Happy Lammas, Slaves, Now Get to Work

Lammas season[1]Northern Hemisphere has come, which means bloggers and social media users posting their photos of amber waves of grain. But there is dark side to our love of grain. It lies at the root of many evils: deforestation, environmental damage, slavery around the world, top-down imperial bureaucracies, epidemics, poor nutrition . . . pretty much everything that makes us human, right?

Located in what is now Syria, Ebla was an important city-state of the Bronze Age Middle East. [2]Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.

The photo shows 15 grinding stones — “querns” is an old medieval term. Maybe there were more. A woman knelt in front of every one. Maybe she was a palace slave — or an orphan, a foundling, or a widow with no family —someone of low status, however you look at it.

Back and forth she worked the upper stone, turning wheat into flour to make the bread. Bread for the king, bread for the royal court, bread for the temple priests and priestesses, bread for the royal guardsmen.

Archaeologists today can look at her toe bones, how they were shaped by kneeling for long hours at the grindstone.

Woman at a quern, drawing by J. Sylvia. [3]Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

This is not a blog post about the Paleo diet; in fact, before there were towns, people were harvesting wild grasses along with many other things.

There is a version of human prehistory what “most of us (I include myself here) have unreflexively inherited,” writes Yale political scientist James Scott in his recent book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In this “narrative of progress, “agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-crops, on the other hand, were the origin and generator of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.”

Doesn’t this remind you of another “narrative of progress,” in which anarchic animism and shamanism were replaced by polytheism and then by a more pure monotheism — and then by atheism, particularly if you are a Marxist.

In chapters covering domesticaion, epidemics, slavery, war, barbarian-city rellationships, environmental destruction, and the fragility of city-states, Scott draws on examples from Bronze Age Egypt, Mespotamia, China, and other areas to contend that “the standard narrative” is wrong to suggest that people chose sedentary town life voluntarily.  Yet archaeologists and historians pay more attention to the sites with stone ruins and writing than to those without, even though the early city-states represented only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s population.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the way that the study of religion focuses on large, text-oriented religious organizations and on the interplay of specialists within them rather than on the “lived religion” and the personal spiritual experiences of average people.

The “standard narrative,” Scott writes, holds that it is “nconceivable that the ‘civilized’ could ever revert to primitivism “— yet it happpened again and again. People often fled rather than be forcibly incorporated into city-states: “Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state-making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options not be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.”

Maybe being “spiritual but not religious” is like slipping past the royal guardsmen to take up a life of hunting, gathering, and easy feral agriculture once again.

Notes

Notes
1 Northern Hemisphere
2 Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.
3 Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

Animism in the Kitchen

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

I was watching the cooking show Simply Ming on Friday, which is hosted by Boston chef Ming Tsai. He always has a guest chef — or occasionally his parents, who started him on his career — and in this episode, his guest was a Chicagoan (via Texas), Sarah Grueneberg.

She is showing him how to make the pasta dough for Tortilli Verdi, “her restaurant Monteverde’s signature dish,” and at one point she says something like, “The pasta knows when you’re afraid.”

Oh no, I thought, not dough too! It’s alive in a yeasty sense, of course but it can sense your fear? Ah, the animist world —so complicated! I reckon that is why we like it.

Aidan Wachter’s “Six Ways” Shakes Up Occult Publishing

Near Llewellyn Worldwide’s corporate HQ (Google Maps).

At an office park in Woodbury, Minnesota, some publishing employees must be feeling a certain degree of nervousness.

Today I heard a podcast host say what I have been thinking from when I bought the book last year: Aidan Wachter’s Six Ways: Approaches & Entries for Practical Magic has more content in 155 or so pages[1]And an index! than a shelf-full of Llewellyn books.

I fantasize that witches, magicians, and sorcerors of all sorts[2]That’s a metaphor from the printing trade, did you know? are sweeping their shelves of books with the familiar crescent Moon on the spine and tossing them into cartons to take to the nearest used bookstore to sell or to trade for store credit. Six Ways’ success threatens the old model of printing lots of occult  books in small press runs and waiting to see if any author is the next Scott Cunningham.

