contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Moon Books

BOOK REVIEW: PAGAN PLANET

jhp55ddc04c930d1“For this reason I am doing what I do, working towards …. the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. Simon Wakefield is a biologist, Druid and contributor to Pagan Planet: Being, Believing and Belonging in the 21st Century. He talks about the “most profound experience of my life” when observing a nesting sea turtle on a starlit Greek beach. “Putting aside all the requirements to measure and monitor I decided just to be present, and I opened up to an experience of deep time and an ancient longing by another creature simply to be, to express its uniqueness, which has never left me”.

For me, Simon has expressed a point of unity in this diverse collection of essays edited by Nimue Brown and published by Moon Books. The authors come from a variety of Pagan traditions, though with a tilt towards Druidry. Many stand witness to a growing movement of Pagan activism, where people find themselves involved in the demanding, draining and potentially perilous work of resistance, protection and defence. The value of Simon’s words (which he attributes originally to Charles Eisenstein) is to keep an eye on the prize: “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. Beauty, of course, depends on our ability to perceive, name and cherish it. Reading the essays in Pagan Planet, I come away with a sense of this as a unifying Pagan commitment.

What moves me most, I think, is an overall sense of resilience and optimism – not so much an optimism of calculation as an optimism of the heart. In his piece about the foundation of PaganAid, Ian Chandler says: “I have heard people’s stories that make me cry, I have seen destruction that has brought me to my knees with despair. But I have also met people whose dedication against all odds fills me with awe. I have seen achievements that make me want to sing and dance in the street. Now is not the time for us to give up on the future – it is time for us to decide what we want and to make that future happen”. Edwina Hodkinson talks about the frontline herbalism of the Wild Sistas in anti-fracking protection camps. “We dispensed tinctures, teas, creams, cough syrups, health advice, general nurturing and lots of first aid. Protectors who had been injured from interaction with the police wanted treatment for badly bruised ribs and groins, sprained wrists, and grazes … people had great faith in what we did, compliance was good and the results of the herbs spectacular … I’ve come to believe that when we go out of our comfort zones and are prepared to make some kind of sacrifice for ourselves and the earth, the earth responds and works with us”. One of their successes was the ‘warrior drops’ created to deal with trauma, stress and anger on the front line. “Protectors said that these really made a difference in calming them down” and one said “it grounded him and reminded him why he was doing the protest”.

A number of the essays stand witness to the creative energy of Pagan vision and life practice at this moment in history. These include Lorna Smithers’ visionary evocation of Castle Hill, Penwortham, described as “a magical place, in spite of the damage”, whose “alternative story” has been passed on “by its spirits, by decree of the fay king”. Hearth Moon Rising says that “my vision for some time has been to ground modern witchcraft more completely and more concretely in the natural world, to create a deeper understanding of what it means to have an animistic practice”.  Other people are exploring roads less travelled, like Laura Perry in Walking the Modern Minoan Path or Calantirniel in Working with Tolkien, where part of the purpose is to integrate the “Christ energy” into a Pagan path. Irisanya from the Reclaiming tradition offers a piece on Lifestyle/Work/Relationships which is centred on overlapping considerations of gender and peer communication and the magic of knowing how to track the energy in a conversation, when to listen, when to speak up and how to be supportive of voices that are not being heard. There are a number of pieces about the family context, including supporting dependent elders and raising children. In The Teachings of Children, Romany Rivers reports that people ask her whether her spirituality affects her parenting; her view is that it’s the other way round – her parenting affects her spirituality. “I realised how one small person’s emotional state can impact an entire environment. I have learned more about Reiki from working with my children during times of pain and stress, peace and snuggles. I have discovered new reasons to meditate. I have reconnected with the power of imagination. I have found new creative expressions”. She concludes, “I believe that is my children who are Pagan, and it is they who raise me.”

There is much more. I’ve got a piece called Living Presence in a Field of Living Presence: Practicing Contemplative Druidry. I would certainly have thought of it as supporting “the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible” at the levels of perception, recognition and cherishing. But I didn’t think of it, and have only done so now as a result of reading the rest of this book: the value of community! Because of my involvement, I’m not going to review the book outside this blog or award points. I hope instead that I’ve been able to demonstrate something of its energy, diversity and commitment – and that the Modern Pagan movement from which it comes.

