Monthly Archives: November 2014

Paganism: Reclaiming Spirituality from Commercialism

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Odin, one of many figures that inspired the modern-day Santa Claus / Father Christmas

Pagans do love their festivals. Not only does the standard Pagan calendar have eight major festivals, Pagans will happily hold rituals to celebrate other events as well, such as the Full Moon and festivals specific to their particular path; for example, as a Shintoist, I try to observe Japanese festivals as well as Western Pagan ones. One could say the Paganism makes life seem like one big long party.

Only this emphasis on ritual and festival has far more significance than a mere “party.” I see modern day Paganism, and its growing popularity, as a way of putting back the spirituality into the many significant occasions that punctuate life in an increasingly non-spiritual and commercially-driven Britain.

Take Christmas for example. Although most British people would acknowledge that Christmas is a Christian festival, the numbers of people who celebrate it as such has drastically declined over the years. And while Christian symbolism such as the Nativity scene is still present in the UK, it is very much dominated by the “secular” symbols of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, Christmas dinner and Father Christmas (who is increasingly conflated with the more widespread figure of Santa Claus). One might say that there is a relationship between the decline in the spiritual celebration of Christmas, and the rise of the less palatable, ultra-commercial side, such as the “Black Friday” sales that are getting more common in the UK and cause ugly scenes of frenzied consumers fighting over slightly cheaper goods.

I see the growing popularity of Paganism partly as a reaction against the commercialism of Britain’s religious traditions. In fact, many of those so-called “secular” symbols of Christmas are deeply rooted in the pre-Christian Pagan traditions. The Christmas tree symbolises the rebirth of life after the dark of winter, and decorating it is a form of “sympathetic magic” to encourage other trees to bear fruit again. Christmas dinner serves the same purpose as any other feast in Paganism – it is a way of ritually taking in the goodness of Mother Nature, sharing that goodness with our loved ones, and thanking Nature for her bounty. And the many mythological figures who have been woven into the character of Father Christmas are deities revered by Pagans, such as Odin, Saturn and the Holly King – I find it intriguing that children even leave out offerings for Father Christmas in the same way as a dedicated Pagan will leave out offerings for their deities. Paganism allows people who feel disconnected with Christianity to enjoy the spirituality and true “magic” of Christmas (or Yule, as most Pagans call it) and to think upon its deeper themes of celebrating the cycle of nature and gratitude for our blessings, rather than simply let companies exploit it as a cynical means to get more money out of people.

And Christmas/Yule isn’t the only British festival that Pagans try to rescue from secularisation. St Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and the days of the four patron Saints of the British Isles are some of the once-Christian, now-secular holidays that many Pagans choose to celebrate in Pagan fashion. Some Pagans even take modern observances not rooted in any religion, such as Earth Day, and choose it as a day to venerate the appropriate deities. Pagans understand very well that human beings have a deep craving for spirituality, and Paganism provides a means for people to fulfil this need, even in a secular society.

I don’t want to say that I think any secular or commercial aspect of religious festivals is wrong – not at all! I enjoy Christmas shopping and I think traders have every right to use festivals to earn more money for their families. In fact, merchants have always played an important role in religious festivals of any kind – just go to any big Shinto shrine or festival in Japan, and you’ll see numerous traders around; I consider them all as part of the spirit of the Shinto religion. What I am saying is that we should never lose sight of the spiritual significance of our festivals among the rising commercialism – for if we do, we will lose something very precious and magical, and we’ll all find ourselves less content as a result.

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Ancient Wisdom: Selling One’s Soul to the Devil

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The story of an ambitious man selling his soul to the Devil to gain wealth and power in his mortal life is a popular one, which has captured our imagination throughout history. The most famous example of this story is the legend of Dr Faust, and I highly recommend to anyone to read Christopher Marlowe’s play Faustus because it is excellent and captures the legend really well.

Although the story is rooted in Christian ideals, it’s still very much on the folk spectrum of Christianity (selling one’s soul to the Devil isn’t an idea expressed in the Bible), that particular brand of Christianity that merges very much with Paganism. More to the point, I think it contains a message of exceptional importance to people of all cultures, even Pagans, as I think it can be interpreted as a message for “Green,” sustainable living.

