My Attempt at Community Building Reaches an Impasse

Today is the second anniversary of the Pagan and Heathen Meetup I started, and the good news is it seems to finally be reaching a critical mass where I actually have a “core” group of people showing up more than once, instead of a constantly revolving door of people who only show up once and I never see them again.

We meet the second Friday of the month in a local coffee shop. At our last meeting we had over a dozen people, so we had to push together three tables in there to make enough room. We had some new people, but for once it looked like we had more people who had been there before than newbies. We didn’t have to spend most of our time on introductions. I ended up sitting next to a guy who has been to a lot of meetings before, and he asked me the dreaded question, “Where do you think this group should go from here?”

I couldn’t really answer that question. Of course, when I first started the Meetup I had ideas, but then I actually started the Meetup and discovered a lot of those ideas probably weren’t realistic. I decided to give it at least a year, and the first year I lowered my goals down to, “just have people show up,” and that was pretty much it.

But now people are actually showing up and starting to ask, “Well, hanging out at a coffee shop socializing is fun, but what else have you got?” They’re starting to mention words like “structure” and “rituals” and “workshops”.

 

Well, there are some obstacles that we have to overcome first. And the biggest one seems to be not having a good place to meet to do anything else other than socialize.

The coffee shop where we meet is loud and sometimes crowded. They usually have music playing that we have to raise our voices to be heard over (last night seemed to be a compilation of all the hits of the 80’s). Since we’re near a university, if school is in session there are a lot of college students there hanging out. They have some outdoor seating which can be quieter because of lack of music, but last night it was too chilly for people to want to sit out there. When the weather is nice, outside is often just as crowded as inside.

The only other place we’ve ever met is a local park. Last Ostara I posted a potluck picnic there, and only one (kinda creepy) guy showed up. That wasn’t fun at all. However, this past Imbolc, I scheduled a hike at that same park, and six of my regulars showed up, and we had a good time. We just hiked, though. We didn’t do anything especially pagan-ish except when one of the members left an apple as an offering for the land spirits. That hike was mostly to scope out the place to see if there were any places we could go where it would be private enough to have a full-blown ritual at a later time.

We have some beautiful parks here, but just like the coffee shop, there’s no privacy. On the Imbolc hike I tried leading them to this place I thought was pretty remote, and we still passed by a few joggers out on the trails. It might depend on when you go, but I have a full time job, like many of my members, so the only meeting times that would work for me are evenings and weekends, which is when everyone else is at the parks too.

I’ll probably try again this year to do an Ostara picnic and see if more people show up, but that brings me to another problem with meeting at parks. This is Texas. From Beltane to the Autumn Equinox, it’s just too hot for anyone to want to be outside much. Ostara is pretty much our last chance to be outside in nice weather. It’s cooler at night, and it would be nice to do some full moon rituals out there, but our parks have a sunset curfew, so if the cops see cars parked in the parking lot, they’ll go in and kick us out.

When I was a member of my college student pagan group, we got to reserve a classroom in the evening all to ourselves. Then we could have privacy indoors to do rituals or discussions. But now as adults with jobs and families and so on, there just isn’t anywhere like that.

 

This is what I think about whenever the subject of pagan temples comes up. This would be so much easier if we had a building, or even just a room, that we could meet in where we could close the door and not have college students or joggers showing up and wondering what’s going on over there. It would be doubly awesome if it was our building, where we could leave stuff there permanently.

Critics of the idea say that historically temples weren’t meeting spaces for humans anyway, but only homes for the gods, that the traditional place of worship for polytheists is the home, and that what we’re really talking about are “community centers” not temples (as if there’s something wrong with a community center), and even that we’re really trying to re-create a Protestant Christian churchgoing experience out of some kind of nostalgia (um, I should remind you that I’ve never been a Christian in my life).

Look, times are different now. There aren’t any “wild places” you can go and be completely isolated. My choices for “wild places” are city parks or state parks that are open to the general public and full of joggers and people walking their dogs.

As for using my home, I have considered that, but given the occasional creepy dude that shows up to our Meetups, I really don’t feel like posting my home address on the internet for everyone to see (or even just the membership to see). I know some Meetup organizers do that, and that’s their choice, but I’d like people to respect my choice to keep my home secure and private and not open to the general public.

