Monday, November 28, 2011

Gilgamesh IV: Gilgamesh at the End of the World

Only two humans have ever been granted eternal life: Utnapishtim and his wife, the only survivors of the Great Deluge. Because they had not been drowned in the flood (thanks to a sneak tip from the kindly god Ea) the gods made them "like unto us gods." But then, to ensure that they wouldn't give any ideas to the newly created second generation of humanity, the gods sent them far away. No one could survive the trials of the journey to their home, called "the mouth of all rivers" and "the ends of the earth." But Gilgamesh never shied away from a challenge – especially now that he had nothing left to lose.

Gilgamesh marches past the Scorpion-Men of the Mashu Mountains; he trudges through twelve leagues of darkness in the Lands of Night; he rides a raft over the treacherous Waters of Death. At last he meets Utnapishtim, who tells him that death is a necessary part of human existence: only the gods are immortal. But when Gilgamesh persists, Utnapishtim tells him that immortality shall be his if he can only stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh agrees to this – then, worn out from his journey, promptly falls asleep.

When Gilgamesh awakens, he bemoans his fate. Taking pity on him, Utnapishtim tells him of a plant which grows at the bottom of the sea: those who eat it will have their youth restored to them. Tying stones to his feet, Gilgamesh sinks into the depths and finds the plant. But yet again sleep overtakes him as he returns to land – and while he slumbers a snake swallows the secret of youth! Disconsolate, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk. But as he sets foot in his city he speaks proudly of its mighty walls and the keystone of lapis which details his exploits.

Exercise 1-4: Acceptance

In your life you have probably suffered many losses: you have experienced deaths, breakups, layoffs, rejections of all sorts. How long did it take you to recover from these events?. What did you do to aid in that recovery, and what did you do that prolonged your suffering? Did you "get over it" or are you still feeling the loss? If the former, how long did it take for your grief to abate? If the latter, what do you do to get through your daily activities? What lessons would you take away from your previous grief in dealing with the present and the future? 

As the story ends, Gilgamesh has lost his chance at eternal life and renewed youth. He laments his defeat, crying out " I have not secured any good deed for myself, but only for the serpent, the lion of the ground'!" The mighty king must return to Uruk in disgrace, his mission a failure. But although he must grow old and die like his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh takes solace in his deeds and accomplishments. Still suffering from his loss, he concentrates on the things which still remain. He may not be immortal, but his city will live on after him and his deeds will be celebrated long after he is gone. At the tale's end, Gilgamesh has attained the final stage of grief, acceptance.

Acceptance does not mean that your pain goes away: rather, it means learning how to live with that pain. Some wounds cannot be healed by affirmations, positive thinking or a can-do attitude. Mia, whose 5-year old son suffers from cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities, gives a poignant account of living with that never-ending sorrow:
I accept that among all the tired days and nights of the endlessness of the hyper vigilance of his care, I know that I will grieve. I know it will come. I know it won’t stop. I have found ways to get by in giving myself the opportunity to do it, by giving myself permission. I have come to accept that I will never truly finish grieving. But I couldn’t be happier to have my special boy.
Setting manageable goals for your recovery can help: make gradual steps toward returning to where you were before tragedy struck. Understand that you will have good days and bad days: the former are not a sign that you have forgotten your loss, nor are the latter a sign that you are being weak or indulging in self-pity. Gilgamesh likely spent many nights mourning his lost friend: as he grew old, he may have ruminated ruefully on how close he came to immortality. But he still managed to rule over his people and pass on his legacy – and his story – to those who came after him.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gilgamesh III: the Death of Enkidu

The night after their return and the triumphal feast, Enkidu awakens in terror. He has dreamed that the gods have held a conference. Because Enkidu and Gilgamesh have slain Humbaba (who guarded the Cedar Forest for the god Enlil) and disrespected Ishtar, they must be punished. Because Gilgamesh is two parts god and one part man, while Enkidu is half-man and half-beast, they decide that it is Enkidu who must die.

