Mabon – The Myth of Progress

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Sabbats originally written in 2011.

Mabon, the autumn equinox, is something of a blank slate. In the Wheel of the Year, the “cross-quarter days” are Celtic fire festivals; the other solar festivals – the solstices and the vernal equinox – are grounded in proto-Germanic cultures. In those Germanic cultures, though, the autumn equinox has no strong history of celebration; it doesn’t even have a distinguishing name. To keep the Wheel of the Year in balance, Gerald Gardner included the autumn equinox, but left most of the details open to interpretation. The name Mabon, drawn from Welsh mythology, came into common use later on, but doesn’t do much to specify the nature of the festival.

As a result, different ways of interpreting the multiple harvest festivals have sprung up. Some groups focus on the Celtic roots of Lunasa and leave the harvest symbolism to Mabon; others describe Lunasa as the start of the harvest and the equinox as its end, and may call the festival Harvest Home instead. [1] Still others describe Lunasa as the grain harvest and Mabon as the fruit harvest. It depends on the group, and the bioregion, and the weather. This multiplicity of interpretations is one of the things I love about Paganism: each open space is fertile soil where multiple myths can take root and flourish simultaneously.

Understanding and relating to Pagan myths has taken practice, though. When I first became Pagan, I used to be confused and sometimes downright irritated when I read tales of deities who didn’t seem very godlike, coming from a monotheistic perspective. I mean, they get drunk, they have fights, and they cheat on their spouses, not always in that order. They’re not exactly the kind of example we’d want to imitate in most cases.

As I grew in my practice and engaged more with the myths and with different kinds of stories, I gradually reached the conclusion that my assumption – that myths are stories about gods whom humans should seek to emulate – was a holdover from my Christian past. In Christianity, religious narratives about Jesus or good Christians are presented as exemplars for followers to emulate. This approach is very god-centered, and when taken to its (il)logical extreme, it can almost erase the adherent by reducing her to a mere reflection of the beatified.

I’ve come to see the older myths as human-centric stories. The gods act like humans – and do they ever! – except that the gods are bigger and stronger, so when they screw up, they royally – or maybe deifically? –  screw up. The myths reflect humans back to themselves, but enlarged. The stories don’t minimize the bad in favor of the good, or vice versa; they magnify all the parts and possibilities, or they add unique features that weren’t present before.

The myths give both storyteller and audience the chance to engage with human stories in an exaggerated setting so that they’re more interesting, more exciting, more dangerous, more tragic and more amazing. Throughout, though, they are fundamentally human stories.

This approach also helps me understand why so many overlapping, contradictory versions of the same myth can co-exist. The myths are no longer central; the teller and audience are, so it is natural for the people to adapt the myths to tell the stories they need to tell. No one is trying to find the single unchanging standard for behavior; the multiplicity of myths encourages us to adapt our responses to the situation, just as the storyteller working on the fly might have to alter the ending to fit the narrative corner she backs herself into. What matters is that the story works, that it’s good enough, that it fits its context.

The most encouraging thing about this approach to the myths, though, is that because we’re telling them, we can change them. They grow with us over time. And that’s important, because my favorite myth is the myth of progress.

Historian Laurence Keeley, in his book on prehistoric warfare, wrote that modern people tend to view prehistory in terms of two competing myths: the myth of the golden age or the myth of progress. [2] The myth of the golden age conceives of the world as continually declining. It leads us to assume that the past was always better than the present – if not in hygiene or life expectancy, then in some in some ineffable but presumably more important characteristics like social structure and morality. The myth of progress supposes the polar opposite: it tells a story of continuous development, usually with technological and social development being used as evidence of the present’s superiority.

It is quite accurate to describe both of these worldviews as myths; as the Slacktiverse’s motto says, it’s usually more complicated than that. Depending on the period and place that a historical narrative tries to describe, and what the narrative’s author views as “good,” it may seem that these myths take turns driving alternating ages of development and decay, or that one is predominant for all the period under consideration, or both, or neither.

