Sex, Freya and maybe a little bit about what Feminism is not.

So, I am a feminist. There, I have said it. It’s often a word that makes people squirm and for so many (lots of them very good) reasons. It’s a name, an ideology, I have identified with on some level or another for most of my adult life and feminist theory is now a subject I am lucky enough to teach my undergraduates. It is always an interesting challenge to pick apart their many preconceptions about what feminism is and very definitely is not. Yet, the word is also something that makes me profoundly uncomfortable sometimes and it is usually other feminists and my resultant association with them that is the reason for this, rather than society’s attitudes to feminism itself. After all, feminism has a bad name, it makes people uncomfortable because it challenges some of the very deeply entrenched behaviours and attitudes of society, which is why I love it. It also says some profoundly stupid, although usually well-meaning things at times, which is why I don’t. I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for sometime, but to do so probably means revealing things about my own nature that it often feels uncomfortable to share. There will always be judgement on a woman for not behaving as she should and that is as true within feminism as anywhere, it’s just that here we tend to be seen to be letting the side or the sisterhood down.

There was never a subject that feminism had more to say about than sex and of late, I have found myself reading some ‘interesting’, well-intentioned, but rather misguided articles and opinions which have sometimes downright disturbed me. As usual it’s often the fault of Facebook, where these things get shared with abandon without much more thought than it takes to click a button. But I am worried about the perpetuation of some of these ideas and the effects that they have on women, men and every gender and none in between. It is the (apparently) feminist ideas that tell me how as a woman, I (or indeed anyone) should or should not behave and express my sexuality, the school of thought that suggests that if you are male you are responsible for rape culture by default, the articles which turn women into victims by removing their personal responsibility and autonomy and imply to us, often without meaning to, that all men are dangerous sexual predators just waiting to do harm. It is the feminism that compounds and protects those very stereotypes that it set out to dismantle in the first place, that concerns me.

Because Feminism is really an umbrella term covering a collection of ideas and movements, I should probably start by defining feminism as I understand it. This is coloured very much, as a Heathen woman, an animist and my relationship with the Gods, particularly Freya, the goddess I am devoted to. For me, feminism is the understanding that all people should be equal, politically, economically, culturally, socially and sexually and that no person should be at a disadvantage in any of these things as a result of their gender. To experience disadvantage on the grounds of gender is to experience sexism. I also consider that freedom is an essential component of feminism believing that no one has the right to limit to the freedom of another where that person is acting with consent and within the law. This means that ultimate personal responsibility is also essential because freedom cannot work sustainably without a conscious understanding of how what we do, directly affects others. Freedom does not mean the freedom to abuse because that again, limits the freedom of another. When talking about feminism, I tend to steer clear of a definition based solely in gender, or describing it as being only about women or women’s rights. Sexism disadvantages all of humanity and ultimately all people would find advantage in liberation from it. However it is true that feminism found its roots in women’s emancipation and suffrage and much of the work of feminism today is still focussed upon women and their lived experiences, because it is women who are so often the most likely to experience disadvantage because of their gender.

If such terms mean anything to you at all, I would best describe myself as a sex-positive, third-wave feminist. This means that I consider sexual freedom to be absolutely essential and a source of women’s power, and I believe that modern feminism needs to reach for equality far beyond the entrenched gender stereotypes of the previous feminist waves. It also means holding the belief that we are now free to define feminism for ourselves as individuals. For me that does not get much more complicated than believing in freedom, equality, autonomy, respect and absolute personal responsibility. My feminism also believes that I don’t have to be defined by my gender, but as I take complete and utter, unbounded delight and joy in being a woman, I often chose to do just that.

As a Heathen woman I am devoted to the goddess Freya. This means that I consider my primary purpose is to serve her, to celebrate and manifest her in the human world in a way which is positive and I seek to learn her mysteries, journeying into the depths of her being and stories. For Freya, so many of those mysteries are about the very many ways of being a woman: Lover, Priestess, Seer, Healer, Witch, Wife, Whore and kick-ass-independent-take-no-shit Shield Maiden. For me she is the ultimate goddess of women’s freedom and agency and a guiding principle of my life is that of striving for my own freedom and the intention never to limit another’s as far as I am consciously able. This means examining my own demands, jealousies and insecurities within my relationships with others on a fairly constant basis. As an animist, it means doing it with the non human world too. Sexism is simply one means by which an individual’s freedom can be limited, but then so is racism, abuse, homophobia, and the manipulation of others to make them behave as we would wish, and the dreadful generalisations that seek to strip a person of their individuality and autonomy.

So why the lengthy preamble and why am I writing about this anyway? Well I suppose it comes back to having been ‘told’ a few things online very recently by supposed feminists, that as a feminist myself have made me concerned. I’d like to address a few of the things that have made me hopping mad over the past month or so and look at why, despite having been espoused by feminists, these views really have nothing to do with my understanding of it at all. Those things have included such crazy things as being told that my love of dressing up in corsets, high heels and other ‘girly’ paraphernalia is not helpful to my sisters because it panders to sexual stereotypes and makes other women feel they have to conform to that idea of sexy. What the hell? Seeking to limit another woman’s freedom of expression and telling her how she should dress is not feminism. Next, that sexual submissiveness, power games, and BDSM even within consensual adult relationships, are demeaning and abusive; ergo a large part of my sexual identity is just dirty and wrong and damaging to myself and others. Hmmm, how affirmingly sex-positive. To my mind curtailing another womans sexual freedom where she choses and consents is also, not feminism. But perhaps the most short-sighted and stupid thing I have read to date is that if you are a man, you are part of rape culture, whether you like it or not.

