Belief, American Gods and Me

Neil Gaiman starts out his novel American Gods with a “Caveat, and Warning for Travelers” which ends with: “Furthermore, it goes without saying that all the people, living, dead and otherwise, in this story are fictional or used in a fictional context.Only the Gods are real”.

When you read his introduction for the tenth anniversary edition, he talks about how he had just moved to America and wanted to write a novel that captured all the parts of America that he found fascinating, most of which are never seen on film. He traveled while he was writing the novel and explored the back roads and the places he thought his main character Shadow would go.

He follows his “Caveat” with an epigraph:

One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykolakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When once I asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.

-Richard Dorson, “A Theory for American Folklore,”
American Folklore and the Historian
(University of Chicago Press, 1971)

Whenever we open ritual in my tradition, we start by welcoming “the spirits of this land,” even though I don’t know these spirits and I will be calling on the Gods and element that I work with, its always important to acknowledge the fact that I am doing ritual in a place where I don’t necessarily belong. It would be rude of me as a priestess to forget that the religion I practice does not belong to this particular place. My Gods are mostly British and Celtic, they certainly did not originate in the swamps of southern Louisiana and one always has to assume that they may not interact with the spirits here very well. After all, my Gods don’t belong here. American Gods touches on the very heart of this topic. I’ve always founds American Gods to be more than an exploration of America. Gaiman pulls apart religion and the idea of belief and places it in a modern context that I think we rarely get the pleasure of seeing put down in words. American Gods is not an easy read, just as America is not always an easy place to understand, but it’s a novel where I find something new and wonderful every time I pick it up.

In the last year, I’ve had to examine my own thoughts and ideas about belief in a very different way than ever before. As my community failed me entirely in the midst of one of the most horrendous personal situations you can imagine, I’ve had to really examine both my practice and place in the Craft.

I have been very grateful to find that through everything I’ve been confronted with and continue to be confronted with, my belief has remained one of the few strong pillars of my life. My community, my tradition, my friends, my acquaintances may have failed me, but the Gods never left me.

Whenever someone new approaches me about Wicca and the tradition I practice, I break down the practice and the training process, explain what we do and that the point of functioning within a tradition is all about teaching. I often get asked “but yeah, what are you actually doing in ritual?”. It’s at this point that I tell them that perhaps like or unlike many other traditions or practices, the main role of my ritual is worship. I worship deity while in Circle. I may do magic, I may create spells, but at the end of the day, ritual for me is about worship. When I train students, it is to train them as priests and priestesses who are in service to the Gods. I always tell them that I can teach them everything except belief. If you don’t believe in the Gods then there is nothing I can do to help you learn that and we are not the place for you.

You either believe or you don’t.

Belief is a tricky thing. Recently, a friend of mine who has been exploring Wicca, was confronted by her father about her exploration of Wicca and the insanity of believing in anything Wicca teaches. He used a blog I wrote about the service of invocation to browbeat her about how horrible religion is and how he assumed that drugs were involved. (It’s sort of hysterically funny, whatever else might be said about my household, we are a sober household. We may be monsters, but we’ll eat you while daintily sipping iced tea).

From the outside, invocation might look pretty outlandish. I could also sit here and draw parallels to the practices in many other religions that are similar to invocation or I could talk about it as a rational exploration of a deep meditative state that allows you to examine your innermost subconscious. But at the end of the day, for me, I believe that when I invoke Goddess, she is the one speaking through me.

Religion can be a terrible thing. So can belief. I left a religion that I felt was abusive and controlling. I get where my friend’s father was coming from and why he is worried. As Pagans, most of us who are out have probably had to confront family members about our belief at one point or another. My own father used to ask me about who would I be calling on when I was in the metaphorical foxhole. Jesus or my Gods? Believing that my belief couldn’t possibly hold up in a horrible situation. I can quite honestly say at this point that my faith did not fail me and as I’ve found myself in this metaphorical foxhole this year, my Gods have stayed with me throughout.

