Hey, it was the 80s, and we were Gay Urban Pioneers. Of course we over-planted the yard.
If you Google Earth our address (yes, that is a verb: what a language!), you won't see the house at all. The neighbors' houses, yes, but in between them: the magic forest. Think of it as warding: urban invisibility.
Living in a sea of trees as we do, of course we're well populated with squirrels. We've got a whole clan of them living around us; just now in late January, the trees are filled with their drays. (Yes, English actually does have a word referring specifically to a squirrel's nest. When I hear people bemoaning the poverty of our language, I smile and say nothing.)
I call them the White Ears clan. They're standard issue Midwest gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, but unusual in that their outer ears are white, not gray like the rest of their fur. Clearly there's a gene for albinism in this population, and every few years we actually see a white squirrel among them. In fact, there was one just last summer.
White squirrels don't usually last long: their hyper-visibility puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to predators. But for me it's always an opportunity to take a little time to appreciate the beauty of squirrels. Living among so many of them as we do, it's easy to forget just what amazing critters they really are.
Albinism and melanism are both recessive traits, but they're actually pretty common among the urban squirrel population here; most neighborhoods have at least one black or white squirrel. I'd never given this fact much thought until I heard something that Arvol Looking Horse said in 2009.
February is probably my favorite month. It has little to do with the season and a lot to do with it being the month I was born. For such a short month, I always feel like there is so much going on in it.
Imbolc, Candlemas, Brigid
JUGGLING WITH SEMANTICS
Anne Newkirk Niven raised some interesting points in her editorial for ‘Witches & Pagans’ concerning what we choose to call ourselves – pagan, witches, Wiccans – thereby painting a great big bull’s-eye on our backs. As Anne so righty wrote: “You claim the title of witch. Why on Earth wouldn’t you expect to be hatred?”
In traditional British Old Craft we stick strictly to the philosophy of ‘Trust None’ for this very reason, and I doubt if any member of the Coven of the Scales would ever introduce themselves as being a witch. After all we would frown on someone announcing out of the blue to complete strangers that they were a Seventh Day Adventist, epileptic , or blood group RH Positive, without the rest of us thinking they were slightly potty. Unless, of course, they were in the company of other SDAs, epileptics, or blood donors when such an utterance would be completely superfluous.
If we insist on labelling ourselves like Paddington Bear then we must be prepared for the consequences, and in today’s climate of suspicion over terrorism, it’s only a small step to be labelled among a country’s enemies. For example: Anne also quotes from a recent Time article in which the author states that “witches like terrorists threaten to wipe out everything you believe in. If they could, they would overthrow your government, overturn your faith, and destroy your society”.
It was some stupid comment such as this made in the House of Commons in 1988 that detonated an anti-occult campaign in Britain that resulted in hundreds of children from pagan families being taken into care. The persecution – for it was no less than that – rumbled on until 1994 when it blew itself out for lack of factual evidence. But in the meantime hundred’s of people’s lives were destroyed in the process.
Today we live in a suspicious society and as governments in the West declare open season on fundamentalist groups such as the Islamic State, with the media inflaming public opinion it doesn’t require any stretch of the imagination for them to start maligning pagans – especially when comparisons are already being made in the popular press. Because as Anne also points out, the word ‘witch’ is one of the most vilified in the English language, and therefore extremely inflammatory, especially if the evangelical brigade jump on the political bandwagon – WASPs only need apply!
During the 1988 witch-hunt I was known as an ‘activist’ and I’ve done my time on the firing line – as had my predecessors during the 1960s witch-hunt. I’ve also participated in various pagan conferences and events up and down the country – because I would be in company of like-minded souls. Nevertheless, I have always refused to appear on television programmes, which are subsequently edited to make us appear as suffering from either a tranquil madness or as dangerous sociopaths, depending on the point the editor is trying to make to the viewers.
Anne also warns that in announcing publicly that we are witches, we are laying claim to magical power/knowledge, although in my experienced the greater a witch’s vocal claim to power, the less likely they are to be able to wield it! If you wish to draw attention to yourself in this way, then do make sure that any fellow members in your group are comfortable with your public actions, because your antics could seriously backfire on them. That is why the second most important rule in traditional British Old Craft is ‘Keep Silence’ – so choose your label carefully.