Soon after his dream, Enkidu is overcome by a grievous illness. As he grows weaker, Enkidu curses the trapper and the harlot who brought him to Uruk. In giving him the knowledge of civilization, they have also given him the knowledge of mortality: instead of the clean death of a wild animal, he now faces a shameful death on a sickbed.  But then Shamash, God of the Sun, calls to him from the sky and reminds him that, even though his life was short, it was happy. He has known the pleasures of the countryside and city both, but most importantly:
Now Gilgamesh is your beloved brother-friend!
He will have you lie on a grand couch,
will have you lie on a couch of honor.
He will seat you in the seat of ease, the seat at his left,
so that the princes of the world kiss your feet. 
Thus reassured, Enkidu withdraws his curses and replaces them with blessings. After twelve days of suffering, the once-wild man departs this earth for the place where the dead dwell, a grim land where they "drink dirt and eat stone" in eternal darkness. Gilgamesh is inconsolable: for a week he keeps vigil beside Enkidu's corpse, trying desperately to awaken him. Finally a maggot falls from Enkidu's nose as Gilgamesh shakes him. Realizing at last that the situation is beyond hope, the heartbroken Gilgamesh allows his friend to be buried and commands his whole kingdom to mourn.

As the days pass, Gilgamesh's sorrow only grows greater. No longer does he wash himself, comb his hair or shave: instead of his royal robes, he dresses himself in the skins of wild animals. His mourning is combined with a deep, existential terror. In seeing his friend die, he has been confronted with his own mortality: he knows now that all his treasures and all his achievements must ultimately turn to dust. Turning away from his castle and his kingdom, he takes to wandering in the wilderness, crying bitterly.

Exercise 1-3: Grief
We all experience loss. Grieving over a lost child, a beloved pet, or an irredeemably broken relationship is not necessarily a sign of self-indulgence or weakness. Rather, it is a lamentation. There may be lessons to be learned from this experience, but right now there is only pain. Give yourself permission to feel that pain and express that pain. If it brings tears, cry: if it brings anger, rage. Let the pain speak until you have gained what the Greeks called catharsis – the purging of pent-up emotions and release of tension.

We place a great emphasis on keeping a stiff upper lip, on holding oneself together and being strong in the face of adversity. Expressions of pain and suffering are unseemly. Boys don't cry, and neither do women who wish to be taken seriously. Those who don't "get over it" and go on with their lives – those who are still mourning after some set period of time or who are too open about their suffering – are shunned: at best their efforts to share their pain are met with uncomfortable silences and efforts to change the subject.

In many other cultures lamentation for loss is not only acceptable but expected. In Haiti it is believed that the dead will not rest unless they receive their due of mourning: those who do not cry and show their grief at funerals run the risk of being haunted. Keening, haunting wails of pain and loss performed by hired mourners, was customary at traditional Irish funerals. Orthodox Jews who have lost a parent, child, sibling or spouse perform keriah, the ceremonial rending of the garment, to give vent to anguish by means of a controlled, religiously sanctioned act of destruction.  Gilgamesh's mourning is extreme even by Sumerian standards, but so too is his loss. His actions are not presented as a sign of his weakness but as a sign of his love and a fitting response to the death of his beloved companion.

Grief is recognition that one's life has been irrevocably changed. A part of your identity has been torn away: wife becomes widow, son becomes orphan, spouse becomes divorcee. The challenge is to create a new way of life while incorporating the old. For the grieving Gilgamesh, it is important that his friend be remembered. He orders that a monument of gold and lapis lazuli – the most precious materials known to Sumerian culture – be erected in Enkidu's honor: he also commands his subjects and all of creation to join him in his mourning.

