What We Need from Pagan Clergy

One of the recurring debates that comes up in pagan blogs and forums is the question of pagan clergy. Do we even need a distinction between clergy and laypeople, and if so, what would their roles be?

Well, I’m a layperson who really wishes there were some good pagan clergy available, but what are clergy for anyway? Why can’t we all be our own priests and priestesses? One common thing I see is that the distinction between clergy and laypeople is that clergy can “hear the gods” and laypeople can’t.

Personally, I think the distinction between mystics and everyone else is on a completely different axis than the distinction between clergy and laypeople. There are plenty of people who have mystical experiences who I wouldn’t consider to be clergy (like myself for example), and you can probably be a good priest without ever having mystical experiences (though they might help).

I know this is sometimes used as a slur, but you know what I think we primarily need good pagan priests for? Marrying and burying!

Yes, there are other things for priests to do, but those two rites are really, really important rites of passage that don’t occur in a person’s life very often, and when they do happen, it’s especially important to “get it right.” That’s where we laypeople really need a professional with a lot of experience handling these sorts of things. These rites are so important, such a primal need, that many atheists still have weddings and funerals.

And so far in my life, the pagan community has completely failed me in this regard. For example, when my husband and I got married, we got a liberal Christian minister to officiate even though neither of us are Christians and it wasn’t a Christian wedding. Why? Because of all the people we knew, he seemed to be the best man for the job, and that had nothing to do with which deity he worships.

Oh, when the local pagans found out that we were getting married, I had plenty of offers from people who wanted to officiate. But leading a ritual is a skill. It’s hard work to get it right. And frankly, I have been to some of the rituals some of these other self-proclaimed “priests” and “priestesses” have led, and they really weren’t very good. But I’d been to another wedding this Christian minister officated, and it was excellent, so I was confident he knew how to run a good ritual. His church is welcoming to GLBT folks, they believe in “creation spirituality” (not Creationism, but a type of nature-based Christianity), and the local ADF grove sometimes uses his church to hold events.

We wanted something that looked like a proper wedding, even if it wasn’t going to be Christian. We would have pagan guests there, but also Unitarian Universalists, atheists, and Christians. We needed something that would be pagan enough to stay true to ourselves, but not so strange as to freak out my husband’s elderly aunt. When we went to meet with the minister, he knew exactly what we meant! He seemed excited to be doing a wedding that wasn’t in a typical Protestant Christian style, and pulled out a notebook he had with scripts from lots of previous weddings he’d performed, including ones with pagan elements. We spent a couple of hours with him planning how we wanted the ritual to go, and it was the least stressful part of the whole wedding planning experience.

And that’s because he’s good at his job! He’s done non-traditional weddings before, he understood all of our concerns, and he understood what his role was in all this. He said when he performs rituals like this, he sees himself as ferryman steering the boat to the spirit world, while we’re the passengers. His job is to get us to our destination safely and back again, but he’s not the focus of the ritual, just the one who steers the boat.

This is something a lot of self-proclaimed “pagan clergy” DO NOT understand. When you lead a ritual, it’s not about you. If it’s a wedding, it’s about the people getting married. If it’s a funeral, it’s about the deceased and the mourners. If it’s a ritual in honor of a god, it’s about the god and the people trying to get in touch with the god’s presence. I actually can’t think of any type of ritual where the priest would be the center of attention rather than a guide.

But I’ve been to plenty of pagan rituals where it did seem to be mostly about the priest or priestess showing off how great they are. Months after my wedding, when the subject of gay marriage came up on Facebook, and people started saying things about how they don’t understand why it’s such a big deal since it’s just a legal contract, I found myself commenting about how important I think the marriage rite is, and how there’s a lot more to it than just signing a contract. Then this “high priestess” asked me, “If you think marriage is so important and meaningful, why did you have a Christian perform yours when neither of you are Christians?” I’m not sure what exactly she was getting at, but she was one of the people who offered to officiate, and I turned her down, so maybe she was still offended. My husband ended up jumping in saying we chose him because we already knew him, and since it was so important we wanted to make sure we chose someone who would do a good job.

I know this “high priestess”, and I know that she writes these posts on her blog about what a big deal it is that she’s a High Priestess. I remember when she was over at my house last, and I showed her the ritual area we had set up in our backyard. She said, “Let me know if you ever want me to do a ritual for you here.” At first I didn’t quite get what she was saying, and said, “Well, if I do a ritual here, I will invite you,” and she said, “Yes, if you want me to do a ritual here for you, just let me know.”

It was one of those moments where hours later I realize what she meant when she was already gone and it was too late to reply. She was implying that I needed to call her in order to have a ritual here, so she can lead it. As if I am incapable of leading my own ritual here in the ritual area that my husband and I built ourselves, because I’m not a “priestess.” The nerve!

You don’t need to be a priestess to perform the sorts of rituals I do in my backyard, and when I do have an occasion where I think I need professional help, I wouldn’t call someone like her anyway.

When I got married, I didn’t want a ritual where people would show up in jeans and t-shirts, or topless, or in sarongs and bare feet, and I didn’t want the person leading the ritual to be reading off sheets of paper. Yes, our wedding had a couple of small mishaps, but the minister was skilled enough to not let those completely throw the whole thing off. And since a wedding is an important occasion, yes I requested that people dress nicely and not act like slobs, which made it a lot different than a lot of pagan rituals I’ve been to.

To me, marriage is more than just a legal contract. When you marry someone, you are entangling your thread of Wyrd with theirs. That’s why I liked doing the handfasting ritual where our arms were literally tied together with different colored chords (each chord represented one of our vows). Yes, there is a legal contract involved, but since I am a religious person, there is a spiritual component as well. We invoked the spirits of nature (it was an outdoor wedding) and the Ancestors (since weddings are important to them since we’re combining our family lines together), but didn’t name any specific gods. I figured ancestors and nature spirits were generic enough to not offend the Christians present (it’s not like there were any fundies, just some older, more traditional folks) while still keeping true to my own beliefs.

My husband and I both came away from our wedding very satisfied that we got a good ritual to mark such an important spiritual binding, and everything was done properly.

Contrast that with when my dad died. He didn’t get a funeral. He died in a hospice and was cremated immediately. His ashes were divided in thirds, and his brother got some, I got some, and my sister got some. He wanted to be scattered on Pikes Peak, but there was so much family turmoil after he died, that we certainly won’t do that all together like he suggested. I still have my portion, and am still planning to fulfill his request. I’m just not sure when I’ll get the chance. Maybe I can do it on the anniversary of his death.

But it still seems wrong to me that there was no funeral. I know that’s what he requested, but I still feel like something is missing. I felt like I need a ritual to mark something this important. Ideally there would be priests or shamans to perform some sort of funeral rite. Funeral rites are found in all cultures. You need something that not only helps the soul of the deceased get to the afterlife safely, but also allows the mourners to express how important this person was to them, and to honor their memory.

It felt like as soon as my dad died, he was more or less “disposed of” and it was time to move on with our lives right away, get that paperwork done, sign that death certificate, work out the will and split up the inheritance, pick up his ashes in a Ziplock bag in a cardboard box with his name printed on top.

Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I still feel like something’s missing. My mother-in-law kindly bought us a tree to plant in our yard by our ritual circle and sprinkle some of his ashes in the hole, which we did on Father’s Day. In my previous post I already talked about the Samhain ritual I did a couple of weeks ago to honor him.

