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sex

08
Apr - 14

Sex, Sovereignty and Consent

All right. I’ve been keeping my head down and nose to the book, mostly, and I didn’t think I was going to join the public debate around sexual abuse and sexual ethics in Paganism. Besides, I try not to be one of those bloggers who bandwagon-jumps onto every hot issue whether or not they have something original to add.

But. It is hard to focus on other things when you have a Sovereignty Goddess breathing down your neck.

So let’s talk about sex and sovereignty. And let’s talk about consent culture. I’ve said before that sovereignty is rooted in the body. That while sovereignty in its traditional sense speaks more directly to the relations of the collective and its leadership, that relationship is a personal delegation of sovereignty by each individual. And that a person who is denied the very sovereignty of their own body cannot fully participate in collective sovereignty. Sovereignty is a set of interlocking relationships each dependent upon the integrity of its parts for the flow to occur.

I want to unpack that a little bit more. Because this is important. We have to recognize that the fundamental, inviolable unit through which this flow occurs is the body of the individual person. Yes, the body. Sovereignty is not an abstract, it is a living power, and thus rooted in land and body. When the individual participating in this set of relations is not in possession of the sovereignty of their own body, the entire set of relations breaks down. Thus the fundamental ground of sovereignty is the sanctity and inviolability of the body.

And here enters sex. Sex is where we grant access to the sanctity of our bodies to another person. In terms of personal sovereignty: we are laying our being and body bare, sharing our very life force, inviting someone to enter into our sovereign space in the most intimate way. And by this I do NOT simply mean penetration of the body – an individual who is not experiencing penetration is still granting access to their body and life force in any sex act.

This is why consent is absolutely fundamental. Because sex, by its very nature, involves compromising the inviolability of the body. Opening its defenses. Entrusting access to the sovereign body to another being. With consent, this compromise is an alliance of trust that further sanctifies the sovereignty of both bodies. Without consent, sex destroys sovereignty at all levels, from the individual to the collective.

For most of my readers, I imagine the above arguments will not present anything very new. This is, of course, what we are always on about in working against rape culture. But let’s bring it back to the issue of sexual abuse by religious leaders, which was the trigger for this post.

In the model of sovereignty, the power that flows from the land through every person is invested in the leader or sovereign. This is as true in religious communities as it is in civic structures. And here too there is a relation of trust. In the act of granting power to a leader, there is a compromise of individual sovereignty, to at least some degree. We invest our sovereignty into our leaders because we expect that reciprocal benefit will flow back, we expect that sovereignty will be upheld, and most crucially, because we believe that the vulnerability we take on in that exchange will not be exploited.

In civic life, that compromise is substantial: we actually give our leaders the power of law over our bodies and lives, and in some cases, the power of life and death (e.g. the death penalty, military draft, police action, etc). In the realm of medicine, we also grant our caregivers, doctors, therapists, a portion of our sovereignty: the power to determine a course of treatment for our bodies; to guide our life choices; to analyze and guide our emotional life. In religious communities, what we are compromising is sometimes more subtle: we may be giving our leaders power to represent us to the outside world; to shape and direct the focus of our spiritual lives; to shape and articulate our values and ethics; to counsel us toward a course of action. In the case of initiatory ritual leaders, we are granting them access to our bodies to put us through ritual experiences that we know will make us vulnerable and may radically change our future life experience. Just as in sex, initiatory ritual involves a powerful temporary surrender of sovereignty undertaken in sacred trust.

Thus ALL positions of leadership and caregiving, whether civic, medical, educational, or pastoral, involve an inherent power relation in which some portion of our sovereignty is delegated UPWARD into the person of the leader or caregiver. This shift in the locus of sovereignty (even if partial) means that there is not a level playing field from which to grant consent for risky endeavors such as, oh, let’s say, having sex with your priest. When a religious leader who holds your future in a spiritual tradition in their hands tells you that you’re expected to have sex – or even gently suggests that you should consider it – you’re not freely deciding whether or not to have sex with someone based onĀ  your own interests. What’s happening there is your spiritual life and path is being subtly put in the scales against your willingness to grant sexual access. As your religious leader, some level of compromise in sovereignty has already been delegated to them in trust for their guidance. Now that entrusted sovereignty is being used against you. You’re being asked to give consent for the deepest compromise there is IF you value your spiritual path in their tradition.