 

Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, Believing & Belonging in the 21st Century Moon Books, 2016

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY 2016

The next month is a busy one for contemplative Druidry. Our group in Stroud has its first meeting next Tuesday. Towards the end of January Elaine and I will be working with another local group that meets to explore sacred traditions. Then on 7 February we are running  a Dark of the Moon Workshop day retreat in London, at Treadwell’s Bookshop’s workshop space, 33 Store Street, London WC1 E7BS. Our specific intent is to  greet the dark of the moon at the time of Imbolc and the first stirrings of the Earth. The programme will include contemplative exercises, subtle energy work, silent sitting and Awen space group meditation. As with all of our public events, anyone willing to work within a Druid framework for the day is welcome.

The end of January also sees the publication of a new Moon Books anthology Pagan Planet: Being Believing and Belonging in the 21st. Century – see http://www.moon-books.net  and Nimue Brown’s presentation of the book. I have a piece in it on practising contemplative Druidry. Since I wrote it I have become even more convinced that contemplative Druidry is not a distinct form of Druidry, but rather a flavour, or way of working within it. We can create specific environments and practice frameworks that enable contemplative practice, and understand them as an option within a range of options.

More broadly, I think that the contemplative meme is now well recognised. My 2014 book Contemplative Druidry: People Practice and Potential is still finding new audiences. The Contemplative Druidry Facebook group, which I stopped administering in 2013, continues to thrive, now with a membership of over 1100. Elaine’s blog at http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com/ and the Contemplative Druid Events Facebook page have received increasing increasing attention in the last couple of months, perhaps in part due to the Contemplative Druidry article in the Samhain 2015 edition of Pagan Dawn. Other events are planned for later in the year.

I’ll continue writing about these and other developments in this blog.

BOOK REVIEW: THIS ANCIENT HEART

A good book review of This Ancient Heart, copied from A Bad Witches Blog – http://www.badwitch.co.uk

 This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self is a new compilation of essays on subjects at the core of many pagans’ spiritual beliefs – the relationship between the landscape, our ancestors and ourselves.

“Edited by Caitlín Matthews, author of dozens of books including Singing the Soul Back Home and Celtic Visions, with druid and activist Paul Davies, This Ancient Heart offers ten different perspectives on how our place of birth, the country we live in, those who have lived before us and those we share the land with now, can inspire and affect our spirituality.

“It starts with beautiful and inspiring writing from Emma Restall Orr and Philip Shallcrass (Bobcat and Greywolf) and ends with an afterword by celebrated historian Professor Ronald Hutton, author of Pagan Britain. The words of other luminaries grace the pages in between.

“Emma offers an impassioned call to respect the bones of those who have died – for them to remain buried rather than be dug up by archaeologists and put in museums. She has long campaigned for this as a founder of Honouring the Ancient Dead, and in her essay here she explains her thoughts and feelings on this subject. I know her writing is powerful because it made me question how I had thought about this in the past.

“Questioning is good. This is, overall, a book that makes you question preconceived ideas, not a book that reaffirms comfortable complacency. Professor Ronald Hutton, at the end of the book, states that some may feel aggrieved over this, ‘but they should not, if they really intend this book to have some effect on readers.’

“The essays are extremely wide-ranging in their subjects and styles. Greywolf talks about his connection with a tribe of wolf spirits – how that came about where it led him, including his own questioning of whether to eat a venison feast offered to him despite previously having been vegetarian.

“Jenny Blain looks at how the ‘spiritual ways of ‘seidr’ might give some insight to an understanding of the interaction of place and human-person, and how in turn relationships with wights [land spirits] and ancestors form part of how seidr is worked’.

“Robert J Wallis offers an evocative description of falconry on a cold winter morning and how it fits into the world-view of a heathen archaeologist.

“Caitlin Matthews, as well as co-editing the book, has written a chapter called Healing the Ancestral Communion: Pilgrimage Beyond Time and Space. This offers a practical guide to spiritually connecting with the land in which one lives and also the land of one’s birth. As Caitlin points out, these can be very different. She provided meditative and sensory exercises to heal the rift of disconnection.

“Camelia Elias offers a eulogy for a modern ancestor of tradition, Colin Murray. Throughout the 1970s and 80s Murray was responsible for the revival of all things Celtic in a way that was quite unprecedented”

“Pagans are not the only ones who find meditating on nature can be a spiritual practice. Quaker Sarah Hollingham offers examples and practical exercises in Tuning into the Landscape, that people of all spiritual paths and none could learn from.

“Science is addressed in How Genetics Unravels the Role of the Landscape in the Relationship Between Ancestors and Present by Luzie U Wingen.

“David Loxley looks at linguistics and how the way we frame sentences affects our view of the past, present and future.