But here’s the problem with that. In both those occasions, I basically had to be my own priestess. And that’s hard to do when you’re the one who’s so emotionally wrapped up in the occasion the ritual is for.

Doing your own devotions to your patron deities and spirits isn’t that difficult. Neither is doing your own seasonal holiday celebrations for Yule or Midsummer. But if you’re the one getting married, or you’re mourning the death of a person close to you, it’s hard to do those rituals all by yourself without help. It’s like trying to perform surgery on yourself. It’s easy to perform simple first aid on yourself, but if you need surgery, you want someone else to help, preferably a professional.

But I basically had to perform the rites all by myself. I’ve led rituals before, and I learned really quickly that when you’re leading a ritual, you really can’t get that emotionally involved in it yourself. You’re too busy making sure everyone else is OK. If you’re the one steering the boat, you have to concentrate on that, while everyone else gets to have the profound spiritual experiences.

So I’m left feeling like my dad didn’t get a proper sendoff. I was too upset about his death to do it properly myself, so nothing got done, because like with so many pagan things in my life lately, if I don’t do it, no one will.

I’ve seen self-proclaimed pagan priests say they don’t serve people, they serve the gods. A lot of them seem to not really like people at all. Well, I don’t like people either, but I think that withdrawing from humans and focusing all your attention on communing with your deity isn’t actually being a priest. It’s more like being a monk or nun. And the monastic life is perfectly fine if that’s your calling, but being a priest is about serving humans AND the gods by helping humans connect with the spirit world. And that requires priests to be compassionate and trustworthy individuals who are really good with people.

We need more people we can trust to steer the boat while we’re too emotionally caught up in the journey to steer it ourselves. We need someone to safely get us to the other side and home again without crashing or capsizing us or getting us lost.

Paganism needs more people who are good at marrying and burying, and other rites of passage, so that I don’t have to call on a Christian to do it or it doesn’t get done. And yes, priests can be handy to celebrate seasonal holidays and do divination and oracular work, but that seems to already be fairly commonplace with pagans (though with varying levels of competence). I mean, I’ve done seasonal rituals and done rune readings for people myself, with quite satisfying results. That stuff is pretty entry-level as priestly functions go. If you mess up Yule, there’s always next Yule, but your dad only dies once.

We need priests who can take care of people’s spiritual needs when they’re getting married (a very stressful time, even if it is a happy occasion) or have had a death in the family, or are seriously ill, or having a baby, or in some other type of crisis. So called “priests” who hate people and only serve the gods can’t do that.

Being clergy is a job that requires skill and practice and experience. I just wish pagans had more people like that, instead of all these people calling themselves a “High Priestess” to mainly make themselves sound important, or people who blog about spending all their time with the gods while shunning humans. Because when something really important and life-changing is happening to you, those are not the kind of people you want to call for spiritual support.

How Samhain Went

October is over, and now we really enter the dark part of the year. All the activities for Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead are done, and I can reflect on how it all went. Samhain is the biggest holiday for Celtic and Celtic-inspired pagans, and since most pagans I know fall into that category, I participate (even though Yule is really the most important Heathen holiday). But more importantly, I think having a holiday to honor the Dead is a really good idea, especially this year, the year my father died.

This year’s Samhain season had its ups and downs, and unfortunately I’m left with some feelings of disappointment. Maybe it’s because this year’s Samhain was especially important to me, so I had a lot of anticipation.

I’m mentioned here before that I attend this semiannual pagan campout held for Beltane and Samhain each year. It’s a splinter group from a much larger pagan festival here in Central Texas, but I wasn’t involved in the schism. I’ve mainly been going to this one because it’s cheaper, quieter, and smaller than the big festival (which I have also been to a few times), and therefore usually more suitable to an introvert like me. This has been going on for a little over ten years now.

When this campout first started, there were a lot of activities, probably because people were trying to recreate the big festival. During the day there were crafts and workshops, and every night there was a bonfire. On some Beltanes there were unofficial handfastings, or at least re-dedication rituals for couples, but my favorite was always the Samhain ritual.

Some of the founding members would dress up as various death gods, and the rest of us would walk down a trail through the woods to the big pavilion, encountering the death gods along the way. At each step, one of them would have something to say to us. There was Odin, then Anubis, and finally when we got to the pavilion, we were welcomed to the Underworld by Hades and Persephone.

Then we’d partake in the Dumb Feast. People would bring dishes that reminded them of their Beloved Dead. An altar was set up with pictures of the deceased (including pets), and we’d say a few words about our loved ones, and then eat in silence. There was a small wooden coffin with pens and paper to write messages on. Then when people were done eating, the coffin was closed, and then carried in a procession to a funeral pyre set up in the main fire ring. Then it was burned, and we’d stand around in silence or say some more words about our loved ones. When the coffin was finally completely consumed by the flames, the rite was over, and we could relax and pull out the drums and have fun the rest of the night.

That’s how it used to be. Over the years, the ritual has shrunk. The woman who used to play Persephone moved away. She was one of my college friends, and when she graduated, she moved to Portland. When she left, the man who played Hades said he wouldn’t be doing it anymore without her, and that was the end of that aspect of the ritual. The man who played Anubis now acted as priest over the Dumb Feast along with his wife. They’d do a Wiccan ritual under the pavilion as priest and priestess calling the quarters and the Goddess and God. Not my style of ritual, but at least it was a ritual.

Then the priestess got breast cancer, and last year her picture was on the altar for the dead. I had actually set up that altar myself and put a picture of our cat on it, and later when I passed by I noticed someone had added her picture. We had a dumb feast without much ritual to go with it, but when we burned the coffin, the man who used to be Anubis had a lot to say about his departed wife.

I hoped that would show people how important Samhain is. Now for the first time one of our own was on the altar. One day each one of us will die too. Don’t we also want to be remembered in a Samhain ritual after we’ve passed?

But at the beginning of this October, what I always feared happened. A post by one of the people who organize the campout appeared on the Facebook page, saying to let her know if anyone wants to do this coffin ritual this year, but otherwise they’re not going to bother with it. The guy who usually builds the coffin said he could build one if anyone really wants it, but someone else would need to take care of all the rest.

I commented on the post in a panic saying yes please build the coffin because my dad just died and I’ll take care of all the rest of the ritual. I was freaked out and upset until he finally replied saying that would be no problem.

And now I had committed to running this year’s Samhain ritual myself, because if I didn’t do it, no one would. The campout was the weekend before Halloween weekend, so it wouldn’t conflict with any at-home Halloween activities people had. That didn’t leave me much time to prepare.

I had already decided what I would make for Dad for the Dumb Feast. When I went to visit him in January, he made me some salmon. Dad loved cooking, and would sit and watch the Food Network all day, even when he was too sick to eat anything. He sat with me while I ate my salmon, and he drank his Ensure and talked about how much he’s looking forward to beating the cancer so he could eat solid food again. He was about to go into surgery to get the damaged part of his esophagus removed. He had gotten radiation and chemotherapy to kill the cancer in his esophagus, and then was going to have that part cut out.

