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Mid-Month Meditation: A poem by Yona

August 17, 2014

Editor’s note: This was originally published as a comment to André Solo’s (formerly Drew Jacob “An Open Letter to John Halstead” at RoguePriest.

I salute the moon whenever I see him, like a lover being recognized with an airy kiss. He shines down brightly, like hope from heaven.

I lie out beneath a vast blanket of stars and feel grateful to have ever been born. Being alive feels so good it hurts.

I pour libations – effervescent, sanguine, and enthusiastic. I set apart who and what I love and remember them forever.

I greet the dead throughout the day and hold close the living always. I revel in the bonds of camaraderie.

The gods and spirits watch me, some curious, others playful, all loving in their own ways. All stupefyingly beautiful.

I run and sing, laugh and dance, make music and art, and fuck like my life depends on it – it does. Love makes the heart sing.

I don’t have a church, or an dogma, or a stately forbearance or respectability. I’m just one man who loves to be alive.

I don’t want to be dead, but I wouldn’t mind it – I don’t want to live forever. I just want to live right now, for as long as that lasts.

I guess that makes me human. So if people ask what religion is he, tell them that my religion is life well lived – through love and ecstatic joy.

“‘As the gods pour, so do mortals’: An alternative conception of divine reciprocity” by John Halstead (Part 2)

August 15, 2014

Divine (left) and mortal (right) libation scenes on the same krater

PART 2: AN ALTERNATIVE CONCEPTION OF DIVINE RECIPROCITY

In Part 1 of this essay (published last month), I critiqued a popular understanding of divine reciprocity. But there is another conception of divine reciprocity. It is rooted in the notion of the interdependence of all things — where “all things” includes the gods (whatever they are). It contrasts with the conception of a god who is transcendent and independent of creation. This kind of reciprocity has nothing to do with the granting of wishes for material blessings. It is rather about the idea of our being “in relation” to every other thing and to the world itself.

As a pantheist, my divine “other” is the universe, and especially the earth. We are dependent on the material world in every way, for sustenance and for resources. Our very bodies are made of matter, and our ability to cognate depends on a material brain. But it goes even deeper than that. As Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas explain, our very selves are constituted by that which we call “other” in a reciprocal relationship.

David Abram, the author of Spell of the Sensuous, explains one way in which we experience this reciprocity with the world itself: “Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter – of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor – as a dynamic presence that that confronts us and draws us into relation.” Abram goes on to explain:

“Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. [...]

“There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn.”

We can try to mentally remove ourselves from our picture of the world or we can describe the world as consisting solely of inert or passive things. But this objectivity is an illusion. Our immediate experience of the world is one of sensuous reciprocity. In this sense, reciprocity is not something we do; it is, rather, something we realize. It is a condition of the possibility of our being in the world. (See also David Abram’s essay, “Reciprocity and the Salmon”.)

When reciprocity is understood in this way, as something which already is, rather than something we create, then ritualized offerings take on a different meaning. Offerings, usually the pouring of libations, have always been a part of my Humanistic Pagan practice. (I prefer liquid libations because of how they are absorbed by the earth.) Theists and atheists alike would probably find this hypocritical. “Who am I pouring libations to?” they must wonder.

Zeus (left) pouring a libation with the assistance of Ares (right)

To answer this question, I call your attention the numerous images on ancient vases and pottery which depict Classical gods and goddesses pouring libations and making sacrifices. These scenes would undoubtedly strike a theist and an atheist equally as strange. Who, after all, are the gods making offerings to? Kimberly Christin Patton observes, in her book, Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity, that the gods’ worship in these scenes “seems to both parallel and respond to human cultic observance.” “This is why mortal libation scenes appear on the opposite side of the vases,” Patton writes, “As the gods pour, so do mortals. As mortals pour, so do the gods.” (emphasis added) This may or may not be a historically accurate explanation of these scenes, but this image — of gods and mortals pouring libations in one continuous circle — expresses one meaning which ritualized offerings might have for a religious naturalist.

