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Month: August 2013

29
Aug - 13

Whose Ancestors?

EDITED, 9/11/2013: In the days since I originally published the post below on 8/29/2013, there have been a couple of developments I wish to acknowledge.

–This post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization.

–In discussions in the comments both here and at the PaganSquare site (before it was removed), several people have pointed out that I went too far in over-interpreting the implications of the DNA research referenced in the original post. They’re correct, and I appreciate the feedback. I think that the research still supports the overall point of my post, which is that at a surprisingly recent point in the past, all of us are related, and that there is no biological or anthropological basis for racial separatism in religion.

Here follows the original post, unedited:

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Issues of race and Eurocentrism in religion have been increasingly on my mind recently, and the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech seems a good day to write about them.

This came up for me when I found out that a favorite Nordic folk band, Wardruna, would be performing in the US for the first time this fall. I got all excited about this until friends pointed out that the event at which they will be performing, Stella Natura, is sponsored by the unabashedly racist Heathen organization AFA, and is also featuring several performers with strong links to white-supremacist, racist ideologies.

So I ditched my plans of attending. And I feel like talking about this publicly because I think part of the reason racism continues to haunt European polytheism is because we let it. Too many of us take a policy of uneasily gritting our teeth and putting up with our intellectual proximity to racists. It’d have been more convenient and more fun for me to buy the ticket, go to the event and try to ignore the racism so that I could get the chance to enjoy one of my favorite bands. But I’d be supporting the inclusion of these racist elements within the fold of European polytheism, and I can’t stomach it. Instead, I’m refusing to participate. Wardruna, we love you, but if you want me to buy a ticket to your show, don’t sign on with racists as your event sponsors.

It comes to me that practitioners of European polytheist traditions have a duty on us to take a clear stance against racism in our religious communities. Not to do so, I think, inevitably leads us into tacitly condoning racism, because of its ubiquity in the overculture and its history as an undercurrent within European polytheism.

So here’s my stance: Though the form of religious practice I choose to espouse is largely based on Celtic traditions, I reject any ideology that says those traditions belong specially to me because of race. I speak often of ancestors and ancestral tradition, but I affirm that the ancestral root of wisdom belongs to all humanity. I reject all arguments that imply race should be tied to religion in any way or that racial purity is a relevant concept or worthy goal. I challenge my fellow polytheists to also step up and take a stance against racism in our religious communities, as publicly as possible.

Now, here are some facts you can arm yourself with to help put down racist logic when it is presented to you.

Racism in European polytheism is often veiled under language that claims to celebrate cultural and religious diversity. You will need to be aware of this and learn to recognize it for what it is. The argument goes something like this: a) Cultural and religious diversity is good; b) religious traditions arise from and are dependent on the unique ethnic identity of a people; c) therefore to fully realize our spiritual potential we should practice the religious traditions of our ethnic ancestry; d) because of the link between culture and ethnicity, to preserve cultural and religious traditions we also need to preserve the distinct identities of peoples. If you read between the lines (e.g. read “people” as “race”) you can see that by this train of logic, the conclusion arrived at is that races should not intermingle because that will dilute the purity of the European race and its native religious traditions.

This is nothing more than the Separate-But-Equal doctrine of racial politics. “We aren’t denigrating other races and their associated religions, we just don’t want them getting mixed up with ours.” In the name of celebrating cultural diversity, of course. If you think this claim isn’t being made, go look at the AFA website – it’s right there in their statement of purpose:

All native religions spring from the unique collective soul of a particular people. Religions are not arbitrary or accidental; body, mind and spirit are all shaped by the evolutionary history of the group and are thus interrelated. Asatru is not just what we believe, it is what we are. Therefore, the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA.

The belief that spirituality and ancestral heritage are related has nothing to do with notions of superiority. Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic.

Just so long as you keep your non-European uniqueness over there and don’t get any on us.

This isn’t just nasty racial politics, it’s also utter bullshit. Here’s why.

This entire argument is predicated on the idea that race and religion are tied, that traditions are native to and transmitted by ancestral links. The traditions of our ancestors and all that. OK, but whose ancestors?

Guess what: Your ancestors are everyone’s ancestors. We are all related. No really, that’s not a kumbaya hippie truism, it’s a documented mathematical and biological reality.