The Queen arrives at the ritual site at the capital, wearing a crown with unlit candles. A representative from each of the twenty-four tribes wields a wand and draws down light from the stars to light each candle. When all the candles are lit in the crown, the Queen lights a candle for each of the tribes to bless them, as the King dances around the Queen, spinning fire, a token of offering his power so that the Queen's power may rise. When all of the tribal candles are lit, the Queen removes the crown and places it on the snow, and the King and Queen mate ritually on the stone table in the sacred circle; the first sign of green growth appears, rising up in the circle of the crown, which will survive the rest of the cold season. The mating of the King and Queen empowers the candles with light and life and the gift of joy. When the mating is done, the tribal representatives take their candles and each tribal candle is used to light a candle for every individual within that tribe, so the Queen's light is given to all of Vanaheim and the land can begin to thaw from the winter and people's spirits can be lifted in hope.
Some suggestions to observe this holiday this side of the fence:
- For those who astrally journey, one can travel to the capital to watch the ceremony, which is open to the public.
- If one does not journey or does not care to watch ritual sex for whatever reason, it is acceptable to light a candle for the Queen and/or candles for each of the tribes, and then from the Queen's candle light candles for yourself and your loved ones, for "thawing" in your own lives, the promise of the new year and new things and prosperity coming to you. One can also dance as the candles burn, offering the energy of happiness and freedom to flow through you into the Otherworld and from the Otherworld into you.
- One can light candles as above and work on cleansing and blessing one's home, or work on some sort of creative project (such as drawing, painting, crafting) - this is a particularly auspicious time to tie up loose ends with ongoing projects, especially if the work is going to be shared with others (such as a book, or crafts).
If you'd like to learn more about the Vanir gods, the tribes and culture of Vanaheim, and Vanatru, my book Visions of Vanaheim is available via paperback and PDF.
In Awakening the Sacred Body, the author asks a hard question: "Who does your spiritual practice benefit?" That question isn't asked often. In fact, I can count on one finger the number of times I've come across this question in all the books I've read. It makes me wonder why this question isn't asked more often, but I think we can answer that by simply recognizing that a lot of the focus in spiritual books is on helping a person improve him/herself. Ironically, what isn't recognized is that in some ways what this encourages is a lot more focus on the self than on other people.
I think there's an assumption that goes into spirituality, which is that if a person is engaged in spiritual practices they somehow are becoming better people or more enlightened, or whatever else, but the problem with that assumption is that there is no guarantee that being engaged in any type of practice automatically makes you a better person. And that may not even be the point of the spiritual practice. Spirituality isn't always about making a person into a better person. It's a relationship, but what comes out of the relationship is also informed by what goes into it. Why we engage in spiritual practice is ultimately a personal matter.
With that said, asking who does your spiritual practice benefit isn't a bad question. It's a question worth asking and worth answering. The author shares the following:
"Reflect upon your relationships with yourself, with your family and friends, and within your professional life. Consider your life as a citizen of this world and reflect upon your contribution. These are the arenas in which you want to see changes in a positive direction. Any meditation done with the intention to benefit other beings should certainly benefit the people you live with and see on daily basis. This prevents us from hiding out in spiritual practice or simply being caught in theories of fascinated with abstract principles."
Much of the focus on my own spiritual work has been done with an eye toward improving my life and how I connect with other people. The elemental balancing work, as well as meditation practices were originally started because I recognized how chaotic my life was and how much I contributed to that chaos, both for myself and people connected with me. Doing that work gradually helped me to work out a lot of the internal issues that affected my relationships with other people, but it wasn't always easy for those people because doing such work necessarily brings those issues to the surface. However that's part of what doing such work involves. You bring to the surface what has held you back so you can examine and work with it and then release it. What must be considered is that while you do such work you keep the impact on others to a minimum.
Even if your spiritual work isn't focused on the purpose of changing your life, its still important to examine the impact it can have on yourself and others. If nothing else, such an examination helps you better understand why you practice the spiritual work you practice. It also helps you see it in context to the rest of your life. Ideally you aren't divorcing your spirituality from the rest of your life, but it can be helpful to really examine the relationship it has with your life and the people in it.