Apollo pouring a libation

While I pour libations, I don’t imagine that I am making an offerings to someone or even to something. Such a conception presumes a separateness which is precisely what I am trying to overcome through ritual. I do not pour libations out to gods, who I wouldn’t imagine would need them if they did exist. Nor do I make offerings to the earth or to nature (unless you count my compost box), which would inevitably receive the matter I am offering in some other way. Nor am I making offerings to myself. Instead, these offerings are a way of remembering, a way of restoring the experience of connection — of reciprocity — with the world, a reciprocity which is always already present, but which we human beings have the ability to (intentionally and unintentionally) make ourselves blind to.

Dionysos pouring a libation (from my visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology)

As I pour out the water, wine, honey, or oil on the earth, I create, in the form of the stream of liquid, a living connection between myself and the earth. It is a visual and visceral representation of my connection to the earth. And in so doing, I experience both an “emptying”, what the Greeks called kenosis (κένωσις), and also simultaneously a “filling”, what the Greeks called pleroma (πλήρωμα). It is as if I am both emptying the vessel of myself and filling myself at the same time, as if I am both the cup that pours and the earth which receives — emptying because I am giving up substance which I might take into my body as sustenance, and filling because my body is already connected with the earth so intimately that I cannot give to the earth without sustaining myself.

In this act, I restore in a small measure that sense of sensual connection which I have to the world. Especially if the libation is water, I am reminded how this water long ago traveled across the cosmos in comets, how it was part of ancient oceans, and how it has traveled from the bottom of the ocean to the highest mountains. I am reminded how this water at one time was part of great glaciers and tiny snowflakes, how it has flowed through the bodies of great dinosaurs, tiny amoeba, and the bodies of my ancestors. I am reminded that this is the water I am made of, the water that sustains me, the water that I was formed in, and the water that I will return to. I don’t just think it; the ritual helps me feel it.  As I pour the libation, I watch the stream of water flowing onto the earth and being absorbed by the soil, and this connection moves from the conceptual to the visceral, from my mind to my flesh and bones.

This for me is the true meaning of divine reciprocity.


The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.org. John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

DE NATURA DEORUM: “What is this whole ‘deity’ thing, anyway?” by Blue

August 13, 2014

De Natura Deorum is a monthly column where we explore the beliefs of Naturalistic Pagans about the nature of deity. Today’s essay essay was originally published at Garden of the Blue Apple: Musings About Aphrodite.

Primavera (1478) by Sandro Botticelli

You know, I don’t have a good answer to that question above, and if I claimed to in all seriousness, you should probably just walk away now. Still, I figure that if you are going to be a regular reader of this blog and are interested in how I work, it’s probably best to get this out of the way at the outset: Despite the fact that I have had a 25 year relationship with Aphrodite it may be of interest to know that I don’t actually consider her to be an “entity” or being, or power outside of my own existence, although it’s not quite that simple either.  I know this position is troubling for some people.  I also do not see her as an archetype or psychological projection.  In fact, I think that many of the archetypical constructions of deity are extremely confining and prescriptive and don’t allow for revelation or long term growth.  I think that seeing Aphrodite as an archetype is very limiting, and I think that except for some rare, short term circumstances, working with her that way can do more harm than good, especially given the pitfalls I outlined I my last post.

I identify as an atheist/pantheist. Both are true for me.  I tend to see the world and everything in it as sacred to the core and made of sacred stuff. That includes me and you! So why do I choose to identify as an atheist?  First, I think it can be an important thing to do culturally and politically.  I was raised an atheist, and my ideas about deity (or lack thereof) are perfectly compatible with many forms of historical atheism. There are many different types of atheist. For instance, I identify as a “soft metaphysical” atheist, that’s just one form, there are many others. I’m frequently frustrated with Pagans and other folks who are merely informing their ideas about atheism based on Christian discourses.  Unfortunately, there are also a lot of prominent atheists who also do this, and who seem to be operating purely from a reactive space. While I admit I am not wholly unsympathetic to their cause politically, I find their world view just too reductive.  The fact is, in the great big world of religious practice and spiritual experience there is a whole bunch of cool stuff that happens and many different ways to talk about those experiences.  I have found that in the West we are pretty limited in our spiritual vocabulary, and tend to filter our experiences through the monotheistic, Abrahamic, generally Protestant lens.

