(Photo from the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens)
If today, like every other day you wake up empty and frightened
You don’t have to open the door to the study and begin reading
You can take down a musical instrument
Let the beauty of what you love be what you do
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the earth
Our semi-seasonal theme for late spring will be “Practice”. We Naturalistic Pagans talk a lot. Some Naturalistic Pagans have no spiritual practice, per se. For some, living an ethical lifestyle is a spiritual practice. Others practice meditation. Other Naturalistic Pagans perform rituals, either solitary or in groups. Naturalistic Pagan rituals may be similar or dissimilar to other Pagan rituals. Beginning May 1, we will be talking about how we practice our Naturalistic Paganism — or how we don’t. How do you experience your religion in your flesh? Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com.
Today we continue our early spring theme, Inspiration, where we showcase examples of the poetic imagination flowing from the depths of the universe through the minds and hands of Naturalistic Pagans and friends.
“The Ordeal” by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
None of us wants to descend into the devil’s den,
to experience absolute terror and unbearable misery,
to sail across the River Styx and suffer horrible bodily pains,
nights of endless tears and days of lost wandering.
But this is an essential part of the sacred journey.
This is “the Ordeal”–and there is no way
to know the deepest spiritual truths if you have not come here.
There is no way to prepare for this.
There is no way to anticipate these hardships,
for the horrors that shall befall you, and the sacrifices
you shall have to make are unfathomable.
Can you imagine running all night screaming like a banshee
having some ghoulish demon chasing you into the dark forest
until you cower under some log shivering like a scared chiwawa?
At dawn you wonder what was real and quickly return to morning routines
lest some goblin not allow you to come back.
And then comes reflection, begs of forgiveness and promises to never do it again.
If only we would pray like this every morning!
But no, it takes being frightened to death to hold the holy chalice
and recite these magical incantations.
My name is Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. I am a Santa Barbara-based social justice educator, activist and writer. I teach in the BA Program in Liberal Studies at Antioch University Santa Barbara, a program which promotes “praxis for social justice” in every class. I am also a social worker with a passion for helping our neighbors on the streets transition into permanent housing and self-sufficiency, especially those beset by mental health challenges and addictions. I see this work as a ministry and I enjoy joining with others from diverse faiths and secular backgrounds in these efforts to build community locally and sustainability globally.
Today we continue our early spring theme, Inspiration, where we showcase examples of the artistic imagination flowing from the depths of the universe through the minds and hands of Naturalistic Pagans and friends.
For discussion: What feelings does this image evoke? What memories does it cause you to recall? What thoughts do you have about the picture?
Catherine Podd: I am a 30 something over-thinker who contemplates our amazing planet and universe every moment possible. Massage Therapist and Reiki Teacher by day, loving mom to a son on the AWEtism spectrum the rest of the time.
Today we begin our early spring theme, Inspiration. We Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans know how to reason critically. But what role do intuition, inspiration, poetry, and art play in our Naturalistic Paganism? Over the next six weeks, we will showcase examples of the poetic imagination flowing from the depths of the universe through the minds and hands of Naturalistic Pagans and friends.
“Song of the Self” by Jennifer Adele (c) 2009
I am deliriously happy
in my truest form.
I am reliable
when I give myself direction.
I care deeply
about all others.
I am the wounded healer.
I am phoenician.
I am spiritual.
I am beautiful.
I have driving ambitions
to improve life.
I am constantly in a state
of limitless creativity.
I am spontaneous
I am the wounded healer.
I am phoenician.
I am spiritual.
I am beautiful.
I am stronger than even
I could ever imagine.
I am intelligent
and charming and witty.
I am eclectic and ever changing
yet very decisive.
I am the wounded healer.
I am phoenician.
I am spiritual.
I am beautiful.
I am the Self.
Jennifer Adele is an independent author and nature gal, whose sense of adventure is only matched by her predilection for the magical and macabre. Her love of the written word in its various forms and her fascination with the symbolism inherent in all languages provides an ancient, deep, and eclectic background to her works. She is also an active lecturer and educator for many local groups and public education venues. Her written works on broad-based educational topics, plants, animals, symbolism, and a wide range of nature-based subjects, as well as her creative writings and fiction, have been frequently featured in national and international publications. On a more personal note, Jennifer is mom to three dogs and three cats and greatly enjoys nature hikes, organic art, photography, cooking, painting, wild crafting, and travel.