Often grief is accompanied by a profound sense of guilt. When we lose a loved one to a disabling chronic illness, we may feel a sense of relief at their passing: their troubles are over, and so are ours. No matter how sad we feel, we may think that we are not sad enough: our happiness and healing become weapons we can use to flagellate ourselves for not loving our deceased enough. We may treat our loss as a sign of failure: if only we had done things differently, it wouldn't have come to this. The mighty Gilgamesh is not used to failure, and yet his strength and cunning cannot save Enkidu.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has defined various stages of grieving. First we see Gilgamesh going through denial as he sits with Enkidu's corpse and refuses to accept his friend's death. Then, as he realizes that Enkidu is gone, he enters the anger stage. His pain manifests itself in his refusal to attend to his duties as king and ruler. Much as "cutters" use self-mutilation to express their anger, Gilgamesh's unshorn beard, dirty face and filthy animal-skin clothing are outward signs of his internal suffering. From here comes bargaining: frightened by the presence of death, Gilgamesh resolves to conquer it by gaining immortality for himself.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gilgamesh II: Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet Humbaba – and Ishtar

Gilgamesh introduced Enkidu to the finer things of civilization. They spent many days feasting, drinking, and enjoying all the pleasures that Uruk had to offer. But soon they became bored. Finally Gilgamesh proposed a fitting quest: a journey to the Cedar Forest, where they would fight its guardian, the terrifying demon Humbaba. Enkidu cautioned his new friend, reminding him that Humbabu's "roar is a Flood, his mouth is Fire, and his breath is Death!" But despite the best efforts of Enkidu and the Noble Counselors of Uruk, Gilgamesh would not be dissuaded from his dangerous quest. Distraught, Gilgamesh's mother cried out to the great god Shamash, "Why have you inflicted a restless heart on my son?" But her pleading was for naught and at last the duo went off to do battle.

During their journey to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh has a number of terrifying dreams which make him doubt their quest. But each time Enkidu puts a positive spin on them, stating that they only foretell their ultimate victory. Finally they come to the Cedar Forest and meet Humbaba. After a brief fight, they slay him, but not before he utters a curse promising that Enkidu will die before his friend. Flush with the triumph of their victory, they pay Humbaba's words little heed: then, as Gilgamesh is washing up after the battle, he receives a marriage proposal from the goddess Ishtar, who promises him a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold in exchange for his favors. But while he showed little concern for his safety when fighting Humbaba, Gilgamesh treats Ishtar's proposal with a great deal more caution.
Tammuz, the lover of your earliest youth,
for him you have ordained lamentations year upon year!
You loved the colorful 'Little Shepherd' bird
and then hit him, breaking his wing, so
now he stands in the forest crying 'My Wing'!
You loved the supremely mighty lion,
yet you dug for him seven and again seven pits.
You loved the stallion, famed in battle,
yet you ordained for him the whip, the goad, and the lash,
ordained for him to gallop for seven and seven hours,
ordained for him drinking from muddled waters, 
Stung by his rejection, Ishtar returns to heaven and complains to her parents of Gilgamesh's disrespect. To avenge their daughter's heaven, her father Anu and mother Anrum send the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. But Enkidu and Gilgamesh slay the bull: Enkidu adds insult to injury by wrenching off the bull's hindquarter and throwing it in Ishtar's face, saying "If I could only get at you I would do the same to you."

Exercise 1-2: Boredom
Although most people associate depression with sadness, it can also manifest as a discontentment with daily life and its routines. If you constantly feel bored, you may be suffering from depression. Although boredom has received less scholarly attention than more spectacular emotions like anger and depression, it is every bit as ubiquitous, and as dangerous. Boredom has been linked to social problems like delinquency, drug abuse, low morale, poor industrial production, job turnover, and dropping out of school. List the things you find boring in your life, as well as some things (good or bad) which you do to deal with boredom.

There are several different theories as to what causes boredom. Many psychoanalysts believe that boredom results when individuals turn anger and hostility against themselves: some existentialists consider boredom a fitting response to the universe's lack of purpose and intrinsic meaning while post-modernists claim that boredom reveals the fragmentation, homogenization, narcissism, and shallowness of contemporary culture. Institutions like prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes and military barracks struggle with boredom and strive to find ways to keep their charges occupied.

