Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stonehenge Stuff & Solstice Thoughts

"What's with all the Stonehenge stuff these days?" So inquires a fellow Irish American who shares such predilections, but who wonders why so many book reviews in a row. I answered her on Facebook:
"it's a continuation of the Celtic Buddhist concepts and inventions that I've been researching the past year, and which I spoke about at Maynooth two months ago. I learned there listening to real neopagans who were also scholars that I needed to find out more about the contexts in Ireland and Celtic cultures which they worked in, to understand the eclecticism into which Buddhist converts were mixing and matching. Thus, my witchy pagan reading lately, which I've strung up as blog posts timed for the solstice, wouldn't you know?"

I'm sitting typing this in the sun, not even 2 p.m., as it already lengthens across me and the (mostly) black cat, Gary, who since my work laptop was partially resurrected, likes to keep me company and watch the screen. Yesterday we were also here as the rays basked us, and I thought about my research interests, and how they intersected with my personal ones. My wife noted last night-- as she prints out my blog entries if not book reviews (too arcane) to send off to a prisoner whom we hope to visit Christmas morning-- how my posts had not been non-academic for this current mailing. So, at least two readers have remarked, if obliquely, on this bent. I figured I'd ruminate.

An interlibrary loan, Michael Strimska's edited "Modern Paganism in World Cultures," finally came in nearly two months after I'd requested it. As I wrote about in a related Irish entry after the Maynooth one, at Loughcrew cairns, I'd been talking to Carole Cusack, a medievalist like me, who after her work on the Christianization of the Saxons in Germany became so disheartened that she gravitated into the study of paganism. This anthology she recommended to me, as I'd already done background reading into neopaganism. She'd published her book on the decline of the traditional ways under the assaults of missionaries, kings, and Teutonic Knights; it's listed by Strimska in the preface, so far what I've finished of his collection.

Insiders within these movements-- who are mostly professional and all academically trained scholars-- present case studies from America, the British Isles, and Europe. Here, Italians, Irish, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, a few in our U.S. military, English "Heathenry," and Icelandic & North American Asatru have all returned to, reinvented, and revived their ethnic and "natural"-- in both senses of the term-- traditional practices. This process for me from Celtic Reconstructionism I knew, but I was less aware of a renaissance other European nationalities, glossy profiles about pixieish Björk among her island's fellow elf-followers aside.

I'll be intrigued to find out more; Cusack praised its fine essay on Druidry, but only later did I discover it's written by another scholar with whom we'd shared information at that very conference that weekend, Jenny Butler of University College, Cork. She had given as a participant-researcher her perspective on Irish neopaganism, her dissertation topic. As I have commented before, the pairing of those who believe with those who analyze we are very familiar with from every variety of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, but for lesser-known practices, those able to combine belief with detachment to survey their field may account for their modest profile even in scholarship to date. (Pre-eminent scholar Ronald Hutton tells of such denigration by his own colleagues in "Witches, Druids, and King Arthur"-- as reviewed by me in my previous blog post and on Amazon US.)

As I studied Strimska's introduction, discussing such misconceptions, my wife had the BBC World News on. A segment came on about the rise of British pagans, now up to 100,000 and rapidly increasing. A man with a hooded antler decoration stood among a circle of worshippers at yesterday's winter solstice. The broadcast took pains to be fair. (We noted in the same segment a house in Nazareth's excavation was labelled as when and where "Jesus is said to have lived"-- this careful qualification'd never be uttered in America.) Still, my decidedly liberal and tolerant (compared to me) wife snorted as the earnest, happy pagan family interviewed was shown on their suburban estate in Dorset. My fourteen-year-old son asked me then what were pagans. Are they satanists? I replied, looking up from my book, that they were not, but they were people looking for a nature-based religion that went back to pre-Christian practices and beliefs. Education comes slowly for us.

So far, as with witches and the controversy that I mentioned in chairing a panel discussion on goddess spirituality at NUI Maynooth, even basic terms become contentious. Like "queer," can a despised group reclaim the word that has denigrated them? Is neo-pagan a put-down or an honest admission of the lack of continuity most Western Europeans suffer when seeking to resurrect a heritage warped into "folklore" at best and obliterated most of the time by Western church and state over millennia?

Is it safe to declare one's self a pagan when this represents opposition to the ruling powers in global cultures, even in secular, scientific, or capitalist guises? Pagans, as Strimska carefully explains in his study, debate similar questions. I think of neopagans as a depth charge, feared by many who condemn or caricature the Other, diffused from our ghost tales and vampiric fantasies, full of forests and specters, rituals and spells. Certainly-- as my family even displayed reacting to their coverage on the most even-handed network an American at least might imagine, the BBC-- pagans remain misunderstood. I wonder how many of them I have met without knowing it, with so much ostracization, prejudice, and mockery aligned against them?

After a quarter-century teaching, I conjure up only one student that spoke up, a confident woman who was ten years ago about my age. Among an enormous class (over 50) for "Technology, Culture & Society," the course I give regularly, a liberal-arts token in the pile of technical and business chips credited for the gambler that this degree program will result in lucre and ease for those enrolled where I labor, a wild card indeed. She wore a small silver pentacle, a metal disk, around her neck, so I asked her later about it after I had noticed it while handing out the syllabus. She replied simply that she was a pagan. Her confidence and ease impressed me-- I wonder if she as so many poised and motivated students whom I teach was a veteran-- and I learned a bit more from her about pentangle and pentagram vs. pentacle, for good measure. My encounter with these insignia limited to heavy-metal logos and "Sir Gawain & the Grene Knyght," a rare chance for me to talk about a topic even remotely connected to my ever-receding, Ph.D. trained, once intense and now by professional duty fading, medievalist past.