“In The Heart of the Land: The Druidic Connection, Penny Billington looks at the importance of keeping balance – symmetry – between literal reality and spiritual yearning. She asks the reader to ‘imagine yourself for a moment on a hill at sunset, with the quiet buzzing of the insects invisible in the soft light.’ She continues: ‘From your vantage point you look over the dark lake to the west, where the molten streaks of light reflect in a shimmering water-path leading to you, and with the quiet stars appearing in the deep blue overhead. This momentary turning of our attention to the world of nature, even in the imaginal realm, can prompt a surprising sense of relaxation that slows our breathing and our over-busy brains’. She points out: ‘Science backs up these instincts’.

“Perhaps that is the overall message of the book; that it is good for us to feel a connection with the landscape and with those who have gone before us. Whether we follow a religion or spiritual path, or whether we are atheists, it is good to know where we are and where we come from, and spending time in the natural world can be healing.

This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self is published by Moon Books

NATURE MYSTICS REVISITED

Mary_webb“Through a gradual awakening to natural beauty, she reached a perception of beauty peculiar to herself. She began to perceive analogies. Nature became for her, not a fortuitous assemblage of pretty things, but a harmony, a poem solemn and austere. It was for her no longer a flat painting on the wall of life. Beauty breathed there, light shone there that was not of the flower or the star. A tremor, mysterious and thrilling, seemed to run with the light through all matter, through a single open blossom of the wild gean tree and through the whispering forest.”*

In an earlier post – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/7/6/ – I introduced Nature Mystics: the Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism as a new and refreshing departure in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. This book, which I highly recommended, looks at literature seen to have nourished the culture and sensibility of modern Paganism. Rebecca Beattie, the author, has dedicated it “to all those Nature Mystics who have come before and continue to inspire us to a spiritual path with their words”.

This post is about a single book that I have read since reviewing Nature Mystics and would probably not have read otherwise. This is The House in Dormer Forest by Mary Webb. Unlike the better known Precious Bane and Gone to Earth, it is set at about the time of publication (1920) or perhaps a little earlier. I don’t think of it as a brilliant novel, but it does testify to a form of nature mysticism, one that brings together external nature, human consciousness, and the divine.

Running through the book is an assumption of the interdependence of humans with each other and with the rest of the natural world. Yet there is also a balancing emphasis on the personal, inner journey of individuation. The author makes this comment on two somewhat negatively portrayed matriarchal characters: “these two had been meant for individualists. This not being allowed, they became egoists, which always happens on the principle that if you deny a child sugar it will steal from the sugar-basin. The human mind, unless it is to remain nescient, must have itself, must develop and explore itself. The more vital, the more awake it is, the more it must turn inwards. For within, deep in the tenebrous recesses of sub-consciousness, man hopes to find God. Not in churches, not in his fellows, not in nature will he find God until he has found all these things mirrored in that opaque and fathomless pool, lying within his own being of which, as yet, we know nothing.”

If the inner journey has been made possible, the experience of creation is transformed. Human relationship can flourish and the human role of witness to external nature can become a mutual gift. I was brought up with an educated aversion to ‘purple passages’ and their perceived sentimentality. Yet now, I am happy to offer this one. “So it was with Michael and Amber. Arms were stretched forth in welcome. Flute notes fell from thickets. The eyes of bird and insect, the dewy gaze of a few late flowers, peered on them with new meanings. Along by the streams the willows, clad in silver-dusted feathers, meditated like stately birds. Willows are of all trees the most mysterious. It is said that they were the first of trees that before a bird sang or a bee quested for honey the world was full of willow forests. There the wind went in spring, a visible golden wave, deeply laden with yellow pollen. There, in the glistening air, with none but their own silver tongues to break the silence, the willows waited. They waited for the insects to come to their yellow aments; for the birds to flash in and out, making low music in the dusk. But they awaited also the perception which would complete their creation. The flowers that bloom unknown for a thousand years only exist when at last one flower blossoms under a perceptive eye. For that flower the pollen was launched spring after spring, the nectar gathered, the seed rounded. So the understanding of beauty is a priesthood. Amber and Michael gave to the forest almost as much as they gathered from it as they wandered in the warm and mellow harvest weather.”

*Mary Webb The House in Dormer Forest The Echo Library: Fairford, Gloucestershire, England, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: NATURE MYSTICS

jhp54f743a60d1fbHighly recommended. Nature Mystics: the Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism is a new and refreshing departure in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. It introduces readers to some of the literature that many modern Pagans perceive to have influenced the culture of their spiritual family. It will be published at the end of this month (31 July 2015) and author Rebecca Beattie dedicates it “to all those Nature Mystics who have come before and continue to inspire us to a spiritual path with their words”.