“The fact that everyone has two parents means that the number of ancestors for each individual doubles every generation… By using basic mathematics, we can calculate that ten generations ago each individual had a thousand ancestors, and 20 generations ago they had a million and so on.”

By the time you count back to 40 generations, the number of ancestors each person has far outstrips the number of people alive at that time. That means between 30 and 40 generations back, all human beings share ancestry. That’s somewhere shy of 800 years ago. This mathematical modeling has now been confirmed by DNA evidence. Here’s a handy graphic that’s been making its way around the web illustrating this new research:

ancestors

I haven’t verified the specific dates and figures in the graphic, but the principle is clear as an illustration of the research.

Think about what this means: The historical time frame within which the Nordic and Germanic cultural lore on which Asatru is built includes, roughly speaking, the Iron Age up through the Viking era – that is, a few centuries BCE up through about 800-1200 CE. A similar time frame is the basis for much of what now constitutes Celtic polytheism.

In other words, when the Hávamál was created, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. When the legends of Cú Chulainn and the heroes of the Red Branch were being developed, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. So was everyone alive in the ancient Somali states. The Etruscans, the Mycenaeans, the Thracians, the Kushites. The people of Catal Huyuk, the ancient steppe tribes of Eurasia, the forefathers and foremothers of the Khans, the people who settled the Polynesian islands, the tribes who crossed the land bridge to the New World. They are all of them, all of them, your personal blood ancestors.

So cultural traditions can’t be inherently dependent on race or ancestry, because race and the purity of ancestral lineage are fictions. You personally are the blood lineage inheritor of every human cultural tradition on the planet.

The truth is, cultural purity also a fiction. People have been traveling all over the globe trading with each other since time began. The ancients were in contact with each other across enormous distances via trade routes and migrations. The skull of a Moroccan Barbary ape was found in an Iron Age royal site at Navan Fort, Ireland. The famous Viking swords were made from steel sourced from Afghanistan. Iron age mummies with red hair and Hallstatt material culture have been found in the deserts of China. I could go on all day with examples like this. And in every case where there is evidence of contact between peoples, there was cultural exchange. Culture is a social disease – it is transmitted on contact. There has always been sharing, borrowing, and synergizing between cultures.

This is an important point, because it proves that distinct cultural traditions do not require racial or cultural separation to preserve them. If the mingling of peoples led to dissolution of all cultural boundaries, we’d long ago have been one big mishmash of culture. Because the mingling has been happening for millenia, as demonstrated above. What the racists claim to be protecting against would have happened long ago if racial purity had anything at all to do with the integrity of cultural traditions. Cultures arise from shared language and shared experience – DNA doesn’t come into it. The varieties of human experience will always tend toward a diversity of cultures regardless of ancestry or cross-cultural contact. Any argument for separatism in the name of cultural diversity is just a cover for racism.

So by all means, celebrate the ancestral traditions that move you and touch your soul. That is what I do. Let us just remember whose ancestors they are: the ancestors of humanity.

22
Aug - 13

Success Is Being a Beginner

I’ve just returned from a fighter training event, called Sport of Kings. It draws a couple hundred fighters from all over the Western states as a place to receive focused training from some of the most experienced and legendary knights in the armored combat world. Just about anyone who is there is there either because they’re dedicated to honing their combat skills, or because they’re already a bad-ass and they’ve been asked to come and teach. About 95% of them are men, most with several years of fighting experience, many of them knights already. And then there’s me. A beginner, and one of just a handful of women fighters who showed up.

During the day, we attended outdoor classes on all aspects of fighting practice. In the afternoons, fighters put on armor and gathered at practice fields for bear-pit fighting, round-robins and tournaments, critiquing each other on their fighting skills. On the last night a big formal tournament was held, with all several hundred people at the event gathered to watch.

This event could have been pretty intimidating. A relative newbie and a female, surrounded by bad-asses showing their best at a very testosterone-heavy combat sport. I’m used to this social dynamic, but this event took it a notch higher just because it was entirely and intensively focused on competitive fighting skill. Had I brought with me a need to prove myself, I’d have been crushed.