So, how do I see and work with Aphrodite then, and why would I choose to do something that seems so contradictory to many people? Well, I choose a deity practice because it is awesome, fun, beautiful, challenging and rewarding. It allows me a wonderful vehicle for making real change in my life. How that happens will be the source of much of what I write here, both the pleasures and the perils.

But how do I conceive of her?  What is my reality?  As I stated, I don’t see Aphrodite as a projection of my own mind, not exactly anyway. I had this wonderful conversation with a dear and respected friend one night, where we spoke of deity experience rather like tuning a radio dial into a frequency. When you tighten that focus, you hear things, you see things. The relationship is really about connection and awareness. To be perfectly honest, in my work with Aphrodite, she is rather an outer layer to wider contemplations and practices designed to cultivate awareness of love, compassion, desire, change and action. She is a form that we can see, understand and work with, very effectively too, and for a lot of work having an external form to work with is essential in helping to articulate your process.  But the deeper you go with a deity practice, the more the form gets in the way (especially with Aphrodite), but I’m getting ahead of myself…

For a lot of work, the form is important. Sure, we are all made of sacred stuff, but sometimes you need an external Other in order to get the message you need to hear and do the work you need to do. Aphrodite has a huge, rich history throughout the centuries of myth, devotion, cult, relic and practice.  For me, these things help to bring form and focus to a wonderful, beautiful Other, made of sacred stuff that is also me. Sometimes I need to take her form out of myself and then I have her “out there” to listen to, learn from, contemplate, enjoy, yet always with the awareness that I am she, and she is all, and I am all.

Ok, so I guess that part is a bit hard to explain. It’s complicated, but you know, the multiverse is rather complex and there are a lot of experiences, resonances and worldviews that don’t fit neatly into any box and that simply don’t lend themselves to particularly coherent, linear explanation. Life is filled with fuzzy lines, not neat, clean ones, and I’m pretty comfortable with that, although a lot of people genuinely aren’t.  I think Tantric understandings of deity and deity yoga practices which focus on the union with deity tend to resonate best with me and best approach my perspectives on how this all works. Historically in the West we have done this with theurgy, which suggests that we have mostly just forgotten that we are made as the same stuff as the Gods, we just need to remember (although that is somewhat simplistic). Theurgy gives us the techniques for doing that, which I’ll also get into on my site because I find theurgic practices so essential to modern deity work. Ultimately, though, over time, every breath becomes a prayer to your own divine self and you don’t need the reminders quite so much. Until you do.

The Author

Blue is, in no particular order, an atheist, Thelemite, Chaote and magic(k)ian, who has been building a relationship with Aphrodite and her series for 25 years. Practice and labels need not be congruent. You can read more of Blue’s writing at Garden of the Blue Apple: Musings About Aphrodite.

 

“Atheopaganism: An Earth-Centered Religion without Supernatural Credulity” by Mark Green

August 10, 2014

a·the·o·pa·gan·ism (noun) \ˈā-thē-ō-pā-gən-iz-əm\

godless paganism, paganism without gods

I was a Pagan for more than 20 years. At least, I think I was.

I had been raised as a rational materialist in a scientific household, but was introduced to Pagan rituals and community at age 25, and in short order felt at home there. Unlike the mainstream religions, it got a lot of things right.  It didn’t have a demonstrably error-laden “holy book”, and it wasn’t as sour and mean-spirited as the various mainstream religions.  Paganism’s values celebrate the natural world, revere beauty and pleasure and creativity, suspect authority, and encourage gratitude, celebration, humor and enjoyment.

I could enthusiastically embrace all of that. It enriched my life tremendously to join with my friends to ritually celebrate the turning of the Earth’s seasons, to remind myself of what each time and season means in the natural world and the agricultural cycle, and what it meant to people long ago.