Selection has clearly been an issue and the author has both used her own judgement and consulted with associates in a ‘Nature Mystic’ blog. Her centre of gravity is England in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and, more particularly, the opening decades of the twentieth. She has chosen five women and five men to represent a place, a time, and a suggested sensibility. There are outliers – John Keats from an earlier time and W. B. Yeats from Ireland – but Beattie shows in her introduction how they fit within the selection. The full list is: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D. H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W. B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. Each author has a dedicated chapter describing their life, work and cultural setting; exploring specific works in some depth; and discussing both their declared or implied spirituality and ways in which it may inspire modern Pagans. Each is given a remarkably thorough treatment for an introductory book that addresses a larger theme.

I grew up with some of these writers and went on to study English literature for my first degree in the final years of the 1960s. It’s been interesting for me to check back on the writers I knew and those I didn’t, at that time, as a way of checking out how the world has moved on. Four of the men – Keats, Hardy, Lawrence and Yeats – were an important part of my life; Tolkien not so much, though I had read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. E. Nesbit I knew as author of The Railway Children and connected with the Fabian Society, the intellectual voice of respectable British Socialism at the time. Thanks to Nature Mystics, I’ve enjoyed being introduced to her The Accidental Magic: or Don’t Tell All You know and The Story of the Amulet, works for children penned by the Nesbit who was involved, as I knew that Yeats was, with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I discovered Mary Webb later, when I went to live in Shropshire where she was remembered. By then I was able to read Precious Bane and Gone to Earth in Virago editions and I later found Sylvia Townsend Warner and Lolly Willows in the same way. I still see these powerful and highly relevant books through a sort of feminist ally lens, as primarily about free-spirited women in outsider positions navigating gender and sexuality in a largely hostile and uncomprehending world, and looking for oases of safety and possible flourishing. Beattie’s book adds to the picture by spelling out Pagan tinged nature mysticism as a spirituality that is congruent with this quest, and also informed by it. I have still not read anything by Elizabeth von Arnim or Mary Butts, and before getting my review copy of this book, knew of them only through their links with other people. Now I’m encouraged to look at their work.

I’ve been delighted to read a work that offers new information and a new lens. The writers concerned are a diverse and free-spirited group. I’m not entirely convinced that they either could or should be enrolled in a league of “properly proto-Pagan” Nature Mystics. It is my belief that most of them would resist the identification. Beattie herself says that Tolkien was dismayed by some of the responses to his work in his own life-time. At the same time I do see a common tendency, in this group, to find the numinous in natural settings and the spirit of place, “that sense of bliss and divine communion that is gained from time spent absorbed in the natural world” as Beattie puts it. I’m sure, too, that there will be a ready assent among many readers to the suggestion that “where Woolf said every woman needed a room of her own, von Arnim would have said every woman needed a garden”.

I will leave the last word to Thomas Hardy, in a brief passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, quoted in Nature Mystics. It is about Tess herself, and evokes a moment when a sensitive human consciousness is more fully awakened by a moment in the cycle of the day: “She knew how to hit to a hair’s breadth that moment of evening when the light and darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralise each other, leaving absolute mental liberty”.

BOOK REVIEW: PAGAN DREAMING

jhp551bfc27c579fHighly recommended. Pagan Dreaming: The Magic of Altered Consciousness, to give it its full title, is an informed and thought provoking introduction to dreams and dream work. Although tailored specifically to a Pagan-oriented audience, it will be of interest to many other people as well.

Author Nimue Brown follows her familiar path of avoiding hackneyed or formulaic approaches to the subject. Instead, she draws on a rich variety of sources including her own experience of dreaming and working with dreams to ask fruitfully open questions and invite dreamers to explore this territory for themselves. She says of herself: “I am not a scientist or psychologist. I have not trained as a counsellor or psychoanalyst. … I am simply a Druid who has always worked with dreams, and I am sharing what I have. There is no dogma here, just ideas”. Whilst being clear that she is not writing as a therapist, she does indicate that dream work can have triggering (and therefore potentially therapeutic) effects, so that people doing it may want professional support in some circumstances.

The book discusses the physical, emotional and meaning-making aspects of dreams, emphasising how dreams work differently for different people – suggesting that standard schema for interpretation are of very limited use. Everyone has their own dream language and needs first to listen in to this. Only then are they in a position to interpret their own dream symbolism and develop their own dream work. The author includes a chapter on ‘Exploring a Dream Diary’ where she shares extensively from her own, and shows how to assess and draw conclusions from the material presented by the recorded dreams. She includes “daydreaming … along the edges of sleep” within the overall umbrella of dream work, and identifies this as a significant and creative state for her.

