Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Steven Posch

Steven Posch

Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

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Theological Emergency

A few years back, I spent the Spring holidays with my cousin and his family in Germany.

I was standing in the kitchen eating a piece of Easter candy when little Anja walked in. As usual, she didn't miss much.

She immediately took in the bag of candy—exactly the same kind of candy that she'd found in her basket a few days earlier—and you could see lights going on behind her eyes.

Her chin began to wobble.

“But I thought...I thought the Bunny brought the candy!”

Being myself neither a parent nor a believer, I was clearly out of my depth here. I said something mollifying and went to get my cousin.

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On the Brilliance of 'Blessed Be'

“'Blessed Be': that's what the Satanists say to each other,” said my friend Blaine.

It was the early 70s. Blaine and I were both in high school. Clearly, he'd seen some TV special about contemporary witchcraft which he hadn't completely understood and, just as clearly, something about the saying had caught his fancy.

“Seems like a strange thing for Satanists to be saying,” I said.

I was making a point while trying not to seem to be making a point. I already knew a thing or two on the subject, quite enough to know that it most certainly was not Satanists who were saying “Blessed Be” to one another.

It was also enough to be abundantly clear to me which side of the Hedge I stood on myself.

 

Blessed Be. (That's three syllables now, not two.) It's a blessing; it's a spell. It means many things: Hello, Good-bye, Amen. It means: I'm one, and you're one too. It means: I acknowledge you as an equal. It means: We belong to the same tribe.

It's also an allusion to deep myth and liturgy. Blessed be the feet which have brought thee in these ways, says the Horned to the Lady in the Underworld, as he tenderly kisses said feet. This story, of course, is the mythic charter for initiation, as well as for the act of liturgical adoration, the Fivefold Kiss. (“What is the Five that is Eight?” is a kind of Wiccan koan.) Blessed Be: a world of meaning in two simple words.

(When I once met the Goddess in the middle of a flowering summer meadow—but that's a tale for another night—my knowledge of this rite gave me a fitting liturgical response to a theretofore—in my experience, anyway—unprecedented situation.)

After decades in the Craft, I'll admit that “Blessed Be” had, for the most part, donned something of an invisibility cloak for me: it's so ubiquitous that I'd almost stopped consciously seeing and hearing it. “BB!” friends often write, at the end of letters or e-mails, or sometimes even say: an intimate gesture, yet by that very intimacy rendered even more mysterious and in-the-know.

Anyone who knows magic knows that this is precisely the situation in which words have their most powerful effect: when they operate largely, if not wholly, on the unconscious level.

Not all religions have their own greetings, but the Craft—insofar, at any rate, as one may consider the Craft a religion—is one of them, and it's a brilliant stroke. The phrase seems innocuous, even benevolent, as, indeed, it is.

But don't be fooled.

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Stands-in-the-Water

The way they tell it, Him that we call the Horned came down from heaven. Like a star he came down.

He came down to bring us Fire.

They say he looked down and saw that the People were cold and hungry, and in darkness, so he brought us the Fire of the gods. Like lightning he fell from heaven, or a star.

And that's where he landed: the Mountain that stands in the Mississippi.

Hay-nee-ah-chah, the Indians called it (that would be the Ho-Chunk): “soaking mountain,” and Pah-hah-dah, “moved mountain” (that's the Dakota). Trempealeau, the Frenchies named it, le montagne qui trempe à l'eau: the mountain that wades in the water.

Stands-in-the-Water, they call it, or the Black Mountain, because it's thick with oaks and maples, and dark.

(There's rattlesnakes out there, they say, to guard it.)

They call it the Sabbat Mount.

Nobody goes out there much, except for kids. Well, Indians too. There's mounds out there, if you know where to look for them, old mounds, some of them shaped like birds, or deer.

Well, and witches, of course.

Ever since he came down, that's been Witch Country down there, with witches all over. That's where they go for their jamborees, the witches, out to the Mountain that stands in the River.

You've seen the fires burning out there at night, and heard the drums. So have I.

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How Much Is Good Ritual Worth?

How much is good ritual worth?

I have a friend who's a shaman. (That's not the term that she would use, but it will suffice for our purposes here.) She's the real thing. Anyone that knows her knows that she's the real thing.

She charges $400 an hour.