That said, I believe in critical thinking, in the scientific method, and in the intellectual process. Over time, it became clear to me that in the Pagan community, most of the people around me were not viewing “gods” and “magic” as metaphors and psychological techniques, but as literal, supernatural phenomena taking place in an Invisible Dimension lurking behind the material world and driving its events.  This superstitious credulity became more than my intellectual self could tolerate.

However, once I had left its practice, I missed what was right about Paganism: the ways in which religion meets the needs of humans which are not centered in cognitive thought, but rather which seek community, a sense of meaning in life, and the richness of experience that comes with presence, celebration, gratitude and awe.

So I began to explore for myself what religion is in a functional sense, how these functions correlate with the needs and appetites of the various systems of the human brain, and to ponder how “religion” could be teased apart from “superstition”. Because it was clear to me that, though most people assume as a matter of course that a religion must incorporate a supernatural component, there is no particular reason it should, other than as a habit carried over from the days when humans had no better explanations for the phenomena they experience than the supernatural.

The analytical process which led to my conclusions in this regard is captured by a much longer piece than can be included here, but which is available at the Atheopaganism Facebook page. It is a closed group, but you can request addition and I will add you.

What I decided to do was to create a non-superstitious tradition of Earth-centered religious observance: Atheopaganism. As I have done so, I have been delighted to find that many of my friends have acknowledged that they had the same difficulties with Paganism that I did, and have joined my wife and myself in our celebrations.

So…what is a religion, really?

I would contend that at root, a religion comes down to four elements:

  1. Cosmology: the accepted understanding of the nature of the Universe and how it works
  2. Values: definition of what is important or sacred
  3. Principles: ethical guidelines as operational “rules for living”
  4. Practices: rituals, holidays, and other observances

Now, at this point it bears saying that my atheistic religion in no way defines the atheistic religion. Entirely different principles and practices could be developed based in other values. But my particular flavor of supernature-free religion looks like this:

Cosmology

Cosmology is the easiest one for an Atheopagan: we cede it to science. Science is the best modality we have for understanding the true nature of the Universe, and we allow it to do its job.

Values (the Sacred)

We can’t talk about religion or define a new one without addressing the issue of what is to be considered sacred: what that means, and how it informs the values by which the practitioner is expected to live.

At root “sacredness” is an ascribed quality: an opinion. It is applied to whatever is highly valued by the tradition or practice in question, and to those objects, events and practices which evoke internal narratives which communicate the religion’s beliefs and values.

Only four things, ultimately, fall into that category for me:

The World. Meaning generally the Universe, but most specifically the biosphere: Life. It is the Earth and the Cosmos which gave rise to all humanity and which support our ability to survive. All we eat, all we breathe, all we came from is this, and it is thus holy.

Beauty. Beauty is that which inspires joy in living and which communicates the inner truth of the creative person. Beauty fills our hearts and provokes our minds, strikes us motionless with the recognition of our good fortune in being alive. Bright and dark, soaring with joy or filled with rage, we know beauty because it sets our Limbic brains to singing. It is not optional, trivial or superfluous.

Truth. Truth is the only beacon we have to light our way into the unknown future. And the more significant the topic, the more sacred is the truth about it. It is a deep wrong to deny what is true when it Affects what is sacred. This isn’t about “little white lies”. It’s about the tremendous and humbling power of Truth to bring down despotism and corruption, to right wrongs, to advance liberty, to build closeness between us.

Love. Love lights up the dashboards of our Limbic brains and provides us the courage to reach across the great gulf to the Other. It drives our kindest and best impulses, enables us to forgive what we suffer, spurs us to face down the darkness and carry on, to insist that betterment is possible, that the ugly moment needs not be the end of the story. Love brings hope where it has flagged, sometimes for years. It is the redemptive power each of us bears within us to deliver another from hell and into light.

Principles

Being a moral person is about how you act, not what you believe. These principles are an Atheopagan’s guide.

I recognize that the metaphorical is not the literal.