According to psychologist Stephen Vodanovich, "The most common way to define boredom in Western culture is 'having nothing to do."   Early research focused on monotonous tasks performed by factory workers on an assembly line: in 1986 Norman D. Sundberg and Richard F. Farmer developed a 28-question Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS) to test an individual's propensity to boredom. Using the BPS, it soon became clear that some are more prone to boredom than others, requiring constant and ever-changing stimuli lest they fall prey to discontentment and ennui. (Adolescents, particularly adolescent males, generally have lower boredom thresholds: this may go a long way toward explaining their penchant for stupidly dangerous behavior). Gilgamesh clearly falls into that category. Unable to satisfy himself with wine, women and song, he puts himself and his friend at great risk in search of excitement.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that boredom is the antithesis of what he calls "flow," a state characterized by effortless attention, focus and absorption in a task. Csikszentmihalyi has found that flow occurs when the individual's skills match the level of challenge presented by the environment and when a task includes clear goals and immediate feedback: tasks which are too easy quickly become boring while tasks that are too difficult lead to anxiety.  Despite their luxurious and pampered life in Uruk, Gilgamesh finds himself growing discontented and restless. After finally facing a challenge from Enkidu, he is itching for another worthy opponent: the fact that Humbaba might be too much for him only serves to drive him on.

As psychologist Erich Fromm has pointed out, it is much easier to get excited by anger, rage, cruelty and the passion to destroy than by love or productive and active interests. Love and construction require patience and discipline: the lover/builder must endure frustration and overcome narcissism and greed.  Gilgamesh shows little interest in Ishtar's wiles. He is happy to risk life and limb in a fight, but less inclined to take a chance on romantic attachments. Unable to meet love with love, Gilgamesh responds to Ishtar with a more familiar and comfortable cruelty: this sets into action the events which will lead to Enkidu's death.

Like pain, boredom can be a warning signal. Richard Bargdill studied the lives of six people who complained of chronic boredom: in each case he discovered that they had relinquished their original life goals and chosen instead the path of least resistance. Although uncomfortable with their present situation, they did little to change it. Their boredom abated when they began imagining new possibilities for their lives and taking steps to make them a reality.  If you are chronically bored, you can numb the pain with drugs or distractions. You can seek excitement through ever-increasing risks. Or you can take positive steps to regain control of your life.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

From the "Started but Never Completed" File - Gilgamesh I

I've been looking through my files and discovered a few manuscripts which I started but never finished.  This piece on Gilgamesh comes from a book-in-progress on Melancholia and Magic.
Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,
he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull.
He walks out in front, the leader,
and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions.
Mighty net, protector of his people,
raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone!
Offspring of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh is strong to perfection,
son of the august cow, Rimat-Ninsun;
… Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection.

Some 3,200 years ago, a Babylonian scribe and priest named Sin-leqi-unninni compiled and standardized a number of ancient Sumerian legends of a demigod-king and his best friend. These stories were preserved on clay tablets in cuneiform script, then rediscovered in 1872 when archaeologist George Smith translated them and announced that he had "discovered among the Assyrian tablets… an account of the Flood."   Today the Epic of Gilgamesh is famous not only as the prototype for many Biblical stories but as an eloquent early example of man's struggles with depression.

