Friday, June 28, 2013

Historical Mush

Okay, so yesterday I promised to weigh in on the hard polytheist/soft polytheist/archetypalist/humanist Pagan food fight going on across the Pagan blogosphere.  As with so many things, I'm rather late to the table on this one - most of the folks with an axe to grind have said their piece and left.  Several folks ended with comments along the lines of "Well, if everyone practiced their Paganism as much as they talked about it, then we wouldn't be having these arguments."

I'm pretty sure that's wrong.  The reason I think it's wrong is that the philosophers among the pre-Christian Classical Pagans of Greece and Rome had similar arguments, and it's hard to argue that they weren't practicing their Paganism.  More about that in a minute.

First, let me come clean about my position: I'm a hard polytheist, meaning that my experiences of the gods are as individual persons who have a meaningful existence of their own.  I'm also an adherent of process theology, meaning that I experience the gods as changing and developing over time.  I'm a polypanenthist, meaning that I experience the gods as present in the forces and matter of the physical universe but also having some dimension outside it.  And I'm also an archetypalist, meaning that I experience the cultural archetypes we, as humans, create and embed in our art and media as having a certain amount of power and influence of their own, despite not existing outside of the human mind.

More after the jump:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

We interrupt our usual programming . . .

So normally what I write about here is all Pagan religious stuff, or at least religion-adjacent stuff like sex and politics.  You know, nice polite conversation.  (And yes, I'll have something to say about the recent cross-blog food fight on the Pagan/polytheist quasi-divide, but not tonight.)  Alas, given that I don't particularly want to link to one of my more personal blogs off of Twitter (for what should be presumably obvious reasons), I'm going to have to take a stab here into something far more outre and controversial: video game journalism.


So Bob Chipman, a movie critic under the name of MovieBob and a video game critic under the name of The Game OverThinker, recently authored a book and published it through Bang Printing by way of SMB3: Brick By Brick.  The intent is to perform the equivalent of a shot-by-shot analytic review of a movie for what he considers "The greatest game ever made."

I've been a fan of his for a little over a year, having stumbled across some of his videos for the Escapist around Yule '11 and then re-discovering him again through the Game OverThinker videos the following spring.  He was one of the guests at the SGC 2013 convention this last weekend, and one of the reasons I decided to skip out on the local SF/fantasy litcon the same weekend and go to a video game con halfway across the state instead.  (FWIW, I don't appear to have missed much, despite the lack of filking.)  The book debuted at SGC, so I picked up a copy at his autograph session on Friday.  It's not long - 205 pages, 4.5" x 7" - so it was a fairly fast read.

At this point, I want to reiterate that (1) I'm a fan, so this is likely not a completely objective review of the book, and (2) it's effectively self-published - is not exactly a mainstream press.  So keep both of those in mind throughout the following.

I'm going to split this review into two parts behind the jump: Part The First will be on the actual content (spoiler: it's pretty good but not quite what I think the original idea was aiming for), and Part The Second will be on the book as a book, including layout and other publishing issues.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Why is it that almost everything I want to do conflicts with something else I want to do?

In this particular case, it was OwlCon (a local gaming convention that I volunteer for and have a long history with) and PanTheaCon this last weekend, but there's another one coming up on the first weekend in March, and another one in June.

On the bright side, my moon circles seem to have gotten to something approaching critical mass, so that's nice.  Resolving the internal theological chaos may be a little difficult - I have a couple of generic Wiccaform duotheists, a handful of pantheists, a UU panentheist who just likes ritual, a devotee of Brigid, a Discordian who doesn't so much worship Eris as try to point her away from himself, an animist refugee from a spiritually abusive strain of Christianity who is at the Any Other God/dess stage, and at this one coming up, someone whose personal pantheon is nearly evenly split between the Khemetic and Asatru pantheons.  Given that I'm sticking with pan-Near-Eastern at this point, this could get interesting.

Friday, February 8, 2013

It has recently come to my attention that the current estimate for the number of Pagans in the US is between 300,000 and 400,000.  (We will leave aside terminology bumming for the moment.  That includes self-identified Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, and the various more specific reconstructionists.)

The current estimate for the number of WELS Synod Lutherans is about 380,000.

Apparently I am the same level of minority no matter what religion I am.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Leaving Some Things In The Past

One of my immediate ancestors was a balls-out racist.  My father's father was raised with the attitudes common to the descendants of Southern plantation owners of the time, and embraced them without reservation.  For him, the term we dance around as an obscenity far greater than "fuck" was the primary term he had for Americans of African descent, although he condescended to use "colored" as a genteel euphemism for the few he thought were people of quality.  As far as I know, he took those attitudes to his grave.

He was also a cold and distant father, borderline emotionally abusive, to his sons, although I am given to understand that he treated both his wife with tenderness and respect, and his daughters with at least a gentler hand.  He had the usual toxic ideas about masculinity, and despite not being religious in the slightest, he was at least passively homophobic.  His oldest two sons think he was an alcoholic, although one of them is a teetotaler and thinks this about anyone who drinks more than a glass of wine a week.  He was very much a product of his time and culture, and his freethinking was his primary rebellion against it; in fact, his support for his younger daughter entering a profession and postponing marriage is the only one I can think of.  (Edit: he was also not actively anti-Semitic, which was somewhat unusual at that place and time, but not wholly unheard of, especially among WWII veterans.)

