A Day of Remembrance

Mexican buckeye

Today is the first anniversary of my dad’s death. I was with him when he died in the hospice, though he was no longer conscious by then. But I know I was there, and I’m glad I was, even though being there to witness his death was not a pleasant experience.

At around the time of his death today, I went out to sit by his tree we planted by our ritual circle. My mother-in-law bought us the tree as a gift. It was her idea to plant the tree in his honor. When she asked which kind of tree we wanted, I just told her I wanted a small, native understory tree that wouldn’t mind growing underneath our big oaks, so she chose a Mexican buckeye. My husband dug the hole for it, and I sprinkled some of his ashes into the hole before we put the tree in. It’s across the circle from where we buried one of our cats, Kay-kay, when she passed away (she got an American beautyberry planted over her grave). Kay-kay passed away in September of 2013, on the week of the Autumn Equinox and the same week dad was diagnosed with cancer. Then dad died six months later, right after the Spring Equinox of 2014.

My dad’s tree just started to get its leaves, and after sitting there for a while, I noticed it’s got a few small, pink flowers starting to bloom. The tree is only about knee-high right now, but it will grow.

The Goddess of Spring and the Dawn

Here is a neat myth I just found: Urglaawe Myth of Die Oschdre

It tells a tale of how the spring goddess brings bright colors to the world. This resonates well with spring here in Texas, with the Texas Mountain Laurels, Texas Redbuds, and now the Texas Bluebonnets starting to bloom.

Winter weather in Texas is gray. We only rarely get the pretty parts of winter: the snowflakes and icicles. No, we get gray clouds, fog, and drizzle. We do get some freak warm weather through the winter. I’ve had Yule parties where I needed to turn the air conditioner on. But most plants and animals know it’s not spring yet when we have those warm periods in December, January, or February. They wait, because the next week it could be below freezing again.

But by the Spring Equinox, it’s safe to assume we’ll get no more freezes again. At the same time, colorful flowers start to bloom and colorful summer migratory birds like warblers, painted buntings, and hummingbirds start to arrive. Our non-migratory birds like mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees start building new nests and soon you can hear the chirp of this year’s chicks up in the trees.

So yes, the idea of Ostara bringing color to a gray world fits very well here. I’m glad I found this myth.

There’s so little about Ostara out there. Some Heathens don’t even think she’s a real goddess and say that Bede just made her up. Others ignore her because she’s not found in the Scandinavian lore which they base their religion on. Some say she’s the southern name for a known Scandinavian goddess like Freya or Idunna and substitute accordingly.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think she’s one of the “other” Vanir. You know, one of the ones besides Frey, Freya, and Njord who weren’t involved in the peace negotiations between the Aesir and Vanir. I also think that England and Central Europe knew the Vanir better than Scandinavia, because it’s a warmer, more fertile climate. I think that Frau Holle and Nerthus also may be Vanic deities that were better known in these more southern areas, and this is why their lore has been better preserved in the folklore of these areas than it was in Scandinavia.

I try to follow a Germanic version of the standard Neopagan Eight Holidays, using English, German, and Pennsylvania Dutch sources for inspiration. One thing I have observed is that the holidays opposite each other (that is, the ones that are exactly six months apart) balance each other in a nice way. They end up acting like Ying/Yang counterparts to each other.

The Autumn Equinox comes in September, and that’s usually when we get our first cold front that finally breaks the summer heat. The temperatures go from the high 90’s or low 100’s every day to a relatively refreshing high 80’s or low 90’s. Trust me, after getting through another Texas August, a high of “only” 92 is a sign the Wild Hunt and the Frost Giants are on their way! There’s a definite sense of seasonal change, of flipping a switch, and now we’re finally done with the suffocating 100 degree heat.

The Spring Equinox is the opposite of that. By January and February, we’re getting a little sick of the dreary drizzle with occasional freezes. But when the goddess Ostara arrives, we know it’s really Spring this time. It’s flipped to the light half of the year. It’s really unlikely we’re going to get any more freezes, so it’s safe to start planting out warm-weather plants. The trees know it’s safe put out their buds and flowers and the birds know it’s safe to start laying eggs. We know for sure that winter is done with.

Ostara is as real to me as any other deity I’ve encountered. One of the first group rituals I ever led was an Ostara ritual where the goddess actually showed up. I did it in a Wiccan style since most of the people there were Wiccans, with a “Drawing Down” of the goddess. And apparently, it worked! I was never completely possessed, since I remember everything that happened. I felt like I was in a state of “flow”, and the whole ritual went perfectly smoothly, and afterward the other participants told me how great it was and how they really felt the presence of the goddess.