Gilgamesh Finds an Enemy, and Makes a Friend

Although he was a mighty warrior, Gilgamesh lacked something in the way of leadership skills. His rule was harsh, and his penchant for deflowering virgins before their weddings and taking children from their families did not sit well with the people of Uruk. Their cries rang out to heaven until at last the gods resolved to send a worthy opponent for the arrogant king. Their creation, Enkidu, was a beast-man, covered with hair and savage as any animal. Upon seeing him trappers and hunters ran in fear, then came to King Gilgamesh to seek his assistance.
"There is a certain fellow who has come from the mountains--
he is the mightiest in the land,
his strength is as mighty as the meteorite(?) of Anu!
He continually goes over the mountains,
he continually jostles at the watering place with the animals,
he continually plants his feet opposite the watering place.  
I was afraid, so I did not go up to him.
He filled in the pits that I had dug,
wrenched out my traps that I had spread,  
released from my grasp the wild animals.
 He does not let me make my rounds in the wilderness!"
Gilgamesh's called on the services of the harlot Shamat to seduce this wild man. Her charms proved irresistible, as Enkidu stayed aroused for "six days and seven nights." But when he was sated, he discovered that the animals who had once accompanied him in the wilderness now drew away in fear. The harlot's charms had not only soothed the savage beast: they had set him on his way to becoming a civilized man.

Shamat suggested they go together to Uruk and Gilgamesh: Enkidu agreed to accompany her that he might challenge the king. Shamat introduced the wild man to civilzed pleasures like bread and beer, hoping that might calm him. But when he saw Gilgamesh preparing to bespoil yet another marital chamber, his anger rose and he blocked the doorway. After a heated wrestling match, each was impressed with the other's courage and strength and the erstwhile opponents became sworn friends.

Exercise 1-1: Strength Through Trials

Consider a situation where you have failed because you were not up to the task at hand. You may have dreamed of being a concert pianist but lacked the musical genius; you may have dreamed of medical school but didn't have the grades; you may have made it to the semifinals only to be conquered by a superior team.  Instead of using this as an excuse to beat yourself up, consider the ways in which you reorganized your life after your failure and the lessons you learned from your efforts.

"Adversity builds character" may be a cliché – but if The Epic of Gilgamesh is any indication, it's a very old one. Gilgamesh is a "wild bull," strong but untamed, who makes his subjects miserable with his arrogance and sense of entitlement. Since there is no one who can challenge him, he behaves like a spoiled child who takes whatever he wants with no regard for the feelings of others.

We may not be royalty, but we've been raised in a society where everyone can dream of becoming president and all the children are above average. If we have enough money and enough cultural capital, we can spend most of our lives without ever suffering a real failure – or achieving any kind of meaningful triumph. This may lull us into a self-righteous complacency: we may think ourselves great seafarers just because the high tide lifts our boat, and assume that anyone less fortunate than ourselves is morally or spiritually unfit.

When Enkidu arrives on the scene, Gilgamesh finally encounters his match. Some accounts have him defeating Enkidu after a long struggle: others have them fight to a draw. What is clear is that Gilgamesh has finally learned that he can be bested, that he is neither immortal nor omnipotent. In battling Enkidu, Gilgamesh is forced to come to grips with his humanity and, by extension, his fallibility and weakness. He learns humility and compassion for the subjects he had once tyrannized.

Much modern "New Age" thinking is based on the idea we create our own reality. Any problems we have are problems we have made for ourselves: if we are sad, it is because we have chosen that sadness. All we need do is accept that and we can become one of the shiny happy people living in a brave new world. But this comes with a corollary: if we are suffering, it is because we have done something to bring that suffering on ourselves.

Taking responsibility for your life is generally more useful and productive than blaming the world for all your problems. But it can also become a dangerous trap. Telling a rape survivor "no one can harm you without your permission," or asking a cancer patient what he did to create that experience is not empowering but profoundly insensitive and hurtful: if you are a victim, buying into that myth is more likely to impede than to help. It is important to take control of your life, yes – but it is also important to recognize the things that are beyond your control.