And now there is another one coming. Weaving Fate: Changing the Past & Telling True Lies. The ebook is available and the paperbook is on its way.[3]I am waiting for the “real” book, since I want to write in it and make it mine.

It is Chaos magic-plus-animism, as one interviewer said, and that combination appeals to a lot of readers.

Thanks to the Internet, Wachter is communicating from his rural compound outside Albuquerque with multiple podcast listeners, plus maintaining a Six Ways Facebook page and of course a website.

One fan has already assembled a Spotify playlist of all his different podcast appearances. Self-publishing and social media: When they work, they can work big. Disruptive, even.

UPATE: Aidan himself has an even longer list of podcast appearances.

Notes

Notes
1 And an index!
2 That’s a metaphor from the printing trade, did you know?
3 I am waiting for the “real” book, since I want to write in it and make it mine.

A New Approach to “The Locals”

I wonder when this white fir was cut. The 1950s? Anyway, it seemed like a good place for offerings.

This time last year M. and I were picking mushrooms at higher elevations — and almost were trapped in a fairy portal. At least, that is what it seemed like. I might have provoked That Crowd by feeling a little too arrogant about my woodsmanship, but at least I saw the trap in time.

Admittedly, we were right up against the red zone, “extreme drought” in southern Colorado.

That event was August 6th. This year we returned to the same spot on July 29th, just to see if any mushrooms were coming up — there had been a few good rains up high — but there was nothing, edible or otherwise. It’s been a bad bad drought year, even in the high country (above 10,000 feet / 3,050 m).

But I had another purpose. Drought or not, I wanted to leave something for The Locals. The Other Crowd. Them. I did not know what protocol would work in “the mushroom grounds,” so I just brought some whiskey and a tobacco bundle, made from Nicotiana rustica that I had grown last year and dried, tied up in a scrap of old bandana.

Whiskey in a stump.

I poured some bourbon into a natural “cup” formed by the stump, and I tied the tobacco bundle to a protruding spike of wood inside the hollow stump.

We went back up there on August 6th, a year after the “portal” event. Still not a mushroom in sight. But I strolled past that stump and the tobacco bundle was gone. Flat gone. This is not an area that gets many human visitors.

The lore is that if an offering disappears, it has been accepted. Now if we could have more rain. But that is a different ritual and a different story.

Neoshaman Barbie Number 2

Neoshaman Barbie 1 with her drum.

There have never been any little girls in my house, so consequently no Barbie dolls, but they cost only about $2–$4 in the thrift stores. So I decided last year to make a neoshamanic Barbie, because I like the idea of “theme” Barbies (like “New Mexico Barbie“) and because the very thought of her reminded me of a certain author and teacher who is “widely acknowledged as a major link between the ancient world of shamanism and modern societies thirst for profound personal healing and a deeper understanding of the pathway to enlightenment.”

I made one and on a warmish day in January placed her way up behind the house in some boulders that I call Ringtail Rocks. She has her magickal assignment, she is hidden by rocks, and I will never disturb her.

Neoshaman Barbie 2 with her necklace of power and her spirit animal.

But there was one more Barbie left, so today, now that the last snow has melted and the trail is dry, she went to a different cluster of boulders with a similar assignment, along with her spirit animal.

These are part of a series of “installations” that I have started. You can tell that I was not a studio-art major, because I cannot produce 3,000 words of art-prose about what I made.

But since producing prose (and editing other people’s prose) is what I do all day, these and the other installations are just thigs that Iet bubble up, and I don’t have to produce a lot of discourse about them. I am not even completely clear on their magickal purpose

A geocacher would spot this as a “suspicious pile of rocks,” but there are no geocaches in the area either.

You can see a couple more on Instagram, because Instagram is no place for long writing.

Now I have this box of skulls and beads and wire and you know, all the usual stuff, and when the weather warms up, I have more un-formed, inchoate subconsciously directed ideas.