So if she’s not a real deity, then I don’t know what is.

There’s a good reason why Ostara is the goddess of both Spring and the Dawn. If Yule is the midnight of the year, and Groundhog Day is when you start to see the first glow of sunlight on the horizon, then Ostara is daybreak when the sun comes up over the horizon and bathes the land in morning light. Ostara is the goddess of new beginnings, of chicks and bunnies and other baby animals, of flowers and bees and seeds. When she arrives, it’s an exciting time of year, full of potential.

I don’t care if the Scandinavians didn’t know her. I know her.

Hospitality for Heathens

John Beckett recently posted Hospitality for Humans about how to make people feel welcome at public rituals and events. Good timing, since I’m about to do my first ritual with my Meetup.

Hospitality is one of the Nine Noble Virtues, but it seems like a lot of Heathens don’t have the same idea of what it means that I do. I am reminded of my first and only time I tried to attend a public Asatru event.

It was some time around 2006 or so. I had recently graduated from college with my Bachelor’s degree and was still living with my college roommates in Austin. I was participating on an online forum for the Texas Asatru League, and they had posted about an event they were going to host over the weekend at a state park (if I remember correctly) that was about a two hour drive away. I decided to be daring and register for it. They said they were going to do an Odin Blot there, and it sounded like it would be really cool to do a ritual to my patron god with a bunch of like-minded folks.

I showed up around sundown, and went to the main dining hall. Inside, people were just starting to gather around a table. A woman was making corn tortillas from scratch in a tortilla press and frying them in a cast iron skillet on the stove. I came in and sat at the table, and nobody offered me food or drink. Instead, people gathered around and stared at me. I tried to politely introduce myself, and questions started. Who are you? Are you here alone? How did you hear about this event? Why did you decide to come here? Where are you from?

When I told them I was from Austin, one guy said, “Oh yeah, that’s where all the Communists are!” He then added, “but I’m sure you’re not like that.”

At this point I was in a cold sweat and my heart was pounding.

As soon as there was a break in the interrogation, I mean conversation, I excused myself, saying I needed to get something out of my car.

Instead, I jumped in my car and sped away.

I’ve never gone to another Asatru event again.

Keep in mind, this event was posted publicly on this forum that anyone could join. Anyone could register. I thought that event was open to the public. I had no trouble registering for it despite not personally knowing anyone who was going. I thought it would be an opportunity to meet some new friends, especially since I don’t have any Heathen friends.

I’m not sure if the Texas Asatru League still exists. I never got on their online forum again.

Say what you will about Wiccans, but I’ve never been treated that way at Wiccan gatherings. They can be the opposite, hugging me when I didn’t signal that I was OK with that and otherwise being a bit TOO touchy-feely with me, but at least they don’t call me a Communist just for living in Austin and act like I don’t belong there.

It’s Spring

This past week was Spring Break, so I was off work, though I didn’t have any fun plans. I spent most of Spring Break doing Frigg-type things around the house like cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking big batches of stews and casseroles to go in the freezer for days when I’m too tired to cook dinner when I get home from work. But the weather was so gorgeous Thursday that I decided to till the back garden.

My acre of land is mostly wooded with more live oak and mountain laurel trees than we can count. It’s nice, but fruits and vegetables require full sun, so I’ve got them stuck in whichever sunny spots I could find. I ended up with one vegetable garden in the back, one in the front next to the driveway, and a row of dwarf fruit trees (consisting of a pomegranate, Meyer lemon, satsuma, kumquat, loquat, and fig tree) lining the street under the power lines. All the rest of the yard is in shade.

The front yard vegetable garden consists of four 4’x20′ raised beds framed with cedar with 3 foot paths between. I felt it was more important to get that garden looking nice since it’s in the front yard. I’ve got nothing but compliments from neighbors about it. It sure is nice to not have a homeowner’s association.

The back garden is messier. Raised beds back there is further down on our to-do list, but I really should do it some time. Since I live in the Texas Hill Country, the ground here is like “would you like some soil with that limestone?” and our back yard is even rockier than the front. My husband is working on building a pond back there, and he dug down about a foot before he hit solid rock. He’s had to rent a jackhammer to work on the rest.

However, the advantage of the back yard is that the deer don’t go back there. They could if they really wanted to. We only have a short chain-link fence they could easily jump over, but so far they haven’t bothered. Our deer are still picky and only eat the really tasty, easily-accessible stuff. For example, over the winter I tried to grow a mixture of salad greens in the front garden, and the deer ate all the lettuce, but left the arugula.