And yet, as I mentioned before, this is one of the two ancestors I know the names of for whom I feel comfortable doing any ancestor reverence for (the other is my paternal grandmother, his wife).  On a day when we celebrate civil rights, and do right reverence to a cultural ancestor and martyr to whose name my grandfather would invariably attach an unpleasant epithet, it seems particularly difficult to balance the good a man did - lives saved on the battlefield, vision saved in a doctor's office, being a loving husband - with the evil he did right beside it, and the evil he passively or actively supported.

Still, we do the same, don't we, when we Pagans are called to our various gods?  We are turned back towards cultures that held to values we find repugnant now.  Racism as we know it is a phenomenon of the Age of Empires, but prejudice against one's neighbors comes standard with the empires of old, whether Roman, Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian, or elsewhere and elsewhen.  We have no historical cultures free of sexism, and many where women were treated abominably; while there are many whose policies on sexuality are preferable to our culture's, there are none I can point to and call truly sex-positive.  The idea (loosened from the idea of race) that one human being can and even should non-consensually own another is pervasive in the ancient world.  And many of these values were at least ascribed to the gods; Athena, in particular, was the mouthpiece of some terribly misogynist views, but she is far from the only, or even the worst, of these.

I think that I, at least, have hope that people, spirits, and gods alike continue to evolve.  I would like to think that the gods are not ignorant of the flow of human history - that Liberty has become a part of many goddesses, including Athena.  I would like to believe that the dead, when they see each other without the veil of skin between, understand the harm of treating each other as less than human, and of supporting the social structures that do the same even without any individual ill-feeling.  And my experiences, though small and sometimes confusing, tend to point in that direction.

At any rate, there is much work to be done here, whether the ancestors join us gladly in that work or not.  And if not, then there is that much more work to be done, to turn them, too, around.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What's in a Name?

So, there are a number of bloggers in the Pagan blogosphere who have decided that "Pagan" is the wrong label.  A large number of them are of the hard polytheist and/or Reconstructionist strain, although not all of them.  And there have been a number of reaction posts about them from folks who do still claim the label.

One of the better posts has been P. Sufenas Virius Lupus's post on the Queer I Stand blog, Bringing Back The Gods, which pointed up some of the various branches of the large clump of practices we call Pagan that have been leaning away from theistic language, much less polytheistic.  Christine Kraemer replied with Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron: Must Pagans Be Polytheists?, which points out that polytheism is only one of three major threads of the Pagan conglomeration; she identifies the other two as "earth-based spirituality" and "Goddess worship," although that last is qualified somewhat.

While I would argue that there are some other threads in Pagan identity that are almost as important as those three, if not more so (I personally would argue that "magick/divination/energy work" has been at least as important in the development of the Witchcraft traditions, and that the presence or absence of that thread is one of the huge stumbling blocks between Witches of any stripe and the hardcore Reconstructionists), I basically like Kraemer's argument.  It to a certain extent illuminates why I function well in the Pagan community but rarely feel quite at home.  As far as I can tell, I've always been at heart both a cosmos-worshipper (I'll not limit it to Earth; much as I love Terra Mater, a lot of my personal worship has been sky- and water-focused) and a polytheist, and for me those are largely welded together.  I didn't have to be told about dryads and naiads; I just needed to find out their names. And I took a wide turn through Goddess Spirituality over the course of my 20s, which I desperately needed to do to shed the dead skin of the Yahvism I was brought up in, but that largely didn't stick.  All of my patrons are goddesses except for the Green Man, who I think is really more a daimon than a theos - but I don't think of Them as aspects of The Goddess, except in the sense that I think of myself and the Spouse and my lovers as aspects of Humanity.  I mean, from a certain point of view, it's true that we are, and They are, but that's not generally how any of us think of ourselves, and it's not terribly useful when dealing with us.

That's fine for me, but it doesn't really help much when dealing with members of my community who are nature-focused Goddess worshippers who couldn't care less about the names by which they call divinity.  And more and more, I'm realizing that the Fun Maven contingent largely falls into that category, or more properly pair of categories.  It's not that they have any animosity towards those of us who care about historical accuracy; they just don't care, and can't imagine why we would.  This also seems to be the default orientation of CUUPs groups, which saddens me greatly - who the Queen of Heaven is that we're offering these cakes to is of great concern to me (hint: it's one of Astarte, Asherah, or Shapshu), but for them, that there is a Queen at all is sufficient revelation.