Now, this is the one I am going to look at in detail because not only is it ridiculous, it’s also really dangerous and damaging to all involved, feminist ideologies, the way that feminism is perceived in general and above all, men! I have no doubt that the chap who wrote this piece is an honourable well-meaning gent and it’s sad really that he’s the one on the end of my pointy stick, having put together such a coherent piece which has been widely shared. But really I have chosen it as just one example of this kind of thinking I have come across. Whilst the writer of this article does not claim to be feminist, the ideas it describes are clearly feminist ideology and so it is fair to offer feminist critique of it. The first and most obvious point is that in stating that all men are part of rape culture you commit the cardinal offense of defining a gender by something a person does or does not do. Third wave feminism rejects essentialist definitions of gender that rely on such generalisations believing that the individual, their experiences and their personhood are more defining characteristics than gender. Secondly, to define an entire gender in this way is to suggest that rape culture is a biological characteristic of maleness, if this is so, it is inherent and cannot be changed. Therefore, there is little point in making the recommendations the author goes onto present in order to help men counter rape culture. Because he’s already told you that whether you like it or not, you are it, you can’t help it, and you’d better get used to it. The whole thing is a nonsense, not to mention it compounds our ideas of a binary gender structure, it really only speaks to heterosexual gender normative ideals.

Whilst the argument is fairly easily dismantled, the biggest problem with it is that it is so alienating, particularly if it gives the impression that all feminists think this way. I feel alienated by it because I don’t hold men responsible for ‘rape culture’ (I actually hate that term and could argue with that too, but I simply havent the space here!). I’ll say it again, I do not hold individual decent men, responsible for ‘rape culture’ by virtue of their gender. Please guys, you don’t need to do that for my benefit, I would much rather judge a person for their actions and behaviour because I’m the kind of pagan who believes in honourable relationship. That doesn’t mean that you have permission not to be a decent and honourable human being, guys, it just means that the rape and abuse that happens in the world is not your personal fault. If I were to hold men responsible, as a woman, what would that mean? Well the exact same thing I complained of earlier, I turn women into desperate victims without agency, freedom or responsibility and I fall into the trap of perpetuating the belief that all men are dangerous sexual predators. Conversely, the implication that men are the only ones who can change ‘rape culture’ is to suggest again that women are always in need of the protection of the ‘good guys’ who have changed their behaviour, from the bad behaviour of the guys who haven’t.

My husband feels alienated by it too, as do most of the men I have spoken to about it. He rejects the idea completely that he is part of ‘rape culture’ and I completely agree with him. I reject the idea that the other respectful, wise, honourable men I know are. It makes him angry that he cannot offer an intelligent counter argument even. To do so opens him up to the accusation of being blind to the ‘rape culture’ of which he is supposedly a part, and is therefore in denial. He is sweet, respectful and kind, already does the things listed as countering ‘rape culture’ and yet still he is guilty as charged; a part of it. Apparently. It is emasculating because it takes his voice, it is dis-empowering because he feels vilified, and it compounds some of the ideas that he has grown up with that he should keep his sexuality safely hidden in a box because it is dangerous. Not only this, but simply blaming a gender for the problem simplifies things beyond belief and goes nowhere to addressing the other factors which are so much bigger: War, poverty, destructive ideologies, capitalism.

So what is my point at the end of all this, other than to express my concern and discomfort; perhaps nothing other than that. Perhaps it’s to wave my Shield-Maiden sword for all the good guys I know who don’t deserve that kind of crap. Perhaps it’s for all the women who fly in the face of sexual norms, playing at the edges of what even feminism finds acceptable, the submissives, the ones with dark and strange fantasies, the sluts, the daddy’s girls, the hedonists, the ones in heels and corsets, the ones who like power games, the ones who refuse to be told what to do, even by the sisterhood; the women like me. Perhaps it’s to give feminism a different voice.

Or perhaps it’s just for Freya, it usually is.

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Wynn

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Part of my daily practice is the drawing of a rune to work with and keep in my consciousness throughout the day. I find that it is a great way of continuing to expand my understanding and awareness of the runes, as I apply them to all sorts of different situations and listen to what they have to teach. Yesterday my rune for the day was Wynn (or Wunjo for those of you who work with the Elder rather than the Anglo-Saxon runes).  Typically Wynn is considered to be one of the most beautiful and auspicious runes of the Futhork. Wynn represents the ‘W’ sound and is usually given the meaning of joy or bliss, that wonderful place where all is easy and beautiful. I like to think of the shape of the rune as a weather vane, that which does not fight the wind but easily finds its direction in natural harmony with the forces of nature around it.

“Fantastic!” I thought, “How can you go wrong when you draw the rune of joy, ease and comfort? It’s going to be a great day”, at least that’s how it started… Yesterday wound up being just about the worst day I can remember, emotionally speaking, that I have had for some time. I ended up at my altar just sobbing by the evening, dealing with old emotional patterns of fear, loneliness, and abandonment, which I always think I’ve dealt with, and which often come back to bite me when I am absolutely least expecting it. Add to that a cracking headache and this was not the sort of day I anticipated. “This was supposed to be a Wynn day!” I railed at any person who would listen, and to the Gods: “you’re taking the piss, right? This is beyond horrible.”

Of course, there were three mistakes I made yesterday. The first was forgetting that divination is not about predicting the future, although draw a lovely rune such as Wynn and it is all too easy to cross your fingers and hope that an awesome day will land in your lap. Divination, as the name suggests, is about communing with the divine, and actually listening and considering carefully what you are being offered and why. The second mistake was being lazy and forgetting that I might actually have to do some work here to achieve the potential offered. The third mistake was not understanding that maybe I was offered Wynn BECAUSE it was a shocking day and maybe I needed to take note of the healing that it offered in order to get through.