Are our sufferings sent to us as a learning experience? Possibly – but we're not under any obligation to learn from them! Gilgamesh could have crowed about his might when he finally bested Enkidu, then killed the savage who dared to challenge him, and gone on with his virgin-raping and child-stealing ways. He could have relied on his armies to conquer the intruder, keeping himself safe behind the walls of his castle. Or he could have run in terror from Enkidu, sacrificing his kingdom and his power rather than confronting the risk.  Instead he recognized that Enkidu's cause was just and that he was in the wrong. He recognized the feeling of being powerless and learned compassion for those who were powerless before him. We can deal with our failures and our limitations the same way: we can befriend them and learn their hard lessons or we can allow them to triumph over us.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Less Mirth, More Reverence: for Jennifer Jolicoeur

Jennifer Jolicoeur, owner of Athena's Home Novelties, has responded to Wintersong Tashlin and yrs. truly.  While I'm going to address some of her responses in greater detail, I should first make one clarification and apology. Her reasons for naming her company after Athena are quite different than the motivations behind the Virgin Mary Dildo or the Baby Jesus Butt Plug. She is not coming out of a place of willful disrespect and honestly believes that she is honoring Athena. I accept her sincerity: in return I would ask that she be open to the possibility that her critics are also acting out of a sincere reverence for Athena.
I believe that if you took a moment to research my company - Athena's Home Novelties before casting harsh judgement, you'd find a female company owner who is a proud pagan. 
I find it disturbing that these blogs judging my company were written without anyone contacting me first to ask WHY I named my company after my patron Goddess.
We were going to get you a dreidel... 
While I acknowledge her sincerity (as I said above), I also note that her response is in keeping with my earlier point.  Jennifer seems convinced that any offering she might make to Athena is fitting so long as she makes that offering respectfully. And while I recognize her good intentions, I would also note that there is a long history of divine taboos and proscriptions. There's an equally long history of people getting in serious trouble for violating those taboos unwittingly.  Motivation is important to modern people and Method Actors. Throughout most of history moral codes focused on actions: what you did was far more important than why you did it.

Jennifer makes another interesting statement:
I don't think it is fair that some feel that only "virgins" can serve her. 
I do not place myself higher than Athena. She is my patron Goddess and I worship her at my alter.
First, I would note that nobody was saying that only "virgins" could serve Athena. The question was whether it is appropriate to name a sex toy shop after Athena, not whether one needs an intact hymen to worship Her.  One may engage in discussion about Athena's modesty and virginity - two qualities which were central to Her character and mythology - without implying that virginity and modesty were the only or even preferred options for a society.  This is one of the great strengths of polytheism: there are many ways to honor the Divine as an individual and as a culture. But those ways are generally well-delineated with clearly marked right and wrong turns.  

I must protest this injus... AAAGGH!!
I would also point out that life is rarely "fair." It's not fair that some people are born with perfect pitch and others with tin ears; it's not fair that some are born with an innate sense of rhythm and balance while others have two left feet; it's not fair that some are born with high IQs and others with developmental disabilities. The ways of the Gods are mysterious, but rarely are they fair.  It was hardly fair that Odysseus be yanked away from his loving family for twenty years because Paris had the hots for Helen of Troy. Nor was it fair that Laocoön and his family be strangled by Poseidon's sea monsters because he was doing his job as a Trojan seer.  But if the Iliad and Odyssey are to be believed - or to be recognized as a valuable part of Hellenic mythology - we will have to address that the Gods can sometimes be unjust, arbitrary and downright cruel. 

Jennifer goes on to provide a lengthy list of things she has accomplished and charitable donations she has made through her store.  She also notes "If the mighty Athena was not pleased with my path, she would have stopped me long ago. Instead, she walks beside me, guides me and is a powerful ally." This is not an entirely unreasonable assumption. Jennifer's UPG (Uncorroborated Personal Gnosis) that Athena wanted her to name a sex toy store after her seems to be supported by the fact that said store continues to succeed and to thrive.  But this also points to a problem with UPG - namely, that not everyone is going to accept it, especially in cases where the UPG seems to conflict with the established lore.  If I say that peace-loving Kwan Yin wanted me to set up a mixed martial arts and weapons supply house in Her name, or the most sober of Orishas wants me to open Obatala's Liquor Store, I can hardly be surprised if people question my motivations.