I honor the Earth which produced and sustains humanity.

I am grateful.

I am humble, acknowledging that I am a small, temporary being not inherently better or more important than any other person.

I laugh a lot—including at myself.

I enact regular ritual play, in which I willingly suspend my thinking mind and use the technologies of religious ritual to invoke a state of presence in the moment and heightened experience of the metaphorical.

I celebrate diversity and am respectful of difference.

I recognize and embrace my responsibility to the young and future generations.

I acknowledge that freedom is tempered by responsibility, respecting the rights and freedoms of others and meeting my social responsibilities.

I celebrate pleasure as inherently good, so long as others are not harmed in its pursuit and the Sacred is respected.

I understand that knowledge is never complete. There is always more to be learned.

I conduct myself with integrity in word and deed.

I practice kindness and compassion with others and myself, recognizing that they and I will not always meet the standards set by these principles.

Practices

Religion isn’t just belief. It is doing: the rituals and observances (daily, seasonally, or for important life events) of a religion bring its community together, lend meaning and ongoing traditions to the lives of practitioners. While my group and I celebrate something like the regular Pagan “wheel of the year” for holidays, we have adjusted their meanings a bit to remove any supernatural references, and have added elements of the modern which the old Pagan holidays do not acknowledge. Highsummer, for example (at the beginning of August) is the celebration of labor, innovation, craft and technology.

Our rituals generally follow a structure, but one markedly different from the standard Pagan rite. It is as follows:

DECLARATION OF PRESENCE. Begins with mindfulness practice to calm/center the mind. Then an action or statement is made by one or more participants to declare presence and purpose; e.g., “We are sentient beings of Planet Earth, present in this place, this moment. The Cosmos is above us, the Earth is below us, and Life is around us. Here the wise mind unfolds. Here the playful child creates. Here the wondering human gazes out to view the vast and mighty Universe. We are here, and together.”

QUALITIES. Invoking the Qualities participants hope to carry within themselves as they move towards the Intentions: “May we know and embody these Qualities, that our rites guide us forward to achieve our dreams and better the world…”

INTENTIONS. Participants express their intentions for what is to be attained/achieved/realized during the ritual, such as to celebrate and give thanks for all they enjoy, to grow closer among one another, or to align themselves with a specific hoped-for possibility in the future.

DEEP PLAY. Ritual enactment meant to symbolize and concretize the desired Intentions for participants. Activities which stimulate the metabolism and the expressive self at this time will contribute to the feeling of presence and connectedness. Can include singing, chanting, drumming or other music making; dancing or other movement; symbolic enactment of drama; creation of some kind of art or crafted object in an intentional and allegorical manner, or recitation or spontaneous creation of poetry.

GRATITUDE. Expresses gratitude at having been supported by the Qualities the participants invoked, and for all they are blessed with in their lives. Sometimes expressed with shared food and drink. May also involve expressions of commitment on the part of participants of what they will do to act in accordance with their intent.

BENEDICTION. Example: (unison): “To enrich and honor the gift of our lives, to chart a kind and true way forward, by these words and deeds we name intent: to dare, to question, to love. May all that must be done, be done in joy. We go forth to live!”

Conclusion: What It Looks Like

Atheopaganism provides the fulfillment benefits of a traditional religion, yet is rooted in what is true and open to learning, change, and constant reconsideration of itself. While it does not make promises of eternal existence, a cosmically-determined plan or magical powers, it also does not ask us to sacrifice the unique and marvelous capacities of our cognitive minds in the name of living with a pretty story.

I, for one, find this tradeoff a worthy exchange.

The Author

Mark Green is an environmental organizer, political analyst, nonprofit professional, writer, musician, science and costuming geek. He likes to think about Big Stuff.  Find out more about Atheopaganism at the Atheopaganism Facebook page.

The Wheel of Evolution, by Eric Steinhart: Lammas

August 8, 2014

Dr. Eric Steinhart draws on his philosophical background to create a naturalistic foundation for the Pagan Wheel of the Year.  To better understand axiarchism, the philosophy on which Dr. Steinhart draws to create a Naturalistic Pagan theology, see Part 1 and Part 2 of his essay “Axiarchism and Paganism”.