“Weird things in the woods” pretty well covers it.

Other Barbie-related posts:

October 29, 2003, “Barbie, the Hot Pagan Witch.”

January 26, 2005: “Inanna Descends to the Underworld (Barbie version).” The link is dead though, and the Wayback Machine did not help.

March 5, 2005, “Some Pagan Publishing Gossip.

April 27, 2006, “Pagan-Studies Barbie.”

“These Are Dangerous Books”

Dale Pendell, erudite writer of “the poison path,” author of Pharmako/Poeia, Pharmako/Gnosis, and Pharmako/Dynamis, died two years ago, but I only recently found a video of his memorial service.

I am starting this video at the 30-minute mark, because that is when Gary Snyder comes on. Quite simply, I think that most of what little wisdom I have about “nature,” the “wild,” and so on comes either from Snyder or from directions his work has given me. Read his poems, read The Practice of the Wild and The Old Ways,[1]Buy it used. and you will have it.

Gary Snyder  . . . Beat poet, Zen Buddhist-animist, not a self-proclaimed Pagan but aware of Pagan sensibilities going back to the Old TIme.

Here he reads the introduction that he wrote for Pharmako/Poeira and then gives a short biography of Pendell.

I would not be surprised if a lot of the people pushing “traditional witchcraft” poison-path stuff are not just lifting it from Pendell’s books. Because they are great.

Notes

Notes
1 Buy it used.

A Wreath for Hardscrabble Creek

Earlier this month I wrote about tossing offerings into the Cache la Pourdre River in northern Colorado, and it hit me that I had not done anything about a certain creek in the southern part of the state — a creek that has been hit hard with three summers of flash-flooding (thanks to a forest fire at its headwaters) yet which still sustains my well, among other things.

In September, the flow is just a trickle, typical for the season. So I made a little wreath. M. used to make wreaths professionally, woven from grapevines from our backyard at the Cañon City house and filled out with dried flowers. Mine was simple by contrast: a willow branch and some Liatris (blazing star) blossoms.  Yet my thanks and best wishes were sincere.

A Proposal for Honoring the Spirit of the Poudre River

I had to follow Wind over Tide, “a folk band specializing in traditional music of the British Isles and Americas with special emphasis on tales of seafaring and adventure,” which was kind of a challenge.

The evening before I was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Fort Collins (Colorado) Pagan Pride Day on August 24th, M. and I were driving around the city, buying groceries for the camping trip we planned to take after the event, and sight-seeing a little bit.

The university town where I spent some of my teenage years has tripled in size. Yes, it’s weird seeing what was ag land turned into “technology parks” alternating with chain hotels and chain restaurants. And the drive up from the Denverplex was hellish.

Biologists studying the Poudre River above Fort Collins (Colorado Parks & Wildlife).

But one thing has changed for the better — the community’s relationship with the Cache la Poudre River, which leaves the mountains nearby and flows down through the city before continuing eastward across the High Plains.

My outdoorsy friends and I went rock-climbing at Horsetooth Reservoir, backpacking in the Rawah Wilderness, etc., and hunting wherever, but we ignored the Poudre River once it came out of the canyon and was no longer considered fishable. I don’t recall anyone canoeing it or anything like that. It was just a conduit to farms and towns further east.

In Fort Collins, a sign under a bridge shows the river’s flow in cubic feet per second.

Now the river has been dignified as the Cache la Poudre National Heritage Area. In the city, the change is huge. Suddenly it is a place that people want to visit for hiking, biking, kayaking, tubing, fishing, and so on. And at its nearest, it flows along edge of the downtown area, only three or four city blocks from the park where the festivities take place.

Where College Avenue, the main north-south commercial street, crosses the Poudre River.

So as I was standing there talking about nature religion and urban animism and such things, it hit me: the Pagan Pride Day ought to end with a procession to “honor the river.” (“Honoring” sounds suitably bland and inclusive, don’t you think?) Make up some wreaths of native flowers and grasses and toss them in with appropriate invocations. And of course there would be music.