Friends, that’s extortion. No free consent can be given under those circumstances, however subtly the stakes are communicated. I make that statement baldly in full recognition that my own origin tradition, the Feri tradition, includes practitioners who engage in sexual initiation of students by teachers. It’s a practice I don’t agree with.

Sex without consent is rape. Sex in a situation where consent cannot be given (such as an underage person) is statutory rape. I would make the argument, based in the primacy of sovereignty, that sex between a leader or caregiver and a person under their guardianship is equivalent to statutory rape. We could call it custodial rape until we find a better term.

All this comes back around to the current cases being discussed in the Pagan community. In particular, I’d like to focus this lens we’ve just polished on the case of the Frosts. For background, read this series of posts in the Wild Hunt archives.

Now, the Frosts defend their publication of material advocating ritual deflowering and sexual initiation of young people into the Craft by their elders by pointing to a disclaimer which states that these rites should take place after the age of 18.

“No formal initiation into the a group that practices the Great Rite should be done before the candidate attains the age of eighteen (18).”

You see, this defense is no defense at all. The age of 18 is only relevant here to the extent that it may alter what kind of rape we’re talking about here. What the Frosts are advocating and still stubbornly defending is custodial rape of young people.

Not to mention, it’s a lie anyway. The website for the Church and School of Wicca baldly states that minors who want to join without a note of permission from a parent or guardian can just pay them an extra $100. Because hey, forking over some extra cash to your religious leaders should serve just as well as an adult guardian’s consent for the safeguarding of a child’s sovereignty.

Friends, we have to stop shrugging this stuff off. This isn’t a charmingly harmless couple of elderly eccentrics. It is a monstrous policy that unapologetically encourages and defends custodial rape.

Otto Skowranek: Sword Dance, 1908

Let us not follow the Catholic church’s example of ashamedly, hurriedly covering up the ugliness lest it be seen and damage our reputation. I want my community’s reputation to be built on our accountability, authenticity, and strong ethics. Let the world see that we have this problem in our midst – it’s not like we’re the only ones. Let them see us square our shoulders, step up and face it head-on. Let them see us stand to account for how we handle sovereignty and vulnerability. Let them see us choose to evolve.

For me, I will make this statement: I will not attend or present at an event where I know leadership honors and teaching platforms are being given to people who promote religious sexual abuse. I will be working with organizations I’m a part of, such as the Coru, toward adopting strong policies on leadership and religious ethics. I encourage everyone to take a stand in the ways that you see fit as well.

30
Oct - 12

Seasons of Death and Life

As Samhain-tide is here, I have been thinking about the two great festivals of the Celtic year, and how different our modern Neopagan interpretation of them is from their origins. This subject came up for me at Beltaine this year, and has been simmering in the back of my mind ever since.

You see, the modern Neopagan conventions around these two festivals are so: Beltaine is understood as the season of life, expressed and celebrated through sexual and fertility imagery. Samhain is understood as the season of death, expressed through ancestor worship, death imagery and offerings to the dead. This is at least true of nearly all modern witchcraft revival traditions. Would any of my readers be startled to learn that for the ancient Pagan Celts, this scheme is nearly backwards?

As in so many other respects, the tendency of modern revivals of Paganism is to suffer from oversimplification of theology and spiritual philosophy. Samhain and Beltaine are a prime example of this effect.

We call Beltaine the “season of life” because the plants are flowering, fruits are swelling, small animals mating, and the sun is growing stronger. So much is true on the surface of things. For the ancient Celts, however, Beltaine (and summer generally) was a season of great risk, and for this reason, was a season for sacrifices – both animal and human. The primary evidence for human sacrifice (apart from the distorted reports of it recorded by contemporary non-Celtic writers) comes from preserved bog burials such as the Lindow man of Wales, and similar remains found on the Continent and Ireland. Remnants of the last meals of these sacrificed people show that in many cases, they were in fact killed in late Spring. Folk culture in these areas preserves many, many references to death and sacrifice in connection to Beltaine; such as Morris dances, scape-goating, effigy sacrifice, etc.

