Questions about love spells and ethics

Someone emailed me with questions related to my recent writing about the ethics of love spells. They indicated that they emailed me because I don’t allow anonymous comments, but when I replied by email, the reply failed. I’m posting their questions (anonymously) and my response here instead.

OK, so what about spells that make someone who’s in love with you go away?  Those also interfere with a specific someone’s free will but are considered moral by a lot of the same people who consider love spells too coercive.

For starters, this can’t be rape because there’s no sexual contact.

This is another place where I think that “no interfering with free will” is an unintelligible ethical precept. If we’re affecting others, we’re interacting with and possibly curtailing their free will. The people who actually propose this standard don’t usually adhere to it; it’s shorthand for something deeper, and in the case of love spells, I think one of the deeper reasons that certain kinds of love spells are wrong is the way they are part of rape culture, which is why I think it’s important to talk about that openly and clearly, not fall back on a shorthand that actually obfuscates.

Try applying the standard that I suggested as one evaluation tool among many: would equivalent action in the real world be legal and/or ethical? For most ways of doing this spell, the answer is a resounding yes; take the example of a restraining order. If you shape your work to carry an intent like “leave me alone” (rather than “do not contact me,” because negative phrasings are often ineffective), what you’re doing is ethical by my standards.

It can be structured as a reactive boundary; if the person doesn’t approach you (physically or with communication), nothing happens. If they do, they get rebuffed. If you believe in/abide by the Rule of Three (or Law of Return or some similar precept) be sure to fine-tune what you see getting “bounced back” at them as the least harmful way of doing things: “go away,” leaving off the “you bastard!” blast of anger.

On the other hand, if you have an intent like “so-and-so will lose hir job with our employer so that I don’t have to be in contact with hir anymore,” you get into more iffy territory. What would the mundane world equivalent be? Well, if you’re going to go to your employer with a complaint of sexual harassment, I would definitely do magic in support of that. On the other hand, if it’s a personal relationship outside the workplace that went wrong, a whisper campaign to have the person lose all respect and be hounded out is definitely not ethical. The corresponding action in the real world may or may not be legal, but I think the fact that most of us wouldn’t want it to happen to us combined with hazy legality is a good enough indicator that it’s unacceptable.

But what if what you’re saying is true, and you just want everyone to know so-and-so really is a bastard? Well, you could do a “sunlight” spell, one with the intent that the truth of their actions be revealed, but these kinds of things are tricky. What’s the mundane world equivalent: taking out ads on the sides of buses declaring so-and-so a bastard? Writing a scathing blog post? Those actions are extremely difficult to manage, often bouncing back on the writer in very ugly ways even if they’re saying nothing but the truth. Making the statement is generally legal, and I would agree that these spells are generally ethical (not always), but a spell for this is at least as tricky to handle as the mundane action, and usually much more difficult to pull off without crossing ethical boundaries – see below about intent getting mixed up.

Also, what about spells to make someone love you who already wants you sexually, but doesn’t want a relationship?  Are those considered rape by your standard?  They’re not forcing someone into sex (that’s already freely given) but into, well, love.

The last question you ask is a harder one.

No, those wouldn’t be rape, if the sexual contact is freely consented to. On the other hand, if Person A is having sex with Person B, and A wants (more of) a relationship but B doesn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that A may be consenting to the sex in hopes of building a relationship, or with an ulterior motive, or simply to satisfy the desire to interact with B even in the absence of any other kind of relationship. None of those are, in and of themselves, rape, but they are fertile ground for all kinds of terrible relationship problems, even for a “solely” sexual relationship. The idea of doing a spell to create a romantic relationship on top of that foundation fills me with dread. There are so many ways it could go wrong – especially if it succeeds.

The relationship starts, and A decides B really wasn’t ready, or the relationship is a bad idea. The relationship starts, and B is madly, soppily in love, until it drives A nuts.  The relationship starts, and A realizes the sex wasn’t all that great, it was the idea of not being able to have more that was the driving interest. And even the best case is suspect: it works, they get married, live together for 15 years and raise two kids, with A wondering all the while if B’s love is really real or just the result of the spell.