My new favourite book of the moment is Kvedulf Gundarsson’s Teutonic Magic . It’s back in print after a while off the shelves and if you are interested in such things I can highly recommend it. He offers this description of Wunjo;

“Joy”, rules the virtue of of cheerfulness, which is as necessary… as strength or generosity. A cheerful mind through all hardship was seen as a great part of courage. …This gladness showed forth the strength of will to endure all the sorrows and hardships of a time much more beset with bodily struggles and hardships than our own… To reach the goal of Wunjo you must be able to keep your pains and sorrow from looming too large in your life, yet you must know a few troubles in order to understand how to deal with problems when they do arise” (p97-98).

This was exactly the message I needed to hear. Wynn is not about life automatically being great, or the fortune that falls in our lap, or being a naturally happy or fortunate person. It is about adjusting our attitude to life so that we can find the joy and the strength to appreciate what is sweet, even when faced with the utter crap that so many face on a day-to-day basis. The weather vane stands strong in the storm, it does not break, but it does so only by allowing the wind to show the direction rather than continuously fighting it. Wynn teaches us to flow with the wind or to swim with the tide, it is not a passive action but one of choice and conscious decision, even if that choice is about chosing to flow with something rather less than ideal than allowing it to break us. It is this ease that brings the joy, but often there must be a certain surrender and acceptance of the things we cannot change, that life will not ever be perfect, so we might as well get on with it.

For me, Wynn, carries a message of ultimate personal responsibility. No one else can do this for us. No one else can decide for me that life will be good. No one else can make me feel unafraid, or reverse those feelings of loneliness or abandonment. The people who love me can help and they frequently do, with care, love and consideration for my feelings and needs and I always aim to offer that in return. But ultimately, that healing can only come from within. If I expect it to come from others, all I do is apply a sticking plaster to the wound and a continuous supply of affirmation and attention is needed to keep it covered. This tends to be rather exhausting for all concerned. I become needy and self-indulgent in order to avoid dealing with what ugly stuff is really lurking underneath. Ideally what is required is a hug and some support when I get the to point of being brave enough to gingerly peel back the sticking plaster.

Wynn is not just about the huge moments of utter joy and ecstasy that blow us away, although it is very much that too (and bloody wonderful they are when they come!) Finding the Wynn (joy) in the small things is just as important. Joy rarely just heads our way arriving fully formed and ready to entertain. We have to seek it, craft it, have the courage to court it, understanding that we may need to let go of some assumptions about life and what we are owed (or in most cases not owed at all) and by whom. Taking a moment to appreciate just how lucky I am, helps keep things in perspective. It helps me to realise that life is really not so bad, I have food enough, people who love me, a home, and summer is well and truly on the way. There truly is simple joy in these things whatever other horrible stuff is happening. Yesterday, I forgot that. I forgot that remembering  how lucky I am melts away a good deal of the “poor me” self indulgence I was stuck in. I forgot that the Wynn I had drawn that morning might just have given me the courage to rip off the plaster to see what was really underneath, had I the wit to use it.

This morning, my rune for the day was, you guessed it (I hear the gods laughing as I type), Wynn. Again. I suspect I needed that, because I certainly wasn’t listening yesterday! As usual, I end up writing the stuff I need to hear in order to give myself a good talking to and I never know whether what I write will be posted until I’m done. So today I am determinedly taking my own advice and picking up my sword with a manic grin and possibly fewer teeth, and deciding that it will be a better day. Getting in my car this morning I opened all the windows despite the chill and the rain just to feel the wind in my hair, questing for that weather vane ease and direction. At the same time I noticed how stunningly green the leaves were in the dampness, the sky clearing to palest blue, and just how damn good that marmite on toast I had for breakfast tasted…

Gemænscipe*

As is usually the case, I don’t have nearly as much time as I would like to write within this context and usually when I do, it is because I have been strongly provoked to consider my own thoughts on something or other. I usually write entirely for myself, as a way of processing something, and more often than not, I wind up writing the words I would have liked to hear myself, in helping me to come to an understanding on something. Over the past few months I have been thinking very much about community, my place within it and what exactly it IS, other events of the past week have brought that even more into perspective. Community is a word that is bandied around a lot within any kind of pagan circle you care to mention, and the assumption often seems to be that we all know what it means, or that we are all singing from the same sheet. I usually find that the understanding of what community means will differ greatly between the traditions, even within them, understanding can be quite diverse.

If you will permit me an exploration of the word through my trusty OED (because I like words and their etymology), it offers a number of definitions:

Community

1.A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common

2.A particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants:

3.The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common

I find these definitions interesting because they immediately bring to mind that which is not just about the human, but the entire context within which we find ourselves. The first two consider community not just as collections of humans, but of humans within a place or landscape. There is something implicit within the word that suggests a group of people who share a commonality of experience. If we broaden that definition out to a more animistic understanding, where the people we are talking about are not just human, but plants, animals, bricks, rocks, water and the sofa, that widens again our understanding of what community might be and adds a another dimension to the picture. As I write, I consider the community I am creating in this moment simply by being conscious of it. I sit on the sofa and can feel the fabric, the cotton and plants, the oil that made it, the wool of the blanket, the wooden frame. In the hearth, the woodburner is lit, the flames adding warmth to the room, burning the wood from the basket. There is the cat on the sofa, the bricks and paint of the house, the rose bush outside and the bowl of daffodils on the window sill; it is a very consciously chosen community, my home, and the place that I feel most welcome. I am very aware that the place is happy with me too, we have an ease that has come from spending the last year here, talking to the spirits of this place, making offerings and most importantly listening to the response. It is a negotiated relationship, built with care, mutual trust, a sense of what each needs, and what nourishes who. We don’t always get it right (if I don’t hoover often enough the old lady who lived here in the 70s gets very grumpy), but the intention all round is to maintain that relationship for as long as it lasts for the good of all concerned. It takes energy, co-operation, and a shared sense of value and direction, a recognition of what the commonality is.