The Devil in the Details (of modern society)

In many versions of this legend, a man learns forbidden and arcane arts to summon the Devil, to whom he then pledges his soul in the afterlife in exchange for material wealth and power now. He does this in full knowledge that the Devil will condemn him to eternal torment, yet he either falls into self-denial or thinks that he can use his ingenuity to trick the Devil somehow into releasing him. But the man is of course foolish, and right at the end, the Devil comes to claim him and there is nothing he can do.

Although the original message of the story was probably intended to be one about keeping Christian morals, I see some disturbing parallels between this story and how we live as a species today.

Take oil, for example. Without a doubt, civilisation would not be where it was today without it. It’s cheap, releases a huge amount of energy, and can also be used to produce really useful materials such as plastic. If we had stuck to using renewable energy, such as wood, we would never have been able to achieve some of the incredible things we have achieved in science, technology and social development in such a short space of time.

But ultimately, oil will be our downfall. One day, it will run out. It’s not a case of if, but when. And when it does, if we haven’t figured out a suitable alternative, it will leave chaos, war and starvation in its wake. What’s more, burning oil is devastating our environment, making it harder and harder for most species to survive in the changing conditions – the destruction caused by oil might wipe us out before it runs out!

In this way, oil is the Devil, and our future is damnation. We have sold ourselves to the cheap convenience of oil, in the full knowledge that our children’s children will be the ones to suffer. We may not have sold our souls literally, but we have sold our future.

Unfortunately, this metaphor doesn’t end with oil. It can also be applied to the economy.

Currency – the root of all evil?

Much of the public is unaware of this, but “money” as we know it hasn’t existed in a long time. In the past, bank notes represented actual gold reserves that the banks kept safe for you, and at any time you could exchange a note for the appropriate amount of gold. Gold, as we know, is always valuable, because only a certain amount (and a small amount at that) exists in the world which cannot increase or decrease.

But those days are a distant memory. There are no gold reserves behind our money now. Our “money” (or currency, as it should properly be called since there is no gold behind it) simply represents debt that’s exchanged from bank to bank  – a debt that grows and grows over time. This is unsustainable because it’s just creating a larger and larger debt in the future that our children will not be able to pay off, and it will probably result in world financial collapse. This video explains this in greater detail.

I think it is the case that like oil, without the system of fiat currency we probably wouldn’t have been able to develop our civilization as quickly as we have done, because the money to build expensive rockets and particle accelerators and medical treatment and so on simply wouldn’t exist. But once again, in using fiat currency, I believe we have sold our souls – or rather, our future – to the Devil. We have created, and keep on creating, a phenomenal debt that our children will not be able to pay, which could result in everyone losing everything.

How to get our soul back

It’s interesting that modern interpretations of the Devil, or Satan, often see him as representing knowledge and enlightenment in opposition to the suppressive dogma of state religion. Selling one’s soul to him can representing using our knowledge and technology to “cheat” – to submit to our greed and impatience by creating problems for the future so we can all have a more pleasant existence now – rather than to apply it wisely to create a better world for the future.

I think all Pagans believe in a “Green” lifestyle, and for me, a “Green” lifestyle is one that always considers our future in all decisions we make now. While I’m not saying that we should abandon progress entirely (I would never suggest such a thing because I love science too much!), I am saying that we should consider working within our means – which may mean slowing things down a little – perhaps going along the lines of the Slow Life movement. And of course, investing our money more wisely so it goes into developing renewable energy resources, for example, rather than warfare. If we really want our future generations to survive, we seriously need to think about changing how we live now. In most versions of the selling the soul legend, the man who sells his soul is often given multiple warnings and opportunities to repent. We too have been given warnings by scientific and economic experts, and we really need to start listening.

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“Goth Zodiac” Art Series: Sagittarius

zodiac-Sagittarius

The latest in my Goth Zodiac series – Sagittarius!

Being so rebellious, creative and fun, the punkier, deathrocky side of Goth seems fitting for Sagittarius. The lightning bolts reflect Jupiter, the ruler of the sign.

You can view the rest of the series so far and my other artwork here: http://trellia.deviantart.com

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On Worshipping the Pagan Gods of War

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Mars, the Roman god of war. From Wiki Commons.