And how would you feel if you found out you had been the target of such a spell? If it were me, it would run the risk of destroying a relationship. He doesn’t feel like he can attract me on his own, so he had to compel me using magic? Not cool.

To return to my earlier rule of thumb, this is a case where it’s very hard to imagine a specific mundane world equivalent. That always makes me suspicious of such spells. It would be possible to structure it with a specific mundane equivalent in mind: a spell equivalent of your mutual best friend telling your desired partner that the two of you would be really great together, for example. But in my experience, what’s actually going to drive the spell is your desire for a relationship, not your burning desire to plant the seed of the idea and accept rejection peacefully, so it’s extremely likely that what you’ll actually do, magically, is raise and send energy for having-a-relationship purposes.

If you can’t hold the specific intent without something else springing up mentally or emotionally, then you can’t do magic for that purpose alone. Can we harness other kinds of emotions towards a specifically visualized end? Yes. Being honest, can most of us really totally repurpose the intention of something that’s as personal and deeply powerful as desire? Not very well.

Overall, this is a case where I think that while it might or might not be ethical, it’s such a bad idea even in the best scenarios that it is a very foolish thing to do.

When love spells become rape

As I mentioned in the last post, there were many things that speakers said at Between the Worlds that I was glad to hear people saying, actively, in the Pagan/magical community. There was one glaring omission:

“Love spells” as most people think of them are a magical form of rape.

The panel on operative magic did discuss love spells. Everyone shared the basic assumption that “love spells” as popularly conceived – the kind of spell that Dick does so that Jane will love him and want to have sex with him – are not okay. Different speakers mentioned different perspectives on why these are ethically and practically not acceptable. People talked about how there is a more general kind of “love spell” which is ethical and acceptable – a spell to make oneself more lovable or to draw love in general into one’s life.

Everyone agrees that trying to magically coerce a particular person is NEVER okay – because it’s coercion. I was disappointed that none of the speakers said the obvious: that this coercion is never okay because coerced sex is rape.

Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki came closest when she repeated the oft-stated concern that this is “interfering with someone else’s free will” and went on to more colorfully describe that there are other ways to try to create a relationship with someone. But no one used the “r word.”

I think it’s vitally important that people who do magic and are feminists say this loudly and clearly: magic to get sex with a person is not okay because it’s rape. This goes beyond concerns about “free will,” a rather nebulous concept. This is about consent, and consent is what separates sex from rape.

In the wake of other examples of supporting rape culture, this is especially important to me. There is a big, bright, bold, clear line here. There is no room for “I did a spell to get Jane to love me, and I said ‘for the highest good for all!’ so it’s clearly a good thing!” There is no room for “She likes me, she just won’t go all the way, so I’m just doing a spell to help us along…” There is no room for “I know better than she does what she wants.” Those are rape culture in magic, plain and simple.

I know people want these kinds of spells. One of the speakers on that panel sells candles, and she pointed out that a “Become more lovable” candle – the ethical second-cousin to the kind of “love spell” that is really magical rape – didn’t sell at all. People don’t want to be more lovable. They want the person they want, and they want her (usually her) now.

That’s why this is rape. That’s why this conversation matters even if you would never do a spell like this. When we don’t call this out, we make space for rape culture. You know what rape culture produces? Rape.

The idea that someone else can be treated as an object of your will – whether in magic or not – is at heart the idea behind rape. Sex is something that people do willingly together. Rape is not.

I’m a big fan of Isaac Bonewits’ rule-of-thumb for magical ethics, which basically asks whether it would be against the law for you to do the mundane equivalent of whatever your spell is for. If you were doing a spell to have an honest debt repaid, the equivalent would be taking your debtor to small-claims court: totally legal. If you were doing a spell to have someone die, the equivalent would be murder: definitely not legal.

So if you’re doing a spell to get someone to have sex with you – and don’t bullshit me, most “love spells” are going to be judged a success based on whether or not you’re in bed with the person, not by a passionate but celibate exchange of letters for twenty years – then the mundane equivalent is coercing her to have sex with you. Rape.

In any sense, mundane or magical, the message is the same: Don’t rape.