In the end this is a dispute about theology.  It is possible for reasonable people to disagree on these issues and yet remain cordial or even friendly to each other.  I don't accept Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets, nor do I believe the Q'uran and Hadiths should be the ultimate arbiters in all matters spiritual, social and scientific. But I can still acknowledge the contributions Islam has made to our world and remain friends with Muslims. In a similar vein I might question the decision to name a sex toy shop after a modest virgin Goddess yet recognize the sincerity and devotion of those who do.

In fact, I'd say this kind of discussion is vital to developing a polytheistic spiritual community.  The fact that we care enough to debate these topics suggest we are moving beyond play-acting and into genuine devotion.  We are arguing about how the Gods should be respected, but we are in agreement that They are worthy of respect.   

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mirth and Rever... well, Mirth, anyway

Wintersong Tashlin recently posted a very interesting essay on a sex toy shop/distributor named "Athena's Home Novelties." He sums up his objections:
Now, if you have read Notes From a Barking Shaman before, or in fact have taken even a cursory glance at, you surely know that I am the last person to object to sex on moral or spiritual grounds! A thorough embracing of sex and sexuality as part of one’s spiritual journey is a central feature in my life and Work.
Nor do I object to companies taking deity names. There is a long and noble history of businesses honoring a patron or inviting the gods’ blessing through name choices. Fire, Asrik, and I chose the name Brigantian Designs LLC for our now-defunct design firm as an homage to the Celtic goddess Brigit, who we hoped would look with favor on our endeavors.
If you have even a cursory level of knowledge of Greek mythology, it is not hard to see what my problem is with “Athena’s Home Novelties.” You see, a driving element in the lore surrounding Athena is that She is a virgin goddess. We’re not talking about a deity simply without any tales featuring sex, or whose purview was some unrelated area of life. No, the fact that Athena is a virgin is actually really important in Her lore and Her place in Greek culture and mythology.
Not only is She virginal, She’s modest. In a culture that treated bare breasts as fashion accessories (even fellow virgin goddess Artemis is often seen in an off-the-shoulder number too revealing for Project Runway), Athena is portrayed fully clothed in either voluminous robes or armor.
It is possible that you could choose a worse Greek deity to name an “Adult Novelties” company after, but for the life of me, none leap to mind.
Maybe they consulted Burger King's former ad agency
Galina Krasskova commented on Facebook "Once again, it's ok to mock polytheism. Try naming your company 'Mohammed's sex accessories" or "Jesus' home novelties" and see how quickly your company lasts. >_< ."  I think this is actually symptomatic of something even more profoundly wrong within our culture.  Witness Divine Interventions, a sex toy shop which features such hits as the Egg of Shiva (vibrating power bullet sold separately), the Virgin Mary dildo, and the Baby Jesus Butt Plug.  What we see here isn't a disrespect for polytheism, but for the very concept of Divinity.

The problem as I see it is is that many within our culture find words like "reverence" and "respect" more obscene than slapping a deity's face on a silicone dick or wiping your ass on a Torah scroll.  Kneeling before the Gods is groveling in fear: condemning blasphemy is bigotry and intolerance. The rantings of online trolls must be protected by law. Holy scriptures of any religion, meanwhile, are silly superstitions which can be mocked at will.

While the Abrahamic religions are notorious for their anti-blasphemy proscriptions, they didn't come up with the idea.  Socrates was put to death by the Athenian government for blasphemy and impiety. Confucianism places great stock in li, or ritual propriety: those who violated that propriety could be subject to legal sanction. In Seneca's tragedy Hercules Furens, a raging Juno calls forth from the darkest caverns of Dis the evil spirit Impietas.  Upon the death of the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaton, he was erased from the official records by the priests of the old Gods and referred to ever after as "the Heretic."

Throughout different times and cultures, there was an idea that respect for the Gods and reverence for their religion was vital if the social order were to be preserved. Blasphemy was a far more serious crime than murder. The drunken thug who slays his friend in a tavern brawl kills an individual: the blasphemer threatens the very underpinnings of the culture.This is more than a simple fear that the Gods might punish the impious (although that was a very real belief which is largely downplayed today by those seeking kinder, gentler, more indulgent deities).  It was an acknowledgement that there is Something Greater than humanity.