For me, a key part of recognising myself to be a part of a community is in understanding what that commonality is. Potentially when considering something as large and expansive as ‘The Pagan Community’, or ‘The Druid Community’, even a community such as the friends we collect on Facebook, we may have a problem, because recognising what the commonality and shared value and direction is, can be almost impossible. Go back 20 years, even 10, and there were a great deal fewer pagans and the commonality found in isolation, discrimination or even a shared sense of weirdness was enough to bring and hold communities together. Nowadays ‘The Community’ is just too big, too diverse, with too many people all with different wants, needs and opinions for me to find much of a commonality of place or shared values and beliefs, let alone that shared sense of direction, which I need in order to really invest. And this is fine so long as we recognise that the only thing we may hold in common is the word ‘Druid’ and that difference of opinion will be as broad as it is possible to be. It certainly doesn’t mean that these communities are not of value, but if we are expecting all people within them to behave, act and think in the same way, or place expectations upon them about what they should provide us with, then we will probably be disappointed because they are to big and too open to engender the kind of support, validation or affirmation that so many of us seek in times of trouble. Because here’s the thing, and I feel slightly heretical saying it, I don’t consider ‘The Druid Community’ or ‘The Pagan Community’, or even the ‘Heathen Community’, to be my community. At least, not in any meaningful sense. For the most part, I find my own values and beliefs to be so different I often wonder if I’m in the right place at all. I find the expectation that I will be all caring, all supporting, all enabling, all understanding, not upset anyone, and always say the right thing tiresome, mostly because I would never make that expectation in this context myself.

I have run into all sorts of problems in being very open in these sorts of arenas and then being very upset when I did not receive the response I wanted, entirely through my own misjudgment of what that shared commonality was. Consequently I am selective about what I share where. This of course, creates an online persona which is not disingenuous or a fake, it’s just the bits of me I choose to share in a particular space, but it means that you never see the whole person and it certainly means you are not seen within your full context. Some of the most lovely people I ever met, seem to manage to create the most noxious online personalities which in no way represent them in real life. We all do it to a greater or lesser extent, and herein lies another problem; if our online communities are made up of ‘bits’ of people, placed outside of their context, how much of a community are they really? This bits-of-people phenomena creates the danger that we will make assumptions about others, to a certain extent we have to, in order to bridge the gaps and create something functional. This is particularly true where we really don’t know the people involved well, because we may never have actually met in person, or have spent only a limited amount of time with them. But that also means that as often as we get those assumptions right, we will get them wrong and we can’t really blame other people for making up the stuff we don’t chose to tell them.

It is for this reason I tend not to use these online communities for support or validation, choosing instead to share the difficult stuff in my life with the people close to me. I might choose to use the word ‘Hearth’ rather than community in this context for the warmth at the centre that it implies. These are those people I chose to spend time with. A lot. They are the ones I love, the ones I miss when they are not around, the ones that make me laugh, the ones with whom I can cry. Perhaps most importantly, I haven’t chosen them to affirm me, or tell me I’m right, but because I know they value me enough to tell me when I’m behaving like an idiot when it’s needed. I trust them to hold the mirror up in way that will support me to learn and grow that is gentle but challenging, because they know me. They are the friends and family of blood and not-blood with whom I have chosen to create conscious and nourishing relationships and with whom I am invested in a way I can never be online.

There absolutely is value in sharing in these wider, larger, more public communities. I’ve met and made connections with the some of the most important people in my life online initially, but those relationships have always had the most value where they work offline too. There are hazards in choosing to share our deepest truths online, with people we don’t know well, and who aren’t necessarily invested in a caring relationship with us. We cannot have the expectation that they will look after us or be gentle because they are working from a place of their own troubles and just maybe there is a really good reason that they weren’t nice when you needed them to be. It’s so important to understand that the words we put out there will often really push buttons and challenge people and that we may be seriously challenged in return. We need to be really sure we can handle that or we place ourselves in danger not only of winding up very hurt, but of alienating people too.

 

 

*An Old English word meaning community, fellowship, union, common ownership,

Wakeful Priesthood

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As is so often the case, I am motivated to write by a discussion I have read or been a part of in internet land over the past few days and weeks. This post is no different and coincidentally, I note that Nimue has been motivated to write on a similar subject here with a slightly different slant. It is an issue I have considered and grappled with for a few years now, searching for a path that I would consider to hold the most honour. The issue is that of Pagan Priesthood.

As always within the pagan community and its many branches, gaining consensus on an issue is somewhat like herding cats. This in particular is a difficult and thorny subject, with many and varied viewpoints which seems to elicit some very emotional responses. Not least I suspect, because many pagans arrived in their chosen tradition, in part as a direct rejection of established religion and all that entails. The language of priesthood is for some, simply too close to this. Perspectives range from those who do not see the need for a priesthood at all, feeling that they do not need anyone to stand between them and the gods, those who rely on priests for teaching, ritual and guidance, and those who appoint themselves as professional priests taking on the role full time. Unlike established religions, there is no ‘church’ to appoint, pay or regulate those who take on the role and whilst there may be small groups and teaching schools who do offer training anyone can chose to undertake the role. Whilst I firmly believe this to be a strength of paganism and seriously hope we never go down that sort of C of E route and all the corruption it entails, the lack of it does create some problems of its own which require careful consideration. After all, where do the priests come from, who makes them, who ensures that they are not fiddling with the children, and further do we need them at all?