Edited to add: I wrote more about why this matters in a potpourri post a few days later, but that post was such a mish-mash that I want to append this here as well:

I don’t think I said this clearly enough last time, but the reason that I’m so concerned about when love spells become rape is not just the magical implications, it’s the practical actions that we take as a result of the way we think. When we in the magical community fail to call out certain kinds of manipulative magic as part of rape culture, we’re enabling not just the thinking, not just the magic, but the actions.

If we say, loudly and clearly and repeatedly – because it’ll take a lot of repetition – that thinking of someone else as an object for your manipulation into bed is rape culture, we’re working to eliminate the so-called gray area where a lot of opportunity rapists operate.

If we leave wiggle room for people to think these kinds of spells are not rape, then that same kind of thinking is going to be used to justify totally mundane actions that lead to rape. If you’ve already done the spell to get her into your bed, why not offer her one more cup of wine after Beltane? What’s to stop you from seeing her stumbling, mumbling, not-really-consent as the manifestation of your magical prowess? Or maybe offering her a ride home, and then taking her to your house, or letting yourself in her place, and, well, encouraging her a little bit….that’s just taking action in accordance with your spell, right?

No. That’s rape. The magical actions and the mundane actions are products of the same thinking, and one will encourage the other. We have to discourage both.

This is very similar to the situation I encountered when trying to explain to people why things like DC 40 and other Christian Dominionist “prayer efforts” are dangerous. Even if you don’t believe in magic, these kinds of actions that specialize in raising emotional energy and directing it towards a purpose have tangible, physical manifestations. People vote based on Christian Dominionist thinking and actions. People rape based on rape culture. The thinking and the doing are both important, and if we’re going to change things, we have to work on both.

John Michael Greer and the Raspberry Jam Principle of Magic

One of my favorite things about Between the Worlds was hearing respected teachers and practitioners saying things that I think we need to have more discussion of in the Pagan community. Some of that was on the issue of eclecticism and working with varied sources, which I wrote about from another perspective at Pagan Square recently. But probably my favorite was John Michael Greer‘s exposition of the Raspberry Jam Principle of Magic:

It is impossible to spread raspberry jam on bread without getting some on your fingers. … Similarly, you can’t raise and direct an intention at somebody else without it getting on you in the process.

-Paraphrased from John Michael Greer at the plenary panel on operative magic’s risks, rewards, and limitations

This is a wonderful way of putting things. Greer has neatly constructed a memorable, visceral metaphor for a simple fact that underlies much of magical ethics and informs any wise magical practice.

This is what makes magical ethics not just a good ethical idea but a fundamentally practical matter. You don’t need to wait for a Law of Return or some form of karma to kick in; if you are working with an intent to harm others, you’re going to get hurt in the process.

Practical applications of ethics are more complicated than this, of course, but none of them can neglect this basic fact.

Voting and Columbia

As I said at Hail Columbia, voting is where the magical meets the mundane: we take our intent and put it into action. Go vote!

As Hecate says, we are the daughters and sons of iron-jawed angels. They and many others won us the right to vote. Go vote!

And finally, as a devotee of Columbia, this isn’t just the most important right of living in a democracy, it’s the most important rite. Go vote!

That last part is kind of a strange thing for me to write. I’m a secularist; I think we should base our choices for the country on secular, not religious grounds. I am motivated by my religion, obviously, but will seldom argue for policies on that basis, and when I do, I always also have sound secular arguments which will stand on their own. It drives me nuts when people say they’re going to write in Jesus for all the offices on the ballot and stuff like that. So where do I get off saying that Columbia has anything to do with this?

Well, I think Columbia’s a little like me: kind of conflicted. In some ways, I prize her as a contradiction in terms, a goddess of secular-ness. I think the values that she represents include the separation of church and state. If we’re going to be able to honor goddesses at all, we have to guarantee freedom of religion, and no religious tests for office, and all those other things that make us a secular country where many religions and none flourish.