For example, the history of Europe in the centuries after the end of the Roman Empire is usually told in accord with the myth of the golden age, while the history of the time around the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is usually presented as progress. Neither of these is entirely true or entirely false, especially depending on who and what the person telling the story considers important. Each framing, though, highlights some aspects and supports some conclusions, while pushing other matters into the background.

For the present moment, I try to make narratives that loosely fit with the myth of progress. I think that trying to tell our own stories as a part of the myth of the golden age is fundamentally discouraging, but trying to tell them as part of the myth of progress is a fundamentally optimistic position which can not only make us feel good but inspire us to do good.

To me, starting from a position that assumes the past was better seems like an invitation to despair; we can’t get back there, after all, and if you think, as I do, that a certain amount of change is inevitable, then we may not even be able to hold on to the fragments of it we retain. The ability to learn and the ability to change are tied up together. An attitude of suspicion about all change seems to me to be inherently resistant to learning, and hence to growth.

The myth of progress, by contrast, is an invitation to hope. We can’t change the past; we have to acknowledge it in all its beauty and grandeur, its cruelty and despair. But with that acknowledgement, we free ourselves to work on what we can change: the present, with an eye towards the future. As Terry Pratchett wrote, if we do a good job of changing our own present, when we get to the future, the present will “turn out to be a past worth having.” [3]

In this way the myth of progress is more than an invitation to hopeful feelings: it is an invitation to hopeful action, to hope and love enacted. The myth of progress, and the mindset that comes with it, help me tell my stories in ways that guide my actions. Because I continue to have hope, I continue to put forth effort to make the world – and its stories – continue to improve.

And although some of the stories we tell are ones we really don’t want to live through, sometimes we tell ourselves stories that we do want to live up to, stories that inspire us to be better than we thought we were. I think America’s founders did that, for example, telling themselves a story about how things might work out much better in a society where religious liberty was guaranteed to all. The ones who found hope in that story were able to convince the ones who wanted to preserve an imaginary golden age of state-sponsored Christianity, and so there are clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution which prohibit government establishment of a religion and guarantee free exercise to all.

But even at the time the Constitution was written, the story of free exercise for all religions was not the literal truth; it was in some ways a myth. Native Americans and slaves were not granted the rights the founders proposed, at least in part because they were seen as not really citizens and not fully human. State-sponsored Christian prayer continued in schools until the mid-20th century. Today, the US still lives up to that lofty ideal only imperfectly, but it has made tremendous strides towards making what was once a myth into a reality for more and more people. That gives me hope.

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?

[1] Here I use the modernized Irish spelling for this holiday rather than the “Lughnasadh” spelling most Pagans are used to seeing.

[2] Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1996, p 4-5.

[3] Pratchett, Terry. I Shall Wear Midnight. Harper Collins, 2010, p 336.

Happy Mabon! The Myth of Progress and a book review

Happy autumn equinox to everyone!

The Myth of Progress is my article about Mabon at the Slacktiverse:

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?

And the latest issue of Eternal Haunted Summer includes my review of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan:

For readers who want to spend a lot of time inside the head of a stereotypical twelve-year-old boy, these books will be a fun romp. The stories might inspire kids to go on and read the original myths, and they are fine as light entertainment, but they have plenty of problems, too. If I gave these books to children, I would also have some very serious conversations with them about some of the subtler messages conveyed, and I wouldn’t use these books as a first introduction to the Olympic pantheon.

Social change, socialization, and the end of DADT

How ending DADT will spread the idea of equality for people of all orientations among parts of the US population which have previously been most homophobic.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise which allowed gays and lesbians to be members of the US military as long as they concealed their orientation will officially end tomorrow. This is a great triumph not just for gays and lesbians but for all people who want to live in a society that accords QUILTBAG people their full rights. [1] This transition will help pave the way to that society.

Homophobia has been waning swiftly among certain sections of the population: for people who are more educated and have a higher socio-economic status, being QUILTBAG is often actually treated as kind of cool, having its own cachet as a way of being “special.” Younger people are also more in favor of QUILTBAG rights; marriage equality is generally considered only a matter of time among the under-30 set in most surveys.