There certainly are an awful lot of deities connected with warfare within every major Pagan pantheon. I suppose part of the reason for this is that the deities reflect the lives of the people who worshipped them, and the pantheons that remained recorded in history were often those of the societies who were inclined to conqueror others and build empires – the combative, warlike ones, in other words.

Another important reason, and one that’s still highly relevant to religion today, is the link between state and religion within those societies. Unlike modern day neopaganism, Pagan religions of old were very much supported and utilised by the state. And, just as we see with religion today today, divine imagery was used to glorify war and battle, and to encourage young men to hurl themselves into danger and to kill others with the promise that the gods would be on their side (or, at least, an afterlife fit for a hero). Hence the proliferation of gods and goddesses related to war.

Actually, I see the evolution of war gods as a good example of what happens when folk religion is adapted by leaders and transformed into state religion, as many of the war gods did not start out as such. The most famous of all gods of war, Mars, was originally an agricultural deity. Odin’s association with wisdom and poetry probably came before his connection with battle.  And in Shinto, the war god Hachiman, like Mars, started off life as a bringer of plentiful harvests and fish worshipped by peasants. I think that in all these cases, the military associations with these deities was given to them by generals and leaders to inspire a warrior spirit in their subjects.

So should we Pagans still honour these deities as gods of war? I have asked myself that question many times. For example, when I remembered the victims of warfare in my November Esbat ritual as a way of commemorating Remembrance Day, I wondered whether I should direct my prayers to one of the gods of war.

Eventually, I decided not to. I try to live as a pacifist, and so it seems wrong for me to pray to a deity that glorifies warfare. What’s more, I much prefer folk religion over state religion, and so I’d rather worship the deities as perceived by the common people in ancient times rather than those constructed by the state. I realise the two can be very difficult to separate, but I do what I can.

That’s not to say I do not venerate the gods with associations with warfare. I just chose to honour them for their other aspects. For example, my husband and I asked for the blessings of Mars during our handfasting, but in this case we were asking for his blessings of passion and energy rather than calling upon his belligerent aspects.

And as for honouring those who have died in combat and conflict, I find it far more fitting to pray to a deity of benevolent death, such as Thanatos, or a deity connected with peace, like Eirene or Freyr. In today’s world where (most of us at least) are striving for a peaceful and fair world for everyone, this seems much for suitable and constructive.

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My Torii at Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

ToriiJA

This is the torii that my friend very kindly offered on my behalf when she was at Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine during a business trip to Kyoto (I wrote about this earlier here). The idea is you buy a miniature torii, write a wish or a prayer to Inari Okami on it, and leave it as an offering. My friend simply prayed for my happiness on my torii.

Recently I’ve had lots of happy occasions, so I think it must be working!

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Why Paganism isn’t necessarily a matter of faith

Stonehenge

Druids in action at Stonehenge. By sandyraidy (Stonehenge – Druids-2) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the many things that western Pagans have in common with Japanese Shintoists is that both religions are far more religions of action – ritual, magic, and general lifestyle – than religions of philosophy or teachings. This makes sense considering some of the other shared characteristics of the two religions, as both can be considered folk religions that developed among the general populace rather than a priesthood (to an extent), and neither have a “true” holy text (the Kojiki is about the closest thing that Shinto has, but it’s more of a collection of myths rather than a “guide” to the Shinto religion and is hardly complete; Inari, one of the most important Shinto deities, isn’t even mentioned by name).

In fact, I would say that the idea of “faith” or even “belief” is not as important in Paganism or Shinto when compared with more organised religions that do have a more set doctrine. If you ask a moot of twenty Pagans the question, “What do Pagans believe,” you’ll invariably get twenty different answers. Or, you’ll get the deceptively vague answer, “I don’t really know.”