This contradiction folds back on itself: I hesitate to say that voting is a sacred act – as opposed to a secular one – but I do think it meets a certain definition of sacrality. Voting to me is so very, very important that it is set apart. I focus my intentions on it beforehand. I take particular time to do it. Notice how voting places have their own boundaries defined, so that no overt politicking can take place within a certain distance of the polls. That reminds me of a circle, a set-apart space for this particular act of will to occur. So voting is set-apart, special, and perhaps that’s the right way for it to be to honor my goddess of secularity.

As a Witch, I will hold those tensions within myself. My religion and my insistence on the primacy of a secular government go with me, hand-in-hand, to the polls. And there, I will take a deep breath and put my intent into action. So whether I think of it as sacred or not, it’s a chance to make a change in the world: it’s magic.

So vote it be.

Sandy the Snurricane

I wrote this post as the winds and the snow began. The angle that my building makes with another high-rise forms an interesting vortex such that precipitation will actually rise. Yes, DC really is weird: here, it snows up. There is also standing water on US 1 with waves in it being driven by the winds.

I want to use this moment to point out something that’s been bothering me for a while. I’m currently ambivalent about the extent to which magic can change or affect the material, physical world. (I am most certainly agnostic about the means by which it does so, as I find many of the explanations which justify it to be precisely as bad as the obnoxious New Atheists mock them for being.) At the same time, I’ve done magic which, by my standards, worked. Including weather work. I didn’t get a chance to do preparatory work before Sandy as I’ve done before, but I’ll be doing more tonight.

Anyone who has had much exposure to the New Apostolic Reformation and associated/similar kinds of Christians will have seen their claims to have worked what I would classify as magic. They describe it as prayer, and we can debate the interpenetration of those categories, but they say they make changes in the world. Many of their claims are clearly ridiculous, and the sources that follow them tend to report these claims as further proof of the NAR’s detachment from Planet Reality.

Of course, this is also something that causes a lot of mainstream thinking to dismiss all magic as “woo” and hence to think Paganism is entirely ridiculous. But I don’t think all of this is entirely “woo,” so let’s stipulate the possibility that the NAR, like other kinds of magic, can affect the “real” world. (Thank you, Hecate, for teaching me that it’s all real; it’s all metaphor; there’s always more.)

And given the context of this storm, if Jesus wants to help out moderating its impact, I’d gratefully take his help.

So I was asking myself why it bothers me so deeply when I see Cindy Jacobs asking her prayer intercessors to “rebuke” the storm. After all, I think my magic can make a difference, so maybe hers can too, and I’d be stupid to refuse help, right?

I think I found the answer in another headline from today: Hurricane Sandy is God’s Vengeance for (insert that Christian’s personal hobbyhorse – QUILTBAG rights, abortion, etc). Again, if you’ve been around these kinds of Christians much, you’ve seen these kinds of condemnatory headlines. In fact, they’re much, much more common than calls to ask their god to help potential problems that are developing.

Worst of all, they almost never show any sort of compassion for the people who are killed, hurt, or otherwise impacted by these disasters and tragedies. It’s the most despicable kind of appropriating others’ pain in order to “lesson” the rest of us about moral decay.

This isn’t just a failure of theodicy. It demonstrates a worldview with a propensity for bullying, a propensity learned directly from their twisted, malignant vision of deity. Even when they do issue calls to try to importune their god for help, I cannot escape seeing an implicit threat. “If you don’t do what we want, I mean, what HE wants, we might not be able to hold him back next time,” this cycle of pin-the-blame-on-the-sinner says to me.

Of course, it’s also a failure of theodicy. This is another aspect of the same incoherence that crops up when people try to square the circle of an omnipotent, omniscient god which doesn’t intend the rape but does very strongly intend the pregnancy that follows from it. There are coherent theological responses to this; I respect Christians who are willing to grapple with this with eyes open to the realities of the world they are trying to discuss, and some of them are fairly successful at it. But many aren’t, and too many of those are closer than we realize to the abhorrent, bullying view that makes my skin crawl even when they say they’re working for (my) good. This is all one worldview, and if you don’t think it’s a problem, you’re not paying attention.

But we can’t let our attention – or our intention – be occupied by that alone.