What are you doing to ground your spiritual practice in your life? Who does your spiritual practice effect and how do the principles of that practice show up in your life and how you live it?
Deinde Februarius Solmōnaþ...
Solmōnaþ dici potest mensis placentarum, quas in eo diis suis offerebant.
According to the Venerable Bede, an early English scholar and historian who sought to show the triumph of the church in England as inevitable, the inhabitants of the land had a name for February that fit the agricultural nature of the time. In chapter fifteen of his study on the reckoning of time, De Temporum Ratione, he tells us the English names for the months that had been used in the past.
After telling us that January was still part of Giuli [Yule], which is why it was traditional to keep your holiday decorations up, Bede says
Next is February, Solmōnaþ...
Sol is not the Latin word "sun" but "mud"; while we may still be knee-deep in snow (at least we are up in the north where I am) in the more temperate times of medieval England, the thaw would likely have already begun and the signs would have been all around. With the melting snow and spring rain, mud would have well been omnipresent. Think how good it would feel between your toes after the long winter.
How did they celebrate this period? Bede offers us a hint:
Solmōnaþ could be called the month of cakes, which they offered to their gods.
Cakes and ale had to start somewhere, right? Perhaps this is where one thread of tradition comes to us. He doesn't say much about what kind of cakes. Others have suggested that the cakes that appear in field charms like Æcerbot might have been intended and show us a way that ritual might have occurred. Sympathetic magic, feeding the earth so she feeds us, seems a likely form. Though surely there were cakes enough for everyone.
The wonderful medieval cookery site Gode Cookery has a lovely and simple seed cake recipe you might try this February.
See more of my work and buy my books at my website.
There is a quite different argument against abortion I have heard from several Pagan women. I am more sympathetic to it than to the usual “fetus is human” claim that I demolished in my previous post. Even so, I think it ultimately fails, though it does complicate a woman’s decision.
Before I can explore the real motivations behind so-called ‘pro-life’ movements, I want to address it.
Does abortion murder spirits?
During an earlier discussion of the abortion issue I received an email from a woman who wrote me: “. . . you don't have to be Christian to have found out that abortion does in fact feel like murder - those fetuses' spirits were already talking to me and yes I feel duped by the feminists and like a murderess.”
I have spoken with many women who, like her, are convinced spirits that intended to become their children had been in contact. One woman told me that during a Brigid ritual she had been contacted by the spirit who would have been born had she not had an abortion. Another told me a spirit had given her the name she wanted to be known as when she was born. When the baby was born she received that name.
I believe them. I have no trouble believing that some, maybe all, births have a reincarnational dimension. I think there is considerable evidence this is so. (Wikipedia has an good overview of research on the issue.)
In addition, the evidence for consciousness surviving death seems to me overwhelming. Such departed beings might wish to be reincarnated. Having an abortion definitely deprives a spirit of incarnation in that particular instance. And perhaps there are spirits seeking their first human incarnation as well.
But what is the moral weight of this fact?
What is murder?
In my view my email correspondent overreacted. Her abortion was not murder.
These spirits were already centers of awareness, relationship, and future plans without being incarnated in the flesh. In these accounts the spirits evidenced far more sentience and awareness than one could expect from a tiny bunch of cells that had just came into existence.
If spirits can communicate with potential future mothers, they pre-exist the egg’s fertilization. Given that they do not have a physical body, and they apparently continue afterwards as they had previously, there is no reason to think what happened was murder.
Murder is of a human being, or as my alien example argued in my previous Witches and Pagans post of the moral equivalent of a human being.
In that post I argued whatever else it might be, a zygote and at least many fetuses are not human beings in the moral sense because they cannot enter into any human style relationship.
From my present spirit centered perspective a zygote is growing into a future home that a otherwise separate spirit will inhabit. But the home is not the dweller, and particularly a future home is not the dweller.
Do such spirits have a right to being birthed by the woman of their choice?
I think an analogy helps clarify the issues involved.