Actually, I think there is a lot of power behind the statement, “I don’t really know.” I think it’s perfectly OK not to know exactly what it is you believe – acknowledging that you don’t understand the nature of the spiritual forces around us, or that you don’t know whether or not they’e even there, doesn’t mean you’re any less committed as a Pagan. It simply shows humility – an admission that no human being truly understands the forces at work in nature. Performing rituals because it just feels like the right thing to do or it makes you feel good, without over-thinking the beliefs that may lie behind these rituals, seems a perfectly valid form of Paganism to me. I know there are some Pagans who really do have a deep belief in their gods and magic, which is fine too, but I believe that it is action, rather than belief, that really makes Pagans Pagan. That’s why pretty much all Pagans are environmentalists – if there is a belief that all Pagans agree on, it is that the earth is sacred, and that we need to act to protect nature within our daily lives.

So if you find emotional and spiritual fulfilment in praying at an altar, or making offerings to Gods and Goddesses, or singing and dancing out in nature, I don’t think it matters at all if you’re not sure why you’re doing it – just keep on doing it, and you may well find that within these actions themselves, you’ll actually start discovering more and more about your own beliefs.

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From Cherub to Hypnos

hypnos-banda

I’ve been looking for a figurine of a sleeping cherub for a while now, because I had the idea of using it to represent Hypnos, the God of Sleep, to put in our bedroom (our images of cherubs originally come from Greek and Roman depictions of divinities, after all).

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to find a really nice sleeping cherub statue in a charity shop. Only it was bright gold, which is both a little bit too Christmassy, and doesn’t really seem suitable for the shadowy deity Hypnos. So I painted it all over in black acrylic, waited for it to dry a little, and then brushed it all over with a coarse paintbrush so some of the paint scratched off to show the gold underneath. I think this gives the figurine a nice, dark, antique feel. I also see the gold flecks as representing the stars in the night sky, which seems appropriate for the God of Sleep who is also son of the Goddess of Night, Nyx. Hypnos is also the twin brother of Thanatos, the God of Death, so he could also represent this deity too.

I’d actually like to have a representation of a suitable deity in all the rooms in my house – Vesta in the kitchen, Neptune in the bathroom, Mercury or Jizo in the Guest Room (because they protect travellers), and Hecate / Inari in the living room. If I can’t find statues of them, I might alter statues of other figures in this way to represent them.

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Meditation Flashmob in Rochester High Street

RochesterMemorial

The Memorial Green outside Rochester Cathedral, where the meditation took place. Chris Whippet [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

This morning I attended a Metta Meditation Flash Mob by the war memorial in Rochester high street. Organised by Rooted in Yoga, the aim of the meditation was to share love, kindness and compassion – “good vibes,” if you will.

Although not political in nature, I think that this meditation was very well-timed considering both local and national events. For one thing, it’s the day before Remembrance Sunday on the the Centenary of the First World War, and gathering by the war memorial to sit in quiet contemplation and peace seems to me to be a good, positive way to commemorate the occasion.

Secondly, Rochester has been the site of much anger and hate recently, sparked by the up-coming by-election for a local MP. To give a summary of the situation for non-British readers: The respected MP for Rochester suddenly defected from the central-right wing Conservative Party to the considerably more right-wing and eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP). Once considered a minor oddball of politics, UKIP has gained a considerable following in the UK recently – but has also come under criticism for the racist and homophobic sentiments expressed by some of its members. What’s worse, the strong possibility of UKIP winning a seat in Rochester has attracted extreme far-right parties to the local area, who have been demonstrating and distributing their literature, which is highly anti-multiculturalism (and particularly anti-Muslim) in nature. The presence of such hateful groups in Rochester has caused a lot of anger and sadness among so many of the locals – myself included.

So for me, taking part in this meditation has been a way to try and spread feelings of tolerance, love, peace and mindfulness, in a communal and public fashion. It was a form of prayer, a silent demonstration against hate, a celebration of a practice that’s been brought to Britain thanks to multiculturalism, and an expression of hope.

There were about 10-20 participants I’d say, and we all sat in a circle around the memorial. Candles were lit and placed at the foot of the memorial, and we began the meditation by intoning the sacred syllable “aum.” We were then encouraged to start the meditation by focussing on giving love, kindness and compassion to our own selves. In our mind’s eyes we then spread these feelings to those close to us, to those we feel hostility towards, and to our community as a whole. The whole meditation lasted half an hour.