And now, having faced that little piece of my shadow (thank you, Samhain, thank you, people who have helped me do shadow work recently), I am going to sit with this amazing, awe-full and awful storm. I am going to reach out in love, with responsibility, and with my fear – of the storm, of the people who scare me and open old wounds, of the uncertain future that this storm makes all-too-apparent – with all of those, and work. For myself, for others, for the world, for all of us. Together. Here. Now.

There are birds taking flight off the roof of a building nearby. The clouds are so low that their wild flight in the face of the wind disappears almost immediately. I want to try that: what kind of flight would be possible in this unique storm that we could never think of in “normal” times? What kind of magic can ride in its wings?

What are you doing tonight?

Updated after the storm: We were safe and sound; although there were risks of flooding, none affected us. (Key safety tip: knowing when the full moon is and how it affects the tides is practical, real-world knowledge!)

My thoughts and prayers went out to those who were hurt by the storm.

Virginia recognizes me as clergy!

My reapplication today was successful! The Arlington County Court has officially granted me authorization to perform marriages.

Literata with authorization

The process was not entirely painless. Once again, the person who handles the paperwork – I’m not sure if she’s a secretary or what – asked for my congregation’s physical location. I told her that I had applied before, and that there was some confusion over this, because my group worships in multiple places. She then asked where they could contact me if they had any questions about a marriage license. (Note that she didn’t ask that the first time I applied – if all they had wanted then was my contact information, I would have gladly given it to them.) I indicated that my personal contact information on the letter I had included with my paperwork would be the way to contact me.

She had to go get approval from someone else; she said that the person who wrote the reply to Americans United for Separation of Church and State had to review my new application and paperwork. That took a little while, but she came back and said that it was approved, and then it was a matter of paying the fee, taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and to do my duty fairly and impartially, and then I got the official authorization!

I sincerely hope that this means Wiccans and Pagans applying to the Arlington County Court will have less trouble having their authorizations granted in the future. I’m delighted to have my official recognition, of course, but this was never just about me. It’s small steps like this that break new ground along the path to full recognition, where Wicca and other Pagan religions are afforded the full benefit of equal treatment under the law.

For anyone who wants to apply in Arlington in the future, here’s what I took with me: Certificate of Ordination; Letter of good standing (to show that I am “in regular contact” with my religious organization); Certified copies of the articles of incorporation of the Order of the White Moon, the most recent business filing with California showing that the Order is still active; Copies of the letter from the IRS granting OWM its 501(c)3 tax exempt status and the most recent filing with the IRS showing that OWM is still active and exempt; Letters of support from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Ivo Dominguez Jr. of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and Sacred Circle bookstore, attesting to my standing as a priestess and the ministry I do; and a letter of support from a coven sister who also lives in Arlington, because the court insisted that I show “a connection between [my] ministry and the Arlington community.”

My coven sister went with me to support her letter and act as a witness, and my husband also came to be a witness. I cannot thank them enough for taking time out of their busy schedules. Their presence helped tremendously, and I am sure that her letter showing a direct, personal connection to Arlington was a key piece of evidence to meet the court’s standards.

I am also deeply and sincerely grateful to everyone who supported me, especially Selena Fox, Ivo Dominguez, and my sisters in the Order of the White Moon; my thanks also go out to everyone who put energy into resolving this issue and making a positive difference for Pagan civil rights. The personal and magical support I got was amazing, and it made all the difference in the world. Thank you all.

I would like to particularly thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State, especially Ben Hazelwood, who worked with me directly. They sent the letters that showed the Arlington County Court in no uncertain terms that their actions were legally indefensible and got the court to clarify its requirements so that I could make this reapplication successful.

This is not the first time they have gone to bat for Pagan rights, either, as they were intimately involved with Selena Fox and the Lady Liberty League in bringing the Pentacle Quest to a successful conclusion. I strongly encourage all Pagans to support these organizations that are doing the hard work of defending our rights when we need it most.

Mabon: Jewels and Fruit

Grounding and centering.

I breathe in, and out. I sink my roots down, deeper, deeper. Breathe. Sink. Breathe. Sink.

When I am grounded, deep in the dark, I find the Mother. I spread my hands before her, and my tears spill through, becoming jewels that tumble into the soil.