The next day he had the surgery, but when the doctors cut open his chest, they saw the cancer had spread to his stomach, and just closed him back up again. While he was in recovery, the doctors called the family in and showed us pictures of his stomach dotted with tumors. Then we went to the recovery room to visit him as the anesthesia was wearing off. “I’m sure glad to get that thing out,” he said. My uncle, who was Dad’s main caretaker and power of attorney, told me not to tell him the truth until his oncologist had talked to him, but that didn’t happen for a couple of days because the oncologist was “busy”, so I had to go through a couple of days of listening to Dad talk about how wonderful it is that they got the cancer out. It was horrible.

But I digress. I got Dad a nice salmon fillet and wrapped it in a foil packet with butter and lemon to cook on the grill and contribute to the Dumb Feast. I also brought pens and notepads for people to write messages to the Dead on to put in the coffin. When we got to the campground, the little wooden coffin was already on a picnic table under the main pavilion. I put the pens and paper next to it, and then set up the altar on the picnic table across from it. Pagans like to use sarongs for altar cloths, and I have a dark blue one with black bats on it (very different from the usual Celtic knots you see) that I got from the gift shop when I was an intern at Bat Conservation International in Austin. I like to use for Samhain. I think bats are appropriate animal spirits for this time of year. I put on a picture of my Dad that was taken at my wedding, the last time I saw him healthy (and didn’t know he would be dead in almost exactly a year). I added two Day of the Dead skull candles from the local grocery store, and my black Odin candle with the raven on the front, since Odin is the God of Death.

Next to the picture of Dad I put a bottle of Dr. Pepper. He said that was one of the few things he could drink when he was on chemotherapy that “went down” well, without making him nauseous. I also added a paper plate to put food offerings on for the Dead.

I ended up having about ten people attend the ritual, which was only a small fraction of the people who were at the campout. I designated another picnic table as the place to put the food, buffet-style, and then we sat down at another table. I told people we’d first say a few words about our loved ones, and explain why we brought what we did, and then the Dumb Feast would begin, and we’d serve ourselves and eat in silence. I told them while we were eating, anyone could go and put offerings on the plate, which was going into the coffin when we were done, and I also had pens and paper to write notes to put in the coffin. Then when it looked like most people were done eating, we’d close up the coffin and take it to the funeral pyre.

Of course, at first nobody wanted to talk, so I had to start. I told them about my dad, and struggled to keep from breaking down and crying (less than successfully). My husband also added some things. Then some other people spoke up briefly about their dead loved ones. Then we had the Dumb Feast, some people added offerings to the plate, and added notes to the coffin. When it looked like people were done, I put the paper plate with offerings into the coffin, and we closed the coffin up and proceeded to the funeral pyre in the big fire pit. A stack of juniper had been set up nicely, and the coffin was set on top. The fire was lit, and we stood around in silence watching it burn. Before it was completely burned, people started to squirm and look at me for some signal that they could end the ritual and start the reveling, but I didn’t budge until the coffin completely collapsed in the flames. These things need to be done to completion.

Once the ritual was over, more people started to gather around for the revel fire. I overheard the man who used to play Odin say (presumably to answer a question about why he didn’t participate in the ritual) that, “I don’t really consider myself a pagan anymore.” The man who used to play Hades stayed at his campsite the entire time. People said he is having trouble walking down the steep, rocky path to where the fire pit is due to a bad knee. Though he’s already said on his Facebook that he’s “pretty much an atheist,” so he might have not been interested anyway, bad knee or not. The man who used to play Anubis didn’t come at all this year.

If I hadn’t insisted upon a ritual, there really wouldn’t have been anything “pagan” about this campout at all. Same thing happened at Beltane when my husband and I brought that Maypole. Otherwise it’s just like any other campout with people sitting around knitting and talking by day, and singing songs around the campfire at night. Nothing religious at all about it really, just a social event. Obviously that’s what most people there want.

I know a lot of teens and tweens come and go in paganism as a “phase”, but these are people in their 40’s and 50’s. Was it just a phase for them too? Or are they older and wiser than me and have figured out that this is all silly after all? Maybe it’s only a matter of time until I also mature and figure that out for myself, and one day I look back on my Heathen years and say, “What was I thinking?”

But right now I still think rituals are important. I think they’re important no matter what you believe about the afterlife or deities. Rituals are a way to express how important an event is in your life. When someone dies, you want a ritual to say, “Hey, this person is no longer here, and I think this person was important and needs to be remembered.” My dad didn’t even get a funeral. He was just cremated and that was that. He said he didn’t want a funeral, and considering how dysfunctional my family is, that was probably a favor to us. I can only imagine how horrible trying to arrange something like that would have been. But I still felt like something was missing. Without a funeral, it felt like he died and nobody cared.

Modern paganism is a way for us to have those important rituals in our lives outside of a Christian context. But will paganism even survive when so many people just view it as a phase that they grow out of? Part of the power of a ritual is continuity from one generation to the next. We honor the ancestors, partly because one day we will be ancestors ourselves, and we hope that our descendants will honor us.

But they won’t if the idea of honoring the Dead was just a phase we went through that we decided wasn’t worth continuing.

Your Gods are Just as Good as Mine

Apparently this is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. I blame the strong influence of monotheism on our culture (to the point where most people aren’t even aware there are any other options when it comes to religion).

I don’t worship the Germanic gods because I think they are superior to any other gods. Other people’s gods are just as good as mine. All the various pantheons of the world seem to “work” just fine. They seem equally capable of granting blessings and inspiration to their worshippers. They all have interesting mythologies that reveal insightful truths about human nature and the nature of the universe. You know, the only reason why I don’t worship any Celtic or Greek gods is because when I tried, I didn’t feel anything, like they were ignoring me. The Germanic gods didn’t ignore me. I have no idea why. (Can’t be due to blood, because I’m sure I’ve got some Celtic blood in there somewhere, at least.) So no, I didn’t pick the Germanic gods because I thought they were the best.

The idea of some gods being “false gods” comes from monotheism, where only one god is the True God, and you had better worship only the correct god and not any of those other gods or else you’re in big trouble.

Before the idea of monotheism came along, most people were polytheists, and accepted that some people worshipped some gods, other people worshipped others, and that’s all perfectly fine. Even people worshipping gods from the same pantheon have their various favorites among them. Some people may prefer Freya, others Odin, others Thor, etc. Even among the worshippers of one god, such as Odin, there are various acceptable ways of following him, from berserkers, to poets, to community college biology professors (I hope, anyway).

Of course monotheists have trouble with this idea, because they were brought up to believe that there is only one god, and only one correct way to worship this one god, and you had better do it right or you’ll be punished. They even fight amongst themselves over whether Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is the religion that is worshipping this supposedly shared god correctly.

This shouldn’t be an issue for modern polytheists, but apparently it still is sometimes. I once read a Hellenistic site that claimed the Greek gods were the True Gods, and all other gods were either false gods, or misunderstandings of the Greek gods (equating Freya with Aphrodite, for example). The latter isn’t quite as bad as the former (and has a long history), but still, if you get to know both Freya and Aphrodite well enough they turn out to be quite different. I could be wrong, and they could really be the same goddess somehow, but even then, why is the Greek “interpretation” of this universal Love Goddess automatically superior to the Norse? It ends up being just like how the Jews, Christians, and Muslims always accuse each other of misunderstanding their shared god.