Today, we transition from talking about the beliefs that bring Structure and Order to our lives to the early spring theme of Inspiration. We are fortunate to hear from fantasy author, Scott Oden, as he talks about what is in his “god box”. This is the second article in our new column, De Natura Deorum, where we explore the beliefs of Naturalistic Pagans about the nature of deity.
I have never had a supernatural experience.
I have never seen a ghost, a spirit, a wraith, or a shade.
I have never witnessed an inexplicable omen.
I have never heard the voice of a god.
When I look at the list above and compare it to the experiences of other Pagans, it makes me wonder what’s wrong with me. Am I not doing it right, this faith thing? Do the Gods have no use for me whatsoever, and thus have cut themselves off from me? Did the faith centers in my brain never fully develop? Am I blind to the Gods? Can I not perceive them because my own prejudices get in the way? Do I expect too much from the Divine? The search for answers, to these questions and myriad more like them, are what brought me into the sphere of Humanistic Paganism and introduced me to the writings of Humanistic Pagans like John Halstead.
On John’s blog over at Patheos, The Allergic Pagan, I first encountered a wonderful phrase: “the god box”. Far from a negative connotation, I translated this as the space inside a person’s head where they perceive the Divine, where they hear and understand the unique voices of the Gods, where they see them in their mind’s eye, and where their faith is first given expression. Exploring this notion led me to make a rather predictable discovery: my own god box is empty.
This came as no shock to me. I’ve always wanted to live under the aegis of a divine pantheon rich with antiquity, to lead a life brimming with mystery and myth drawn from the great spiritual literature of the ancients, from writers like Homer and Hesiod and Sallustius. I’ve always wanted a cacophony of Divine voices that drove me to the heights of ecstatic madness and filled me with that unbreakable, resolute belief that only the truly faithful can possess. But that’s not what I have. No, that space inside my head where some sense of the Divine resides is empty, nothing but errant cobwebs and dust. I could blame time and location – I am a 21st century American living in a fully Christianized country – or perhaps I could blame my mindset, which is not agrarian, tribal, or yoked to the unknown whims of Nature, but rather is mechanized, urban, and electronic. I think, though, that blame for the emptiness I feel must surely fall squarely on my own perception of reality.
Reality, by which I mean the physical world that exists outside my own head, is where my faith stumbles. I am not bereft of imagination. I write historical fiction and fantasy for a living, and writing is a field that places a high premium on imagination. And while I can imagine all manner of strange and supernatural happenings, there is a great gulf between imagining something and believing that it truly exists in the physical realm. I can imagine thunder as the wrath of Zeus given voice and offer a sacrifice to propitiate Him, but outside of my imagination I know thunder is nothing more than a sound caused by lightning – itself a complex series of naturally-occurring factors that meld to create an electrostatic discharge. I can fill the divine spaces inside my consciousness with poetic imagery of Zeus in all His multi-faceted glory, drawn from the myths of the ancient Greeks and the writings of the Romantic authors; I can pour libations and ask for divine favor as thunder roars and crashes overhead, but if thunder is merely Nature being Nature and Zeus exists only in my head, am I not, then, simply worshiping a voice in my own subconscious?
It is because I am a writer by trade that I don’t credit the voices in my head with divinity, even if there is a great deal of mystery as to how some of those voices got there and from whence they originate. The same goes with some of the imagery I get. One of my strong points, if you believe reviews, is the ability to conjure a place or a time. I could say it’s a mystery, that the hand of some God moves me to write of these things I’ve never seen, of times I’ve never lived. But that would be disingenuous. I can conjure place and time because I read voraciously about those places and times, and have the good fortune of being capable of relating an image formed of research in a concise and engaging manner. And if I really examine them, most of the voices have their genesis in real-world connections, such as something I see on the street or read in a book. Some, especially the voices of protagonists, are subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of wish fulfillment: I am not a man of action, so I tend to gravitate toward characters that are exactly that.
What am I, then? An atheist? No, I think not. I have faith that there is something god-like and divine in the cosmos, something greater than me. I used to self-identify as an agnostic, but agnosticism is an unfulfilling stance for someone who desperately wants to experience the Divine. I was a Hellenic Reconstructionist, for a time, but I could never get over the idea that the gods of Hellas behaved in exactly the same manner as the Christian god: because they move in mysterious ways they can only contact mere mortals via wholly unverifiable moments of personal gnosis or through the most subtle of clues and omens. Was that voice Hermes? Was that swirling zephyr a sign from Apollo? As you might imagine, my tenure as a Hellene ended with me standing in a violent, lightning-laced thunderstorm, daring Zeus to strike me down. He didn’t, and that only added more questions to my already burgeoning list. No, I am a Pagan, and my brand of Paganism is a very simplified form of pantheism.