I know instinctively that they are not for me. These are what I need to leave behind. They are fixed in form, and they need to be returned to her. I look to her to ask what I should take to nurture my soul.

She points to the dirt. And then I see the tiny, hairlike fibers of my roots that quest between the crumbs of the soil, finding the minuscule fragments of nutrients, the miniature droplets of moisture. The fragmentary crystals of minerals and elements that are what I can absorb and turn into something else, something of myself, something living. There are droplets of compassion, particles of patience, fragments that will feed me.

I draw deep; each one is small, but my roots are questing wide and deep, and they quench my thirst and feed my hunger quickly, richly. I draw myself up, pressing upwards, unraveling shoots and branches.

The Father shines down on me. I turn my green face to the sun, asking implicitly what I am to do; I cannot reach so high so quickly. Don’t worry, he reassures me: I am here to help draw you up. He is right, and my branches grow and spread into a gorgeous canopy.

I grow, breathing in air and basking in fire from above and pushing it down to feed even my deepest roots, drinking in water and drawing in nutrients from below and sending them pulsing skyward to provide the raw materials to my highest branches.

In between appear apples, dangling from my branches like drops of fire, like the most precious jewels on gossamer threads, but more beautiful, so much more beautiful as living things that carry within themselves the promise of life.

This is the dynamic balance of Mabon.

Rituals of change: Why women’s spirituality can really use Inanna’s story

Trigger Warning: Rape, power abuse within relationships, victim blaming

One of the biggest changes I’ve gone through in my life is re-understanding parts of my relationship with a past partner as not just difficult but fundamentally wrong. As the relationship developed, it became more and more obvious that he was taking advantage of me in oh so many ways. This culminated in intimate partner rape.

Carol P. Christ has come out with a story of her own about a relationship that involved, at the very least, abuses of power. As she relates, understanding what happened to her, in retrospect, involved a lot of changes. Most powerfully, she judged herself for “letting” this happen. She should have known better, she should have recognized it, and so on an on with the internalized victim blaming that is one of the strongest tools patriarchy has ever invented.

What helped her get out of that was ritual, a ritual of self-affirmation of a kind that has a lot of prominence in women’s spirituality because of the sad fact that so many women need it. (Yes, plenty of other people need it too, including for sexual and relationship abuse. I’m not trying to exclude them, only to speak from my own place of experience.) I love that she created her own ritual in her own words. I want to share my similar experience and suggest why the story of Inanna may be especially suited to this kind of ritual re-understanding of self.

When I wrote the “Call to Inanna,” I wrote it with many situations in mind. Almost any kind of facing the darkness and reclaiming one’s power, I thought, could be a motivation for doing this ritual. I had seen a lot of discussion of Inanna’s experiences as an archetype for women and women’s rituals, so I thought I’d create my own version of it. No big deal.

Little did I realize that this was not an accident. As I wrote that, I was in the midst of the process of understanding how wrong that past relationship was, which culminated in me being able to name the worst of it as rape.

That naming was a tremendously powerful, positive experience for me. As soon as I named it as rape, I felt different in my body. I felt safe within my own skin in a way I never had before. By realizing that what happened to me was wrong, that it happened without my consent, I was able to reclaim my rights to myself, to my body, to my ability to choose what I do, with a partner or by myself.

If you want to use these terms, I went straight from “victim” to “survivor.” Those are loaded terms, and I haven’t even begun to engage with the wider discussion on what they mean and how to use them, but that’s how I would use them. I had been a victim in silence for years; when I spoke, I became a survivor.

Along the way, I had learned how wrong it is to blame the victim of rape. She doesn’t give consent by remaining silent. She didn’t give consent by what she wore, or did, or said, or anything else. I’d never applied those conclusions to myself, though; I continued to judge myself and to exonerate my rapist by rationalizing that when I stopped saying no, because it wasn’t doing any good, I had okayed what happened to me. Suddenly I realized that I had never given my consent, and that my feelings of shame and revulsion shouldn’t be directed at myself, but at the person who violated me, my body, and my sense of self.