I had my eyes closed the whole time, and it turned out to be quite a sensual experience. At the very beginning it was raining very lightly, and this actually felt quite nice to be sitting in the gentle rain – almost like undergoing a light “misogi” (Shinto purification ritual by water). The rain then stopped and I focussed on the feelings of love and compassion, all the while remaining aware of my surroundings yet distant at the same time. I could hear the wind rustling through the trees, the bells of the cathedral ringing every quarter hour, and at one point a busker playing the guitar.  I was aware of all the other people on the high street, but felt neither self-conscious of them or bothered by them or anything at all – they were just there, just existing as part of nature like the wind and the rain. Towards the end of the meditation, the sun came out and I could feel its warm light on my face – a really hopeful way for such a meditation to end.

I think afterwards we all felt serene and glowing from our experience. I found I got a lot out of it emotionally and spiritually, and I hope that perhaps it inspired onlookers to consider taking time to sit, think, and be at peace.

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The Athame Debates

CelticDagger
There’s a range of daggers suitable for use as athames at my Dad’s shop: http://www.spiral.org.uk/acatalog/Daggers.html  

Out of all the numerous tools that Wiccans may use in their rituals, the athame seems to be one of the most important – and the most controversial. Below I’ve listed my thoughts on two unresolved issues regarding the use of the athame. Of course, these are just my own personal opinions and I wouldn’t for one second say that my way is the “right” way – I just wanted to share what I think about it! [Read more]

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November 2014 Full Moon Esbat

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My November Esbat Altar (still decorated for Samhain)

This month’s Full Moon rite had quite a few firsts for me.

For one thing, I actually had a cleansing bath beforehand. Actually, this was in part due to the fact that I have to get to work earlier tomorrow so I thought and evening bath would make things quicker than a morning one, and partly due to the fact that I have a bit of a chesty cough and cold at the moment so I thought a nice warm bath would help. And it did! I added some tea tree oil to the water both to help my chest and to purify me, which was really nice – tea tree oil has a pure, almost salty smell that’s very good for a ritual cleansing. As both a Shintoist and Pagan, bathing before a ritual is something I very much approve of, but often don’t seem to find the time – perhaps I should make more of an effort.

For another I decided to perform my Full Moon ritual indoors for the first time. As I’ve got a bit of a cold at the moment and as the weather’s turned very cold and wet, I thought this would be the most sensible.

Actually, performing the ritual indoors, at my new altar, turned out to be more spiritually fulfilling than I imagined. I created a sacred space with my besom and by intoning a Shinto purification prayer, and filled the ritual area with candles – including a big round candle on my altar to represent the Moon. Unlike performing the ritual outdoors, doing it indoors proved to be a lot more comfortable – both in terms of being out of the cold and being in a private place where nothing could interrupt me. Additionally, I could see the Moon right outside the window – often I can’t see it when I perform the ritual outdoors! The disadvantage is, of course, that indoors you do not feel so much in touch with nature, and I missed the presence of my Inari shrine.

As for the ritual itself, it was very similar to the one I performed for the October Full Moon. I still feel that Samhain is currently reigning the Wheel of the Year, and so I once more honoured Hecate in my rite. It’s coming up to the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, so it felt once again like an appropriate time to pray to Luna for peace for both the living and the dead. And finally, my sister still hasn’t given birth although she is due any day now, so once again I prayed to Diana for the safety and health of her and her child.

After my dedications to the lunar aspects of the Great Goddess, I attempted to scry with my newly-consecrated DIY scrying mirror. This was actually quite an eerie experience; I sat down and placed the mirror in front of me, with a single candle in the middle. The mirror is so dark that the prospect of seeing an apparition is rather scary! Perhaps that is why I didn’t seem to see anything concrete, although I did get the distinct feeling that the mirror was somehow showing a “gateway” to somewhere. For some reason, I don’t find scrying using crystals or water quite as eerie, but I think I’d still like to try again.

After scrying, I said a prayer to Inari Okami from my book of Shinto Norito – now my colleague has given me a charm from Fushimi Inari Shrine that I have on my indoor altar, I still a connection to Inari-sama even from my indoor altar. I then had a simple feast and closed the quarters.

I did quite enjoy doing the ritual indoors for a change, and I suspect I’ll do the same thing until the weather gets warmer. I do miss being with the foxes outside though…

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