I arrived at this after searching for gods in the physical world, for sources of the Divine that existed as more than subconscious voices and subtle omens. I came up with three: the Sun, the Earth itself, and Inspiration. Sol Invictus, Gaia, and the Muses, if you will. Sol Invictus gives life; he creates a synergy with Gaia to create food, water, and shelter; and the Muses give us a needed push in the right direction to populate the world with science, art, drama, and discourse. Representations of each of these three are as old as Humanity itself. We’ve filled our god boxes with elaborate personalities and stories; we’ve crafted rituals and sacraments and offer sacrifices in hopes of gaining favor, but even if we do nothing, the sun will rise, the earth will turn, and ideas will pop unbidden into our heads. If humanity failed to sacrifice or to propitiate the mighty Sun, Sol Invictus would not withhold the bounty of his energy. He doesn’t care.
This revelation brought with a weird dichotomy of feeling. On the one hand, there was a sense of absolute freedom from the rigors of attempting to please a divine force whose wishes and desires were forever hidden from mortal understanding; on the other, a profound sense of sadness – sadness in that I could go outside, tilt my face to heaven, and behold the theophany of a God who ultimately did not care if I worshiped Him or not.
John Halstead asked me once if I had a practice. I do not, not in the strictest sense, for in my belief there is no point to it. Instead, I offer thanks: to the Muses for their continued gifts, which makes my day job all the more easier; to Gaia, for Her gift of shelter and sustenance; and to Sol Invictus, for keeping the cold dark of oblivion at bay.
For conversation …
In the comments below, share what’s in your “god box”, that “space inside a person’s head where they perceive the Divine, where they hear and understand the unique voices of the Gods, where they see them in their mind’s eye, and where their faith is first given expression”? Is your “god box” empty? What effect does that have on the practice of your spirituality/religion?
Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, Scott Oden‘s fascination with far-off places and times began in grade school, when he stumbled across the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it. In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs-from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes full-time from his family home near Huntsville.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox is celebrated by Neo-Pagans as Ostara (also spelled Eostar or Eostre), deriving from the name of a Germanic goddess to whom the month of the same name was holy. It is the same word from which we get Easter. This time of year is a moment of bursting forth, of life emerging from darkness out into the light. Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate the autumnal equinox, Mabon, at this time.
Glenys Livingstone of Pagaian Cosmology recommends discovering the balance of light and dark in your own breath:
“Feel the balance in this moment – Earth as She is poised in relationship with the Sun. Feel for your own balance of light and dark within – this fertile balance of tensions. Breathe into it. Breathe in the light, swell with it, let your breath go into the dark, stay with it. Shift on your feet, from left to right, feel your centre…breathe it in.
“In our part of the Earth, the balance is about to tip into the light. Feel the shift within you, see in your mind’s eye the energy ahead, the light expanding. Feel the warmth of it. Breathe it in.”
She also suggests representing the Spring Equinox with a daffodil with bulb and roots exposed, “signifying the full story of Spring Equinox, which is, emergence from the dark: the joy of this blossoming is rooted in the journey through the dark.”
As part of his spring equinox celebration, NaturalPantheist offers the following exposition:
“As I stand here on this celebration of Ostara, the vernal equinox, the sacred wheel of the year continues to turn. As my ancestors did in times before and my descendants may do in time to come, I honour the old ways. As the dark half of the year comes to a close at this time and nature shifts, the day and night are of equal length and balanced. From now on the sun triumphs over the darkness, bringing warmth and energy as we head towards summer. This is the time of Alban Eiler, the Light of the Earth, a feast to celebrate the renewal of life. The birds return from the southern lands bearing spring time beneath their wings. Nature has awoken, seeds are sprouting, tree buds are bursting, daffodils and flowers are blossoming, and birds and animals are preparing to have their young. I rejoice in the renewal of life.”
For Jon Cleland Host, the spring equinox “corresponds to the energy and happiness of young children, when lives begin to take visible shape.” On the Naturalistic Paganism discussion group, Host provides a method for coloring eggs with natural dyes, and suggests making equinox cookies – half dark, half light. (See the group’s files section for details.)
John Halstead’s Spring Equinox ritual script, which is especially useful for those with children.
What can we learn, and how can we teach, from the cycles of the Earth — both the cycles within us, and the cycles in which we find ourselves?
Given the winter we’ve just been through in North America, people are bound to be enthusiastic about the so-called “first day of spring,” the vernal equinox — myself included.