I put that suggestion into my talk. Whether anyone takes me up on it remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I should be doing something like that for Hardscrabble Creek. Devotion begins at home.

Edited to add: See what they are doing at Twin Cities Pagan Pride!

Related posts:

What is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Large-Group Ritual: Magic, Worship, or “Just What We Do”? (with procession and midsummer wreath-tossing)

Can You Put Your Paganism in the Street?

Pagan Children & the Anglican Death Spiral

Photo: The Very Reverend Jane Hedges rides the 55-foot high “helter-skelter” inside Norwich Cathedral in England.[1]While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican … Continue reading If you want a sort of objective correlative for the church’s health today, there it is, a downward spiral. (BBC)

Be patient, I am coming at this the long away around.

I was raised in the American Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, at the time. When I walked into an Anglican church in Canada or in Jamaica (where we lived for a couple of years) and picked up a prayer book, it obvious we were all in the same family, so to speak. There was an Anglican joke that referenced the church’s strength in all the former British colonies in Africa: “The Africans pray, the Americans pay, and the British make the rules.”

None of this is true anymore. In the United States, several different organizations compete for the allegiance of local Episcopal church parishes: the breakaway Anglican Church in North America,  the Anglican Church in America, the Church of Nigeria, and The Episcopal Church, the original body. And there are more. It’s very complicated and not germane at this point, except to say that the total membership of The (original) Episcopal Church is cratering.

In England, where the church was “established,” i.e., intertwined with the government as the official church of the nation, its piight is even worse, As columnist Rod Dreher (himself an Orthodox Christian) sneerlingly wrote, “Would the last Anglican left please remember to bring out the vestments? The Victoria & Albert Museum would no doubt like to preserve some evidence that there once was a thing called the Church of England.”

You can imagine his reaction to this article, in which clergy at a medieval cathedral defend their decision to (temporarily, they say) remove all the furnishings and replace them with amusement park rides and miniature golf:

The Reverend Canon Andy Bryant, from Norwich Cathedral, said he could see why people would be surprised to see the helter-skelter.

But in addition to showcasing the roof, he said it was “part of the cathedral’s mission to share the story of the Bible” and was a “creative and innovative way to do that”.

I don’t remember miniature golf (crazy golf) in the Bible, but maybe they are using a different translation.

I have two takeaways from this story.

For one, it is obvious that a lot of the Anglicans have “lost their contacts,” as the ceremonial magicians say.[2]That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain. In other words, their connection to their deity is not there anymore, there is no “juice,” and they are just trying to fill the void by social movements and entertainment.

For the second, at least within the liturgical churches there is a lot of learning for children. Not the hellfire part, but the importance of symbolic art, the transformative power of music (especially when you are doing the long chants yourself), some knowledge of sacred theater, exposure to ritual ways of dealing with birth, sickness, death, and everything else, and even a little about meditation and sacred reading.

I walked out the door myself at age 16. I was not mad at any one. No priest molested me or any of the altar boys that I knew about. I was not stewing about “adult hypocrisy” more than the average teenager might. I had just come to the conclusion that the church’s picture of the cosmos was not mine and that I could no longer accept its theology. So I spent the next five years as a “seeker” before someone showed Herself to me.

Now if I had a dollar for every Pagan who has said in my hearing “We won’t ‘push our religion’ on our children,” I could pay my fare to the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego next fall.

What I would like to say is, “If you don’t put something in that space, what are they going to fill it with?”  Digital nothings? People need forms for doing things. We need to be aware of other dimensions. I am no longer a Christian, but I do in retrospect thank the church for giving me a “vocabulary” of ritual and so forth — not the only ways of doing ritual, but at least some ways.

Of course, being Christian, all their focus was on the vertical axis — God up there, us down here. There was no significant “horizontal” engagement with the other-than-human world, aside from an occasional Blessing of the (domestic) Animals. Everything was put here for us to use, as described in Genesis. (The “stewardship” teaching is just watered-down domination.)