I planted peas in the back this winter because deer find legumes especially delicious, but the rest of the back garden became horribly overgrown with weeds over the winter, especially this one particularly nasty weed that gets these sticky burrs on it.

So this week I finally decided I would just till up the whole thing, hopefully uprooting all those weeds before it’s time to plant warm-season crops.

But when you’re an animist, tilling the garden isn’t that simple. Before I got out the noisy machine with whirring blades that chops up the soil, mutilates plants, and will probably kill some earthworms and insects in the process, I felt I should give an offering to the land spirits first. A combination of thanks and apology for the havoc I’m about to wreak. I poured out a cup of milk for them, and sat there for a bit listening to the songs of the mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees for a while.

Then it was time to let the rototiller rip!

tilling back garden 006

The high that day was 78, so it turned out to be sweaty work, but I finally got it done by late afternoon. All that is left back there now are the two rows of peas on their trellises.

I hope those sticky plants don’t grow back.

As I sat on the back porch resting, a flock of Cedar Waxwings landed in the tree above and preened themselves for a while.

Cedar waxwings in oak tree

Live oak trees keep their leaves all winter and lose them at this time of year, right before growing catkins and new green leaves. So the oaks aren’t looking too good right now, and my porch is covered with fallen oak leaves.

Meanwhile, the second most common tree in my yard, the Texas mountain laurels, are blooming and filling the air with their sweet, grape kool-aid fragrance.

blooming trees 001

Friday morning, I went out to look over my work in the back garden again, before sitting on the porch to drink my coffee and listen to the dawn chorus. A chickadee landed in the tree above me and starting singing. It’s amazing how loud such a small creature can be. I listened to him for a while, and then a second chickadee flew over and landed right beside him. They started twittering frantically, and at first I thought they were fighting, since chickadees are somewhat aggressive little birds. But then I looked more closely and noticed that they weren’t fighting after all!

Apparently that second chickadee was a female who really liked his song!

The mockingbirds have already got chicks. I heard them chirping in the oak trees in the front a few days ago, and saw one of the parents catching bugs and bringing them up there. A couple of days later I saw a male cardinal picking out sunflower seeds from our bird feeder and giving them to a female cardinal perched above it (the bird version of giving your girlfriend a box of chocolates). Now there were chickadees gettin’s busy right above my head!

It’s definitely spring.

Hail Ostara!

What “Nature-Based Religion” Means to Me

One of the big divisions in the Big Tent of Paganism seems to be between those who consider it to be a “nature-based” or “earth-centered” religion and those who say they are centered on the gods. Back in the early 2000’s when I first ventured into online paganism it was Wiccans vs. Reconstructionists. Now it’s changed somewhat to “naturalist/humanist/atheist pagans vs. “devotional polytheists”, but the overall argument doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. “Do you worship Nature or do you worship the Gods?” is the question.

I’ve always thought that division was strange and doesn’t really fit my understanding of the main distinguishing feature of the Abrahamic monotheisms from the various indigenous religions of the world. I first got into paganism growing up as an atheist kid in a very Christian culture, and indigenous religions were very appealing precisely because they don’t have this division between the divine and nature. The thought that you had to pick between the gods and nature didn’t even occur to me until I got online and started reading the flame wars between the nature-worshiping pagans and the god-worshiping pagans.

As I always understood it, the main difference between the Abrahamic religions and pretty much all the indigenous religions of the world is how they view the relationship between the divine, humans, and the rest of nature. Abrahamic monotheism teaches that humans are the most important thing in all creation, specially created by the One God, who is separate from nature, and God created all the rest of nature to serve us. None of the polytheistic religions I know of put humans in such a privileged position.

That’s a big difference in world views, and the monotheists I’ve discussed this with agree with me. The only difference is they think it’s a good thing and shows monotheism is superior to the polytheistic indigenous religions they replaced.

I remember when I was a kid, and one of my cats died. All my friends were Christians, and we got into an argument about whether cats have souls. It always bothered me that anyone would assume only humans have souls and no other animals do, but that seems to be a standard belief among Christians.  Some Christians will go ahead and allow for the idea that beloved pets go to Heaven, but only because they would miss their pets when they got to Heaven, so God would allow their pets to be there with them. Your beloved dog or cat will go to Heaven for your sake, not for their own sake, as if they earn a soul through the love of a human. Wild animals don’t have this honor.