That quiz I took a few months ago fixing me at a neat hundred percent both for Mahayana Buddhism (a tendency I read by a "Buddheo-pagan" that in his opinion urges "antidotes" for difficulties while Theravada "avoids" them, an interesting distinction; he said Tantric-Bo strains via Tibet then embraced and engaged these energies rather than eluding them, by magic and propitiation and control) and "Neo-Pagan" did cause me to reflect. Given my research and thinking the past nearly two years the first caused me less of a double-take than the second match-up. After all, I don't count myself as a tree-hugger. I am pale, resist the sun, and am a stay-at-homebody. While I admire the outdoors I prefer to encounter it in the shade, from inside, in a comfy chair and cup of tea-- much like my setting this moment.

But then I tuned in to my wavelength. I recalled from a teenaged study in my religion class where I found myself rooting more for the witch of Endor than the prophet Samuel; the temple women who served Astarte by spirit as sex rather than the grim priests who slaughtered those worshippers; the Druids who seemed to me far too compliant to give it over to humorless Patrick; the Lithuanians who I learned stood against the Christians until nearly 1400 as the last heathens in Western Europe: I found myself often even as a bookish lad on the side of these underdogs.

I return often in my mind to the lemon groves where I once played that now lie under the Foothill 210 Freeway, and now with my eye to the hills around me carved by gaunt stucco monstrosities. "Developer" to me? An occupation meriting relegation to the lowest circle of hell. New technology allows builders to prop up concrete where they could not before, the relentless push for big-box this and sprawl-fueled that which epitomizes my native overpopulated city. Open space translates as undeveloped land; construction must always push up our quarterly GDP. Progress-- while nods I give to laptops and dentistry and potable water and my doughty Volvo-- can sap my spirits.

Contemplating the continued shabbiness of the Northern legacy unravelling from the Fenian "physical-force tradition" that I've long studied in Irish republicanism; our foreign policy as revenge tangled via one-god dogma through a commander-in-chief however democratically elected; our politics; the systematic reduction of myself as a teacher and my students as learners into corporatized standardization learning platforms and pre-fab formats; the chain store mentality that erodes the little guys and gals; the media demands to spend more this holiday season despite blizzards and foreclosures. Ringing changes on my usual litany of how weary this society makes me.

Perhaps the interest I have in informed dissent, in principled individualism, in the soul's "alternatives" betrays only my romanticism, my hypocrisy as I churn this out on a keyboard and a wireless network's wonder, designed by such as those whom I prepare for that labor force, allow me to pose as if an ethical Luddite. In broadcasting this to you, I am reminded of Margot Adler's survey in her (yes, that review's in line next) "Drawing Down the Moon." Computer workers and data analysts disproportionately comprise a share of those involved in neopaganism. They would agree with what I tell those students in that very course-- the moral Luddite does not as mythic Ned Ludd burn down the factory mills simply out of mindless revolt.

A Luddite weighs the human costs against the machine's demands. That's what I try to do. I cannot give up this keyboard, and I certainly cannot unless Deep Springs College in Death Valley invites me to be one of their ranch-hand profs escape the long reach of the monitor that logs me in and time-stamps my daily required labor as I "deliver" rather more often than truly teach mass-produced course content to my students. Even the post-Thanksgiving shift away from birds in our house and rarely fish on the dish poses a new challenge for my family. But, I attempt as I wrestle with these forces not to "avoid" but as would a good Mahayana to "aspire" to rearrange my troubled soul and soothe my restless intellect. That is, to make out of my ever-shifting religious, spiritual, and mental landscape a place where I can make of not sense than create peace out of my surroundings.

Outside, the sun fell beneath the trees as it neared four o'clock. The brisk wind has stopped and the cat next to my chair looks out on the shadows. I can feel the prematurely twilit change on my hands in the temperature as I finish this. The knoll around our house means that darkness comes even sooner to this small neck of what once were not woods but weeds. But what are weeds unless classified by us? Left alone, a humble wildflower, a nameless bloom, a gnarled thicket. Last night, where the sun set, overhead a crescent moon tilted up as if to hold high above herself a bit of if not all the night sky.

(You know what Stonehenge looks like, and probably those in Druidic panoply. So, a found object, the assertion of the organic over the artificial. We see what we do by framing it, part of our ancient human quality to search for patterns all around us in the natural realm. Out of these we may make up stories and we may see gods. At one time, everyone in our family trees did this. They passed their patterns on: culture. They looked up and made shapes out of stars. We look at them long after the Greeks and Romans turned away from pagan ways. Yet, can we separate their perception of a Big Dipper from our random plot of celestial magnitudes? Have we evolved towards or away from this cognitive tendency today? If so, is this move away from narrative and metaphor towards dissection and measurement an advancement towards the triumph of reason, or a lurch away from ecological balance and awed humility? End of lecture: see Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" (reviewed by me on Amazon US & this blog a while back) for a rejoinder from the laboratory.

Photo via blogmate, "Bo" of a tree near his Cambridge dwelling, where seasons really do change. Behind the chicken-wire, sylvan mystery opens. This image may be a bit too Georgia O'Keefe after reflection, but I found myself drawn to it. And I never was one for Freud, by the by, so there.)

1 comment:

Bo said...

Glad you liked the picture---I took it in a sense of exuberant mischief, as it encapsulates what I think of most pagans.

Thoughtful piece, as always---I very much enjoyed it.