Lammas marks the first harvest, which is the anthropic harvest.  At Lammas, the human species has gone extinct.  Every suffering human animal has made its prayers, and the whole suffering human species has made it prayers; and the answers to all these prayers have been gathered together into a set of possible universes, a set of utopian worlds, radiated by our universe.  Our universe is now surrounded by a vast plurality of anthropic utopias, alternative ways our universe might have gone, in which our axiological demands are satisfied.  Within some anthropic utopia, every sick human has a healthy counterpart; every wretched human has a happy counterpart; every unjust society has a just counterpart.  And yet, at Lammas, all these anthropic utopias lie in the shadow of unreality.  They are merely visions, the axiological* dreams of our universe.  Our universe does not need to have a mind to have these dreams or visions.  These visions are not produced by thinking; they are calculated by divine computations which implement the logic of possibility.

The Author

Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Paganism to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.

More of The Wheel of Evolution.

See more of Dr. Steinhart’s posts.

August Cross-Quarter

August 7, 2014

Forest fire

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Autumn cross-quarter or “summer thermistice” is celebrated on August 1 as Lughnasadh/Lammas.  Astronomically, the event occurs around August 6th or 7th.  Due to the seasonal lag, this is the hottest time of the year in many places in the Northern Hemisphere.  Those in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate Imbolc at this time.

Glenys Livingstone of PaGaian Cosmology, in keeping with decline of the length of day, takes this time to contemplate dissolution and the deep self:

“This is the season of the waxing dark. The seed of darkness that was born at the Summer Solstice now grows … the dark part of the days grows visibly longer. Earth’s tilt is taking us back away from the Sun. This is the time when we celebrate dissolution, expansion into Deep Self, the time when each unique self lets go, to the Darkness. It is the time for celebrating ending, when the grain, the fruit, is harvested. We meet to remember the Dark Sentience, the All-Nourishing Abyss, She from whom we arise, in whom we are immersed and to whom we return. This is the time of the Crone, the Wise Dark One, who accepts and receives our harvest, who grinds the grain, who dismantles what has gone before.”

Glenys invites ritual participants to contemplate their hopes for the harvest.

 

Bart Everson of A Celebration of Gaia describes how he bakes bread with his family to celebrate Lammas:

“We usually make corn dollies, though the materials have changed over the years. I have taken to fashioning them out of the subtropical ferns which grow in our backyard. We have a bonfire to which we commit the Brigid’s crosses which we made at Candlemas. This is a way of connecting across the year, and also of simulating the agrarian cycle on which we still depend, despite the illusions of the global marketplace. Most importantly, for Lammas, we bake bread.

“There are many mysteries wrapped up in a loaf of bread. The process of baking from scratch can connect us to history, science, culture, agriculture, and nature. The bread can be a symbol of all these connections, of our relation with the Earth and with humanity. Best of all, it’s a delicious and healthy food, which has become a mainstay of my family’s diet.”

Jon Cleland Host of the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo discussion group describes how his family observes Lughnasadh:

“We celebrate Lammas by some kind of early harvesting, such as visiting a pick-your-own blueberry farm, wild raspberry picking, or such.  To see the abundance of the earth, we’ll sometime spend time wandering (or even trying to run) in a mature cornfield.  It’s one thing to say “Oh, yeah, the earth is producing a lot of growth”, but quite another indeed to be surrounded by it, blinding your sight and slowing your movement – that really shows the power of this Sabbat.  We usually bake bread, perhaps in a woven Celtic knot, enjoying some of it during our ritual.  The ritual is held during the afternoon’s heat, not at night.”

NaturalPantheist of the Nature is Sacred blog recites the following from ADF Solitary Druid Fellowship ritual on this day:

“As I stand here on this celebration of Lammas, the sacred wheel of the year continues to turn. As my ancestors did in times before and my descendants may do in times to come, I honour the old ways. The seeds have been sown and the crops have grown, now is the time of harvest. Today is the feast of first fruits and I celebrate the ripening of the grains. The sun has begun to wane but I enjoy still the long hot days of early autumn. I give thanks for the abundant gifts of the Earth Mother.