That just seemed wrong to me, and really put me off Christianity at an early age. When I was a freshman in college, I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center that specialized in injured birds of prey. Most of them had been harmed by humans in some way, either directly (by getting shot or caught in traps) or indirectly (by running into windows or getting tangled in barbed wire). Sometimes we couldn’t save the animal and it had to be euthanized. By this time I had just discovered Wicca and would say a silent prayer to “the Goddess” as the bird died, because I knew that everyone else working there were either Christians or atheists and all thought of the birds as being objects with no souls. The point of saving them was completely utilitarian, because they were useful as pest-control in the ecosystem, not because they had any kind of intrinsic worth. I liked the idea that there would be a deity out there who cared about these birds for their own sake. When we released a bird back into the wild, I hoped that the Goddess appreciated what we had done, not because we had repaired a damaged object that belongs to us, but because we had saved the life of a fellow creature and had righted a wrong that had happened when humans caused this animal harm.

The anthropocentric and utilitarian view of nature seems to go hand-in-hand with being monotheistic. There is only one God, and humans are his favorite creature. All the rest of Nature was created for his favored creatures to have dominion over and use as we please. Only human life has intrinsic value. Nonhuman life only has value in that it benefits human life.

In polytheism, however, there are lots of gods and spirits, and some of them favor humans, but not all. For example, in Heathenry the Aesir and Vanir have more to do with humans, while the Jotnar don’t seem to be big fans of humans in general. This leads some Asatruar to view the Jotnar as “evil”, but what if they are just the gods of other parts of nature? Maybe they favor wolves or sharks or rattlesnakes over humans. The only reason they’re “evil” is because they aren’t on our side, but that’s just a matter of perspective.

In “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter of the book The Wind in the Willows, the god Pan is depicted as the savior of the woodland animals the same way Jesus is the savior of humans. This book was written when western society was just starting to re-discover paganism. It was a revolutionary idea that animals would have their own god that cared about them and protected them from the traps and snares humans set for them. After all, according to Christianity, don’t humans have the right to trap as many animals as they want? Animals are just objects for us to use after all.

I know not all monotheists think this way, but even the most nature-friendly monotheists still put humans in a superior position. Maybe instead of conquering Nature, God wants us to benevolently care for it as “stewards”, but the One God still ranks us above everything else.

Since the universe has been put into this hierarchy, with God on top, then humans, then the rest of nature, it also means God is separate from nature. In the story of Exodus, Moses demonstrates that his God is the only true God when he breaks the rules of nature by doing things like turning the Nile to blood. If you know anything about the Egyptian gods, you know Osiris is the god of the Nile. Turning the Nile to blood was a direct attack on Osiris, and Osiris can do nothing to stop it. The Egyptian gods are bound by the laws of nature, but the Hebrew god can override them. Hence Moses proves his god is superior.

And from then on, people got the idea that a “real” god must be able to violate the laws of nature. I see this attitude even in modern pagans. The problem is no one has been able to demonstrate a god actually doing that, which leads some people to become atheists because if a god can’t perform these types of “miracles” then they must not be real.

The lack of any evidence for miracles that defy the laws of nature is discussed in John Michael Greer’s excellent book A World Full of Gods as an argument in favor of polytheism over monotheism. In polytheistic cultures, the many gods are all bound by the laws of Nature. They can tweak the odds in our favor, but they can’t outright stop the sun in the sky for us. In Norse mythology, the gods are still bound by Wyrd, and other polytheistic cultures have similar concepts of some sort of natural order that the gods are subject to. That seems to fit better when our observations about reality than the idea of an all-powerful God who can suspend the laws of nature at will.

This difference can also be seen when comparing Genesis to other creation stories. In Genesis, God comes first, and then he creates the universe. In the creation stories from polytheistic cultures the universe come first and the gods come later. In Norse mythology there’s a union of Fire and Ice. In Greek mythology there’s a union of Earth and Sky. In some stories there’s a vast cosmic ocean, or a cosmic egg, but in all of these stories, the gods we worship come later after these vague and hard-to-personify cosmic forces do their thing.

So if anything, Nature is superior to the gods, rather than the other way around. I realize this may sound terribly impious to some polytheists, but that’s not how it looks to me in the mythology and in my observations about reality. However, I prefer to say the gods are part of Nature, just like humans and other animals and plants and mountains and rivers, and lose the hierarchy altogether in favor of an interconnected web. John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Sounds a lot like Wyrd to me, which makes me think our polytheistic ancestors knew about these “invisible cords” too. Monotheism instead tries to “pick out” God and humans from the rest of Nature.

The Theory of Evolution shows that humans are just another animal. This is the main reason why Creationists object to it, because in their worldview, humans have to be special. They also hate the idea that that the universe was around for billions of years before humans existed, and humans have only been around for a minuscule fraction of the history of the universe. If that’s true, then how could the universe have been created just for us? But nothing in polytheistic theology says the world was created just for us, just like nothing suggests that the gods are separate from and superior to nature.