An Illuminating analogy
Suppose a woman is approached by a man who tells her he is in love with her and cannot live without her. She is that important to him. She does not know this man but he says he selected her because of qualities of hers that he admires. Perhaps he also tells her in a previous life they agreed to become lovers or were otherwise involved. She cannot remember this previous life. Does she have an ethical duty to marry him?
I can’t imagine anyone saying she does. And many would say she is asking for trouble if she did because he does not love her, he loves his image of her, if he understands love at all.
If in deep despair the man then killed himself, it would be a misfortune; but no reasonable person would hold the woman responsible. She might feel badly for him, but we would regard her as foolish if she then blamed herself for his death and believed she should have acceded to his wishes.
I think the parallel is strong with the spirit issue except that in the case of the abortion, no human died. We could easily argue a spirit needs to make sure it is welcome before choosing a potential body. Why should its desire for being born be more important than the woman’s view of the matter?
In my opinion arguing a woman must give birth to a preexisting spirit because it has chosen her to be its mother is one more example of turning women into being primarily servants of others out of a sense of duty or fear. In this case to a currently immaterial other. Someone else’s needs and wants have preempted and subordinated the woman’s. If she chooses to give birth she should be honored, but if she does not, she should not be condemned. We do not walk in her shoes.
In my view nothing is more important than the relationship between a child and its parents. These relationships shape the rest of their lives, for both good and ill. Loved children are vastly better off than those who do not experience love, or experience it intermittently. For there to be solid love the relationship between a mother and child must be completely consensual. Neither would have it any other way.
Of course love could develop even when it is initially absent. This was the case within some arranged marriages of the past and I am confident it remains true for some today. Fortunate couples developed loving and satisfying relationships no matter how they might have begun. However I cannot imagine these happy outcomes constituting justifications for forcing marriages on couples who otherwise would not have gotten married.
Given that the spirit that would have entered the fetus still exists and hopefully will find a willing mom, the woman who wrote me that email committed no murder in any sense. The at least somewhat different child who embodied that spirit after being born to a future and more willing woman would never have come into existence if the first woman had been forced to give birth. One possible being came into existence and another did not, no matter which choice was made. But one outcome also enabled a woman to exercise control over her life whereas the other would have demeaned her to a womb with legs and a brain to serve it.
Not giving birth to that child with that spirit constituted a road not traveled and perhaps it would have been a good one if she had. Or perhaps not. Or perhaps the one the woman ultimately traveled was better for her, either in terms of this life, or spiritual lessons, or both.
Our lives are filled to the brim with such forks in the road, with paths not taken, paths quickly disappearing over a hill or around a bend. Giving birth or not is one of life’s larger forks, but it is still a fork.
Someone might argue I am ignoring possible karmic relationships between a spirit and its potential mother. But if they exist neither I nor anyone else has the slightest idea what they are. It could also be that the spirit was an unloving person and its karma is to spend some time without a body until it learns to be a better being. Perhaps it needs to learn to take the desires of others than itself into consideration, and will be frustrated until it does. To use the language of karma, that may be its lesson rather than her giving birth to it being the woman’s lesson. She might be helping the spirit learn its lesson by not having it as her child. We do not know. We do know the woman has a life to live. The choice should therefore be hers, and no one else has more than an advisory status. Including the spirit.
These two columns have made several points. First, those who equate the biologically human with the morally human confuse two different categories, one of which clearly lacks the moral weight to override a pregnant woman’s choice and the other of which is not linked to biological humanness. Those arguing a fetus is morally a human being because it is biologically human are arguing nonsense. Worse, it is dangerous nonsense because it undermines the insight most fundamental to human morality: that no one is simply a tool for another.
In addition, the pre-birth reality of a spirit that could become a child gives us no convincing reason why its interests should override the views of the woman it chose to be its mother. Presumably like the rest of us, she was once such an entity. Having been born human, it is up to each of us to live that life and learn and accomplish what we believe to be best for us.
But as I wrote at the beginning of my first essay, the real issue here is not abortion. Something much deeper is going on, and the current passions for outlawing all abortion are, for a great many, simply surface expressions of these deeper issues.
These issues have nothing at all to do with being “pro-life,” as my next post will demonstrate. Further, we as modern Pagans, have much to contribute here to the challenge of increasing this society’s reverence for life.