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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A Real Old-Time Yule

 Augusto S. Cacopardo (2016) Pagan Christmas: Winter Feasts of the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush. Gingko Library.

 

If you've ever wondered what Yule used to look like back before it got Christmasized, I've got good news for you: it's not too late to find out.

Numbering about 3500, the Kalasha are the only remaining Indo-European-speaking people who have practiced their traditional religion continuously since antiquity. Living in three remote valleys in what is now northwestern Pakistan, they are famed for their wine-drinking, the beauty (and freedom) of their women, and their overtly polytheistic religion with its sacred dances, animal sacrifices, sacred groves, and (in the old way) sanctuaries both "roofed" (indoor) and "unroofed" (open-air).

Their most important holiday of the year is (surprise!) the Winter Solstice, known in Kalashagrom as Chaumós (chow-MOSS). This complex of festivities, with its feasts, bonfires, sacred songs and dances, sacrifices, and torchlit processions (any of that sound familiar?) lasts for nearly a month.

Heretofore, the only major resource on the rites of Chaumos available to English-speakers was Jean-Yves Loude and Viviane Lièvre's 1986 Kalash Solstice, a valuable study limited by poor translation from the original French, and by the fact that only about half of the book actually deals with Chaumos itself. In addition, the book was written after only two seasons of fieldwork, which—for a festival as profound and complex as Chaumos—can hardly even begin to plumb the depths.

So thank Goddess for Augusto S. Cacopardo's 2016 Pagan Christmas: Winter Feasts of the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush.

Cacopardo is an Italian anthropologist who has made a lifelong study of the peoples of the Hindu Kush, a cultural region which he rather charmingly calls Peristan, “Fairy Land.” (Belief in the mountain fairies characterizes all the local cultures of this region.) He has made a particular study of the Kalasha, and attended his first Chaumos many years ago as a young man. Since then, he's been back many times and, as a result, can offer us a treasury of lore which will, I promise you, enrich your Yule celebration in ways you never dreamed possible.

Pagans being pagans, even in a society of fewer than 4000 people, the Chaumos celebrations of the three different valleys that the Kalasha inhabit differ significantly from one another. Previous studies had focused on solstice celebrations of the Rumbúr and Bumbúret valleys, but Cacopardo focuses on Birír valley which, as he clearly demonstrates, preserves the old Chaumos traditions in their purest and most archaic forms.

Much will sound familiar here to the New Pagan reader: bonfires, torch-dances, decking with evergreens. (“The gods love the smell of juniper,” say the Kalasha. "When they smell it, they draw near.") The bean-feasts, the drumming and dancing, the sacred ball-games: Chaumos is, in many ways, very much like Yule as we know it.

Let one story suffice. One night, the last of the holiday, Cacopardo is privileged to witness—although not, as an outsider, to hear—the recitation of the ghach, the secret prayer known only to a few elders, which actualizes and directs the energies of the entire Chaumos celebration. Cacopardo notices that the old man reciting the ghach is holding a green branch in his hand as he does so.

“What's he holding?” he asks his informant.

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Warlock Carol

English composer Peter Warlock ( Philip Heseltine, 1894-1930) wrote this mysterious little carol, a variant on the traditional I Saw Three Ships, in 1923. It didn't get its pagan words until nearly eighty years later, but—considering Warlock's lifelong interest in the occult—we can be sure that he would be delighted to know that the witches were singing his carol at their Yuletide festivities. Absolutely delighted.

As for the meaning of those three mysterious ships...well, all will be revealed.

Just watch this blog.

The Sycamore Tree

 

As I sat under a sycamore tree,

a sycamore tree, a sycamore tree,

I looked me out upon the sea,

a Midwinter's day in the morning.

 

I saw three ships come sailing there,

come sailing there, come sailing there:

the Horned One and His Lady they bare,

a Midwinter's day in the morning.