Location, Location, Location
For much of my life I lived in the Midwestern United States, an area where people recognize four distinct seasons. Winter can be long and hard, drab and dull. The natural world seems desolate, almost dead. But in fact, natural processes are wound up tight, coiled and hidden, waiting for the increase of sunlight. When it comes, life seems to burst forth from everywhere. Plants “spring up” from the soil, which is where the season of spring gets its name. One can get the sense that the whole planet is athrob with new life.
Of course, that’s not really true. It’s a big planet, and things are not the same all over. It’s been my privilege to have lived at several different latitudes, from subarctic to subtropical. Up by the arctic circle, winter is harder and spring comes later, but it’s even more intense and dramatic than in the temperate regions. The ice thaws, the snow melts, greenery erupts, the world seems to come back to life.
Here in New Orleans, where I now live, the contrast is not so great. We experience a winter, but frost is a rarity and a hard freeze is even less common. We rarely see snow, and ice is something people use to keep their whiskey cold. (This unusually harsh winter just past was an exception; we saw sleet twice, inducing the city to a virtual shutdown.) Many plants never lose their leaves, so there’s plenty of green foliage throughout the winter months. Our plentiful live oak trees shed leaves in spring, as new leaves emerge, which is confusingly similar to fall up north. They also shed plenty of pollen. I know it’s spring when my porch is covered with a thick layer of green dust.
A Lively Quickening
Say you lived in the city of Pontianak, in Indonesia, right on the equator. You would likely recognize two seasons only: wet and dry. You wouldn’t notice a change in daylight hours, because it’s less than one second from day to day, with day and night roughly equal throughout the year.
You could still detect the first day of astronomical spring, however, through careful observation of the sun’s maximum altitude. On the day of the equinox, it’s going to be as high in the sky as it ever gets, as high as it ever can get anywhere on Earth: straight up 90º — directly overhead. This is, in fact, a defining characteristic of the equinox.
Even if you don’t measure the height of the sun, it’s hard to miss the fact that the days are getting longer, for those of us outside of the tropics. Technically the days have been getting longer since the solstice, but back in late December the change was barely noticeable. As winter progresses, the rate of change from day to day gets greater and greater, reaching a peak around the time of the vernal equinox. Thus, even in the subtropics, we experience a sense of lively quickening. From this point on, day will be longer than night. After the equinox, days continue to get longer, but the rate of change from day to day recedes until the summer solstice.
At my latitude, the days in the month of March get longer by almost two minutes per day. Moving northward, in Indianapolis or Madrid, the daily gain is almost a minute more. Way up in Stockholm, the pace is a breathtaking five minutes and 19 seconds per day.
The seasons are reversed in opposite hemispheres, so the vernal equinox in one hemisphere is the autumnal equinox in the other. The solstices are also reversed. But whereas the solstices mark opposite extremes of daytime and nighttime hours, the equinoxes designate days when dark and light are (roughly) equal. In this sense, the equinoxes are the same no matter where you are on the planet. Thus, though the solstices invite celebration as global holidays, the equinoxes are even more truly global.
Perhaps this is why the Consultative Assembly of the Peoples Congress declared the March equinox as “World Citizens Day / World Unity Day.” It’s also observed as “World Storytelling Day” with celebrations around the world.
Given the poetics of the equinoctial moment, it’s a natural time to reflect on the idea of balance. Ancient cultures esteemed balance as a value of paramount importance. Above the temple of Apollo in Delphi, these words were inscribed: ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ (mēdèn ágan) — “Nothing in excess.”
Our modern sensibilities might tempt us to poke at this aphorism. We might confuse excess and excellence. We might think a balanced approach to life is at odds with greatness. But in fact, moderation in the pursuit of excellence is no contradiction.
The recent Winter Games in Sochi provided an excellent reminder of this fact. Great athletes know the pursuit of excellence is a balancing act. In a paper on the philosophy of sport, Heather L. Reid writes:
Winning would be simple if it was just a matter of training volume, the runner who trained the most hours would automatically win. We know it doesn’t work that way, though, and indeed it is a delicate art for athletes to find ways of maximizing improvement without exceeding mental, physical, and emotional limits…. A winning athlete’s ability to push the envelope of achievement without bursting it open is integral to his or her success.
In the same way, ordinary mortals can pursue the excellent life through the “delicate art” of “maximizing improvement” while knowing our limits. (There’s a clear link here to another maxim carved into the stone of the temple at Delphi: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ (gnōthi seautón) — “Know thyself.”) This isn’t a call for some sloppy, half-assed approach to life, or to a stodgy conservatism. Moderation should not be confused with mediocrity or neutrality.
