Imbolc 2019

Into the ice wind and snow sting, I trudge
A path to ring my neighborhood, layering
Another fine line of fortune around the land.
Your fire in my deep within leads me on,
Your song (one of so, so many) drives
The rhythm of my feet. Wearing red,
I carry Your flame; engraved above
My heart is Your sigil. I warm
To my task, returning home to light
Your candles, offer You mead and music
And a story that is litany to You.
The cold-bringing winds cannot quench
This blaze; whatever the season, You
Whisper this blessing in my words.


Faith and Mystery

A few years ago, I picked up a fascinating (and often frustrating) book called The Shark God, by Charles Montgomery- a man who discovered that his great-grandfather had been a missionary in the South Pacific, and who decided to go there to retrace some of the stories he’d heard, and seek out the magic that might remain there.  Fascinating, because of the sympathetic depiction of a pre-Christian culture struggling (sometimes more successfully than not) with Christianization and Westernization, and also because of the real spiritual mystery that Montgomery sometimes found there (including an enigmatic encounter with the titular being).  Frustrating because of the narrator’s bumptiousness and occasional insensitivity, and because of the sense of so much lost to time and missionarial depredation.

But the author also was forced to do some deep thinking about the nature of myth, faith and mystery, and (although his brain was being periodically boiled by malaria… he never once mentions taking antimalarial drugs either, the twit), he comes up with some points well worth considering:

As soon as you stand apart from myths, divorce them from faith, pick apart their function and their origins, you become like an anthropologist, like Frazer peering through his ancient texts.  You may be fascinated and amused, but you will never see ghosts, or magic, or the hand of God, because you have stepped outside the realm of faith.  People say that religious fanatics are blinded by their faith.  Evans-Pritchard asserted that there is something just as blinding in rationalism.  You must make room for mystery before you can reach for it. [p100]

He sighed.  “Look, our knowledge of truth, the truth about that which is life-giving and eternal, it exists beyond the bounds of rationalism.  Faith carries us closer, but in the end we can’t describe it.  We just don’t have words for it.  At the end of the day, we are reduced to telling stories about that mystery.  That’s what I know.”[p305]

Faith, mystery, the Gods- we must be humble if we are to approach them successfully.

Outside Time

I reread Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising every year, starting on the solstice and ending on Twelfth Night (the duration of the book).  It’s an important book to me, full of magic and wonder, and I count it as one of the influences that set me on the path to Paganism.

There’s some things in it that are even more relevant to me now than when I discovered it.  An example is this quote, from the chapter titled (of all things ) “Christmas Day”:

“Everything that matters is outside Time.  And comes from there and can go to there… the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level… all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for.”

This rings true for me, and not in just a metaphorical or archetypal sense, either.  Although we incarnate into bodies that experience time, we have an eternal part.  And the Powers exist mainly in the eternal, although they can reach into time to interact with us and the world.

Myths and the gods

The Shakespeare Theater is doing an adaption of the Oresteia (compressing it to one play of three acts) this season, and reading the notes on it in the season guide got me to musing about the nature of myth, especially in regards to the mythic portrayal of the gods. It’s fashionable these days to comb through (for example) the Greek myths and point out (with an odd combination of salacious humor and prim outrage) the “awful behavior” of Zeus.  And too much of the urban fantasy these days portrays the gods and spirits as just people with powers (if not spoiled superchildren or divine vending machines), and treats them flippantly or disrespectfully.

I think a lot of modern Western humanity’s arch snarking about the subject (and an underlying discomfort that causes it) comes from a number of modern, Western ideas:  1) that the gods and their motivations and plans are entirely knowable by and comprehensible to humanity; 2) that every situation allows us to make the right choice that leads to a good outcome or the wrong choice that leads to a bad outcome; 4) that we are capable of judging the gods and their actions as much as if not more so than vice versa; 5) that humanity is the crown of creation, the apex of evolution, and the master of its own fate…

All of these ideas are false from the polytheistic point of view.  Yes, myths can be re-interpreted (with respect), and the gods change the way they work with us as we change and are changed.  One real change about the modern era- it seems to be possible (though not for everyone) to ignore the gods… but if you choose to interact with them, and also try to hold onto any of those ideas, you’re in for a rude surprise.

