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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Does Electric Incense “Count”?

Who would expect to be confronted with a theological conundrum upon walking into a supermarket? Welcome to the Wonderful World of Paganism.

I've gone over to my neighborhood Asian market to pick up some tofu. (At a buck-fifteen per cake, it's still the best deal in town.) Just inside the door, in his little shrine on the floor, sits Weng Shen the Door God. Flanked by electric candles, he scowls as good door-wards do. Before him burns a bowl of electric incense.

The porcelain bowl filled with gravel looks just like a real incense bowl, if you ignore the electric cord that runs through a hole at the back of the shrine. Even the “sticks” of incense—I assume that they're plastic—could almost pass for the real thing, if it weren't for those uniform glowing red electric tips.

So here's the conundrum. Is a symbolic offering still an offering? Does electric incense “count”?

I suppose that the answer to this question depends upon what you mean by “count.”

To light candles or burn incense before a god is an offering, a gift. They mean: I honor you. They mean: I give you a gift. (Hoping, perhaps, for one in return. Value for value: that's the pagan way. )

Incense, now, is an offering of experience, the gift of fragrance. (The offering bears the prayer, we say.) Burning, of course, is one traditional means of giving something to a god. (“There's no true religion without fire,” says Robert Cochrane, father of the contemporary Old Craft movement.) What, then, of candles that don't burn and incense that gives no fragrance?

Well, call me a traditionalist, but I'd say that, as offerings go, real candles and real incense make better offerings than their electric counterparts, in that they are consumed and, in time, gone: hence, they have a sacrificial character that the others lack. It is better to light one stick of real incense than a whole roomful of electric joss sticks.

But that's not to say that electric offerings are entirely without merit. They too, in their own way, do honor to the god. I note that, to either side of the electric incense, stand cups of rice grains and (I presume) rice wine. They, at least, are the real thing. Plastic rice, plastic wine: those wouldn't count. But electric candles still give light and, as for e-incense, well: it brings a smile to my lips, at least. Perhaps the god feels the same way.

The pagan world is one of gradation, not absolutes. A symbolic offering isn't as good as a real one, but it's better than no offering at all.

When you're a visitor, it's always polite to honor your host's gods. By doing honor to my gods, you honor me as well.

I nod my head to the Door God, and go in to get my tofu.






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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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