Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Power of the North, the Wisdom of Earth

In the midst of current drama around racism, those of us who’ve not spoken up risk being accused of complicity.  I wish to share my process about why I haven’t said much.

One of the four pillars of the Witch’s pyramid is the Earth, the power to keep silent.   That is the place where I’ve been sitting for some months.

Dr. King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

While I do not disagree with this entirely, I don’t think we’re “at the end.”  Rather, it seems obvious to me that we still struggle in the process.  We, on all sides of these issues, have much to learn from each other, and we cannot hear each other if we’re all yelling.

Further, Elie Wiesel, who knows a thing or two about silence and oppression, says,

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Both of these men know a whole lot more about oppression than I do.  They speak from their own experiences.  Mine are very different.  I consider myself to have had the advantages[1] of white skin in a Euro-dominated culture, a literate woman with a good education, and plenty of all manner of nourishment and caring in my life.  This condition has not saved me from struggle and suffering.  It has, however, made my life easier by virtue of my appearance and ability to communicate in common parlance within a system.

As these issues have been discussed, both within Pagandom and beyond, I’ve not said much – and those of you who know me know that I don’t shy from stating my mind.  I’m not turning away from the problems.  The reasons I’ve not contributed much have to do with my reverence for silence, and for what we can learn by listening.  If one considers that she has nothing to contribute that might advance the discussion, nothing constructive to offer, then I believe it behooves that person to sit in silence, meditate on the issues of contention, and listen.

As this anonymous quote states:  “A meaningful silence is always better than a meaningless words.”

I’ve also sought to learn about the wisdom of silence from other religions

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for instance, says, “Sometimes one creates a dynamic impression by saying something, and sometimes one creates a significant impression by remaining silent.”

Rishika Jain says, “Speak only when your words...are better than your silence.

By his name, Ali Ibn Thalib r.a., I take this thinker to be Muslim, although I could be mistaken.  In any case, he says, “Surely silence can sometimes be the most eloquent reply.

Another spiritual leader whose wisdom I admire, Ram Dass, claims, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.

When I seek insights from poets, I find the words of Emily Dickinson, “Saying nothing … sometimes says the most.”

English Romantic William Wordsworth on silence:

The silence that is the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

I’ve also turned to our pagan ancestors for counsel.

By Silence, the discretion of a man is known; and a fool, keeping Silence, seemeth to be wise.”  Pythagoras, c.582-c.507 BCE

Showing that wisdom can be found even in the speech of tyrants, Dionysius I of Syracuse (c. 432 – 367 BCE) said, “Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.”  Of course, this could simply be a threat to his counselors.  In any case, I find it useful.

And finally, “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.” Alternatively, “I have often repented speaking, but never of holding my tongue.”  Xenocrates of Chalcedon (c. 396 – 314 BCE)

I do know where I stand on these issues, but I have much to learn.  When heads are counted in support or in opposition, I will be present.

[1]     I prefer the word “advantage” (“a condition or circumstance that puts one in a favorable or superior position”) to “privilege” (“a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people”). Not much difference, but enough to matter to me.  I lucked out in the circumstances of my birth; I don’t feel I have a special right or immunity.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

AAR Annual Meeting - III

Site of Riddu Riddu

November 2014
San Diego, CA

Day Two:  Saturday Afternoon

After lunch I duly went to the joint session of “Contemporary American Studies and Ritual Studies Groups” on “The New Animism: Ritual and Response to the Nonhuman World.”

No regrets, but to do this I had to pass on three other sections scheduled at the same time slot:
  • I    Tantric Studies Group on “Funerary Practices in Tantric Tradition,” Featuring “Saving the Unfortunate: A Tantric Rite to Rescue the Dead,” Necorliberation in Early Sakyapa Funerary Manuals,” and The Five-Element Pagoda, the Mantra of Light, and the Six Paths: Tantric Elements in Medieval Japanese Funerary Practice.”  As someone interested in both death and dying and rites of passage and other rituals, including the employment of bricolage within them,[1] I’m drawn to these types of presentation on the rare occasions they can be found. 
  • I    Religion and the Social Sciences Section, Religious Conversions Group, Secularism and Secularity Group, and Sociology of Religion Group, on “The Shifting Boundaries of the Secular, Spiritual, and Religious.” This is another area of culture that I as a Pagan feel worthy of exploration, since we seem to be expanding in numbers, and even in diversity, as well as our having a face in the interfaith/multifaith movement for social change and social justice.