I mentioned the magickal thread a couple of paragraphs ago.  I'd be lying through my teeth if I didn't admit that it was almost as strong a thread drawing me to my current path as polytheism and cosmos-worship were, and that's one of the reasons that I still call myself a Witch despite not really identifying with Wicca per se.  And, despite caring about historicity, it's one of the reasons I don't really fit in with most of the Reconstructionist groups - most of them limit magick to either liminal roles or very specific circumstances, if they accept it at all.  Like most practitioners, I simultaneously know that it's a load of tosh and experience that it works, often quite powerfully, which seems to be the standard paradox of magick.  And while the festival Fun Mavens are often as into magick as I am, the CUUPsers tend not to be.

However, one of the reasons I still quite like Pagan as an identity is that it is more explicit about (or at least inclusive of) the polytheistic aspect than Wiccan or Witch is, while not so specific as to start cutting off some of the magickal or earth-focused aspects, like many of the specific Reconstructionist labels do.  While "Polytheist" is certainly accurate in my case, it does leave out both the cosmos-worship aspects (some polytheists did that, some didn't) and the magickal aspects (many historical polytheists were quite suspicious of magickal practices, nearly as much so as the monotheists turned out to be).  I also associate Pagan with more sex-positivity than most of the other available labels, too, although I know that's not always an accurate association.  Still, of what we have, it does best in my case.  Until someone comes up with something better, I'll stick with it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Temple and the Bed

I've been wrestling a bit with notions of sacred sexuality recently.  Part of that is part and parcel of having grown up raised by a Catholic, even if the greater part of my own religious education was Protestant; the notion that there is something sacramental to, if not marriage, then the various things it's bundled with in the eyes of the church, not least of them sex and reproduction, is tenacious.  Since the latter is pretty much off the table for me on this turn of the great wheel, sex it is, then.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of difference of opinion on whether sacred sex was part of common practice in the Near East in the pre-Christian era.  I'm reasonably comfortable with the idea that it was part of esoteric and magickal practice in that time and place, mostly because it ends up being part of at least one group's esoteric teachings in pretty much every culture, largely because it works.  But in many times and places it's been esoteric precisely because it's perceived as problematic, if not perverted, by the culture at large.  It's not clear whether the Mesopotamian-Levantine cultures were more open about it or not, mostly because there's not a whole lot of direct evidence.  We know that there was prostitution, and that not all prostitutes were lower-class.  We know that some temples had priestesses in many different positions, some artistic, some administrative, and some ritual.  And there are hints and suggestions in the surviving artwork that some rituals required male and female nudity, or at least exposure of the penis and/or breasts.  As far as hard evidence goes, that's about it.

Purity codes were a big thing in the region at the time.  The Hebrew Bible is full of them, occasionally conflicting.  And the Hebrew purity codes take a hard line against a large number of sexual acts, although not prostitution per se.  In many cases, the justification isn't so much "the Lord thinks this is gross" as it is "this is what the other people do, and you're not them, so don't".  There has been a great deal of ink spilled over the idea that this is code for "these acts are sacred to other gods, and you're not theirs, so don't".  I admit, the idea is in some ways appealing - perhaps Yahveh hates Teh Buttsecks, but Ba'al, Asherah, and Astarte are very much in favor of it.  Unfortunately, the documentation left by those other nations is incomplete, and does not tell us whether this is so, or whether they had their own purity codes in which they said not to do those same acts for other reasons.

On the other hand, the Greeks seemed to think that there was actual temple prostitution going on in Assyria/Babylon.  At least, their travelogues state outright that there was.  They don't seem to think much of it, but then, the Greeks never seemed to think much of traditions that differed from their own, and they exoticized other cultures pretty much the same way we do.  So, even if they terribly misinterpreted what was going on, there seems to be some sort of officially sanctioned sex going on on temple grounds at least somewhere in the region.  But once again, those who were actually participating in it, who understood the rules and the rationale, didn't leave records of their own.  So we basically have two fairly prudish sets of literate people, with their own agendas against the practitioners, accusing the Levanto-Mesopotamian peoples of inappropriate religious sex.

The Ba'al saga doesn't have much to say on the matter, except for some weird tension between Ba'al and Asherah that causes problems in the translation.  Asherah is mentioned holding an object - most translations say "spindle" - that Ba'al later has a very bad reaction to when it appears on his banquet table.  It is unclear why, but Ba'al's reaction suggests that the object has sexual connotations of some sort.  In two of her other appearances in the preserved stories, Asherah's appearance before El causes him to immediately start talking about sex, including a few dirty jokes, but then again, they're married.  Still, in the sparse material we have, Asherah does seem to have an immediate association with some sort of sexuality; it isn't a stretch to suggest that there might have been at least symbolic sexual rites in her temples.  The same is loosely true of Astarte, Ishtar, and Inanna in their respective stories, and perhaps Cybele and Atargatis as well.

At any rate, sacred sexuality doesn't have to be part of the exoteric rites for modern Pagans to add it to their own practices.  It's more that it would be nice to know what was done before so that we can adapt it, rather than trying to come up with something from what we now have; a lot of what we've got borrows heavily from Hindu and Taoist practices, and if one is going to go around appropriating peoples' culture, better it be ones your own culture didn't oppress (by virtue of their having been long gone).