My answer to that final question; ‘do we need them at all?’ is an emphatic yes. Whilst many do feel that they do not need a priest to minister for them, having the confidence to do this themselves, there will always be times, and I can think of many in my own life when we need to hand that role over to someone who is really good at it. A perfect example is a wedding, a day when we have so many things to think of: the dress, the cake, the flowers, the ring, whether Auntie Betty is being looked after, that we need someone to do this for us. After all, we are probably not cooking the wedding breakfast or serving the buffet ourselves either. We need the day to be an ‘Occasion’, the community – our friends and family need the gathering, the moment, the spectacle, to feel the job well done, to recognise and support our moment of transition and change and this for many, requires a person who can hold the space and the focus for us to do what is needed. But priesthood is about more than the rituals and the weddings, it is about shouldering the responsibility that our traditions will continue, that we will teach the next generation the skills needed, and within that, comes the role of the teacher. There really is no substitute (I believe) for the dedicated, one to one teaching relationship that guides and mentors us through the decades of learning the skills and working through our own ego sufficiently to do it well. It is usually the pagan priests who offer (or should be offering) this kind of dedicated teaching.

So to return to the previous questions: who appoints a priest and ensures they are doing a good job? I would give four answers: The Self, The Gods, The Ancestors and The Community. Each are an important ingredient in the mix and a vital part of good teaching ensures that the student (and would be priest) has sufficient relationship with each to understand what they are taking on when they step forward. Each of these four is a post in itself, the first three arise out of our own deeply personal relationships and sense of duty, service and calling, but it is community that is perhaps most immediate. For unless the community we serve recognises us as holding the role of the priest and more specifically that we are doing it well, with ethics and honour,  no one will ask us for those services.

It is the consideration of community that leads me to the issue of payment or exchange. After all, the priest provides a service, gives up her time, incurs costs and expends emotional energy. Not only that, but people value what is given to them most when they feel that they have made equal payment in exchange. So should the priest charge? Again this is a loaded issue with many feeling that it is somehow wrong to charge money for spiritual services. Whilst I am not of this view, I do believe that we need to exercise care when mixing priestwork and money. There are a number of charlatans out there and integrity so often seems inversely proportionate to the sums of money involved. Priestwork is not the same as any other job where we can demand a living wage from an employer for the work we do and I worry when I hear folks expressing that the community owes them a living or has a responsibility to support them. Because I don’t believe it does; that responsibility rests solely with ourselves.

Priesthood is a job of devotion and service first and foremost; it has to be to retain its integrity. Sadly there are a number of folks out there offering magical healing, a way to the truth or worse, exploitation. The ethical responsibilities of the priest, working with people in sometimes extremely vulnerable spiritual situations means that it is of paramount importance that we keep our egos in check. Getting rich is one sure fire way to exaggerate, out of all sense of proportion, our own importance. I firmly believe in the principle of equal exchange and it is what I base the priestwork that I do upon. I will ask for expenses where I am out of pocket and an exchange of energy for my time. Sometimes that energy takes the form of money, sometimes it is a favour, a bill paid, food or shopping or cleaning. It will depend upon what the person has, how much they can afford and what they can offer. Not being paid the agreed price or not being paid on time is of course deeply disheartening, and frustrating and a different issue entirely. Yet,  most working within the priesthood do not expect to grow rich, I have a strong instinct that to struggle, to a greater or lesser extent, is a part of the role. Priesthood has a long tradition of simplicity, monasticism, and frugalness. It is integral, important and it keeps us humble. If we arrive in the priesthood without realising this, we may be in trouble. To what extent we struggle with day to day living is, to a certain extent, between us and our gods and the opportunities we make and create for ourselves. If we do not have enough, we are not asking enough or more likely, not clearly enough of the right people in the right way. Possibly we need to reassess our perspective on what enough actually is. But then I believe this is a good philosophy for life in general.

I chose not to work as a full time priest, because whilst I know and have known those who do, in many ways I feel the same about the career priest as I do about a the career politician. It is not sustainable in the long term and we are in danger of losing touch with the world in a way which is not healthy. Not only that but in making priesthood into a career we are in danger of losing what brought us to it in the first place and it becomes nothing more than a job like any other with it’s toil and tedium. Having other ways of paying the mortgage not only keeps our feet on the ground and helps us to remain useful in wider society beyond the small confines of our own perspectives, but it removes the sense of desperate financial need on our ministry and prevents the breeding of that dreadful sense of entitlement, loneliness, bitterness and frustration when inevitably we don’t earn enough.

The primary motivation of the priest must be the work we are doing for the gods and the community beyond any finacial recompense. That is not to say we should not receive fair exchange for the blood sweat and tears, and of course we all need to eat but the life of a priest was never one of ease, nor should it be. This keeps us wakeful, striving, searching, doing our best and the rewards that priesthood brings in terms of our own satisfaction, relationships with the gods and ancestors is in many ways the payment we receive for choosing to walk this road.

She who just had other things to do.

This post has been gestating so to speak, for some time now. It began in early spring last year (hence the slightly unseasonal references), got added to when Cat Treadwell posted about a similar subject last year and got completed today when I recieved yet another well meaning but ill-considered comment.

As the cycle turns again past the Spring equinox, the days lengthen and the sun warms, the world suddenly seems alive with creatures busy becoming, or preparing to become parents as if their lives depended on it. It is a little early yet for the baby birds and many other creatures, but there are lambs – albeit brought on early by artificial farming systems. Most other creatures wait a while for the sun to be a little warmer yet and the food sources to be more abundant. The sap is rising though, and the first scents of lust are in the air. It seems that each thing is starting to express that primary urge to procreate, indeed the goddess of motherhood, that deep, aching, yearning drive, begins (for the females at least) to obliterate all else. For me she is not ever loving, nurturing, soft and yielding, but a demanding bitch who will get her way at all costs and damn who gets hurt in the process. Spiders eat their mates to provide them with the energy to gestate and birth sometimes consumed in turn by their offspring. Frogs mate themselves literally to death to produce clouds of spawn, and Blue tits run themselves ragged to the point of exhaustion, sparing little for themselves as they stuff another worm down a gaping baby’s mouth. As a midwife, I know that motherhood can offer moments of utter beauty and tenderness, but I also know that a good amount of the time, it is not ‘nice’.

