

ブルーベルのほかには、木からピンクの花と白い花が落ちて、お墓に綺麗に覆いました。こんな霊園の中でブルーベルと落ちている花を見て、物の哀れを思い浮かびました。何週間後にブルーベルも花も消えて、その美しさを寂しく思い出します。でも、辛抱して待ったら、来年も帰って、命とは輪廻ということだと覚えます。

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