A Pedagogy of Gaia: “How Lammas Changed My Life” by Bart Everson

August 6, 2014

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?

A Subtropical “Fern Dolly”

The Dog Days of Summer

Do you know that time in late summer, when the air seems heavy and full, and the heat gets hotter, and everything seems to slide from ripe to overripe? It’s that sultry, sticky time sometimes called the Dog Days, after Sirius the Dog Star.

It’s my favorite time of year. Most of the people here in New Orleans think I’m crazy. Maybe I am. Then again, I work in an office which is maintained at such a bone-chilling temperature that some of my co-workers resort to using space heaters in August.

After the summer solstice, our hemisphere’s axial tilt to the sun diminishes each day. Slowly the days are growing shorter, the nights longer. The light is waning. Yet, outside the tropics at least, as a rule, the warmth increases. The processes of life, fueled by the sun, do not diminish but continue waxing. Just as solar noon is not the hottest time of the day, the solstice is not the hottest time of the year. That’s because of the simple fact that it takes time for the sun’s rays to warm things up.

This phenomenon is known as the lag of the seasons, and it may be observed on some other planets in our solar system as well as our own, particularly the gas giants. It just takes a while for those big atmospheres to heat up. On Earth, the seasonal lag is largely due to all the water with which we’re blessed. The oceans function as heat sinks. Thus, places surrounded by water may have a longer seasonal lag than dry places. In San Francisco, the hottest average period is in September, but in Death Valley, it’s in July.

Those who track the progress of the sun will correctly note the summer solstice as the crown of the year. Paying attention to the rhythms of the Earth reveals another apex, less precise, but perhaps even more relevant to humanity. In much of the world, that second apex takes place midway between the summer solstice and the equinox, at the end of July or the beginning of August in the northern hemisphere (late January or early February in the southern hemisphere).

We may not be highly attuned to these rhythms, but it comes as no surprise to learn that ancient people recognized this time and celebrated it. There’s a harvest festival which the Celts called Lughnasa or Lughnasadh. It’s still known in that last bastion of Celtic culture, Ireland, where it’s called Lúnasa. To the Welsh, it’s Gŵyl Awst; to the English, Lambess or Lammas.

Lammas Altar

A Modern Harvest

Shakespeare makes a point of fixing Juliet’s birthday on Lammas Eve, a fact which is announced as soon as she first appears on stage. This bit of foreshadowing would have appreciated by contemporary audiences: she was born just before the harvest; tragically, but poetically, her life will end before she comes into the full ripeness and maturity of womanhood.

My favorite literary reference, however, comes from Robert Burns in an 1783 lyric which recounts a romantic tryst in context of the grain harvest.

It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa to Annie;
The time flew by, wi’ tentless heed,
Till, ‘tween the late and early,
Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed
To see me thro’ the barley.

(An updated version of this lyric can be heard in the opening credits of the classic 1973 film, The Wicker Man, noted for its folk soundtrack by Paul Giovanni.)

I was confused by the word “corn” at first. Isn’t that a New World crop? I soon learned that, in the Atlantic Archipelago, corn refers to wheat or oats or barley, whatever might be the main cereal produced in a given area — not maize. The first harvest of such grains was the occasion for the festival of Lammas.

For 21st-century Americans like myself, this celebration is almost completely unknown. It is easily the most obscure of the eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year. The four solar holidays are at least vaguely familiar as the starting dates for the four seasons, though most Americans don’t know their solstice from their equinox. That leaves the four cross-quarter days. Three of these correspond roughly with Halloween, Groundhog Day and May Day; only Lammas is unassociated with a modern holiday. In fact, August is sometimes held to be “the month without a holiday” in the American calendar.

In that obscurity, I see opportunity. We may come to this holiday without preconceived notions and set ideas. We may discover unexpected depths and make new connections if we are open to possibilities.