I think one of the important parts of my service to the gods as a Wiccan Priestess who is “out of the broom closet” is the ability to talk openly about being Wiccan. I am not some learned Elder who knows a lot, but I do think that being able to speak openly about Paganism is an important service to the Craft. If I can vocalize an issue as a student walking this path that someone else can’t openly ask about, then I think I have helped. I have the ability to speak and I think that therefore it is my duty to do so. I can question, discuss, and examine this somewhat crazy seeming practice that I am a part of. I am not afraid that my family will find out, they already know. My coworkers are aware that I’m a witch. My neighbors have seen me walking about in my robe and have probably heard the chanting coming from our temple room. In this, I think part of my service is to speak.

In the past I have always had something to say. Whether you agree with me or not may be another matter entirely. This past year, I have lost the words. Someone very dear to me has been held up as an example of everything horrible and wrong in the Pagan community, and I have been called a monster for knowing the actual situation and continuing to believe in him.

So, in order to try to get back into writing about the things I find important, I am going to start rereading American Gods and picking apart all the things that stand out to me throughout. I am not going to say that I will do so many chapters a month or set a schedule, I am just going to write about it as it pleases me and hope that it helps me to get going again. Life does have an unfortunate habit of continuing, even when we wish it wouldn’t, and after a certain point, there is only so much you can do. The beautiful thing about a blog is that no one other than the writer ever actually has to read it. And besides, as much as many may want it, I am not done yet.

“Hey,” said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
“Say ‘Nevermore,'” said Shadow.
“Fuck you,” said the raven.”
~ Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Photo taken by me while visiting the Painted Desert. Copyright Lauren DeVoe

Photo taken by me while visiting the Painted Desert. Copyright Lauren DeVoe

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Inclusion and Selectivity in the Pagan Community

Alright, I’m about to express an extremely un-popular opinion.

Last night I was reading through old posts. I had gotten a new comment on my blog “Pagans and the Modesty Issue“. Between that and my blog “Gender Respect in the Pagan Community“, there was a lot of controversy and I still attract a lot of readers to my blog with these two posts. Between the Pagan Soccer Mom and Star Foster posting about it on their FB pages (and where has Star Foster gone to these days? She seems to have disappeared off the face of the planet), people either loved what I had to say or hated me and called me the worst person ever (I’m paraphrasing here, but you can imagine some of the things that were said).

I occasionally go back to these posts myself to remind myself that I did actually say what I wanted to say and didn’t sound completely irrational (at least from my own point of view). Blogging, and really, any sort of public writing or speaking, takes a certain degree of courage, especially in today’s Internet world of instant access. Anything you say and do can be taken a thousand different ways by a thousand different people, especially when what you express goes against the popular opinion.

This is something that our younger generations, unlike ours, are faced with. When I was in high school, if I got myself into something that I shouldn’t, we didn’t have Facebook to broadcast it all over the world and to ruin our lives forever. We had MySpace, and we were in the beginnings of this world of social networking on the internet and on cell phones. But we were nowhere close to what we’ve got today. While our children deal with this and feel its affects us in every aspect of their lives, it is also a reality that impacts the Pagan community.

One of the comments that I had gotten on my blog “Pagans and the Modesty Issue” was, “Modern Paganism needs to be inclusive, so this needs to be a non-issue, separate from the dialog about sex and patriarchy”. This is a sentiment that I’ve seen a lot of lately.

I disagree.

Most Pagan traditions, if you’re following an actual tradition, are mystery traditions. (And yes, this has been a kick that I’ve been on a lot lately, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’m beginning to approach my own initiation). Mystery traditions are inherently not “inclusive”. That’s sort of the whole point.

Modern Neo-Pagan Eclecticism has changed the face of Paganism. That’s not a good or bad thing, it’s more of an inevitable thing. I started out as an Eclectic and I’ve found my way to Wicca (the exact opposite of what most people that I know have done), so maybe I’ve had to approach thinking about it a little differently than most.

Inclusion is a politically correct term these days. And in most ways, I think it’s a good one. Theoretically, having rules about inclusion mean that employers can’t discriminate because of race and sexuality, that witches can’t be burnt at the stake because the Muggles freaked out over something ridiculous, and so on and so forth. And in the larger overall community, Hel’s yes we should be inclusive!

But I think it takes on a different character in the Pagan community. Rather than the idea of inclusion, Paganism has one of selectivity.