As pagans at this time of equinox, we start to get busy with eggs, obscene amounts of chocolate, hares, daffodils and other representations of the spring. We celebrate the first scents of warmer air, fertility and life, the growing fecund earth, our Mother. Motherhood: it is a central theme that runs through out just about every paganism throughout the world, but where does Maiden-Mother-Crone leave those of us who are intentionally childless and intend to remain so, or those who so desperately wanted children but cannot have them for whatever reason. What of the Bitch, Witch, Barren-Woman, Working-Woman, and Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do? She rarely features in the equation although she is abundant in Mythology. No, whichever way we look at it, the woman without children is an oddity, a challenge and often, the rest of society is just not quite sure what to do with her. If you are unable to have a child, in addition to having to deal with your own sense of grief and often rage, you are the subject of pity and hushed voices, ‘it’s so sad…, such a shame‘ the sense that no one quite knows what to say as if you have somehow failed in your essential duty. Conversely, woman who chose to be childless often appear to be unwitting prey to those in life who, bowled over by the wonder and joy of their own parenthood, consider it their personal mission in life to win you over, not realising that the source or their own joy is rarely, if ever, as interesting to the rest of the world.

It seems that as soon as a woman gets to a certain age, usually her 30’s, other women, always mothers themselves, seem to decide for you that your biological clock is undoubtedly ticking. How many times have I heard the phrases ‘so, it won’t be long now before…’, ‘you really don’t want to leave it too late…’, ‘you’ll regret it if you don’t, my children are my greatest joy..’ and other such encouragements to bite the bullet and join the mother club. As a woman in her 30’s who falls into the Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do category, on explaining my position I am invariably met with either pity or a knowing smile that says ‘one day you’ll crack and then you’ll realise what you’ve been missing.’ On posting something similar to Facebook the other day, irritated beyond measure by yet another of these comments, I was amazed at the other women and a good few men too who empathised. Childless for different reasons, the majority were irritated, hurt or baffled by the assumption that childbearing should be the normal thing to do, that anyone who goes by a different path is somehow not normal, has something wrong with them or simply will not be complete without a baby.

Without doubt, the fleetingly rare times in my life where I have been even remotely tempted to have a child have all been motivated by my ancestors. The understanding that we are at the front of a long line of inheritance that connects us back to earliest humanity and beyond is where, if there is any sense of it at all, my greatest feelings of duty and responsibility lie. If I don’t pass on that inheritance do I fail my ancestors in my genetic duty? Within a religion that holds such deep reverence for our ancestors, I think perhaps there is the tendency for pagans to beat ourselves with this particular ceremonial plank more than others. Yet, in striving to be a thinking, rational, wakeful human woman, in a world where over consumption runs rife within a growing population who not only demand to be fed and watered but comfortable with it, I would encourage every woman to make a conscious choice, wherever possible about childbearing. After all, having a child (or three) will undoubtedly be the biggest increase to your carbon footprint you will ever make, it doesn’t matter how many transatlantic fights you may have made in the past, they will pale in comparison. Apart from anything else, are my genes really so fabulous, that I just have to pass them on? I am not so special and the flow of humanity will undoubtedly continue whether I reproduce or not and I can be sure it will be just as, well… human. I would like to see motherhood as something women opt into consciously and deliberately rather than an opting out of which confounds societies unspoken expectations.

So whilst not negating the role of the mother here at all, I would like to share a celebration of the childless woman. The ones who made the choice not to, the ones who couldn’t, the ones who tore their souls open in grief at the failure and found peace on the other side, the ones who still have to find peace, the ones who never will, the spinsters, the ones who maintained their freedom with fierce courage in the face of society’s norms, growing roses and dancing in the rain. The unheard stories. Sisters I salute you.

Remembering the Sun

I look up from the keyboard as the shaft of late afternoon sunlight slants through the window and hits the screen of my computer, blinding it. Irritated, with a teaching session to plan, an article to write and one of my mothers threatening to go into labour, I sigh and move across the sofa as far as the lead on my laptop will let me. It allows me about 10 minutes work before the ray of sunlight again moves across my vision. Annoyed now; “I don’t have time for this!”, I jump up to move chairs, pulling the lead out accidentally as I go. My laptop flicks off and I lose the last half hour’s worth of work. I slide onto the floor wondering whether to laugh or cry in frustration. “Slow down, Priestess”, She smiles, languid from the corner of the room, all amber gold hair and a dress as grey as the stormy sea, She smells of the world outside, that I have so far cocooned myself away from for the day; “there’s time… look”. She indicates out of the window and across the field where the lazy afternoon breeze rustles the grasses in the meadow, “no rush”. I frown, I am about to retort that I don’t have time for this either, but she jokingly blows the paper I was working on across the floor. ‘Ok, enough!’ I laugh, forgetting my need to be hassled and serious. I pick up my phone, pull on my boots and head out to the pond in the meadow below. By the time I reach the gate, the sun is warm on my skin and the breeze ruffles my hair, I wonder at how I could have found it an intrusion not five minutes before. 

Reading back over my last post on sacrifice, I realise just how limited a blog post is, and just how it is almost impossible to do a subject justice in what really just amounts to a short article, usually of around 1500 words or less. It is inevitable that at some point, the writer will have to identify what their readers will understand and what deserves more full an explanation, making the decision about what to leave out more than what to leave in. Sometimes we make the right assumptions and sometimes we make the wrong ones. Either way, we have to chose what is the most pertinent and relevant otherwise we end up writing a book.