Among Heathens, it can be even worse, because of that ugly racist contingent. When I first got into Heathenry, online there was a lot of hate being spewed at Wiccans for mixing gods of different pantheons together in rituals. I didn’t think it was such a good idea myself (and still don’t, or at least I think it needs to be done with care), but it didn’t take long for me to notice that many of the Heathens complaining about this seemed to be objecting mainly because we need to keep ourselves “pure” and free from being tainted by those icky other cultures. I really get the sense that some Heathens feel that the Norse gods (and therefore the Nordic people) are superior to all others.

At least the superiority of Asatru over all other religions isn’t actually codified into our religion like it is with the monotheists. Any attitudes modern Heathens have like that were probably picked up from monotheism, not from our pre-Christian ancestors. That’s ironic, since the most xenophobic Heathens also seem to be the ones that claim they’re the most authentic. But our pre-Christian ancestors weren’t xenophobic. Quite the opposite, from what I’ve heard.

I’m not a history expert, so I could be wrong. But even if I am wrong, even if our ancestors were racist and xenophobic, that doesn’t mean we should be today anyway. It’s like those stupid discussions that keep coming up on how the ancient Norse viewed homosexuality. In the end, does it matter? They could have been the most homophobic people who ever lived, and it still doesn’t mean we should be. The ancestors weren’t right about everything.

But I digress. I live in a diverse and pluralistic society. I think that polytheism has a lot of potential to encourage tolerance between different cultures of people. If all gods are equally valid, then you don’t have to look down on people who worship different gods than you do. You could even take it further and say that since no one is required to worship any particular god, then people also aren’t required to worship any god at all, if they aren’t into that sort of thing. Take my husband, for example. He has spiritual feelings about Nature, but he’s not interested in worshipping any particular personified deity. And I don’t see any harm in that. I figure if any gods want his worship, they’re perfectly capable of contacting him themselves.

There is potential here, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t screw it up. Which is why it really annoys me when polytheists who should know better start acting like their ways are so superior to the ways of those “foreign” cultures.

If we want to survive for generations to come, we need to quit that. Traditional monotheism is on the decline anyway. We could fill some of that void, if we don’t turn people away first by being jerks.

It’s finally Autumn

This is just going to be a quick update. I can’t believe it’s already early October. I’ve been pretty busy lately. This weekend I’m heading to California for a wedding, so I’ve been trying to keep caught up with things like grading papers so I’m not overwhelmed with work when I get back.

The Autumn Equinox is around the time when we get our first cold front that brings the temperature down a good 10 degrees. That means we go from it being 100 every day to “only” 90. That’s actually refreshing to a Texan who’s just lived through another August in Texas. It hasn’t cooled off much more since then. Highs in the high 80′s or low 90′s, lows in the 60′s. It shouldn’t be too much longer now before it gets even colder, enough to finally pull out the coats, but our first frost isn’t usually until Thanksgiving.

This equinox also marked a year since my husband’s cat died, and a year since my dad was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus (he only lasted six months after that). So last equinox really sucked. This year I didn’t feel like doing much because of the sad memories, but I did manage to roast a chicken and potatoes for a small feast. I invited my in-law’s over (I actually get along with them better than my birth family), and we had a nice meal. Afterwards, like on all holidays, I left an offering of part of the meal in the sacred circle in the backyard.

No fancy rituals or anything though.

I usually feel more spiritual during the dark half of the year, but it hasn’t really kicked in yet. My altar is actually very dusty right now. Maybe I’ve been too busy lately. I do try to light a stick of incense or do a libation from time to time anyway. Maybe it will kick in by Samhain. This is going to be a hard Samhain because I’ll be honoring my father this time. I don’t feel at all prepared right now, but I guess I still have some time.

I don’t even feel like I’ve properly mourned my father yet. The way he died was so sudden, and the aftermath with the will and inheritance and family drama really seems to have distracted me from the actual mourning. I’m still trying to figure out how to handle some of the financial stuff. It mostly only sinks in when I’m lying in bed trying to go to sleep, but then I’m thinking, “I need to go to sleep! I have to be up at 5 am in the morning!”

The way our society handles death is terrible. That’s one reason why I think it’s really good to celebrate Samhain/Dia de los Muertos, even if it’s not strictly a Heathen thing. Most of my friends are Celtic pagans, and I live in Texas, so I join right in.

OK, this post is getting too sad. I also like the fun side of Halloween, and just put up the decorations last weekend. We’re the only house on our block who decorate for Halloween, and we only get 2-3 batching of Trick-or-Treaters a year. Spoil sports!

Well, time to get back to packing. We’re actually leaving tomorrow and coming back on Monday. I’ve been to San Francisco before, and it was surprisingly cold. Maybe there it will feel a lot more October-like.

Planting Heathenry in Texas Soil

When you think of tomatoes, which country do you think of first? Probably Italy. After all, what would Italian food be without tomato sauce made from those meaty, red, San Marzano tomatoes grown in the rich volcanic soil under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius?

When you think of potatoes, which country do you think of? Ireland? After all, the tuber of Solanum tuberosum is often called the “Irish potato” to distinguish it from the unrelated sweet potato, Ipomea batatas.

What if I told you that both those plants are native to South America? You would find their ancestral homeland in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

On the other hand, what about “as American as apple pie?” Johnny Appleseed is an American hero, right? Michael Pollan called him “the American Dionysius” in The Botany of Desire. The wild relatives of apples grow in the valleys of Kazakhstan.

If you look at the “original” tomato, it doesn’t look like a San Marzano. The original tomatoes were probably small yellow cherry tomatoes. They didn’t evolve into San Marzanos until they were brought to Italy, grown in that volcanic soil, and selected by Italians for their sauce-making abilities. Likewise, a wild apple from Kazakhstan isn’t going to look like a Golden Delicious, and potatoes from Peru don’t look like the ones grown in Ireland, and certainly don’t look like Russet Burbanks, the most popular potato in the United States.

When these plants were taken from their homelands and planted elsewhere, they had to adapt to the new climate and change to be better suited for their new uses in new cultures. Living things are constantly evolving. I think the same principle of adaptation and evolution works for other things besides plants.

When African religions were brought (forcibly) to the Americas, they adapted and changed to become religions like Voodoo and Santeria. Some people may see that as being “impure”, and somehow traditional African religions still practiced in Africa today are the more “pure” form, but that’s like saying that Golden Delicious aren’t real apples because they don’t resemble the “original” apples. But if apples weren’t able to change and adapt to being grown in new climates and new soils, and new cuisines and new eating habits, they wouldn’t have survived and thrived here.

Adaptation and evolution isn’t just OK, it’s necessary.

On the Golden Trail blog, there was recently a post about modernizing ancient polytheistic religions. I’ve mentioned before that I think some modern Heathens seem to be a bit too obsessed with the Vikings. This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. It’s good to know about the Vikings, since that’s the past Heathen culture we have the most information about, but I don’t think that modern Heathenry should be “Viking religion.”

But I propose taking it even further. When you are matters, but I think where you are also matters. Of course people in the 21st century should worship the gods in a different way than people from the 10th century, but also people in Texas are going to worship the gods differently than people in Iceland. Iceland is a completely different environment than Texas. To continue with the plant metaphor, it’s just like how most varieties of apples don’t grow well here. They don’t get enough chill hours in the winter. You have to get a special “low-chill” variety if you want to grow apples in Texas.