After a chapter on ‘Dreams and Magic’ (though “not the kind of magic that leads to definite outcomes”) the book concludes with ‘Into the Wilderness’, which explores the idea of “re-wilding your sleep” – physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. She moves on to speculation about where dreams come from – products of our own minds? The universe whispering to us as we sleep? The gods of dreaming as they carry us into other-worlds? Ancestral memories? She ends by saying: “none of these explanations is any less miraculous than any of the others”. That sense of an open and affirmatively questioning stance towards the ‘miraculous’ is for me the defining feature of this book: a refreshing treatment of a fascinating topic.

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

jhp51efa580a1aafThe Earth, the Gods and the Soul: a History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers fully justifies the ambition of its title. I see it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in pagan ideas and culture – past and present. Part of the author’s  mission is to demonstrate that “a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just”.

Myers provides useful working definitions of both ‘pagan’ and ‘philosophy’, whilst also showing the complexities involved in each term. He limits ‘pagan’ to people in the nations of the west and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, whose religion is non-Abrahamic (not Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This may now be complicated by patterns of migration and the Western impact of dharmic religions, but it works well enough if you are looking for a specific pagan tradition and its origins. Modern paganism, according to Myers, is informed by three families of ideas – pantheism, neo-Platonism, and humanism: these address the “immensities”, respectively, of Earth, Gods and Soul.

‘Philosophy’, for Myers, is an intellectual discipline that seeks answers to the ultimate questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ using reason rather than the authority of dogma or an intuited divine source. He usefully lists 7 branches of this discipline: logic, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics and the history of ideas. Western philosophy’s origins are in Greece, and linked to the ‘know yourself’ injunction outside the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Myers sees this as a basic ethical demand for an honestly examined life, especially when wishing to enter the presence of a god. It leads to a wider view that self-knowledge heals, enlightens and empowers, though it may also at times judge and condemn.

The book is arranged as if musically, in an overture and six movements. The people chosen for inclusion are in many cases neither philosophers not pagans, and in many others only one of the two. But they have helped to define modern pagan ideas, culture and sensibility. Each movement covers a different historical period:

  1. A look at the old northern (‘barbarian’) world includes the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, Iceland’s Elder Edda, early writings about Druids, Irish wisdom texts and the Pelagian heresy (an early Christian heresy popular in the Celtic lands). There is no direct voice from a pagan culture in north west Europe, so Christians with half a foot in the old pagan world, or (in the case of the Druids) Greek and Roman authors are cited.
  2. A substantial collection of pagan Greek or Greek influenced philosophers from the early pre-Socratic period to the pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria. Also included are the Irish Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, and a section on the much later Italian renaissance. The people in this section, up to and including Hypatia, are both pagans (as we use that word today)and philosophers (in the ancient Greek understanding of that term).
  3. This movement is called ‘Pantheism in the Age of Reason’ and includes 18th century figures like John Toland, Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) and the Platonist and translator Thomas Taylor – as well as the more famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the nineteenth century, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
  4. A movement on pagan ‘resurgence, reinvention and rebirth’ begins with Helena Blavatsky and the launch of 19th century Theosophy, going on to include J.G. Fraser of The Golden Bough, Robert Graves of The White Goddess, George William (A.E.) Russell of A Vision and Aleister Crowley. It goes on to look at the background to Gerard Gardner’s work and the Book of Shadows, then at the appearance of American Feminist Witchcraft and also at the separate stream of Eco-Spirituality and Deep Ecology.
  5. The fifth movement comprises ‘living voices’, so Stewart Farrar and Isaac Bonewits are placed at the end of the fourth, whereas Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone appear here. So too do Starhawk, Emma Restall-Orr, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, Michael York and Gus diZerega. There is also a section on ‘the critique of monotheism’. Myers praises Emma Restall-Orr for her work on ethics, its spirit of critical inquiry and her formal use of philosophical sources.
  6. Here we find Brendan Myers’ personal commentary. He talks about a hoped-for development of a critical tradition on paganism, and the value of ‘institutions’ in maintaining such a tradition. (He acknowledges that this may go somewhat against the grain of paganism as a dissident culture). He talks about modern to paganism’s history of ‘faulty ideas’, and promotes the development of better ideas for the future.  He also celebrates the health of a ‘will to live in an enchanted world’. Myers has ‘no special teachings’ of his own. A declared pagan philosopher, he builds his personal inquiry around four questions: how shall I dwell upon the earth? How shall I converse with all people? How shall I emerge from my loneliness? How shall I face my mortality? He then goes on to discuss what these questions bring up for him.