Why should this be? If the season when the natural world visibly comes into contact with death is the onset of winter, why not make that the time of sacrifices, of propitiating death with offerings? Because the timing is wrong for the magick to work, that’s why. For people dependent on natural cycles for their survival, when the threshold of winter arrives at Samhain, the time of greatest risk is already past. Whatever harvest the summer gave you has been gathered in, and you only have to hope for the length of the winter to be merciful. At the onset of summer, on the other hand, everything is at stake. What comes in the months between Beltaine and Samhain can make or break your clan. If there is too much summer rain, and the crops rot in the fields – if there isn’t enough, and the grain and calves don’t fatten – if any of a thousand things go wrong during the growing season, your people may go hungry when the winter comes. Thus the growing season is the time of greatest risk, and the greatest need for sacrifice to propitiate the Gods. The Celts believed that life had to be fed by the sacrifice of life, and so sacrifices were made. Beltaine is thus the season of life, but also the season of death.

We’re told that Samhain is religiously celebrated as the season of death because at this time cattle were slaughtered that were not being kept (and fed) through the winter. And because the vegetative life of the land is visibly dying as winter approaches. All this being quite true, Samhain is naturally a season of death. However, if you look at the mythology and religious practice of the Celts, a more nuanced picture emerges. Samhain is everywhere linked in the lore with sexual matings; and in particular the mating of the human realm and Otherworld through sexual unions. For example, the tryst of the Morrigan and the Dagda on the eve of battle occurs at Samhain; following their mating, She prophesies His victory over the Fomoire, and offers Her aid in the coming battle. Cu Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, makes his tryst with the Faery woman Fand at Samhain; likewise Nera, the warrior of Cruachan, also meets and marries his Faery wife at Samhain. In almost every case, the warrior meets an Otherworldly female on Samhain eve, mates with her sexually, and then is sent into battle on her behalf or under her protection. There are countless examples of these Samhain couplings, often linked to battles: Aine and Ailill Olom; the elopement of Etain and Midir, etc.

Dagda and the Woman, by Jim Fitzpatrick

These myths tell something deeper about the Celtic view of Samhain than the simple label, “season of death.” They tell that the threshold of winter was also understood as a season of sexuality, both human and divine. That the “veil growing thin” which we Neopagans speak of, does not just permit the dead to speak to us, but opens wide the gates for Otherworldly unions of a sexual nature. That these divine or Otherworldly matings presage and are inextricably linked to battle. As it is among the horned and antlered animals: the stag and the bull, worshiped throughout the Celtic world in the form of Gods such as Cernunnos, mate in the fall, accompanied by ritualized “battles” as the males of the species may lock antlers or horns in displays of strength for mating rights. The sexual attentions of Sovereignty Goddesses such as the Morrigan, if they are linked to a season, nearly always occur at Samhain. For many Celts, sovereignty was conferred through ritual marriage of the human sovereign with Sovereignty Herself, the Goddess of the land. Among the Irish, inaugural rites and other acts related to kingship always took place at the great feasts that were held annually at Samhain at royal centers such as Tara, Cruachain and Emain Macha. Thus the entire concept of the sacred marriage among the Celts is inextricably linked to the Samhain season.

These are just a few examples I highlight here for contrast with the prevailing Neopagan conventions about these holidays. In truth both have very complex histories arising from their changing practice across many different tribes and shifting with the tides of history. I suppose what I want to communicate here is not so much that our modern ways of celebrating these holidays are wrong; but rather that I feel something is lost when we simplify them down to equating Beltaine with sex and Samhain with death. There is a deep wisdom embedded in the ancients’ understanding that sexuality, fertility, death, sovereignty, and sacrifice were all inextricably linked. That our human work is to understand these linkages, feed them, and find our places within them. There is a potency in celebrating sex and death together, as alternating currents of a single numinous power, perhaps, rather than as separate seasons.

As we like to sing in the Coru: Balu! Maru! Balu! Maru! (Sex! Death! Sex! Death!)

(Of course, it should go without saying that I don’t advocate a return to ancient practice as it was; I think it is entirely right that we abandoned human sacrifice and find other forms of sacrifice by which we can participate in these exchanges of life.)

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