Maybe that stuff worked out thousands of years ago, when people lived in small villages and everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was pagan, and there actually was true “wilderness” left out there, but “doing it the way our ancestors did” just doesn’t work today.

Another option I’ve considered is to just privately invite certain members that seem trustworthy or at least not creepy to my home for rituals, but then we can’t have newbies participate, and I think they should be able to show up and see what a pagan ritual really is all about. Also, the people I didn’t invite would probably find out about it eventually, and might get pissed off and feel left out, like we’re forming some kind of clique.

In a nearby city, their pagan Meetup meets in the back room of a metaphysical store. That seems to be a good place, but we don’t have anything like that here. John Beckett’s group meets at a UU Church, but the UU church in my town doesn’t have their own building either and borrows a Christian church.

Of course, since I’m barely sustaining a Meetup group as it is, we really don’t have a group that would be dedicated enough to create an actual pagan temple/community center here, but I think that results in a kind of chicken-and-egg thing, because since we don’t have a good place to meet, it’s hard to build a dedicated group that can do more than just hang out at a coffee shop talking about the latest good movie we saw.

 

Anyway, that’s why I think modern temples are a good idea, but the reality still stands that there’s no way we’re going to have one here, so I’m still left with the question: What next for this group? I’m getting asked that more and more, and I still don’t have a good answer.

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Is it spring yet?

That’s the question that seems to be the underlying theme of all the pagan February holidays I know about: Imbolg, Candlemas, Charming of the Plow, Groundhog’s Day. It’s an important question. Here in Central Texas, February can bring sunny weather with temperatures pushing 80 degrees, or a sudden cold front that brings ice and even sleet or snow.

You have to be very careful to not be fooled by the warmer days and go ahead and plant your frost-sensitive plants, only to have them killed by a sudden late February or early March freeze. Then again, sometimes that late freeze never comes. Sometimes our true last freeze of the winter really is in January. This weekend it’s supposed to be sunny and in the 70’s, even though the last couple of nights have been getting down to 34. I haven’t done a Charming of the Plow ritual yet, since last weekend was cold and rainy, so I’ll probably do that this weekend. I have a nice bottle of mead I got from a home-brewing friend at Yule that will make a nice offering. I also made an absolutely delicious Meyer lemon cake from a couple of lemons off the tree in our front yard. I always like to include homegrown stuff in holiday feasts and offerings. My husband and I had a few slices ourselves already and it’s so good I had to hide the rest to make sure some was left for the gods and spirits.

My husband and I are still trying to figure out what would be an appropriate animal to substitute for the groundhog as a symbol of this time of year. It doesn’t get cold enough around here for any mammals to hibernate. The best we’ve been able to think of so far are the frogs and toads. They do hibernate, and last week when we had another warm spell, I finally heard some croaking again when I got home from work. The sound was coming from a stock tank in a nearby ranch.

Frog’s Day instead of Groundhog’s Day? Would that work?

My Interest in Urglaawe Grows

Groundhog Day is coming up, and while most Americans think it’s quite silly, it’s a major holiday in Urglaawe, and as you can see from my several posts last February, has become one for me as well. Urglaawe seems more and more appealing to me the more research I do on it. It seems like that branch of Heathenry is more compatible with my temperament and lifestyle than Viking-based Asatru.

Viking Raiders vs. Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers

The biggest issue I’ve had with Asatru from the very beginning has been the huge emphasis on warriors. Now, I don’t mean to disparage people who are actually in the military. My husband was in the Air Force, my dad was in the Navy, and my grandfather fought in World War II. A lot of my students are veterans, and they are usually my best students. But since I’ve never been in the military and never will be, I’ve never been able to relate to the whole warrior experience, and am not going to pretend to. So it’s hard to me to relate to Asatru as a “warrior religion” as if that’s all there is to life. The main gods in Viking-based Asatru are Odin and Thor in their most warlike aspects, since they get their stories from the Norse Eddas and Sagas. There is much less information in the Eddas on the goddesses or the Vanir gods.

Urglaawe, however, is the religion of an agricultural people, so they have a bigger emphasis on the more “peaceful” deities. Frau Holle, a motherly goddess, is their chief deity. Even Odin and Thor have slightly different “personalities” to them in Urglaawe. I worship Odin as a magical and intellectual god, and hardly ever interact with his warrior side. Thor is primarily a weather deity who brings life-giving thunderstorms to my often drought-stricken area, and he’s also the defender of those weaker than himself. From what I’ve read of Urglaawe, that’s close to how they see Wudan and Dunner.