Standing with the other fighters between rounds in the tournament, I could not help reflecting on how important being a beginner is. Near me in the lines was another of the handful of women – a young girl who could not have been past her teens, and who was clearly feeling terribly discouraged because she hadn’t won any of her fights in the tournament yet. She looked shaken and downcast, and the men around her in the line were trying to cheer her up. “You can still win the next one! Don’t think like that, every fight is a new fight!”

I hadn’t won any of my fights in the tournament either. But I was smiling, because I flung my ego to the wind when I put on armor that day. I had a moment of overwhelmed nerves thinking about all the bad-ass knights I’d be facing that day, how foolish I might look next to them on the field, how they would write me off as a girl out of her league.

You can paralyze yourself thinking like that. It struck me then that the entire psychology of nervousness and fear of failure was a choice. I didn’t have to prove myself. I didn’t have to worry about succeeding in the tournament or making a showing that would compare to those knights. That would be an insane measure of success at my stage, and to do that to myself would be toxic. All I had to do is to succeed at being what I am: A beginner fighter whose job is to learn. All I had to do was get out there, be present in my fight, and learn something to take into the next one. To do that is to succeed at beginning.

So my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought. And my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought again. My heart was light, I reveled in the adrenaline, I watched my mistakes, I went down laughing. I replayed the fights in my mind while I waited my turns, observing my patterns and errors, ways to respond better. The men I fought remarked on my joyful attitude, how great it was to fight someone who is laughing for love of the fight.

How often do we disarm and undermine ourselves by letting the fear of failure paralyze us in any aspect of life? If you’re standing at the bottom of the mountain with its shadow looming over you, of course the top of it looks too far to reach. Because it is. Your job from there isn’t to reach the top of the mountain. Your job is to put your foot forward on the path that is right in front of you.

So you aren’t the king of the mountain yet. So I’m not a bad-ass knight yet. So what? Get good at being a beginner. Get good at showing up. Get in there and fight, learn something, take the next step on the path.

I found it incredibly liberating to quit worrying about proving myself to others – and this applies to all areas of life. The thing is, it never works anyway to focus on what kind of showing you are making in the eyes of others. That’s a profound distraction from the work in front of you. The thing is to focus on the practice – whatever it is – and to trust yourself to it. Trust the path to take you up the mountain. Make your practice authentic, dedicate yourself to it, and in time that authenticity will speak for itself.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

― Maya Angelou

12
Aug - 13

The Morrígan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion

Some conversations about the balancing of “Lore vs. UPG” have been circulating around the web. I’m supposed to be editing the Book of the Great Queen, but I’m sick and feverish and footnoting is making my eyeballs cross. So instead I’m coming here to chat with you about lore, UPG, and lived devotion, because this is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about here for some time.

For some background, here’s a recent post by my friend John Beckett on balancing scholarship with UPG (unique or unverified personal gnosis): The Lore vs. UPG – A False Dichotomy. Here’s an earlier article from a Celtic Reconstructionist site that looks at this balance in a tripartite fashion – scholarship, mystical experience, and conversation/debate: Aisling, Ársaíocht, agus Agallamh: A Modern CR Triad.

These are good, helpful articles and I’m not posting to disagree with them. What I want to do is contribute some additional levels of nuance; maybe share some tools for more articulately working with these aspects of spirituality and religion.

I think that the continual framing of this as a question of “balancing” between scholarship and lore study on the one hand, and personal gnosis and mystical experience on the other, presumes that these approaches occupy ends of a spectrum. Even if that spectrum is not linear but tripod-like, with three “zones” of scholarship, mysticism and social testing (as in the CR model I linked), we are still framing this as a matter of balancing between competing modes of engagement. Which rather presupposes that as you lean toward one side of the spectrum, or lean toward one leg of the tripod, you’re leaning away from the others.  Even while stating that all three modes contribute, it still sets up a subtle oppositional dynamic. You get Team Lore (“Stop trying to make the Gods into your personal fantasies! They have histories that matter!”, Team Visionary (“Stop trying to tell me my experiences are wrong! We are not a religion of the book!”) and Team Peacemaker (“Well, as long as we’re nice to each other. I don’t want to offend my recon friends or my mystical friends.”)

This is all good and reasonable, but I think we can go deeper and get beyond this idea of balancing between competing methods. I find it helps to think about these parts of our practice in functional terms: what they are for, how we use them, and how they interlock with one another. What are the flows of experience, knowledge, and opportunity between them.