I have encountered plenty of Heathens that get very upset if anyone suggests that our religion is a “nature-based religion”. We worship the gods, not nature, they’ll say. Nature worship is for Wiccans. So let’s ignore how all our holidays are based on seasonal cycles (which is, frankly, where the Wiccans got the idea), and pre-Christian Heathens probably had a lot more contact with the land spirits than the Aesir and Vanir, and even a lot of our gods are associated with natural forces.

I think the idea that the divine is separate from Nature is a monotheistic idea that some modern polytheists haven’t gotten over. In the Abrahamic religions there is one god, separate from Nature and universal. In polytheistic religions, there are lots of gods and spirits, and part of the reason is because they are interwoven with Nature, and Nature is not the same everywhere.

Taken to the other extreme, maybe gods from Europe can only be worshipped in Europe. Some pagans from Europe actually believe that, and think it odd that Americans or Australians would worship these gods. But I do think the gods can move. The African gods moved over here just fine. Gods move with their followers all the time.

What I’m saying is that the religion adapts to a new area and changes. Now, do the gods themselves change, or just how people perceive them? I don’t know, but the same question can be asked about how Vikings viewed the gods compared to how modern people do.

I think it would be perfectly natural for modern Heathenry in Texas to be different than Heathenry in Iceland. It’s good for us to know how Heathenry is done in Iceland, but that doesn’t mean we have to perfectly recreate it over here. Besides, we don’t already. From what I’ve heard, Texan Heathens tend to be much more conservative than Icelandic Heathens, Icelandic Heathens don’t have this big problem with Loki that Texan (and other American) Heathens do, Icelandic Heathens are much more into the land spirits than the gods, and probably other differences I haven’t heard of. It sounds to me like Texan Heathens are a lot more heavily influenced by Christianity than Icelandic Heathens are, which makes sense because Texas is in the Bible Belt, and Christianity is in decline in Europe.

That’s not a regional variation I particularly like, so I think it would be good for more American Heathens to learn about how it’s done in Iceland and other European countries. But then our task would be to adapt the essential core values of the religion to a different environment, just like we need to adapt the essential core values from the pre-Christian culture to our post-Christian culture. And that requires figuring out what those core values are. Then you end up with something that’s still Heathen at its core, but with a Texas flavor.

For example, Thor probably plays a different role in Texas than in Scandinavia. In the old lore, he protects people from the frost giants. We don’t really have a big frost giant problem here in Texas (though when it does freeze, it’s probably a good idea to pray to Thor for protection if you try to drive anywhere because Texans do not know how to drive on ice!), but we do have a problem with heat and drought, and thunderstorms bring us relief. I really doubt any Viking ever prayed to Thor to please bring a nice refreshing rainstorm to cool things off, but I certainly do. That’s what I mean by the gods being different here.

The only Heathen denomination I know of that’s done something like this is Urglaawe, “Pennsylvania Dutch Heathenry.” Yes, the Pennsylvania Dutch were Christians, but they still had Heathen elements in their culture, so this is an attempt to re-Heathenize them. It’s like a seed in their culture that had gone dormant, and now a few people are trying to nourish and grow it into an entire religion.

But the religion that grows from that seed is not the same as that of the pre-Christian Germanic people. It’s grown and rooted in the Northeastern U.S., so of course it’s going to be different, and probably better adapted to America than a purely European style of Heathenry. In Urglaawe, the gods are viewed slightly differently (Holda is a major deity, for example), the holidays match the seasonal cycles of the Northeastern U.S., and folklore incorporates New World plants and animals.

For some reason Urglaawe seems to be OK with other Heathens, instead of being seen as impure because it doesn’t come from pre-Christian times. Maybe it helps that the Pennsylvania Dutch have managed to keep their distinct culture all this time, so there’s continuity there.

I wish there was something like this for Texas. When you take something like Heathenry and plant it in Texas, what grows? What kind of adaptations need to be made to allow it to thrive in new soil without completely losing its original character?

There were a lot of German settlers in Texas, founding cities such as Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, but they have been less successful keeping their traditions alive than the Pennsylvania Dutch. Texas German is dying out, the only people who speak it anymore are seniors, and losing a language is always a big blow to a culture. If there were any Heathen elements to the culture of the Texas Germans, that’s probably died out too. It’s a shame because that means we have to start more from scratch if we want to have a Texas equivalent of Urglaawe, though I think the legacy of the Texas Germans would still be a good place to start to figure out how Texas Heathenry can be. There you can see how German culture adapted to Texas.

There’s a good reason why barbecue beef brisket is my “traditional” Midsummer feast food (beyond it being delicious). Texas style barbecue was invented by the Texas Germans. Lockhart, Texas is the “Barbecue Capital of the World”, and all the historic barbecue places there were founded by Texas Germans. Germans already had a tradition of smoking meats, so when they came to Texas, they started smoking the most easily available meat here, beef, using the most available wood here, oak and pecan. Eating it for Midsummer honors their ingenuity in adapting their traditions to a new land. (And that’s just one example of a Texas dish with German roots. Chicken fried steak is the Texas version of schnitzel, and Texas beers are brewed in German styles, because most of our breweries were also started by Texas Germans.)

In a past issue of Idunna, there was a recipe for “Heathen Stew” with a note at the end explaining that potatoes were left out of this recipe, because potatoes aren’t native to Europe. Now, to be fair, the recipe writer probably had that in there just as an interesting historical note, and wasn’t implying that Heathens aren’t allowed to eat potatoes, but some of us seem to be doing the religious equivalent of that.

The irony of course is that the Vikings seemed to have no problem traveling far and wide and picking up things from other cultures as they did. And sometimes, they ended up settling down and mixing into the local population. As their spiritual descendants, why would we quit doing that?

Doing Battle Against the Noonday Demon

Since the death of Robin Williams on Monday, there’s been a lot of talk in the media and online about depression and suicide, so I thought maybe now would be the time to jump on the bandwagon and give my two cents about it. It’s something I’d been meaning to do already anyway, especially when the subject of mental illness comes up on pagan mailing lists or blogs. Especially when people seem to be romanticizing it in some way. That always bugs me.

I do sometimes get sad about celebrity deaths, if their work was significant in my life in some way. Of course, it’s a lot different than if someone I know personally dies, but I still appreciate what they contributed to my life, even if we never met. I’m a huge Beatles fan, so I took George Harrison’s death hard, and I’m sure Paul and Ringo will be hard as well (I was born a month after John died). Even though we never met, my life is better because they existed.

With Robin Williams, I honestly never really thought of him that much before, but when he died, I just started remembering all those movies he was in that I liked. I guess I was just about the right age to see a lot of his movies in the 80’s and 90’s, not to mention watching Mork and Mindy on Nickelodeon as a little kid. I’m not sure if that makes me a “fan” of his, but he was definitely part of my childhood. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more.

But what’s really getting to people is that he committed suicide. Why would someone like that kill themselves when it seemed like he had so much going for him?

I’m reminded of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, since I was a kid when it happened. People also wondered why he would do that when he had become so rich and famous. Not to mention serving as a poor role model for us teenagers who may also be depressed. I was a depressed teenager myself, and after Kurt Cobain died, I became a bit obsessed with him, and read books about him, and thought about suicide quite a bit. I was already depressed. Kurt’s death didn’t cause the depression, but it might have put the option in my head more than if it hadn’t happened. I came really close to it when I was 17, but didn’t go through with it, and thankfully have not come quite that close ever again.