Out of Balance
Nor should balance be confused with stasis. If I say that the current American political situation is “out of balance,” some might object. They might say it’s perfectly balanced: two sides in conflict with equal power, neither able to make headway. They might say balance is the problem. But that’s not balance; it’s gridlock.
There’s an aphorism flying around the internet these days: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” (It’s usually attributed to Isaac Asimov, but I can’t find an authoritative citation.) In fact, it’s much worse than that. While science gathers knowledge, society seems to be actively losing wisdom. This is a key example of how modern, Western, American life is out of balance. We have an abundance of cheap food, but we lack the wisdom to moderate our intake, and so obesity is a major health concern. We have an unprecedented ability to access the Earth’s resources and exploit them, but we lack the wisdom to conserve, resulting in colossal imbalances such as climate change.
We can find other imbalances if we look. We might consider the balance between male and female, youth and maturity, rich and poor. These social tensions often permeate our own psychologies, so that if we look within we may find similar unbalanced attitudes. As without, so within.
Frankly, most popular American holidays seem to celebrate excess in one aspect or another. We all enjoy a break from the routine, a chance to cut loose, a holiday when some form of excess is permitted. We need some moderation in our moderation, so to speak. There’s no denying that.
Yet it is good to have a holiday which enshrines the idea of balance.
It’s even better to have two such holidays.
Furthermore, the equinoxes represent the idea that balance is not static but flowing, especially when considered as a pair. The primary difference between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes is their valence, their charge, their spin. As the sun passes through the equatorial plane in March, the Northern Hemisphere moves into the light half of the year, while the Southern Hemisphere moves into the dark half. The equinoxes are not static dead-ends but transitional moments, tipping points.
As such, the equinoxes provide an opportunity for making changes in one’s life. Glenys Livingstone characterizes both equinoxes as a moment for “Stepping into Power.” This resonates with me on an intuitive level. From a place of balance, we act. I find I often set long term projects (half-year or full-year) for myself from equinox to equinox.
The vernal equinox in particular, associated with notions of tender new life emerging, lends itself to rites of purification and cleansing. My body and my being are the fertile soil from which I hope to cultivate the fruits of creativity. I don’t want to sterilize that soil, but I do want it to be healthy, free from toxins, conducive to growth.
Paradoxically, the best way to foster my own noetic fertility, to encourage my own intellectual fecundity, is through subtraction. Perhaps that is simply because I live in a land of abundance and relative affluence, or perhaps it’s inherent to the human condition. Whatever the case, it feels right to me to give up something during this season. There’s a parallel to Lent here, to be sure, and in this Catholic city, that’s nothing to sneeze at. (Believe me, with the pollen filtering down from our live oak trees, there’s a whole bunch of sneezing going on here in the springtime.) But to me, it’s not a matter of penance, suffering, mortification or redemption. Rather, it’s a matter of feeling good, staying strong, promoting vitality, improving focus, and nurturing inspiration.
The Body as the Ultimate Localization
Coming off the excesses of our Carnival season, it feels natural to lay off the booze awhile. Over the years, I found myself enjoying sobriety more than I’d enjoyed drinking. Imbibing had become habitual, an ingrained part of my daily life, and breaking that habit felt wonderfully liberating. Sobriety was, in fact, intoxicating. Last year, my change of habit took on a semi-permanent aspect. I’ve been more or less sober ever since.
(To clarify: I’m not totally a teetotaler, but I’ve indulged on less than a dozen occasions over the past year. I aimed to break a years-long habit of daily drinking, and I’m proud to have accomplished that.)
Alcohol isn’t the only thing I’ve been known to give up. A couple years ago I also found myself eating less as the equinox approached, cultivating my sense of hunger. That also led to more permanent changes of habit, and eventually I lost a bunch of weight. Since then I’ve made a conscious effort to eat healthier and exercise more often.
I generally do go off coffee as the weather gets warmer, and I’ve found dandelion root tea makes a delightful coffee substitute, especially combined with chicory root. Dandelion has the added benefit of detoxifying the liver, or so the herb lore says.
These are all means of cultivating a “spring in the self,” a season of renewal and rebirth within. I’ve talked about how spring and the equinox are experienced differently at different places. The body is, of course, the ultimate localization. All our dreams start here. Let’s aim to change the world, starting with ourselves. And what better time than now?
In the comments below, talk about how you cultivate balance in your own life.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.