Myers ends his book by saying: “the best music is made with humanity, integrity and wonder – everyone has instruments to hand … When I hear music I share it … when I make music I share it too … I hope that my people will celebrate with me and play along … when I make dissonant or offending sounds, I trust my people will warm me, so I can make amends … nothing more, perhaps, could be asked of anyone. And, perhaps, nothing less”.

The Earth, the Gods and the Soul is a well-informed and simply written history of pagan ideas, which tells modern pagans a lot about the shoulders we sit on. It is a great reference book. But what it did mostly for me was to get me thinking about my own relationship to philosophy and its working methods. I call my own journey a contemplative inquiry. How could I use tools from philosophy’s  toolkit to improve my own inquiry in service of a pagan critical tradition? That’s where there’s an inspiration for me – because I sense an invitation there, from a professional philosopher, to make use of this toolkit. Myers’ forward includes a reference to Clear and Present Thinking, written by him with support from a number of University colleagues for a general audience, and freely downloadable. It’s another good job, and very useful to have.

BOOK REVIEW: STALKING THE GODDESS

jhp4ec2908d688eb_9781780991733_Stalking%20The%20Goddess_72Stalking the Goddess by Mark Carter was published by Moon Books in 2012 and is a critical examination of Robert Graves’ iconic The White Goddess. Carter has done a thorough job and I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject specifically, or in modern Druid and Pagan culture more widely.  He painstakingly examines Graves’ sources of inspiration, sources of information, working methods and conclusions. He also looks at the extraordinary impact of The White Goddess over the period since its publication in 1948, especially on the growing neo-pagan community – much of it surprising to Graves himself. Stalking the Goddess (a title I have to say I don’t much care for) is of course dependent on The White Goddess for its interest and very existence, so I find I can’t talk about the one without the other.

What was Graves doing in The White Goddess that mattered so much?

Firstly, he took up suggestions from 19th and earlier 20th century literature (The Golden Bough being the single major source) about a primal religion based on sacrificial kingship. He linked it to ideas of an early political matriarchy that pre-dated human knowledge of paternity and began to weaken thereafter. In bronze and iron age times, Graves saw Europe from Bulgaria to Ireland subject to struggles and migrations in which increasingly patriarchal warrior peoples put a steadily intensifying pressure on opponents who, whilst themselves less and less likely to have matriarchal political systems, nonetheless preserved conservative features like strong Goddess traditions, matrilineal succession, and a view of the feminine as representing sovereignty over the land.  He also followed writers like Charles Leland and Margaret Murray in understanding medieval witchcraft as an underground pagan tradition in conscious struggle with the fully Romanised Christian church as aggressively representative of a wholly comprehensive expression of patriarchy in both religion and politics.

Graves also suggested that, in Celtic lands, there was a second dissident group that survived well into the medieval period and indeed beyond.  These were the Bards, descendants of the Pagan Druids, preserving their secrets within often obscure poetry based on a little known or understood set of mythic references, and a magical system of writing, the ogham (itself with early origins in South East Europe). The ogham was not just a script, it was also a hand signalling system – and had its own set of magical correspondences, of which those with a group of sacred trees were the most potent.  The Bards as poets were in service to The White Goddess of the title. Graves believed that all true poets are in such service, whether they know it or not – citing more recent poets like Keats as an example. Graves placed himself in such a line, and used the inspired technique of ‘analeptic memory’ to extend his understanding when his sources didn’t give him all the answers he needed. He wanted to show that he was up with the relevant scholarship and that he could make a logical and evidence based case. But in the last analysis he wasn’t bound by these. He was (although he didn’t use this term) one of the awenydd, the inspired ones, not a philosopher or academic.

Carter’s contribution, in Stalking the Goddess, is the rigorous application to The White Goddess and some of Graves’ other work (for example The Greek Myths and King Jesus), of a critique which is itself now quite well known. Based on more recent (though not necessarily much more recent) scholarship than that available to Graves, it tells us that neither the approach of The Golden Bough, nor the view of matriarchy and its purported link to early Goddess worship, nor its overthrow, are supported by good evidence. Especially when dealing with pre-history (history before written records) modern scholars are tentative about what we can say that we know. There’s just not enough there for a powerful unifying story, partly at least because the evidence basis just isn’t suited to providing such a story, and partly perhaps because the actual stories may be much more diverse. In the case of medieval witchcraft, the available records concerning victims don’t fit the profile of Pagan Goddess devotees. In the case of Celtic Bards, the evidence shows ogham as an exclusively Irish writing system, created for the carving of simple messages, in use for a fairly short period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It may be that it was used, in a spirit of self-conscious antiquarianism, as a largely mnemonic device for the Bards of later centuries.  In terms of Graves’ reading of key works in the Welsh tradition – the Hanes Taliesin and Cad Goddeu in particular – Carter suggests that Graves “bent them to support his views”.