I assumed that it was teen angst and hormones, and maybe I had grown out of it. I mentioned to my therapist a while ago that I’m doing better now than I did back then, but that’s probably just because I’m older and more mature. He said he didn’t think so at all, and said I’m getting better because I’ve been fighting it, not because I just grew out of it.

I thought about that when I heard about Robin Williams, because he was 63. Maybe my therapist was right and it doesn’t have to do with maturity after all. Depression has become something I can work around, or work through. I can get up in the morning and at least get the stuff done that I absolutely have to get done. It comes and goes, so when I’m feeling good, I try to get as much done as possible so that when I feel bad, I can take it easy and wait for it to pass without getting too behind. I still have a lot of room for improvement, but it’s not life-threatening anymore.

But it’s still a hindrance. I am absolutely sure I would be better off without it. My therapist has compared depression to a parasite (knowing I’m a biologist), and I think the comparison is very good. Most of the time parasites don’t kill their hosts, but they do weaken their hosts, and make it harder for the host to deal with other stressors. If a hard winter or drought comes around, the animals with the largest “parasite load” are the first to die. Recent reports have said that Robin Williams was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and that could have had something to do with it. I know I have no idea what was going through his mind, but I do know that if you’re already prone to depression, it can make it harder to deal with the other things life throws at you.

That’s why I know I still have a lot of room for improvement, because even though I can still drag myself to work when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, it would still be nice to not have that burden to carry with me at all.

But let me get back to paganism. There’s this annoying tendency among mystical types to romanticize mental illness (and perhaps physical illness too). Some kind of “wounded healer” archetypal stuff maybe. I don’t know, maybe it’s different for others, but I don’t think my illness helps at all. Depression sucks all the joy out of everything, so it makes it hard for me to even enjoy the company of my husband or friends, let alone gods or spirits. When it’s hard to get up the energy to take a shower or cook a healthy meal, I certainly don’t have the energy to do any kinds of rituals or devotions. Really, it makes it so I don’t even think the gods exist. Without depression, I am absolutely sure I would function better in every single aspect of my life, including spiritually.

The only thing that it may help is in the sense that any hardship might make a person stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” they say, which is a very Odinic way of seeing things. I think hardships can also make a person more compassionate towards others who are going through tough things as well, so that’s good. But I don’t think mental illness or depression is unique in this regard. The same effect might happen if I had to deal with any other hardship, mental or physical.

Maybe one of the reasons why romanticizing mental illness worries me is that it may make some people reluctant to get help. I know I was at first, because depression was such a big part of my life, I didn’t know what I would be without it. I was afraid I wouldn’t be myself anymore. But really, when the depression gets better, I just become a better version of myself. I gain much more than I lose.

I’m afraid mystical-type people might think that if they get treated for their condition, they will lose their connection to the gods, or something like that. But if your connection to the gods is based on an illness, what does that say about your relationship? Shouldn’t they be able to still connect with you when you’re healthy? If not, I think something must be messed up here.

I don’t think Odin or my other gods want me to stay depressed. I think they want me to fight it. They want us mortals to live our short lives to the fullest, and depression prevents you from doing that. It’s sad that not everyone wins the battle, but that doesn’t excuse you from fighting.

Pagan Community (or Lack Thereof)

I’m often jealous of people who have found good religious communities to be a part of. Being a solitary can be very lonely.

John Beckett goes to the UU Church in Denton, which apparently has a very active CUUPS group. My husband and I tried going to the UU church here for a while, but they all seem to be either disgruntled Christians who left overly conservative sects but are still Christians at heart, or atheists. When we said we were pagans, they had heard of it, but honestly seemed a bit put off by it. We never really ended up fitting in. My in-laws go to another UU church, and have found a community for themselves there, but my husband and I haven’t really gotten involved with that either.

UU’s are great people, but it seems to be all about social justice and very little spirituality. Don’t get me wrong, social justice is great, but if I start talking about spirituality they look at me like I’m some kind of weirdo. (And I am a weirdo, I just need to find people who appreciate that.)

One of my good friends is active in an ADF druid grove, but it meets about an hour and a half away from where I live now, and I don’t know anyone else there.

I have made an online acquaintance of one of the members of Hrafnar. I once got to meet her in person. I have her friended on Facebook and occasionally get to see her post about cool things Hrafnar does and be jealous. I went to a Heathen event in Texas once, and they weren’t very friendly.

Finally, last year in February, I started a Meetup Group, inviting all pagans and heathens in the area to meet once a week at a coffee shop. It’s been about a year and a half now, and so far it hasn’t really gone anywhere.

I have only one guy who showed up to the first meeting who still sometimes shows up. He says he’s a mixture of Druid and Discordian. Later, a Heathen guy and his wife started driving all the way from San Antonio and became “regulars” as well. He found out about me through the Troth email list. Maybe two or three other people have come to more than one meeting before, but that’s about it. I have 72 members now, but the vast majority has never shown up, and the rest only show up once and then I never see them again.

Meanwhile I’m paying $12 a month to host the Meetup site, and no one else wants to chip in. Other members sometimes suggest ideas for things they want to do besides the monthly coffee socials, but when I tell them to post it, they never do it. I set the site so that any member can post an event, but so far no one has done that.

Nobody but me wants to actually do the work to maintain a group.

I keep thinking, “Why do I even bother?” I’m the only one who cares enough to pay actual money for this and to post events for this, apparently.

I guess it doesn’t help that I’m not completely sure what I want out of this.

Well, no, actually I do know what I want. Basically, I want a pagan church, and I want to be a “regular” there but not on the leadership team. I want to show up for full moons and solstices and equinoxes and maybe sometimes have a bigger role in the occasional ritual, but not have to be completely running the entire thing myself. I’m not a natural leader; I only lead when no one else will step up. I want us to have our own building instead of borrowing one from the UU’s (though UU’s can be great allies to pagans), and I want there to be potlucks and charity drives, and Ostara egg hunts and Samhain pumpkin carving for the kids. (Yeah, I want there to actually be kids too. I want there to be something for everyone, at any stage of life, not just 20 and 30-somethings hanging out at a coffee shop talking about D&D or Lord of the Rings.)

But that doesn’t exist.

I really wish pagans could get their shit together enough to make something like this exist, but they don’t. They can hardly be relied on to show up for a Meetup once a month, and if you ask them to pitch in a few dollars for the Meetup site fees, they won’t even do that.

Forget buying a building to make into a church, or putting in the time and effort to keep a thing like that running.

I know that some pagans don’t want it. Maybe it’s because I was never a Christian to begin with, so I don’t have bad feelings about the whole concept of having some type of organization in my religion. I think it’s possible to do that without being oppressive. I was always jealous of my Christian friends who could find community and support in their churches.

Some pagans hate anything that reminds them of Christianity, so they balk at the idea of a pagan church. Or we can call it a temple if you like, or a community center. But really I’m looking for something that fills the niche that a church would fill in the life of a Christian person, or a synagogue for a Jew, or a mosque for a Muslim. I want a pagan version of that. Even Baha’is and Sikhs and Hindus have temples in some of the bigger cities. But I don’t know of any pagan temples or churches or anything like that. Why  not? I seriously doubt there are more Sikhs than us in the country.