But the military draws primarily on people from the lowest-educated and lowest-SES portions of the population. Even in times of recession, the military is seen by many as a back-up option if a “real job” doesn’t pan out. It is precisely these young people, who come from populations likely to stigmatize QUILTBAG people most severely, who could potentially carry on traditions of homophobia for another generation.

Ending DADT means that these young people will likely experience serving with a gay or lesbian airman, soldier, or sailor in the course of their enlistment. They will learn to see that person first and foremost as a comrade, a fellow servicemember, rather than a nebulous and dangerous Other. And that will make all the difference.

In the study the military did to assess the potential impact of ending DADT, the respondents who said that they didn’t think having gays and lesbians in their unit would be a problem were overwhelmingly those who knew or suspected that they had served with gays and lesbians in the past. Getting to know these people personally, seeing first hand that QUILTBAG folks are people just like anyone else, was the biggest factor in defusing and dispersing homophobia.

Now that service members can be “out” and open about their orientation, a lot more people will be having a first-hand experience of working with someone gay or lesbian. Some of them will be disturbed by it, just as some people were disturbed when the military desegregated. This may be the primary way that people from poorer, less-educated communities come into contact with openly QUILTBAG people, which is why it is such an important step forward in civil rights.

(I know the end of DADT does diddly-squat for trans* folks. But in the communities that lump all QUILTBAG people together, lessening homophobia is the first step to lessening transphobia, and the movements in support of trans rights can build on this foundation.)

Even some older people who hold the military in high respect may be receptive to evidence that removes “reasons” for homophobia. When their sons and daughters come home and tell them that their comrades are all people, equally valuable, and when they see the first openly gay and lesbian service members being decorated for valor, some members of the older generation may find their positions on QUILTBAG rights shifting.

Hate groups such as the American Family Association have been screaming their heads off about all kinds of doom, from the disintegration of the military to more natural disasters. And some conservative people in the military are going to complain that their “right” to discriminate against others is being infringed. I fully expect that the first photos of public displays of affection involving someone in uniform will be splashed all over the conservative news, and the first photos of a gay or lesbian couple marrying with one partner in uniform will be cause for enough frothing at the mouth to make some conservative sites look like they’ve been occupied by a mad barista with a passion for steamed milk.

The only reason these people have to be afraid is if their predictions don’t come true. If members of the American military discover that gay and lesbian people are, well, people, then this crusade of hate will have lost a major stronghold of institutionalized discrimination that protected entirely too much homophobia in the general population. If gay and lesbian people are as awful as these hate-spouters insist, that will become clear, and they will be banned again from the military. But if – just if – gays and lesbians are people too, and not demented perverts out to destroy the world, then a whole swath of the population will learn that, and these hate-propagandists will lose a significant portion of their audience.

Finally, this change is going to force a decision on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. I predict that DOMA will be repealed within five years, ten at the most. I hope it’s sooner, and I hope that the Obama administration’s strategy of not defending it will enable that transition as soon as possible. If that doesn’t happen, though, someone will sue to force the military to grant spouse benefits to people who are legally married in their own state. Whether overtly or not, the end of DADT will be a stepping-stone to the end of DOMA.

The military, like the public school system, is a place where people learn what it means to be American. With the end of DADT, we take another step towards teaching our citizens that respecting civil rights – the very rights the military fights to defend – is part of what it means to be American.


[1] QUILTBAG = queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans*, bi, asexual, and gay. Coined at the Slacktiverse as the most inclusive non-cis-hetero acronym possible.

Loving v. Virginia, 44 years on

Last night, LitSpouse and I attended a viewing of the documentary The Loving Story and a panel discussion afterwards about the Supreme Court case that ended miscegenation laws. It was eye-opening in many ways; I encourage people to become familiar with Loving v. Virginia and to see the movie if they enjoy documentaries. The most interesting parts were comments made by the panelists about the relevance of the same ideas and arguments in many of today’s discourses about marriage, equality, rights, and liberties.