When people come to her for ritual or for teaching, she tells them: My fee is $400 an hour. How many hours do you think you'll need?

 

Unlike the ancestors, a lot of modern pagans are squiffy about paying for ritual. In a situation in which few traditions have much time-depth, and anyone who declares herself an expert can pass as such—at least for a time—that's perhaps understandable, but it also explains the currently low standard of so much contemporary pagan ritual.

What it doesn't explain is why so many people who are willing to pay a trained expert to fix their cars, their plumbing, or their wiring, expect ritualists to work for free.

Few pagan ritual experts receive a salary from a congregation. Like everyone else, ritualists have families to raise and bills to pay.

With ritual—as with most other things—you get what you pay for.

 

My shaman friend was invited to be a guest at a local festival. When she arrived, she introduced herself to one of the festival's organizers, a woman widely known in the local community as a notoriously incompetent ritualist.

“Oh, I know who you are,” the woman told my friend. “You're the one who charges for ritual.”

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The Charge of the Generic Modern Pagan Deity

Just fill in the blanks.

 

...
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Recent comment in this post - Show all comments
  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Mr. Posch, Splendid! It reminds me of the episode of "Robot Chicken", where an entire episode of "Law & Order" is re-enacted ov
An Imperfect Cane, or: Purism Is Its Own Punishment

When my friend got back from the hospital, it was clear that he was going to need a cane, at least for a while. I offered to go to the cane store to get him one.

My friend being who he is, he drew up a page-long list of what he wanted in a new cane. It had to be thus-and-so, it couldn't be thus-and-so.

When I got to the cane store, it was clear that I was never going to be able to find a cane that fit all of his specifications. So—on the principle that When you need a cane, it's better to have an imperfect cane than not to have a perfect one—I picked out one that came as close as it could.

***

As pagans, our situation in some ways resembles that of the Indigenous children of North America and Australia who were torn away from their families and sent off to residential schools for reenculturation. Forbidden to speak their own languages, or practice their own religions, they became the living lost. Cultural genocide is hideous, but you can't deny its effectiveness.

For the pagan peoples of Europe, this happened hundreds of years ago. Much has been lost forever to us, their latter-day children. Our laments for the wantonness of that destruction will never cease to sound while ever our people endure.

So we take what we have and go from there. Much of what passes for modern paganism just isn't anywhere near as good as I would want it to be. Much of what we have is pro tem: what we've made for ourselves. It hasn't had the centuries of honing and deepening that come with generations of transmission.

If as a people we manage to survive, we know for absolute certain that, in time, the excellence will come. That's how cultures work. In the meantime, we make for ourselves the best that we can and go on. When we see something that's worthy, let us take heed, praise it, and strive to emulate it.

And by all means let us avoid the deathtrap of premature canonization.

***

We were learning a new chant one night. One covensib objected to it on the grounds that the imagery was mixed and internally contradictory.

His critique was a valid one, but then arose the obvious question: Did he have something better to put in its place?

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Tales of Paganistan: Earth is a Woman, Too, or How Not to Take Back the Night

Remember Take Back the Night?

Back in the 80s, there would be a big rally and march here in Minneapolis every summer. The organizing committee, notoriously dysfunctional, was a seething cauldron of in-fighting and ideological purism. The general tone of the marches was outrage, anger.

Except for the pagans.

Hel, we figured we had as much right to be there as anyone. We opposed violence against women. (We still do.) We were staunchly feminist. (We still are.) We hated rape. (We still do.)

But we weren't interested in rage or ideological purity.

We wanted the night back.

So we took it.

We danced, we drummed, we satirized. We chanted the praises of our Goddess through the streets.

The organizers hated us.

At the very last march—just before the organizing committee (irony of ironies) finally tore itself to shreds in a maelstrom of self-directed, woman-on-woman violence—we were consigned to being literally the very last group in the march.

Since we were last, everyone else left the park before we did. That was the moment of horror.

The hillside where people had sat listening to speeches and music, now empty of occupants, was blanketed with garbage: papers, soda cans, water bottles.

That year, the pagans were irate, too.

Talk about not getting it, we said.

Don't they see that everything is connected? we said.

Earth is a Woman, too, we said.

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  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Bags in hand, some of us went back the next morning to Take Back the Day.
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    Would I be right in guessing that you pulled out trash bags, picked up trash and turned it into a ritual to take back the night?

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