Glacier Bay

We took a trip to Alaska last month, and one of the stops was Glacier Bay National Park. It was awe-inspiring and beautiful, and the spirit of the place was very evident (even to a cement head like me).  Maybe it’s because everything is so new there- I tend to think of “natural wonders” as being impossibly ancient, but the fjords of the bay formed very recently- since the peak of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s, as a matter of fact.  There was something very raw and brash and youthful about the place.

Johns Hopkins Glacier

Crack! and rumble as we face the
Wall of ice; a woman behind me
Murmurs “white thunder”, and lightning
Ices my spine. More chunks tumble
And splash as the delayed crash follows.
Hard to find a scale to size it
Until the eye, the mind grasps
That those tiny curved dark dots
Are harbor seals, five hundred pounds
Or more, hauled out on the floes
(Oblivious to the plummet of blocks
Bigger than them). Blue glow
Shimmers in the serried spikes along the
Glacier top, and all is quiet for an
Intake of breath while our ship pivots.
Then a span of the ice-face fails
Its hold, spouts and plumes at first,
Then it all merges as the wall dissolves
At one point, fountaining high before
The roll of sound reaches us. A wave
Heaves up, spreads, touches the hull,
Rocks us gently, massive, implacable,
Before passing down the bay towards the sea.


I freaked myself out a bit today.  I got pulled into an informal working meeting in my boss’s office, and afterwards I realized I’d been in an entirely different mode than usual for me (even at work)- confident, assured, completely and helpfully coherent- and entirely unselfconscious about about it.

I don’t really think of this as a mask in the sense of a falsification of my genuine personality.  It’s more a way to show a different facet of me, one appropriate to the situation and audience.

I do the same thing in ritual space, although there are many different possible facets and sometimes I need to spend extra effort in remembering when to switch from one to another.  For example, at Universal Temple of Spirits services that I attend (most of them in a given year), I’m almost always one of the people singing the opening prayers that connect the current place and time to the ongoing and permanent spiritual structure of the ritual, building the sacred space of hospitality and worship that we need.  That requires an odd split where part of me is singing prayers and names (often in other languages than English) while part of me is paying attention to the energy of the process.  During the main part of the services, I’m switching modes quite often- drumming is different than dancing and singing is different than keeping an eye out for who might be getting possessed (or is needing a little nudge either towards or away from that) is different from attending to the needs of a spirit who is riding someone is different from interacting with that spirit more directly.

I’m not always good at this.  I need to work on being less self-conscious; I need to work on better selection of what facet needs to shine at what time.  But I’m definitely getting better.

Myths changing over time

I was just thinking about the modern re-working of the Persephone myth… the one where She and Hades are actually in love and elope instead of Him abducting Her.  I’m not going to bother digging up references- it’s all over the Pagan community, and even outside it (Messner-Loebs and Keith’s Epicurus the Sage has an amusing example…).  I’ve heard a few polytheists grousing about such modernizations, claiming that they are disrespectful to the Gods involved, and constitute a “politically correct” whitewashing of the truth.

I don’t agree.  Myths are sourced in the Gods and the holy, but they were given form by human minds and human culture.  Whether you think that the Gods change or not (I have my thoughts on the matter, which I may touch on at a later date), human thinking and culture do change, and have changed quite radically since the time the Greek myths were formulated.  Marriage by capture was widely practiced in the ancient Mediterranean, but it’s no longer something considered acceptable in the cultures that formed modern Paganism.  The lens changes, the image changes – even though the source of light remains the same.

This doesn’t mean that I can go around changing myths just because they make me feel uncomfortable or unhappy.  The Gods have the last word on Their stories, and should always be consulted.  I can’t speak for practitioners of Hellenismos or other Greek reconstructionist Pagan traditions, but I know that my group has sung songs for Persephone that use the modern form of the myth- and She was pleased.

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