In the Pagan community, we’ve seen a lot of upset lately at Pantheacon over the whole Z Budapest controversy and once again, we, as a community are having to redefine the idea of inclusion. Apparently twenty years ago the controversy was over homosexuality and it’s place in ritual. We got the Minoan Brotherhood and Sisterhood out of this controversy.  Now we’re having to redefine our old-fashioned ideas of gender and the potentials that define people in an era where technology can actually create the you you wish to be. Some of the outcome of this is simply a dialogue addressing old ideas that don’t fit with the modern worldview, and this is healthy and good.

But when it comes to our mystery traditions, inclusion is slightly different. I don’t care about your race or sexuality or anything like that, but I am practicing a particular religion that moves along its own realities. If you don’t want to put in the hard work of living and learning these realities, this is not the path for you. This is a path that requires hard work. If you aren’t going to put your nose to the grindstone and do the work, I’m not going to include you. Traditions have a set way of approaching the Gods; if you don’t want to follow that particular path, that codified way, you’re asking not to be included. This is of course one of the huge differences between Eclecticism and an initiatory path.

I know, I know, this makes me a hateful, terrible person.

But really, this is true in most religion. God A says I need this, this and this for my particular worship and in return I’ll ensure that, that and that. God B says, well you need to do it this way to approach me and so on and so forth. One of the things we do in practicing a particular religion is learning how our Gods wished to be worshiped and then how to take it to the next level in our personal relationships to them.

My S.O. wrote a blog called Talking the Christo-Pagan Blues where he addresses this idea. His point is that people aren’t letting go of their old religions when they become Pagan and this is hurtful to our community. (And if I thought I was hated for my modesty posts, he was completely vilified for his viewpoints in this particular blog). His main point was that it’s disrespectful to completely ignore the way a particular God has asked to be approached and worshiped. Christ is a good example of this; people want to make Christ into something he isn’t. He was not a Shaman, he was a Rabbi. Want to worship Christ? Go to a Christian Church and do so in the proscribed way. This also goes back to the idea that words do have actual definitions and we can’t make them simply mean what we want them to mean, just because it isn’t convenient. Doesn’t work? Fine, there’s probably another word out there that does work, go find it and use it. Otherwise, why have language at all? To refer to the Bible, you just have babble.

And this isn’t about making our community more insular; it’s about getting people to understand that guidelines exist within our community: if you wish to enter our community, do so because these guidelines are meaningful to you. It is simply disrespectful to enter an existing community, and then attempt to tear it down because its tenets are not meaningful to you!

The Pagan community today really likes this idea of inclusion, and to a certain extent that’s fine, as long as you’re extremely respectful about what you’re doing. But that’s the problem, most people don’t take respect into consideration, and when they say they’re going to worship Kali and Aphrodite together, they don’t seem to want to take into consideration the cultural contexts they might be addressing; the fact that Kali and Aphrodite might have no interest in being worshiped together. (Maybe they do, did you take the time to actually ask? What are you going to do if you suddenly have two extremely angry Goddesses in your Circle?)

Just because we are a modern take on an old religion, doesn’t mean that we can toss all of the rules out the window. And yes, rules do exist.

So when you say that you’re a Buddhist Wiccan Voudon with Hindi leanings, are you actually thinking about what you’re doing? Are you actually taking the time to learn the rules before you break them? What’s the point of following a path when you don’t take the time to actually learn about the path you think you’re on? Isn’t there a certain level of hubris inherent in that way of thinking? Or do we, as a community, no longer care about the Gods we’re worshiping?

If we, as a community, don’t start thinking about what we’re doing, there will be major consequences down the road. Sort of that old saying that my mama always like to throw at me, “you made your bed and now you get to lie in it”.

Paganism really isn’t a path for lazy people. It’s a proactive religion. We don’t just go to church on Sunday and listen to someone preach at us. We go and participate in rituals and we practice magic. This is not the course for the faint of heart. Our actions have consequences in the real world. We are putting energy out in hopes of changing the universe. Shouldn’t we take the time to learn about what we’re doing before we actually attempt to do it? Why aren’t we thinking beyond what is “easy” for us to do?

Paganism is not the catch-all path that so many want to make it; perhaps we don’t include everyone, and perhaps this is not a terrible thing.