As I was dealing with this, I thought I might do a ritual to reclaim myself from that experience. Suddenly I realized that I had the answer: as if dropped in my lap from the Queen of Heaven herself, I already had a ritual designed for facing the worst of a past experience, coming out of it, and reaffirming oneself afterward.

So I did. It became in some ways more than just self-affirmation; it became a rite of passage, of empowerment, from someone who had had bad things happen – had maybe “let” them happen – to someone who had had a bad thing happen, yes, but wasn’t defined by that. As I separated responsibility for the rape from myself and identified its true source, my own identity grew and blossomed into a woman with the right to own myself.

This is only my story, but the fact that rape and abuse are such staggeringly common experiences for women is why I think the story of Inanna is so prized by the women’s spirituality movement. That story certainly can be used to understand other harrowing experiences besides rape, and as a spiritual transformation all on its own, but I think a lot of women who have been through experiences like this desperately need stories to help them understand how they became a piece of meat…and then became a person again afterwards.

Missing the point of metaphor

Metaphors aren’t false or true. They’re both at once. That’s the point of metaphor.

Ok, let me back up.

I recently started following John Halstead’s blog, and while so far I have only skimmed the surface of his suggestions for a new taxonomy of Paganism, it seems like he engages with “naturalistic” Pagans a lot. Just that term seems weird to me; are most forms of Paganism not natural enough? Apparently this is at least in part an attempt by some atheist Pagans to differentiate themselves from people who actually believe deities exist.

Sometimes these folks use pagan and sometimes they use Pagan. I’m going to continue to write Pagan with a capital P because it’s important to me as part of getting Paganism recognized as a “real” religion and not just a philosophical stance.

This matters because today John and Star are both talking about a post over at Humanistic Paganism that asks “Why do people want supernatural gods?” The author, M. J. Lee, describes herself as small-p pagan. She admits that she feels animosity toward hard polytheists, and spends the piece weighing the pros and cons of believing in gods, but ultimately she derides people who believe in real gods as being too literal.

Star is understandably angry about this and questions whether a creeping evangelical atheism is starting to claim the p/Pagan label. I don’t think so, but I can completely relate to how she’s feeling. Another post I skimmed over at The Allergic Pagan was engaging with a piece at Humanistic Paganism that was similarly questioning “god talk” in Paganism. I have been quietly annoyed by that approach ever since.

See, I have a loud and insistent internal voice of skepticism. And like most people in our community, I came out of a Christian background with a lot of assumptions about what it means to be a deity, and a lot of assumptions about how people and deities interact. (To quote House, “When you talk to God, that’s prayer. When God talks to you, it’s psychosis.”) I’ve spent a lot of time processing that, and I’m not going to be able to address it all here, but I’ll try to hit a few high points.

Deities don’t have to be omnipotent and omniscient to be deities. That’s a Christian and monotheist misconception. My deities are not. In fact, it’s important to me that Pagan stories describe the relationships between people and deities quite differently. I ended up finding that a very humanistic aspect of Paganism as a functionally polytheistic religion.

But more importantly, I’ve had direct experiences of deities. This is something I continue to struggle with because of that internal skepticism. When people talk about the Goddess telling them something, or Hestia asking them to do something, it’s easy to joke about that, to edge around my own discomfort by falling back on the overculture’s stereotypes and assumptions. But I don’t have that luxury any more. I can’t weigh the values of a humanistic Paganism with no “god talk” vs the values of thinking of deities as more than myths, because at least some of them have made themselves known to me directly.

As a result, I have to allow multiple perspectives to coexist in my head and heart simultaneously. I remain skeptical of each and every contact with deity; I do not take anything on faith. And at the same time, I continue to cultivate those relationships at the same time that I understand deities as myths, and metaphors, and more. I continue to work with other deities who may be “only” myths and metaphors, and I leave those questions open, with multiple possible answers coexisting within myself.

And from that perspective, it can be damned annoying to see someone question whether I am being overly literal because other forms of religious understanding are not “enough” for me. I’m not trying to define atheists out of Paganism. I will happily do ritual with people who think deities are “only” metaphors, as long as we can all agree on the basis for the ritual and our practices within it.