The panel brought together “papers exploring the fluid, antagonistic, and overlapping boundaries of the secular, spiritual and religious…how various across draw these boundaries differently be relying on multiple understandings of the religious and the secular and by creating hybrid identities that cut across religions traditions or the secular/religious divide.”

Again, as a Pagan who has always considered her religion to call for efforts at social justice and political change, this panel called to me.

Such papers as “Switching, Mixing, and Matching: Towards an Understanding of Multireligiousness in Contemporary America” and “Qualitative Research on Spiritual but Not Religious ‘Nones’: Heterogeneous yet Conceptually Converging,” seemed that they would have addressed some of the attitudes I’ve encountered frequently in my interfaith activities. 
  • I    Body and Religion Group on “Fragmented and Digitized Bodies,” chaired by my friend Shaun Arthur, and including papers on ”The Fragmented Body: Alternative Cinematic Visions,” Discerning the Body in Cyberspace: Jaron Lanier, Merleau-Ponty, and Contested Personhood” – this seems very relevant to the presence and personalities of Paganisms online, as distinct from those in terraspace, a subject I touched in in my book Witchcraft and the Web: Creating Pagan Traditions Online   --
  • I    Native Traditions in the Americas Group on “Native Traditions, Food, and Environmental Change: Restoring Right Relationships”  “Plants and animals are an essential part of the complex relationships that are central to the religious frameworks of indigenous peoples…” From four different bioregions of North America, papers address the relationships between Native traditions, food and the environment “as expressed through sacred narratives, teachings about reciprocity, responsibility, and respect, traditional stories, ceremonies and rituals, and songs.  Climate change, human manipulation of the environment, and the loss of traditional knowledge through government intervention are some of the ways these relationships have been altered, yet found within traditional knowledge are ways to restore these relationships. …presentations explore… different yet complimentary examples of indigenous peoples turning to their religious traditions to restore right relationships with food in the face of colonial legacies and climate change.”  Here’s a list of the juicy-sounding papers in this session:  “Restoring Himdag: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Tohono O’odham,” “Of Coyotes and Culverts: Tribal Salmon Preservation in the Pacific Northwest,” “How Traditional Storytelling and Activities Help Make the Anishinaabeg Defenders of the Earth: A Case Study of Making Maple Syrup,” and “The Nature of Food: Dene Approaches to Caribou Hunting.”  Isn’t it obvious how appealing these talks would be to a contemporary American Pagan whose existence, like the existence of all life as we know it, depends upon right relationship with our environment and food sources?
  • I    New Religious Movements Group.  The five best paper proposals received in 2014; papers included: 

o   Massimo Introvigne on “Painting the Southern Border: New Religions, the Mexican Revolution, and the Visual Arts”;
o   Stephanie Yuhas on “The Relationship of Dark Green Religion to the Spiritual But Not Religious Movement”’ – definitely Pagan flavored.
o   Erin Prophet on “California Science Fiction, Atlantis, and New Age Apocalypticism: The Constructino and Influence of Frederick S. Oliver’s Dweller on Two Planets by Phylos the Thibetan”;
o   Shannon Trosper Schorey: “’The Internet Is Holy.  Code Is Law’: New Religions and Sacral Materiality at the Intersections of Technology and Policy”; and
o   Donald Westbrook on “’A People’s History’ of the Church of Scientology: Conclusions from Ethnographic Research in the United States.”

Here’s the session I went to:  “Contemporary American Studies and Ritual Studies Groups” on “The New Animism: Ritual and Response to the Nonhuman World.”