The Possibility of Lammas

It was at just such a time, a time in my life of opening to new possibilities, when I celebrated my first Lammas. Ever since my daughter had been born, I’d been on something of a spiritual quest. I was seeking to discover my own identity, and looking for a tradition in which my daughter might be raised — or more accurately, to which she might be exposed, as I don’t presume to find her path for her.

2013 Lammas Ritual

I was particularly intrigued with these people who called themselves “Pagans.” A photo in the paper showed a local Pagan group, the New Orleans Lamplight Circle, working to build a community garden. From that photo, I connected with the group online and kept looking for a meeting I could attend. They sponsored drum circles, meditations with Tibetan singing bowls, workshops on beneficial bugs for the garden, panel discussions on witchcraft, ice cream socials, all manner of things. At last I found something that coincided with my schedule.

And so, on the last day of July, I rode my bike out to City Park to meet some of these folks for the first time. Riding in the child seat was my daughter, 2½ years old, because this event was billed as “Lammas for Kids.” I didn’t know what to expect exactly.

What we found was sweeter than I imagined, full of beauty and meaning. We did some chants and songs with hand motions, honoring nature and the elements. There was some face painting and story-telling. We shared a simple but satisfying feast with an emphasis on bread. We also made corn dollies, traditional effigies of the harvest season. Actually we made horsies out of grass. The one I made was a little on the shabby side, but I was holding a toddler on my lap the whole time.

Participating in this celebration fulfilled a longstanding goal: I wanted my daughter to have a broad and well-rounded religious education. Mainstream Christian doctrine is easily encountered, but rituals such as this are more obscure — though becoming more visible all the time. I wanted my daughter to see that religion comes in many forms and varieties, and that it needn’t take place only in a church or a mosque or a synagogue.

Honouring the sacrifice of John Barleycorn

The Lammas-Tide of Life

Since then, we’ve continued to celebrate Lammas at home as a family. (I’m still active with Lamplight, but the chief organizer of the kid-oriented rituals moved away.) Every year our celebrations evolve a bit. We usually make corn dollies, though the materials have changed over the years. I have taken to fashioning them out of the subtropical ferns which grow in our backyard. We have a bonfire to which we commit the Brigid’s crosses which we made at Candlemas. This is a way of connecting across the year, and also of simulating the agrarian cycle on which we still depend, despite the illusions of the global marketplace. Most importantly, for Lammas, we bake bread.

There are many mysteries wrapped up in a loaf of bread. The process of baking from scratch can connect us to history, science, culture, agriculture, and nature. The bread can be a symbol of all these connections, of our relation with the Earth and with humanity. Best of all, it’s a delicious and healthy food, which has become a mainstay of my family’s diet. Inspired by the holiday, I’ve been baking bread pretty much every week for several years now. One might say that we celebrate Lammas every weekend.

On Lammas, we bake a special loaf, a bread figure. Sometimes the figure is roughly humanoid in shape, to the best of my severely limited skills. Last year, we made a one-eyed cat at my daughter’s insistence. A highlight of Lammas is tearing apart this figure and eating it. This year we’ll make a point of feeding the bread to each other.

Of all the holidays, Lammas is the closest to my heart, the best day of the year, for all the reasons enumerated above — plus perhaps one more. Lammas corresponds to where I am in the cycle of life, somewhere past my summer solstice, somewhere in my late summer, with autumn coming soon behind. That sense of melancholy on the verge of dissolution, that gentle bittersweet ache of loss, is inherent in this seasonal moment.

For me, it’s not just a celebration of the agricultural harvest but also a time to think about how we stepped into the spiral, where we’ve come since, and where we’re headed. Rituals and traditions gain power over time, as associations and resonances build. Simply doing the same thing at the same time of year can be richly rewarding. I’m looking forward to deepening our experience as we continue to move around the wheel again.

The Author

Bart Everson

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.

See A Pedagogy of Gaia posts.

See Bart Everson’s other posts.

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