Having read today’s latest posts on the Sacrifice discussion, I realised that for those who don’t know me or my craft well, discussing the idea that something can be ‘made sacred’ might seem like I have disappeared off on an unfortunate dualistic tangent. The idea that a being (I prefer the word ‘being’ to ‘thing’) can be designated sacred or even mundane in its nature is about as at odds with animist thinking as it’s possible to be unless of course we understand that this is entirely about our perspective rather than the actuality.

At the heart of Animism, lies the experience that the world, every tiny speck of it is animate, alive, to some extent conscious of itself. This is not the simplistic perspective that is often trotted out as animism, that ‘everything has spirit’ for this is dualistic in itself, it is a language which belies a belief in spirit on one hand and matter on the other as if the two can be separated. No, this is the understanding that matter cannot exist without the humming spirit of intention, that it is this intention in itself, which forms the skeleton upon which all matter is built. To the animist, everything is sacred because everything has purpose, a sense of self, an individual ‘ishness’, a wish to be, a value and a place in the world.

So working from this principle that all is sacred, how do I then come to the understanding that to sacrifice is the art, for I do believe it is that, of making sacred? Simply, that as humans, it is impossible to live in a state where we are experiencing all to be sacred all of the time. We bumble through life, consuming without thought, swearing at the idiot who cut us up on the motorway, stressed, irritated, hurt, afraid wounded. It is hard to acknowledge any of these things as sacred, let alone understand their purpose or hear their intention, their own stories, or why something behaves as it does. It is just too difficult unless we take the time to stop and listen, paying just one or two things our full attention for a while, meditate if you like, on the relationship. For me it is my relationship with something that allows me to understand it as sacred in a very real and tangible sense and not just a theoretical one. The more difficult a situation or thing, the more important that quiet and considered meditative attention becomes.

Take the sun, that’s an easy one. As I found today, it was easy to forget its sanctity, swept up in the moment of ‘too much to do and too little time’ it became an irritation preventing my work. I forgot how often I had danced in it, lay out and sunbathed in it, thanked it for growing the beans, waking the hedgerows and evaporating water off the sea to make rain. My Goddess, of course, reminds me to slow down and take a moment to remember, pushing me off and outside to find it and rekindle my relationship, to once again find its sanctity.

Sacrifice is the same, it is finding or remembering something’s value and worth to us. Or taking something that already means so very much and recognising it, and it’s intention, purpose, individuality as sacred. To the point where we understand we cannot own it. Yet the act of sacrifice is about more than that, intrinsic within it’s meaning is the act of giving up or letting it go. It is about saying to our gods, ‘this is so big and so important, I don’t want to ever forget how sacred it is, please help me remember’. Or ‘I love you so much, this is the biggest thing I have, please take it as a symbol of my devotion’. Devotion is not about imagining that the gods care for us, it’s about not minding and loving them anyway. If we let something go, return it to the keeping of the gods, we allow it to be itself, in its own intention and ‘ishness’ no longer hampered by our need or perceptions, but shared with the world to become what it will. This allows us to consciously and permanently make it sacred so that we don’t forget. We make a sacred vow which means that it cannot be taken back without consequence, there is no slipping out of sacred relationship.

Of course I cant sacrifice the Sun, but I could sacrifice suncream (not only made by big pharma, sold by large corporations, with the products of the oil industry – already a good reason) but in not protecting my skin from the sun, I am forced to remember its power. I cant ever take it for granted lest it burn me to a frazzle and with my red hair and fair skin, that’s fairly likely. 17 years ago, my vows not to eat meat began as a sacrifice, an offering to the power that is life. It was really hard and although I knew I needed to, I didn’t want to. Sacrificing meat was about remembering that all life is sacred and capable of suffering and choosing not to be a part of that wherever possible. I didn’t need it to live, so why take a life? It seemed pure selfishness. Now it is second nature, the sense of the cow or the sheep as a being, filled with life and purpose and sentience is utterly sacred to me. If I had simply made the decision to be vegetarian, I could take that back anytime I wanted, but the fact that it is a sacrifice to the gods, sacred, reminds me every day not only of why I choose not to eat meat but also of my devotion to my gods. Apologies to those uncomfortable by the vegetarian polemic, but it’s a good example of sacred vows and the sacrifices that often accompany them. For me it was about saying ‘no matter how busy or forgetful I am, I will always remember and have time for this.”

Ultimately, sacrifice, is about learning to live in a sacred way. Understanding that we cannot perceive the world as all sacred all of the time. But it is about placing the markers and sign posts along the way to help us remember, as often as possible, that it is.


To make sacred

I have been reading with interest Nimue’s postings over the last few days on sacrifice, offerings and dedication, here http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/no-sacrifice/ and also Cat’s words here http://druidcat.wordpress.com/ Sadly I missed Cat’s original words, so can only respond to her current post.

*edited to say that Miss Cat has now re blogged her original http://druidcat.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/sacrifice-2/#comment-531

For Nimue, sacrifice is a word that she would happily see dropped from modern Druid vocabulary, evidently  it doesn’t float her Druid boat, and that is fine. For Cat is seems to be something she uses in her daily devotions. For me, it is absolutely integral and central to my own craft, expressing and cementing a number of my personal relationships with my gods. Rather than drop it from use, I would invite us to reclaim it, considering instead its ancient meanings, steeped as they are in the deeply religious and devotional, releasing some of the fear that perhaps the word invokes in us as Pagans, which organised, monotheistic religion has so effectively instilled in us and society. I have no idea how closely my own practice and understanding matches the rest of the Druid community, but I feel Sacrifice to be a beautiful, religious concept, full of love, and gratitude, speaking powerfully of change and transformation, and what we dedicate and devote to being sacred in our own lives and what we release, leaving behind us in order to allow growth and change.