I’ve also been wondering if I find Urglaawe more comfortable simply because the Pennsylvania Dutch are closer to me in space and in time than the Vikings. The Vikings lived far away in Scandinavia over a thousand years ago. I know them through that show on the History Channel and movies like The 13th Warrior. The Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the United States just a little over 200 years ago, and there are still lots of them around today. They also had a big impact on American culture. Many of our holiday traditions come from them, as well as a lot of traditional American foods. Scandinavian traditions and foods are much different and just seem a bit more “foreign” to me.

Also, once they got here, they changed and adapted to the local environment, becoming a truly “New World” version of Heathenry, which I think is great. To me, so many Heathens seem to be trying to play Viking rather than adapting Heathenry to the time and place. Deitsch tradition continued to evolve, even after they converted to Christianity and moved to North America. It just doesn’t seem like it would be as much of a stretch to adapt Urglaawe to the present day than trying to recreate a religion from over 1,000 years ago in 21st century Texas.

Cycles of Nature

One of the things that first attracted me to Wicca was its calendar based on natural cycles, instead of human things like birthdays of important leaders and anniversaries of historical events. I disagree that being in tune with the turn of the season is irrelevant to modern life. Even if some pagans are disconnected from the seasons, I am not! It’s a big part of my spiritual practice. It probably helps that I live out in the country with two vegetable gardens, a small orchard, and lots of parks and greenspaces around. I most certainly notice the changes in the seasons and celebrate them. Wicca’s holidays are taken from English folk tradition, which is a blend of Celtic and Germanic influences. Urglaawe’s holidays are quite similar to Wicca’s because of the common Germanic influence, and like I mentioned above, they influenced a lot of American secular holiday traditions as well. Celebrating them just seems to fit so much better into my life than celebrating the sorts of things like Vikings did, like the start of the raiding season.

Die Blanzeheilkunscht and Nature Spirits

I’ve always been interested in plant lore, and Urglaawe has this long history of herbalism utilizing both Old World and New World species of plants. I also love that they talk about the plant spirits. I’m an animist, and the idea that plants possess powerful spirits has a long history in many polytheistic cultures, but it seems to not come up in Asatru much. I haven’t found as much about animal lore in Urglaawe yet, but I’m sure there must be some. Asatruar often say that the nature spirits were more important to ordinary people than the gods, but they don’t seem to talk about them much. The likely explanation is that Heathens are just as disconnected from nature as any other modern people, but I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Potential Pitfalls

I’m not Pennsylvania Dutch. Then again, I’m not Scandinavian either. Like I said, my mom was born in Germany, which is at least closer to where the Pennsylvania Dutch came from. I also live in an area that had a lot of German immigrants, but they were a completely different wave of immigration from the Pennsylvania Dutch. As far as I know the Texas Germans didn’t preserve a lot of Heathen ways, though I could be wrong. My mother-in-law is of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, but she’s not really a part of the community herself. All in all, I’m probably culturally closer to the Pennsylvania Dutch than I am to the Scandinavians, but maybe not by much.

I don’t feel like I really have much of a cultural heritage at all, alas. So I’ll probably continue being just a “generic Heathen”, though I would like to adopt more Urglaawe-like things into my personal practice. Would that be cultural appropriation?

One of the main things I like about Urglaawe is being close to the land and plant and animal spirits and seasons, but I don’t live in Pennsylvania, I live in Texas. It’s closer than Scandinavia, but still a pretty different climate and ecosystem.

Since the Pennsylvania Dutch adapted their Heathen traditions to the New World when they came from Germany, would it be OK to further adapt their Heathenry to Texas? Can I add Prickly Pear and Mescal Bean to the list of important plant spirits? Can I substitute a local animal for the groundhog? After Dunner is done driving the Frost Giants out of the North, does he come down to Texas to bring thunderstorms and fight with tornadoes?

Here’s where I’m getting my information from:

http://www.urglaawe.com/uploads/A_Brief_Introduction_to_Urglaawe_First_Edition_2009.pdf

http://urglaawe.blogspot.com/

http://www.blanzeheilkunscht.com/