Religion is relationship. That is what it means: to connect. So I’m interested in how these practices help us to connect with the Gods and with each other in spiritual community. Thinking about practice in terms of relationship clears a lot of things up for me.

Let’s try a parable. Maybe I met a mesmerizing person while walking along a road. She is all dressed in red with a long cloak, red hair and has things painted on her skin. She’s fascinating. I want to get to know her. She says something. Maybe that’s her name? Or maybe that was a greeting. Maybe it was a warning? I don’t speak her language, so all I can take away is a feeling, a memory. I might feel like we connected, but what did we share? I can go back to that road and hope we meet again, but then what? We still can’t talk to each other. I don’t even know what her gestures signify to her.

Now suppose I have a friend who has met her on that same road, and that person happens to know something more. I find out that she’s Irish, so I go and start learning Irish. Now I can talk to her. You seem really interesting, do you want to meet again? Can I buy you a drink? What’s your favorite place around here? Maybe she decides she likes me well enough to talk to me. I can suddenly learn so much more. How she came to be on this road and where she’s going. Where she was born. Why she likes wearing red, what she loves and hates and desires and remembers. What the symbols painted on her skin are for. How she spends her time. What she dreams of. We are now in relationship: I can begin to know her life story, share my own. We can become part of each other’s stories and memories. Without a common language, all I had was a vague feeling of fascination. Now, we’re falling in love with each other.

In a relationship with any being, you can only go as deep as your shared language allows. No shared language means no real ability to connect past basic first impressions, which involve a lot of cultural assumptions. Scholarship of source culture is how we learn the language of our Gods; mysticism is where that language comes into use in communication with them. It’s not that we need to balance between these two tools, it’s that we need to sort out how they assemble and use them together. I can have a meaningful and ever-deepening relationship with the Morrígan by studying Her language (the symbolic and mythic lexicon of the ancient Irish culture) and I use that language to communicate and understand Her. The repository of that symbolic and mythic lexicon is what we call in shorthand “the lore”, and it is the record of the language of Her people. Can I learn something about Her by studying the lore, e.g. learning Her language? Yes. Will studying Irish bring me into intimacy with Her if I never go back out to that road and actually talk to Her? No.

Couldn’t She learn my language if She wants to talk to me? We live in this world now, not ancient Ireland, right? Well, yes. She could. But is that any way to court someone?

So it’s not a matter of a balancing act between prioritizing my learning Irish versus talking to the woman on the road (except to the extent that I have 24 hours in a day and have to decide how to spend them). It’s a matter of HOW I bring the two together in a meaningful way. How fluent I bother to become, and how gracefully I employ Her language to converse with Her. How consistent I am in showing up for our dates and making the effort of being worthy company.

To employ another metaphor, scholarship can show me how to put together the pieces of an engine and hang it in the chassis of a car – or how to assemble a chariot, if you will. I don’t actually have to engineer that shit myself starting with inventing the wheel and the concept of a threaded bolt. Numinous experience, communion with the Gods or what we sometimes call UPG, is the high-octane fuel I am going to pour in that engine and set on fire – or the fine spirited world-walking horse I am going to harness to that chariot. It’s not so much about balancing between engineering and fuel as if I should be worried about prioritizing one or the other too much. I am getting nowhere without the both of them. What matters is that I figure out how to put them together in a way that works: get the horse into the harness, get the fuel in the tank, find the ignition switch.

Because the point of the whole thing, where the rubber meets the road, is what I do next: I am going to take my hot rod on the road and see if that amazing woman wants to go for a ride with me.

08
Aug - 13

Don’t Let Go: A personal reflection about art, destiny, and sovereignty

Yesterday, I spent all day at work making art. Then I came home and went straight to my desk, on fire to make more art. When I looked up, it was nearly midnight. I still wasn’t tired.

I always knew that art is what I was meant for. I was avidly drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. It was a defining characteristic of my childhood. Long before I had any other ideas about identity – before it had even remotely occurred to me that I was a Witch and a Pagan – I knew what I was. I was an artist.