Some Heathens say that the Jotnar, being the gods of wild nature, are our enemies, and therefore nature is our enemy. The Aesir, the gods of human civilization, separated us from nature, and that was good for us. Life was harsh before we had technology that could shield us from nature. Then we got agriculture, cities, running water, electric lights, television, air conditioning, modern medicine, the internet, and life just keeps getting  better and better for us the more separated we become from nature. Right?

Yet anthropologists are starting to discover that life for hunter-gatherers was much more pleasant in many ways than it was after the adoption of agriculture. Hunter-gatherers had better diets, suffered fewer diseases, and actually worked less and had more leisure time than people living in agricultural communities.

And while modern life has given us many benefits, it also brings with it many maladies (mental and physical) never seen before. Not to mention the damage it’s done to the planet as a whole. Perhaps we’ve been separated from nature too much, and perhaps it’s not only making us physically and mentally ill, but spiritually ill as well.

I don’t think Norse mythology supports this view that nature is bad and must be conquered. The Jotnar are not always enemies of the gods. The gods are the children of giants. Many gods also marry and have children with giants. Even Thor, the god who defends us from the giants, is the son of a giantess, and not just any giantess, but Mother Earth herself. Thor only fights giants that directly threaten humans or the Aesir. Other than that, he leaves them be. He knows wiping them out would be a very bad idea, and he also knows he couldn’t if he tried. Thor may favor humans, but he’s not an all-powerful god, only one Power in a universe with many.

In “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold writes about how we need to redefine our relationship with the Land as a community which we’re a part of. He writes, “Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth,” to illustrate the utilitarian, anthropocentric view of humanity’s relationship with nature. I find it very significant that he uses Abraham, the father of monotheism himself, to make his point. He then goes on to discuss how this worldview has led to the environmental problems we face, and how we need to replace it with a “Land Ethic” where the Land has rights just as humans do, and humans have an ethical obligation to respect those rights.

It seems to me that polytheism is much more compatible with the Land Ethic than Abraham’s monotheism. In polytheism, the universe is one big community of many gods, many spirits, many species of plants and animals, and humans are just another citizen of the community. Of course, you can have a community with no gods in it, which may be how “atheist pagans” view it, but if pagan gods like Pan or Osiris do exist, they are part of the community too. They are not separate like the monotheistic god supposedly is.

To be frank, when polytheists insist upon the same utilitarian and anthropocentric view of nature that monotheists have, it saddens me. It seems like a wasted opportunity to really radically overhaul our worldview to something much closer to what our ancestors believed. They seem to be merely substituting the pagan gods in for the monotheistic god but keeping everything else the same. To our ancestors, it was completely obvious that humans and the gods were part of nature just like everything else. Perhaps it was so obvious that they didn’t even have to talk about it or write about it much, which might give us the impression that nature wasn’t as important to them as it was. It’s like the old saying about how fish don’t notice water until they’re not in it anymore. For most the history of our species, we were just another animal playing our part in the ecosystem like all the other animals. We didn’t need people like John Muir or Henry David Thoreau or Aldo Leopold to tell us how important nature was. We couldn’t miss nature and long for it until we were separated from it. Terms like “nature-based religion” weren’t needed until “religion” was no longer nature-based.

The modern pagan movement is not just an attempt to get back to our Old Gods, but also our old relationship with Nature where we were part of it rather than its conqueror and master. After hundreds or thousands of years of this, humans are finally starting to look back at to how we saw the world before, worshiping many gods and living in a community of many different creatures. They’re starting to see the damage that believing in only One True God that favors us above all the rest of nature has caused to us and the rest of our community. I think this is a very positive thing.

But in order to be successful at this, we have to get rid of all those harmful beliefs we got from Abrahamic monotheism, and that includes a utilitarian view of nature, the idea that nature is evil and must be conquered, and the idea that humans are special and set apart from the rest of the natural world.

After all, in the myth of Ragnarok, the Jotnar make war against the Aesir, and the Aesir lose. If you view the Jotnar as gods of wild nature, and the Aesir as gods of civilization, then maybe this means that if civilization tries to fight nature, it will always lose. Yet fighting nature is what we’ve been trying to do for hundreds of years, and look where it’s gotten us. We’re living in a totally unsustainable manner that will destroy us in the end if we don’t stop.

Perhaps it’s time to give the Jotnar and other spirits of the wild their due respect, quit being so anthropocentric about everything, and start viewing ourselves as part of the community again.