There used to be a Lutheran church near where I live that went up for sale. It got turned into a dog grooming place. Ugh, what a waste. It has a good parking lot, the building itself is pretty, and there’s a yard in the back with a chain-link fence around it. I bet it has a kitchen inside that could have been used for ritual feasts, and we could have put a labyrinth in the yard. We could put up pictures and statues of pagan gods and goddesses inside. The First Pagan Church of Texas! That would have been great.

Then again, the UU church my in-laws go to has been vandalized more than once. Ugh, seriously? A UU church attended mostly by white-haired retirees being vandalized? That’s Texas for you. For similar reasons, my pagan Meetup group has all its info except for a short description hidden from non-members, and I moderate who gets to join. They have to fill out a few questions first so I can be sure they’re a real person. I also don’t have my picture or full name on the site.

That’s why I wish someone else would do it. Someone who isn’t as worried about being outed and losing their job, or worse. Then I can just attend quietly and if someone Googles my name, no pagan stuff will show up.

Which is another reason why I think we need better community, for mutual protection. The irony is that I think if we had a proper temple or something, it would make us seem more like a legitimate religion.

Instead, it seems like all pagans do is fight with each other. That’s certainly what online pagan “community” looks like. First it was Neopagan vs Reconstructionist, then Monist vs. Polytheist, or Devotional Polytheist vs. Immersive Polytheist… I don’t even know what that last one is about. Hair-splitting taken to the extreme, I’m sure.

I mean, I’m probably the only Nature-based Germanic Heathen in my town, which is why I opened my Meetup to all pagans, in the broadest sense.

And yet, I’m still lucky if more than a couple of people show up.

How Lammas Went

I celebrated Lammas last Saturday. Didn’t do much fancy stuff. To me, holidays are all about food, so I smoked a whole pork loin in the brick smoker in our backyard. Pork loin is a lean meat that’s easy to overcook, so I was sure to use a meat thermometer and bring it up to only 140 degrees before pulling it out (carryover heat brought it up to 155 by the time it was done resting, which was perfect). Before cooking it, I brined it, and then glazed it with molasses, brown sugar, and apple cider. It came out of the smoker a beautiful mahogany color (sorry, I didn’t take any pictures). Roasted a head of cauliflower for a vegetable.

I also made a loaf of bread from scratch, which I haven’t done for a while. I tried out a new recipe: no knead bread. That was trendy for a while, and is in my red checkered cookbook, but I hadn’t tried it out yet. You mix a very wet dough the night before, then bake it in a Dutch oven. It turned out really well, but my husband and I couldn’t resist cutting into it before it was cool, which you’re not supposed to do with bread. It makes the rest turn gummy once it’s cool. But the recipe made only one small loaf, so we ate most of it while it was warm anyway.

The apple cider I used on the pork was left over from Midsummer. One of my best friends is now dating a Heathen (she herself is a Celtic pagan), and he brought some homebrewed apple cider for sumbel. He left the rest in my fridge. It’s very good, nice and dry, almost like a white wine in flavor. I poured a glass of that for Frey and put it on my altar in the bedroom in front of his statue, and put a nice thick slice of bread and a slice of pork in the altar in the middle of the sacred circle outside for the land spirits. (I don’t like to put meat on my indoor altar because I have cats. Outside, cats and opossums dispose of my offerings.)

That was pretty much all I did, ritual-wise. I used to be a lot more mystical, but I just can’t seem to get into the right mindset for that anymore. It doesn’t help that I’ve been really stressed out and depressed lately. The subject of mental illness comes up from time to time on pagan blogs and email lists, and it always bugs me when it gets romanticized, like being mentally ill makes you more mystical or spiritually attuned in some way. Well, I’ve had clinical depression for as long as I can remember, and in my case it’s the exact opposite. When you barely have the energy to get out of bed and get through dressing yourself, going to work,  making sure you eat something, and all those other things you absolutely must do, there’s very little energy left over for the gods. Not to mention all the thoughts in my head saying, “you’re wasting your time.”

I’m actually doing a little better today. It comes and goes.

The day before, I went to my altar and asked Frey what he wanted for Lammas. If he wanted anything else besides the physical offerings I was already planning, that is. I drew three runes to see what his answer was, and got Othila – Isa – Uruz.

Some pagan bloggers like to say that anyone can get messages from the gods through divination, but it still frustrates me. I’m terrible at doing divination for myself. I don’t know what that means! I can do rune readings for other people, but for some reason for myself, I just can’t figure it out for sure. Too personal, I guess. Those three runes are still sitting on my altar in case anything comes to me.

Well, I just hope Frey liked his offerings.

By the way, it was pretty nice to have a rare summer cold front last weekend. Usually the first half of August is the hottest time of year, but last weekend it dipped down by 10 degrees, into the low 90′s. It made spending some time outside bearable, even though we didn’t end up getting any rain out of it. Now it’s back up to over 100 every day like normal for August.

Lammas is Coming

Summer is rough.

I’m an adjunct professor, so I teach every summer, because if I don’t,  I’ll go three months without a paycheck and have to go on COBRA for my health insurance (I know I’m very lucky to have health insurance at all). Summer classes are on a compressed schedule of 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. Being revved up leading my class for that long with no break is pretty exhausting. Usually when I get home I just want to crash. To cram everything in, I have to give a test every week, so I have a lot of grading to keep up with when I’m not in class. I also have to get up very early every morning (5 am!) and have been having trouble getting to bed in time to get enough sleep.

I’m really dragging here.

Then there’s how summer just IS in Texas, regardless of what’s going on in my own little life. This summer hasn’t actually been too bad. Here at the end of July and beginning of August, we’re in the Dog Days of Summer, the hottest time of year. It’s been at least in the high 90’s if not 100 every day for at least a week and at night it doesn’t get below the mid-70’s because of the humidity.

Maybe this is why Lammas is a difficult holiday for me. It doesn’t have any secular equivalents in my culture, and it takes place during the most uncomfortable time of year. At Midsummer, I still feel like doing some things outside, like cooking barbeque, but by Lammas I just want to stay in air-conditioned buildings and avoid going outside as much as I can.

Maybe this is similar to what my European ancestors felt during January and February when it was too cold to do anything but huddle inside by the fire.

But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean you give it up. I know the Eightfold Wheel of the Year is a modern invention, but it is based off a combination of Celtic and Germanic holidays, so it’s not too far off the mark for a Heathen like me, and I like the idea of having seasonal holidays evenly spaced out like that. I think it’s good to mark the turning of the seasons, even the seasons I may not like very much. Texas is my home, so I just have to deal with it being scorching hot at this time of year.

So what does Lammas mean to me?

Traditionally, it was an English holiday (Loaf-mass), which may or may not have had pagan origins, but was mostly about the wheat harvest. I know some Heathens associate it with Frey, since he’s an agricultural deity. I’ve even read about Heathens and Northern Tradition folks celebrating Frey sacrificing himself and being reborn around this time of year. I have no idea if that’s historically accurate or some sort of modern UPG. I’m leaning towards the latter, but I’m OK with that, really. We know so little about the Vanir, and the idea of Frey being sacrificed and reborn to keep the Earth fertile is in line with other harvest deities from other pantheons.

It just seems in-character for him. Frey is such an optimistic deity. That’s how I relate to him, anyway. Sure, things are rough now, but the harvest will eventually come in. Frey may die, but he will come back.Perhaps that makes it appropriate to honor him at this time of year, when things can be a bit rough. Frey helps me endure the rough times because good times will come again. He reminds me that nothing is permanent, good times or bad.