In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were convicted of being in an interracial marriage (to which they pled guilty, because they were) and sentenced to one year in jail, with the sentence suspended if they left Virginia for the next 25 years. They were from a very rural part of Virginia and had a hard time adapting to living in urban DC; they wanted to live near their families. The film does an excellent job of describing the legal wrangling that followed, using film footage from the early 1960s of the Lovings, their lawyers, and contemporary news broadcasts about the issue. When the case went to the Supreme Court in 1967, Virginia’s law against interracial marriage was declared unconstitutional, along with similar laws in 15 other states.

Some of the details in the film are really amazing; I had no idea this case, and the subsequent elimination of these laws, was so recent. (I first learned the word “miscegenation” in ninth grade when my high school was doing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Showboat. I had to ask my mother why the mixed-race family had to move away when their background was discovered. I suppose that’s progress of a sort, although ignorance of history is not the coin with which I would buy that kind of progress.)

The film really focuses on Mildred Loving, as she is the most moving character of the whole story, and manages to be emotionally engaging and present relevant information at the same time. If documentary films aren’t your cup of tea, the Wikipedia article linked above has some of the same details, including the breathtakingly racist opinion rendered by the Virginia court, but to see Mildred Loving as a person, the film is your best bet.

The panel discussion afterwards included Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Phip Hirschkop, one of the original attorneys to argue Loving v. Virginia before the Supreme Court, and Nancy Buirsky, filmmaker.

Ms. Buirsky said openly that one of the goals of the film was to create empathy through a personal connection between the viewer and Mildred Loving. (It’s not that her husband wasn’t an empathetic figure; it’s that he was extremely laconic, so most of the commentary on how they just wanted to live a quiet life together came from Mildred. Some of the photos of the two of them helped me connect with him, but he was manifestly uncomfortable in front of video cameras.) Ms. Buirsky’s explicit acknowledgment of the role empathy plays in our social discourse and changing attitudes was refreshingly realistic.

Rep. Scott spoke about the spirit of the times in the late 1960s and how much change there has – and has not – been since then on matters of discrimination. He said that many people misread Brown v. Board of Education as implying that equal provision in separated circumstances would be permissible; he emphasized that Brown v. Board found separation itself to be unconstitutional. He said that he thought civil rights legislation was being undermined by “faith-based” initiatives today: the government tells private business owners that they can’t discriminate in hiring employees who they’ll pay with their own money, while the government gives money to organizations who are legally allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices.

Rep. Nadler spoke movingly about how he saw a lot of the history of this country as an expansion of the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, especially expansions like including women and people of all races as “equal,” or at least trying to.

Mr. Hirschkop followed that up by saying that he found the next phrase even more important, “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Those rights, he argued, are not granted by society, they are ours at birth, and society has to learn to protect them.

Some discussion followed about how the Loving case is and isn’t a precedent for the fight for marriage equality for QUILTBAG people today. The most telling point on that front, for me, was when the film played a recording of the attorney general for Virginia in the Loving case arguing that the state needed to prevent interracial marriage to protect the children. [1]

When I hear conservatives fighting a rearguard action against marriage equality using the same arguments today, and being eloquently refuted by the children they purport to protect, I am certain, in a way I never have been before, that marriage equality will come to pass. [2]

As we left the screening, which was held in the US Capitol Visitors’ Center, the setting sun made the Supreme Court building positively seem to glow. You can’t read it in the photo, but that frieze on top of the Supreme Court building reads “Equal Justice Under Law.” May it be so!

[1] One of the justices asked him if that wasn’t similar to the argument made in Brown v. Board, and he said it was. Brown had been decided 13 years earlier, so aligning one’s position with the losing arguments in a previous case is what I believe lawyers refer to as “not a wise move.”

[2] For more on the historical changes in state and religious regulation of marriage, see Stephanie Coontz’ excellent article.

Edited for clarity and flow and to add link in endnotes.