I am sure that this critique is essentially correct, simply because it is based on better information than the alternatives and argued plainly. I can’t of course vouch for every detail because I haven’t done any individual work. But I do have to recognise that Graves’ own approach involves a considerable element of dogmatic intuitionism and interpretative high-handedness. For me, in a context of advocacy, the latter characteristics weaken a case rather than strengthening it.

And yet … true criticality like this, using effective and ethical working methods, is its own kind of homage. Stalking the Goddess will not, and should not, demolish The White Goddess. It will help to keep it alive and rightly so.  When T.S. Eliot decided to accept The White Goddess for publication by Faber & Faber after several rejections from other publishers, he described it as “a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book”. Yet he published it all the same. I for one am glad that he did. With that health warning from the original Faber catalogue, alerted to not taking The White Goddess entirely on its own terms, I am free to let it into my spiritual imagination. I can walk to my favourite spot at Woodchester (the old churchyard). I can stand in the avenue of yews, knowing that most of the ogham trees are in easy distance, and that Orpheus lies underground nearby, in the form of an early fourth century Romano-British mosaic. It was custom made for the villa on that site by a specialist mosaic workshop in Cirencester (Corinium) notable for its work on Orphic themes. Orpheus was from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace (once thought of as ‘Mount Haemus’). Graves thought that the ogham first came from Thrace, believing Orpheus’ dance of trees to be a “dance of letters”.  So here, now and in Woodchester is the lyricist who could charm animals, cause trees to circle dance, animate a new ship for a deep sea voyage, descend to the underworld and return, be torn to pieces by maenads and continue on as a talking head, uttering prophecies for Apollo. Rich themes for Romano-British people, perhaps also seeing resonances with their own native stories. Inspired and inspiring myth can survive any attempt to explain it, explain it away, or package it in overdetermined forms.

BOOK REVIEW: CELEBRATING PLANET EARTH A PAGAN/CHRISTIAN CONVERSATION

61CwdX9mE3L__AA160_Highly recommended and available for pre-order via Amazon.  This blog is an enthusiastic early alert concerning Celebrating Planet Earth, edited by Denise Cush The book comes out of a weekend ‘conversation’ held at the Ammerdown Centre near Radstock, Somerset, England, from 31 January-2 February. Originally devised as a Druid/Christian event, it was widened to include other Pagans and was intended to generate “dialogue, reconciliation and renewal”. The hope was that the participants could explore their prejudices and preconceptions, learn more about each other, and find common ground in ‘Celebrating Planet Earth’, as the event was called. The book’s contributors were all involved in the conversation.

The book is aimed at Pagans and Christians interested in making connections; academics and undergraduate students in Study of Religions taking courses on inter-faith dialogue, Paganism and Christianity; and anyone with an interest in inter-faith activities. Some of the contributors are academics in the field, but as well as academic input, there is a practical emphasis on personal spirituality and ritual practice.

I’m part of the core audience. Whereas I experience the spiritual path as ultimately beyond names and forms, I stand in the world as a Pagan Druid. I had a Christian upbringing and in recent years I have learned from the Buddhist tradition, as well as Christian-based movements such as Sophian Gnosticism and the Ceile De. All of these have supported me in my own practice and in my personal concern with developing a stronger contemplative current within Druidry. So I’m at ease with what Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), calls “fusion paths” in his chapter in this book.

From where I stand the ‘Celebrating Planet Earth’ more than meets its aims. It’s a feast. I felt that each contributor had thoroughly earned their place in it. It is divided into three parts, before moving on to editor’s reflections and conclusions. I want to say something about one chapter that spoke to me particularly strongly from each of the parts, as the best way in a short space of honouring the collection as a whole.