And I already celebrate Frey’s marriage to Gerd on February 1, which is exactly six months away. It makes a nice balance to celebrate a slightly different aspect of Frey on August 1.

I haven’t done much spiritual stuff since Midsummer. At least back then I had just started summer classes and was still energetic, but now I’m just exhausted and can’t wait until that week I get off in August between the end of summer session and the beginning of the fall semester. When I get stressed out, tired, and depressed, I neglect a lot of things in my life like sleeping enough, eating right, getting enough exercise, and yes, doing any kind of spiritual devotions.

Maybe that’s another reason why celebrating all the modern pagan holidays is a good idea for me. It helps me get back on track every six weeks.
The fact that I’ve been stressed out and depressed a lot lately is another reason why it would be a good idea for me to do a ritual in Frey’s honor. He cheers me up.  I’ve already decided I’m going to make pork loin on the grill, and have it in the fridge thawing. Don’t know what else yet. I’m too tired to come up with some elaborate ritual. I barely had enough energy to type this post! I have laundry to do so I’ll have something to wear to work tomorrow.

Maybe some inspiration will come to me. I’ve still got a few more days.

Celebrating Midsummer

Last weekend was the Summer Solstice, and I celebrated it in my traditional way: I had a barbeque!

John Beckett wrote about building a summer solstice tradition, which is exactly what I’ve been doing, but I disagree with him that Midsummer is not an important holiday. It’s Yule’s counterpart, and it’s still widely celebrated in Northern European countries. I actually have a lot more trouble feeling a connection with Lammas/Lughnasadh than Midsummer.

However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary to build new Midsummer traditions. I’ve written before about the necessity of adapting pagan holidays to the local environment in order to fully appreciate the spirits of your own ecosystem. I’m a Heathen, but I live in Texas, so even if I celebrate Heathen holidays like Midsummer or Yule, I think they should be celebrated in a Texas way.

So what does June 21 mean in Texas?

Well, this is not quite the hottest time of year just yet. Statistically the first week of August is the hottest time of year here, so really Lammas is the hottest holiday. This year we haven’t yet hit 100 degrees, though we’ve come close a couple of times. It’s actually been kind of nice lately. Mostly in the low-90′s with some thunderstorms which have been very helpful putting a dent in this severe drought. Hail Thor! Everything is still green. The grass hasn’t dried to a crisp yet.

I’m harvesting lots of green beans, okra, and tomatoes from the garden. Squash and eggplant is coming soon.

The sunflowers, Indian blanket, esparanza, roses, and Mexican oregano are all blooming nicely.

 

I have decided that the traditional feast for Texas Heathen Midsummer is barbeque. And by that I mean real southern barbeque, not just some hot dogs or burgers on a grill. Every year on Midsummer (or the weekend day closest to it) I get up early (yes, on a Saturday!) and start a big slab of meat or two smoking in the brick BBQ pit in my backyard. To Texans and other southerners, barbeque is slow-smoked meat. In Texas that meat is usually beef brisket, and the wood for smoking is usually mesquite. And “barbeque” also means the social event where such meat is served, because roasting big hunks of meat and celebrations go hand-in-hand. (Sorry vegetarians!)

I sometimes vary a little bit from the traditional beef brisket. I’ve also done pork shoulder, ribs, turkey, and chicken in my smoker. I always fill up the smoker no matter how many guests I’m having since it’s the same amount of work whether the smoker is full or not, and smoked meat makes great leftovers. Smoking the meat becomes a ritual in itself. It forces me to be outside in the backyard, with all the nature spirits and birds and plants and bugs and heat and humidity. I’m serenaded by cicadas as I tend the fire, turn and mop the meat occasionally, and get all sweaty and smoky. It’s a lot of work, but I think that preparing a ritual feast should be.

(Meanwhile, my husband mowed the yard, which is a really big deal when you have a yard as big as ours, with only a push mower.)

This year I cooked two chickens and two large fillets of steelhead trout, which my guests all thought was salmon until I told them otherwise. Farmed steelhead trout is a “Best Choice” on the Seafood Watch list, costs half as much as the sustainable wild Alaska salmon, and the same amount as the unsustainable farmed salmon. I’d never done fish in the smoker before, but it turned out amazing. I used the recipe for smoked salmon from amazingribs.com, and based the chicken off his Simon and Garfunkel chicken recipe (using almost all herbs from my own herb garden). I sometimes wonder things like what would Meathead think if he knew his recipes are being used in a ritual feast to honor pre-Christian Norse deities.

I ended up using oak for the fish, and a mixture of oak and mesquite for the chicken, since that’s the kind of wood I have on hand. We have a lot of oak wood from a few of our trees that died in the horrible summer of 2011. Oak is a pretty good all-purpose smoking wood, but mesquite has a powerful flavor that can overwhelm fish, which is why I didn’t add it to the fire until the fish was done and I was just doing the chicken. I also feel good about using wood that my husband and I harvested ourselves to cook the meal. I wanted to put as much connection to our land as possible into the meal, which is why I tried to put something I’d harvested myself into every dish, even if it was just an herb from the herb garden.

To go with the meat was pasta salad containing green beans and cherry tomatoes from the garden, sweet tea with some peppermint from the herb garden, and a pound cake with seasonal fruit on top.

OK vegetarians, I also made a pot of beans. I usually put pork products of some sort in my beans, but I had some vegetarian guests coming, so I wanted a vegetarian protein that was just as special and delicious as the meat. So I got some heirloom Anasazi beans (not just ordinary pintos!) and cooked them in my Lodge cast-iron camp Dutch oven in the bottom of the smoker. I pre-cooked them a little the day before because dry beans take a really long time to cook, but finishing them off in the smoker let them absorb some smoky flavor.

I prayed to Frigg before I started cooking to ask her to help make everything delicious, and apparently it worked. I always make tons of food for these kinds of things, and everyone happily ate their fill, with just enough left to offer some to the deities and land spirits, and for my husband and I to take some to work for lunch for the rest of the week.

 

As the sun finally set on the longest day of the year, we made a Midsummer fire of juniper wood in the backyard fire pit. Juniper (a.k.a “cedar”) has a wonderful smelling smoke that also repels mosquitoes. There were several Heathens in attendance, and the rest of the guests were all pagans of some sort, so we decided to do a Symbel in my ritual circle. One of the heathens brought his drinking horn and some home-brewed cider. We first gave an offering to the gods, and then did rounds of boasting and gratitude. Instead of making oaths, which I think is more of  a Yule thing, I thought boasts would be more appropriate. During the dark time of year, you can think about what you lack in your life that you want to change, but under the abundance of the Midsummer sun, it’s time to focus on what you DO have.

Focusing on the positive is a difficult thing for me, so I think doing a ritual like that is especially important. It takes me out of my comfort zone much more than a more somber ritual would. During the boasting part, I was forced to say nice things about myself, and during the gratitude part, I had to hear other people saying nice things about me. But perhaps getting out of your comfort zone is what good rituals are all about.

 

So that is how you celebrate Midsummer, Texas-style! With wood, fire, and smoke, meat and beans and garden-fresh tomatoes and sweet tea, ale and cider and citronella candles and the smell of fresh-cut grass and a bunch of good friends. I would say this is one of the best Midsummers I’ve had in a while.