Ronald Grimes
Arrived to greet several Pagan scholar pals, only to see someone who’s a rock star in my world, Ronald Grimes, now retired professor of Ritual Studies.  I’ve heard him speak at past Ritual Studies Sections of the AAR.  I’ve read several of his books, and require students to read them when I have the opportunity to teach ritual theory and liturgical design.  In particular, Rite out of Place: Ritual, Media, and the Arts, and Deeply into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage.  So, feeling emboldened, I went up to him and told him I’d been worshipping him from afar for years, I loved his work, and I used it in teaching.  I actually told him he was a rock star in my world.  After all, we’re both of an age (the same age) and I have nothing to prove one way or another, so appearing like a teeny-bopper fan girl didn’t concern me.  It needn’t have anyway, because I found him to be a lovely fellow.  He immediately invited me to sit next to him during the session, which I did.  Unfortunately, I seem never to remember to take photos, so I blew the opportunity to be in a shot with him.  Oh, well…

I was disappointed that Donna Seamone was unable to present her paper, “’The Path Has a Mind of Its Own’: Eco-Agri-Pilgrimage to the Corn Maze Performance – an Exercise of Cross-Species Sociality.”

Folklorist Sabina Magliocco spoke on “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Animal Spirits in Contemporary Pagan Religions.”

* * *

Samuel Etikpal, from the University of Oslo, spoke on “Transition Concepts in Ghanaian Festival Performance,” specifically the annual Kundum Festival, “during which diverse participants ritually express their conceptions of and wishes for a health environment, spiritual protection, and socio-economic prosperity, bringing into play those other-than-human agencies expected to uphold or oppose these goals.”

First recorded by a Dutch trader around 1704, the festival takes place in the Jomoro DistrictWith drumming, a canoe regatta, the pouring of libations, the eating of special foods, for eight days or longer the people seek to honor their ancestors and elders, and to ensure good health and abundant crops.  In rituals involving communication between humans and non-humans, they appeal for protection.  They honor a “God creator” and Mother Earth Yaba. 

Earth Mother Yaba
 Local river goddesses are also honored, for they are seen as good mothers, providing a place for swimming, an artery for traveling, and fish for eating.  Today these rivers are threatened by oil drilling -- all the more reason to employ any and all means of restoring balance and repairing damage caused by human activity.

Samuel also showed some photos of a Kundum Festival held annually in Atlanta, Georgia.  He has not attended the one in the U.S.; rather, a friend sent him these photos.  Since, he’d emphasized the rituals honoring the local river goddess in Jomoro, I asked him if the festival in Atlanta connected to the Chattahoochee River in any way, but he wasn’t certain it did and suspected it did not.

* * *

Sami Flag by Jeltz
I found fascinating Graham Harvey’s paper, “Indigenous Cultural Events, Sovereignty, and Inter-Species Relations,” about the Riddu Riđđu Festival he attended last Summer.  Held in ‘the land of the midnight sun’ at a time of year when the sun is visible round the clock, the festival, Sami in origin, is described as “an international indigenous festival, which annually takes place in Kåfjord in Norway.  The festival has programs for the whole family. The program includes worldwide indigenous music, art, theater and dance, youth camps with artistic and political workshops, children's festival, seminars, film and literature.” 

They begin with a traditional greeting:

From our rivers to your rivers,
From our mountains to your mountains,
Form our people to your people.

Riddu Riđđu does not encourage travelers from afar because it discourages anything that increases one’s carbon footprint, which air travel obviously does; they nevertheless do welcome other indigenous peoples.  This particular year Maori people from New Zealand were among the participants.

Ándy Somby yoiking
Singers perform traditional Sami joiking, a personal and evocative vocalization in which the singer “sings” or “becomes” persons, animals, and landscapes.

In semi-underground lodges and outdoors they perform rituals around speaking to the food (meat and plants) when dining.  They emphasize inter-species communication.  They ask not “What do you believe?”  Rather, they ask “What do you eat?” or “Whom do you eat?”

Just as the health of the rivers of Ghana (and elsewhere) is threatened by oil drilling, so too is the health of the rivers in the circumpolar regions.  As Earth’s atmosphere heats and glaciers melt, at temperatures of 30º F. and higher in the arctic summer, rivers flood, resulting in the inability of trout to swim upstream to reproduce because the rushing water is too strong and too cold.

More to come.

[Apologies for funky formatting.]