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The Mother Jars

Check out this 6000-year old storage jar from ancient Ukraine. Standing nearly 2½ feet tall, it's a product of the Copper Age Trypillian culture.

I saw this jar myself some years back at a traveling exhibit of artifacts from what archaeologist Marija Gimbutas calls the “Old European” cultures. What may look at first like abstract designs soon emerge as an owl—you can see the eyes and beak on the jar's upper register—and, strikingly, the back of the jar bears exactly the same patterns. This is a janiform owl, double, looking you directly in the eye no matter what direction you're coming from.

We don't know what was stored in the jar, but we can make a good guess. The people of ancient Trypillia raised all the staples of the Neolithic diet: wheat, emmer, barley, peas, lentils. The advantage of agriculture is that it produces lots of good, nourishing, storeable food with which to feed your family through long, cold Central European winters.

The disadvantage: stored grains and legumes draw rodents.

Hence the owl. Marija Gimbutas would have it that we are here in the realm of the Bird Goddess, Lady of Death. Perhaps. But, as my friend and colleague Helga Hedgewalker pointed out at the time, owls are good at keeping down vermin, whatever your mythology. Thank you, Mother Owl.

The breathtaking mastery of the ceramicist who made this jar is apparent only when you get close. From a distance, the patterns of the “head” and “body” of the jar look very similar. It's only when you get close that you see that they are, in fact, quite different. The owl's face—faces—are painted; the running spirals along the body are engraved. The potter has used two different techniques to achieve the same visual effect. Artistically speaking, it's a bravura performance.

We know from the house models that the Trypillians buried beneath their hearths that a row of just such storage jars stood along the side wall of every house: the Mother Jars that feed us through the winter.

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The Blessing of the Crows

With a sinking feeling, I hear the voices of hundreds of crows raised in pre-dawn “f**k you” chorus.

Oh no! We've received the blessing of the crows!

Crows are savvy. During the leafless season, November to April, they roost together by the hundreds and thousands every night. Lacking the camouflage of leaves, this gives them twice hundreds and thousands of eyes to watch out for potential trouble.

Being under their late afternoon flyway, as I was the other day, can feel pretty ominous. And at night, when the trees of a given block fill up with hundreds and thousands of cawing, excreting corvid bodies, the feeling is downright Hitchcockian.

And then, when they fly off, raucous, next morning, they leave their blessing behind them. Lucky us.

I try to keep a pagan attitude about it. Dung fertilizes. Last year the South Minneapolis murder avoided us all winter and, sure enough, the haul from the garden this summer was pitiful.

Even so, the acrid smell of guano lingers for weeks. Cars you can wash—I sometimes wonder if the crows are in league with the car-wash owners—but not sidewalks or roofs.

Fearing the worst, I look out the window. Sure enough, the cars parked on the street are painted, polka-dotted, with mutes.

I put on my shoes and go out to the driveway to check my car. I gasp.

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Does Planet Earth = Goddess Earth?

One day, while Mother Earth was visiting Athens...

So begins a story from Robert Graves' Greek Myths. Theologically speaking, I find these words profoundly disturbing. I thought so when I first read them years ago; decades on, they still trouble me.

The same problem arises in Isaac Bonewits' Litany to the Earth Mother:

R: You who are called Gaea among the Greeks....

V: Come to us!

R: You who are called Tellus by the Romans....

V: Come to us! etc.

So let me get this right: we're calling Earth to come to us. Call me opaque, but if there's a logic here, I fail to see it.

In both cases, we proceed from the presumption that, in some sense, Earth-as-Goddess is different to, and distinguishable from, Earth-as-Planet.

Such a view, I suspect, is premised on a binary body/spirit worldview: Planet Earth as the Body of Goddess Earth.

But are the gods spirits? If so, what does that mean?