To look at the etymology of the word, at its root, we find the latin sacer meaning holy; it is the same word from which we draw our modern word ‘sacred’. We also find facio, to make or do. So the act of sacrifice is to actively dedicate something as sacred or holy. This is reflected in the most common use of the word found in translation around the world; that is, to give a gift of something deeply valued to a deity. For me too, this is sacrifice at its simplest and most powerful; the act of devoting a thing to the Gods so that it becomes sacred, set apart, no longer mundane, entrusted to a deity for safe keeping, transformation or simply as a gift. To me it is distinct from the small every day offerings and dedications I give, the food set out for my ancestors, the seeds shared with the birds and spirits of place, the prayers made as I kindle the fire, my daily affirmations of service to gods and community. Sacrifice is about the big things we give, it does hurt, it changes things because we release, let go and make space for new growth. Change is not easy, we shy away from it, it makes us uncomfortable but it is also necessary, a part of nature; the amount of space we make being directly proportional to the amount that we may grow.

Spending time watching as the cycles turn shows us this. We prune the roses so that we get better foliage and more beautiful blooms, the tree puts an enormous effort into fruit in the hopes that just one seed might find the fertile soil in which to grow. Watching as the box of baby blue tits fledged last summer right outside my window was a serious lesson in the sacrifices that parents make in order to bring their children to healthy adult hood. The babies, easily distinguishable from their parents, fat, healthy with beautiful feathers, sat at various strategic points in the garden as mother and father fed every last morsel of food they could find into their waiting mouths, keeping nothing for themselves. By contrast, the parents, thin, scrappy, and hungry, were ragged and exhausted from the hard demands of their young brood. This winter past, watching my sister go through the same process with her little boy, she is only just starting to reclaim a small sense of her own identity and self as he grows and finds some independence, she returning just a day or two a week to work. I realise how much she has given him, how little she has kept for herself and how just how much my own decision not to become a mother is about not being prepared to make that particular sacrifice.

And yet, however hard sacrifice is, it should always be willing and herein lies its power. We give, the biggest thing we can give, whether that is our ignorance, our time, our pain, our fear, our reluctance to change, in absolute freedom, knowing that sometimes it is the only way to grow. Or knowing perhaps if we do not chose to give it willingly, the frosts of winter may take it anyway which may be more painful. Knowing either way that we often hold the keys to our own bonds, the things that hold us back, keep us small. Sometimes it is easier to remain the victim, or the person who is frightened or hurt than make the biggest sacrifices to allow us to break those perceived bond, and change. One of the greatest and reoccurring sacrifices in my own life is the sacrifice of fear. Fear is an old friend, fear feels like hell, but it makes life easy. It means I can find excuses not to do the things that are challenging, that make me a bit vulnerable or exposed. I hate doing things in public, I would far rather follow my solitary nature and spend the day at home, which is daft for a person who regularly stands in front of a class of 50 students to teach, or a congregation of 100 at a hand-fasting. Yet I know they are important things to do, they are a part of my own vow of service, I value them, as do the students I teach and the couples I marry. So I gather up my fear and hand it over to my Goddess sacrificing it into the cauldron or offering it as blood onto the earth. The space that it leaves does create a vulnerability, but it allows me space to grow the courage I need to walk on. Without the repeated sacrifice of fear, I would not be doing the work that I do. More poignantly, a friend recently sacrificed her uterus to cancer, it was not a choice that she wanted to make, it bloody hurt and I do not envy her. With it she lost much of her sense of identity as a woman and she will now have to build a new identity based on what she has left, but she made that sacrifice to the gods of death in order that she might live. It was the only thing she could give. It would be nice to think that life is not meant to hurt, but the fact is that it does and sometimes we sacrifice simply to survive; sometimes the offering of an apple is not enough.

For many years I was part of a grove that hugely valued the act of sacrifice. It was something we celebrated at Lammas as being a part of the natural ebb and flow of life. We built John Barley Corn from sheaves of wheat we gathered in the field and dressed him with love and care, in fruits and flowers from our gardens as a symbol of how hard the earth works to feed us, giving selflessly, giving her bounty that we may eat and live. The small creatures that are taken by the combine, that our ‘nature loving’ society rarely thinks of, were grieved for. The sacrifice of the corn felt to be an ancient mystery, far bigger and older than any of us. To some he is Frey, to others Beowa, Yarn Kaax or Osiris. Either way, the story is fairly universal, the idea of sacrifice playing an important part in each story and to the peoples and cultures from whence those stories came. The symbol of the sickle or even the scythe is a powerful one in Druidry, linked with the first sacred cut or the harvest.

So, our ancestors standing with us as we cried for the death of the corn, that we might take it and transform it in to the bread that would feed our bodies, in deepest gratitude and thanks we made our own sacrifices to the earth in return, searching deep for the things that might in some way be sufficient exchange for what we were given. For some it may have been ignorance, others vowed only to buy second-hand clothes, reduce consumption, go vegetarian, buy organic, recycle, shower less. For each it was something that would take time, effort, that was not easy or was actually painful, inspired by what we were seeing and feeling in nature all around us.

Sacrifice is not supposed to be easy. Where is the value in what we give if it costs us nothing? Yet, neither is masochism, pain or hurt the point of sacrifice. The point is letting go what is necessary in order to move, change and grow and devoting that letting go to the gods we serve. Whilst the letting go is hard and often painful, there too can be great joy, freedom and healing in sacrifice done well. I think it is as powerful for us today as it was to our ancient ancestors.