[1]   I realize this treads closely to cultural appropriation.  I live in a multicultural society.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting - II

Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat
November 2014
San Diego, CA

Day Two:  Saturday Morning

Saturday morning I passed on the “Plenary Panel: Release of PRRI/AAR National Survey on Religion, Values, and Climate Change,” because, although I’m interested to see how mainstream religions are now paying closer heed to our utter and complete interdependence upon other species, weather, and other planetary phenomena, and am encouraged, I decided to pass. 

Instead, I attended the Arts, Literature, and Religion Section on “Writers and Artists as Agents of Cultural Change”  “What roles, if any, do writers and artists play in processes of cultural change, and what roles does religion play in an artist’s cultural agency?  Does individual interpretive and imaginative work influence culture or merely reflect it?”

As one of the panelists said at the outset of this series, “We rarely know what we’re doing until someone else tells us.”  That is one of the roles of artists and writers as interpreters of culture as well as in their roles as agents of change – to show and tell us what our behaviors seem to be indicting.

Discussions and analyses have traditionally taken place in pubs and coffee houses.  One panelist claimed that it is in these venues where ideas are transmitted, which may account, at least in part, for my affinities for metropolitan life.  It offers more access to other minds and other perspectives.  With the exception of Emily Dickinson, all the subjects treated were social creatures, very much engaged in the society around them.

According to the presider,  Shakespeare invented the idea of human personalities as agents for social and cultural change.

Each of four panelists spoke about an individual whose life works served these functions:  painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer, poets Emily Dickinson and Allan Ginsburg, and musician and songwriter Bob Dylan.

First, and by far the most interesting to me, was Dürer, primarily because I knew so little about him.  One of the panelists remarked that she learned more about Dürer in this presentation than she’d ever known before.  I did, too.  In today’s digital world, few but art historians delve into the works of German Renaissance artists.

The Fall of Man
However, unlike today when most people (in this country, anyway) are literate, in Dürer’s time (1471-1528) literacy was uncommon.  Ideas, theories, and most significantly theology were communicated by way of imagery.  In this regard, Dürer became a transmitter of evolving early Reformation Christian theology.  For instance, he created several images of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that changed over time.  In some the subjects seemed innocently naked, in some they are shown touching, in one Adam’s arm embraces Eve’s waist. 
Expulsion from Paradise

Among the other interesting characteristics of Dürer’s art is that he embraced the new technology of etching.  This presages new digital technologies in contemporary art.  He also inserted himself and his friends into his etchings.  Although this was not a fact mentioned by the presenter, I have since found that Dürer created many images of Pagan personages such as Nemesis, Apollo, Diana, and Orpheus, and allegorical figures such as Melancholia and Death, as well as the zodiac. 
Idealistic Male and Female Figures (Adam and Eve)
Bob Dylan, who was Zen, Christian, and Jew, all advanced and exclusive of each other..  Is he “unknowable” religiously?  His evangelical turn/”conversion” occurred in the 1970s, during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, and the rise of the Moral Majority.  Dylan was introduced to the born-again creed of a charismatic sect called the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in 1979 when he became friends with Kenn Gullicksen, one of its founders.

My experience with Vineyard Christian Fellowship locally is minimal, except that I’ve noticed they keep a tight focus on their own version of Christianity and conversion, with little involvement in wider community issues.  Regardless of his enigmatic religio-spiritual identity, there is no doubt that Bob Dylan’s artistic output has influenced contemporary society.

Allen Ginsberg, such a mensch!  From his time at Columbia University in the late 1940s, through the publication of “Howl” in the ‘50s, and up until the time of his death in 1997, Ginsberg encouraged new literary and cultural, political, sexual, and religious expression.  A Jew by birth, Ginsberg was one of the founders of the Beat Generation in San Francisco in the ‘50s, traveled to India in 1962, where he studied yoga and meditation, and later embraced Buddhism.  He is tied to Eastern religions and the counter culture, and he lived where the culture around him enabled his ideas to be heard.

The respondent to these presentations asked two questions:  Is it the religion around or the cultural icon that predominates?  Is the artist a reflection or an agent of cultural change?  I would answer “both/and.”

* * * * * 
 More to come.