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Mr. Posch, I follow the Divine Iamblichus' beliefs on the nature of Godhood. Mother Earth governs the physical matter of the surf
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I tend to view Spirit as quintessence the fifth element. Along with Earth, Air, Fire, and Water I see it as part of the matrix of
  • Chris Sherbak
    Chris Sherbak says #
    This dichotomy/tension continues in ADF today: there's a spot in the Core Order for "The Earth Mother" and I regularly have issue

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The Guy in the Red Suit: Pagans and Santa

A local coven just sent around the invitation to their big public Yule this year. So far as I can divine, the heart of the ritual will be an encounter with the “Guy in the Red Suit.”

Now, historically speaking, Santa is entirely a creation of Christian folklore, with no known connections to the pre-Christian world. Contemporary pagans differ in their attitudes towards this most popular—and vapid—of American folk figures.

Some pagans wholeheartedly embrace Santa, name and all, along with Yule trees, wreaths, and the rest of the (secular) Christmas package. I suspect that there's a strong element of nostalgia here. As pagans, we're so often entirely out-of-step with the overculture that, come Yule, it can come as something of a relief just to relax and go with the flow for once.

Some see Santa as a figure with pagan roots, and hence acceptable, if perhaps rechristened [sic] with a new pagan name. This is untrue, historically speaking: like the Yule tree, Santa grows out of folk Christianity. Granted this historical datum, whether or not—like the Yule tree—Santa is ultimately paganizable (now there's an adjective for you) remains a matter of opinion.

Some would reject Santa as hopelessly tainted by his Christian connections, often in favor of some other Yuletide gift-bringer: Mother Berchta, Befana, or the Yule Goat inter alia. With Brom's recent novel of the same name, Krampus has gained something of an enthusiastic following.

(In fact, all of these figures originally emerged out of Christian folklore as did Santa himself, and none of them have any traceable connection to any known pagan tradition.)

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  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Mr. Posch, Hooray for Krampus!
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    According to "Psychedelic Mystery Traditions" by Thomas Hatsis Santa didn't get stuck in a red suit until Coke used him in and adv
My Vegetarianism Is Not a Judgment of You. But....

A Helpful Guide to Social Relations Between Dietary Minorities and Practicing Omnivores

 

First off: Hey, Non-Vegetarian, my vegetarianism is not a judgment of you, OK? There's absolutely no need for you to feel criticized, defensive, or apologetic.

No, I don't feel superior. No, I'm not out to convert you. You make your choices, I make mine. Really, there are far more important things to disagree about.

 

That said, let me make a few helpful suggestions to my fellow vegetarians, vegans, dieters, and other non-practicing omnivores for dealing with the Dietary Majority:

When someone offers you something that you don't eat, say: No, thanks.

No, thanks.” That's all.

Not: “I can't eat that.” Actually, you can; you just (for whatever reason) choose not to.

Not: “I don't eat that.” That's the kind of statement that can't help but come off as judgmental, however you intend it.

Not: “Ooooh!” (recoils in repulsion). When someone else offers you what they themselves are eating, it's an act of generosity and hospitality, regardless of how revolting you may or may not find it. Act accordingly, instead of with a rebuff.

I won't tell you about my dietary parameters if you don't tell me about yours.

For gods' sakes, spare us the details, OK? 1) They're a bore, and 2) they're the best way to sound like a smug, sanctimonious, self-righteous A-hole. Just shut up and eat already, OK?

Be proactive.

When someone else offers to cook for you, make sure that they know your parameters beforehand, so that you're not springing it on them at the last minute. The laws of hospitality are binding on the guest as well as the host.

So when Mom invites you to a Thanksgiving table that you know won't fit your dietary parameters, tell her: “Great! I've got this great [vegetarian entrée] that I'll bring along; I know you'll just love it.”

Or offer to help with preparation. ("Hey, I'm going to mash some of these potatoes with almond milk; I really love them that way.") Then you can actively ensure that there's food that you're willing to eat.

Take some ownership of the situation.

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    When I visit my sister Barbara for Thanksgiving the big dishes are set out buffet style and we help ourselves. I pass on the corn

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