It delights me to see adult Pagans involving children in ritual and other “horizontal” engagements, giving them ways to think about relationships with other beings and ways to mark life’s changes. Memories made with the body and witch actions last longer than words and doctrines.

I am taking this quote from John Beckett’s blog out of context, but it fits. The topic is “sacrifice.”

Letting perfectly good food sit on an ancestor shrine was so foreign to my kids when our family began ancestor offerings. It smacked against their overculture, their appetites, their unawareness that physical objects are envelopes of intent.

If the parents are Wiccan, for example, will the kids be Wiccan? Who knows? But at least they will have a vocabulary for the sacred dimensions of life.

Miniature golf they can learn on their own.

Notes

Notes
1 While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican church — evidently the word makes them think of filmy skirts, tambourines, and sex.
2 That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain.

Getting Lost among the Mushrooms

Boletus edulis (Porcino, Steinpilze, etc.)

There are at least five stages to mushroom-hunting.

  1. You walk in the woods but do not see the mushrooms.
  2. You begin to see mushrooms here and there.
  3. Your unconscious is seeing mushrooms. For example, every reddish-tan thing on the forest floor that approximates the cap of a bolete will jump out and grab your attention.
  4. Even before you see the mushroom, you know it is right around that clump of trees — and it is. (This happens to me rarely, but it has happened)
  5. You have full bags of mushrooms in your pack or in your hands. Then you look around, and it’s “Holy Pan, how did we get to be here? And just where are we?”

That was yesterday, up in the Wet Mountains, a thick fir forest at about 11,000 feet elevation. “Let’s swing around and work back to the Jeep,” I said to M., and she was ready, so we started moving slowly up the broad ridge.

Then I looked around, and there to the north (on our left), was a steep-sided ravine that I had never seen before — any steeper and no trees could have grown on it. Where did that come from? Just where were we?

Oh, we could make it down into it, I figured, but climbing back out would be a struggle. Something was Very Wrong. I decided to move uphill and try to get above it.

“Nice job, pixies!” I said aloud.

I could see daylight ahead, so I hustled to the gentle crest of the ridge. Walking fast at that altitude mixed with just a little anxiety had my heart going thumpety-thump.

“Are we lost?” asked M.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe we are a little south of where we should be.”[1]Later, at home, she said, “I can read you like a book. You were lost.”

Far in the distance were were Sheep and Little Sheep mountains. Yes, we were too far south. We just needed to go east to cut the little dirt Forest Service road we had come up on. I got my compass, and saw that East was not precisely where I thought it was.

A few minutes on, we came to a small clearing, and looking downslope to the south, I could see a gravel road — not our road, but one that I knew intersected it. Since I had a clear view of the sky and was high up, I checked the iPhone. Sure enough, three bars.

I turned on the GPS, clicked the  Avenza Maps app, and discovered that I did not have the necessary topopgraphic map loaded. Nor had I brought a paper map. Why should I? Hadn’t we been mushroom-hunting that area since the 2000s without getting lost?

This old hollow fir trunk looked like the mask of a forest god.

But there was a good county road map loaded in the phone, the one that EMS and volunteer firefighters use for navigating mountain subdivisions. Sure enough, the blue dot was close to the road that I was looking for. We would have crossed it anyway, but the high-tech confirmation was comforting, I will admit.

We kept walking, and about half a mile later, there was the Jeep parked in the overgrown old skid road where we had left it.

I think the forest spirits have a message: “Don’t get cocky, kid. The world is a sharp as the edge of a knife.”

But wait, there is more. That night we were busy processing mushrooms, but the next evening I went to Google Earth and looked over the area. That steep ravine? I could not find it.

Google Earth is not perfect though. It used to exaggerate slopes; now it seems to flatten them. So I opened the paper USGS topographic map for that area. (Those are usually based on aerial photos.) I looked carefully. No steep-sided ravine appeared in the area where we were.

That gave me chills. That seemingly bottomless ravine did not officially exist.

Notes

Notes
1 Later, at home, she said, “I can read you like a book. You were lost.”