The first part is about ‘Addressing Our Fears and Prejudices’ and for this I pick out Graham Harvey’s chapter, ‘Fears and prejudices: a Pagan view’. For me, he has a very helpful analysis of what the task is and how to accomplish it. He makes it clear that “not everyone thinks alike” or should be expected to and that diversity has room for healthy opposition – properly handled, this can be a real gift. He makes the subtle point that the negotiation of difference is not just about fear and prejudice. It is also about avoiding the presupposition that “others are like us but not quite … that other people mean what we would mean when we say or do things”. Hence we need a refined quality of listening to avoid “talking past each other”.  On the question of fear and prejudice specifically, he suggests that the two things to remember are that we should indeed “resist and challenge the small visions and petty fantasies that are imposed on others” and that “when we talk about what people do, rather than what systems are alleged to do, we will keep diversity in clear view”. He usefully writes down polarised lists of what ‘Christians’ and ‘Pagans’ are contrastingly stereotyped as standing for – and invites us to make a reality check on the items in the list. It’s a very useful way of opening the reader up to the actual experiences of individuals and groups in later chapters.

The second part is about ‘Possibilities for Co-operation’ and for this I pick out Tess Ward’s chapter, ‘Better together: transformation through encounter’. Early in her life as an ordained priest, Tess Ward went into her own version of Dante’s ‘dark wood’, a wilderness in which she needed to die to one life so as to be born into another. She lost her existing theological frameworks and says of that time: “in that wilderness, what sustained me was not theology, but poetry, silence and nature”. Without leaving her Church, she found pointers in Buddhist ideas (Anthony Gormley, Pema Chodron), Earth paths and feminist spirituality. She quotes Carol Christ as saying: “awakening suggests that the self needs to notice what is already there … the ability to know is within the self, once the sleeping draft is refused … for women, awakening is not so much a giving up as a gaining … a grounding of selfhood … rather than a surrender of self”. She also quotes Kenneth White’s poem ‘Labrador’ – “I was loathe to name it too soon – simply content to use my senses – feeling my way – step by step – into the new reality”. As, renewed, she moves back into the world and her role, she knows that interventions in the world only have value when they come from personal experience. She shares with Matthew Fox the view that the result of such a crisis is not to abandon one’s own tradition “but to demand more of it”. She now leads celebrations of the Celtic Wheel of the Year as an affirmation of her transmutation of faith within a Christian framework. Partly this is an enhanced appreciation of being grounded in the natural world and its cycles. Partly it is an appreciation of the place that resources outside her traditional faith have had in deepening her journey.

The third part is about ‘The role of ritual practice, myth, music and for poetry in each tradition and in inter-faith encounter’. For this I pick out Alison Eve-Cudby’s chapter: ‘Woven together: can Christians and Pagans engage in shared ritual?’ The author has a leading role in the Ancient Arden Forest Church in a burgeoning movement of Forest Churches. She describes this movement as “a small and growing number of Christians responding to the Call of the Earth”. Ancient Arden has an emphasis on ritual and her formal answer to the question she poses is a carefully contextualised ‘yes’. She says: “if we take earth celebration, care and connection as our basis for doing ritual together, to contribute towards re-enchanting the land in this time of ecological crisis then I think that shared ritual is possible”. She offers a fresh and energised discussion of ritual and its purpose. She describes ritual as an embodied event, and a process of framing in which dramaturgy, rather than theology, is the organising principle. Whereas logocentric approaches assume that the symbolic system expressed in ritual must be coherent, performance as an unfolding event lays out symbols in a way that reveals their inconsistencies and contradictions. The work therefore involves negotiating and holding these within the ritual container. We fashion rituals that enable liveable, regenerated worlds. Ritual is a transformative process, “the pattern of actions is designed to synchronise the awareness of the different participants – human, non-human and other than human”.

The book’s conclusions suggest that meeting itself was of great benefit, and make it clear that the people involved want to continue their work in some way (topic based subgroups are mentioned). I would simply add that this book is a gift to us all, and that I am grateful for it.

CALLING PAGAN BLOGGERS

Nimue Brown’s Pagan Bloggers – for those interested in book reviewing.

Druid Life

I know a lot of you who read and comment here have blogs – I see the links for the wordpress ones whenever you interact with my stuff. (WordPress would like me to stalk all of you.) Others of you are places wordpress prefers to pretend don’t exist, on tumblr and blogspot and the such. And if you aren’t a blogger, I’m prepared to bet you have friends who are, or blogs you like, so, no slinking off just yet, this could still be relevant!

As you may be aware, one of the things I do is write Pagan books for www.moon-books.net . Last year I started looking after the blog http://moon-books.net/blogs/moonbooks/ (and if you have community related content then talk to me, if I can use that space to support the Pagan community, I will). In the last couple of weeks, I also took on doing book promotion for…

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