But here’s the thing. It took me until my late thirties to find the guts and the strength to make this my vocation. In my teen years, art was pretty much all I did. And then I reached that age where people start asking you what your plan is in life, and no one wanted to hear me say “artist”. I was told (by the person closest to me) you can’t succeed; no one makes a living just doing art; you’ll be broke and miserable. Art is a hobby. It’s frivolous. It’s a luxury. You can’t expect to just do that. You need to choose something more adult, and just do art in your spare time for fun.

So I did. I let myself be persuaded to set aside what I had always known I was meant for, and pick another career. I changed my major in college, and I did another six years of schooling and got my degree. Went to work in a government office. I continued to think of myself as an artist, but art was squeezed in as a hobby, in my side moments between working full-time, commuting, and everything else. Art became the periphery of my life, and the office was its center.

I did that for ten more years. Until I didn’t.

The job evaporated and I was at a crossroads. I let it all go and ran full tilt toward what should have been my center of gravity all along: Art. Was it scary at first? Hell yes. But pretty soon I started to realize that there are all sorts of ways that art careers can be made, besides selling paintings in the fine-art world. Animators, art teachers, designers, illustrators, tattoo artists, CGI artists, concept artists, comic book artists… I started to realize that I’d been sold on a narrowing of imagination. I had allowed myself to be diminished, not just by giving up a part of myself, but by internalizing a shrunken image of the whole world I live in.

Why did I do that? How did I let that happen to me for so long?

Many reasons. I was young and naive. I had poor emotional boundaries. I was easily influenced by people close to me. I was in a relationship with an imbalanced power dynamic. I let myself be told, instead of listening and then weighing the decision for myself. A host of reasons that really boil down to one thing: I was too young to know what sovereignty was, or to notice that I’d given mine away. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I began to understand what had happened to me as an issue of sovereignty.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it. It now seems to me that personal sovereignty is what our lives are made of. That it’s really all we have. Fate, or chance, or whatever you like to call it, will cast us into all kinds of circumstances over which we have no control at all. What is ours is that right to exert agency for ourselves, to choose our way forward through whatever faces us, to choose for ourselves how to respond. To live by our own lights. Ancient cultures often framed this in terms of a heroic ethos, in which it was understood that even if fate took all other options from you, you could always exercise the choice to die well, and that to do so was to exercise the ultimate sovereignty. People in circumstances like mine are privileged to not have to frame this in life-and-death terms, but I think the ethos of free will and sovereignty still has merit and applies.

I’m now speaking from a place in which I’m doing the work I have always known I was born to do. I am building a career in art, through a combination of tattooing, fine art and crafts. I am thriving in a way I never have before. The way has opened to me. I think it was always open. I just didn’t dare take it before.

What’s my point? How is this relevant to you? Are you wondering if this is leading into vapid inspirational platitudes like “If you can dream it, you can do it”? No, it’s not. I can’t say that all paths are open to you to succeed at whatever you want. I’m not telling you that you can make your dreams come true no matter what they are.

photo courtesy of Patrick Mackie, via Wikimedia Commons

What I am telling you is: Don’t let go of your soul because someone told you that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be that. Don’t let go without at least trying for yourself, without getting your feet dusty attempting to climb the path. Don’t give your sovereignty away. Don’t let go of your soul.

Don’t let go of who you are. I’ve said before, everyone has a destiny, and your truest sovereignty is to hold to that, to fight for it.

I’m speaking this urging with compassion; I don’t sit in judgement of anyone. Any one of us can wake up realizing we’ve given away our sovereignty in little profound ways. Any one of us can wake up realizing we’ve let other people choose our destiny for us without a fight. I let that happen to me for a decade and a half. If this is you, don’t judge yourself, either. Just start now. Reclaim yourself. It is never too late. It is never too late.

Because this isn’t just about doing what feeds you personally. The world we live in desperately needs people to fight injustice and oppression, to fight destruction and degradation, to speak the truth, to stand up for what’s right. Where does that start?

Who will fight for you if you can’t fight for yourself? Who will you fight for, if not yourself? Who will right the world if the world is filled with people who have given all their power away, who are trudging exhausted down a path that isn’t their own? How will you be of service to the world if you’re drained from doing the wrong work?

This is how you can be of service: Find out who you are and what your destiny is, and then give it all your heart.

 

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