But to me, M. J. Hall’s piece doesn’t look like an attempt to understand Pagans who believe in deities from their own perspective. That’s a charitable interpretation, but she’s framing the question entirely within her own understanding rather than trying to cope with what are two potentially incommensurate frames. Similarly, The Allergic Pagan’s subtitle is “My search for the sensible transcendental.” But the transcendental isn’t always sensible, by its very nature. There is no opportunity for me to answer Hall’s question by saying, “Because I know them.” There is no place for me to describe the entirely un-sensible experience of having contact with deity.

And yes, Star is also understandably upset that some people are taking small-p pagan and running with it in a way that seems designed to justify each and every thing said by the fringe Christians who want to “fight the green dragon” and deride everything from Earth Day to recycling as bizarre “pagan” rituals. The folks trying to be “humanistic pagans” may not want to be recognized as engaging in religion at all; while I can respect that, it comes across to me as undermining all the work that has been done to get Paganism, big P, recognized as a “real” religion. The Pentacle Quest, for example, is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m not trying to be literalist or fundamentalist; since I have multiple perspectives within myself, I can certainly coexist with others who have other perspectives within the same religion, if we want. But Star is right that people who are aggressive about proselytizing a- or non-theistic understandings can seem to be trying to undermine and even deride religion, and it’s worth examining whether they are part of the same religion or of an allied philosophical movement or something else entirely.

I don’t know where M. J. Hall falls in all of that, and I’m not going to try to guess based on one snippet of writing. But what is clear to me is that she fundamentally misunderstands the idea of metaphor, and I think that’s part of the problem here. Her conclusion seems to be setting up people who believe in “real” deities as separate from people who believe in deities as metaphors. She even talks about “true or false metaphors.” That’s an incoherent phrase.

Metaphors aren’t true or false. They get their power from being both true and false, all at the same time. I don’t see deities as either “real,” powerful, interventionist beings or else “only” myths. I have seen, and continue to see, and to relate with, deities that partake of both, and may even shift back and forth. To me, this is the real challenge of being Pagan: existing in the midst of this complexity, of myths and metaphors and old stories and new stories and….

To quote my friend Hecate, it’s all real; it’s all metaphor; there’s always more. That’s where the magic happens.

The love of the body

Brigid's Cross Tattoo

…if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you shall never find it without.
-Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess, Starhawk’s revision

One of the things that neither of my parents really passed on to me was the love of the body. That’s partially because they were both raised in fairly grim Protestant sects which always distrusted the body when they did not outright disdain it. Moving away from that was part of what drew me to Paganism and to Wicca in particular. But I still find that there are lots of Pagans and Wiccans who spend more time getting away from their bodies – whether it’s in meditation or trance journeying or astrology – than being in their bodies, loving their own bodies, loving themselves.

I just recently got my first tattoo: a Brigid’s cross on my shoulder.

Brigid's Cross Tattoo

Tattoo by Paul Roe at Britishink. Image by blogger; please do not reuse.

Tattooing has a history of being a shamanic practice in the broad sense of the term, a practice that is a purposeful spiritual transformation for the person going through it. I certainly think that taking my matron’s symbol into me – into my flesh, literally – is having a deep effect on me in ways I couldn’t expect. Right now, it’s taking my love of my body to a whole new level. I’m experiencing the love of the body in way that’s very joyful. It’s not at all the grim calorie-counting, crunch-requiring kind of self-hate that is prevalent in our society, especially among women subject to the pressures of commodification. My sensuality is cranked to eleven. I’m making “healthy” choices for myself without guilting myself into them for the first time because they feel inherently right in my flesh in a way they never have before. So do the pleasures! As a result, I’m living, and moving, and acting so much more vibrantly, being more aware and more present, that it’s simply amazing.

This is a kind of mingled wild desire and joy that I have seldom experienced before; it’s Beltane, all right, Beltane coming calling in my own person, heralding the turning of the Wheel, helping me celebrate it in new ways. It’s my matron’s healing and forging and poetic inspiration deeply immanent within me. It’s the love of the body.

How are you experiencing the love of the body?