Since the Enlightenment we have deposed the Gods and placed ourselves on Their thrones. Where once we cherished the words of Deity, now we hold sacrosanct the rights of individuals to say what they want, when they want and where they want. Where once we worshipped the Gods, we now engage in acts of ritualistic blasphemy to prove ourselves superior to Them.  Even among those who strive to recreate the worship of the pre-monotheist era, there's an incredible resistance to the idea that we might need to show piety to the Sacred, that we might need to declare something Holy, that we might be forced to deal with "thou Shalts" and "thou Shalt Nots."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On the Silent Wings of Freedom: Defining Liberty

In my contribution to the Turtle Island 42 blog, I went into some detail about the word "Freedom" and its connection to the Goddess Columbia.  Since the topic continues to garner attention (and discussion), I thought it was worthwhile to comment further.

When I noted on Wild Hunt that "the American fetish for "rights" is not necessarily shared by everyone the world over. In many cultures law and order, peace and prosperity, and conformity to social norms are all seen as far more important than an individual's right to troll Internet forums, follow a minority religion or buy pornography,"  Apuleius Platonicus weighed in with his strongly-felt opinions:
Kenaz, when Africans were enslaved and brought in chains to the "New World", were they deprived of their freedom, or not? What was it that Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, etc, rose up in rebellion over? If it was not freedom, then please tell me what it was. 
To deny that "freedom" is something that all human beings desire and have a "right" to is tantamount to saying that there is nothing wrong with slavery if those enslaved have no concept of freedom to begin with. In fact, this was, in essence, precisely the justification that Europeans gave for enslaving Africans. 
Or perhaps you are claiming that Africans only learned about freedom from Europeans? But I seriously doubt that.
* * *
I completely reject the notion that modern Europeans are the only people who cherish freedom. I find the very idea intrinsically racist. 
In fact, the ideas about freedom, equality, democracy, etc, that we associate with the Enlightenment were really a revival of ideas from pre-Christian societies, including of course Greek and Roman societies, but also Germanic, Celtic and other cultures. 
Chinese history is also filled with examples of popular uprisings against injustice and oppression, going back 3,000 years or more.
Apuleius is a smart fellow: while we've crossed swords in the past I definitely recognize his intelligence even when I disagree with his conclusions. But though he keeps using the word "freedom," he seems unwilling or unable to provide a definition - or, more precisely, to explain what freedom means to him.  Hence, I'm forced to look to a different authority:

free·dom [free-duhm] Show IPA  noun
1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than inconfinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial.
2. exemption from external control, interference, regulation,etc.
3. the power to determine action without restraint.
4. political or national independence.
5. personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery: a slave who bought his freedom.
 #2 gets to the heart of a comment from my TI42 post.  Ian O. took exception to my statement that Lincoln justified war against the Confederate States - who had chosen secession with widespread support from their citizens - in the name of "freedom."
Why call the Confederate movement 'popular'? They only form a comfortable 'popular' majority if you exclude the rest of the U.S. at the time *and* exclude the slaves they oppressed.  
Let's keep in mind, that the number of 'popularly' elected officials representing the to-be-Confederate states at the national level were inflated on the basis of enslaved African populations who had no influence over their selection. 
Calling Lincoln's refusal to acknowledge secession a brutal assault on freedom buys into the lies of Lost Cause history that pretends the Confederacy stood for anything else but slavery and expanding white supremacy.  
Really, the Confederate elites made no bones about their desire to preserve slavery and, if they had their druthers, returning places like Haiti to it.
I do not intend to be an apologist for slavery or the sins of the Confederacy. But the inconvenient fact remains that the people of the southern states chose to dissolve the Union and form their own government. Their reasons for that secession were wrong-headed, even evil.  Nevertheless it was a popular choice, and one which they were willing to defend by taking up arms.  The people of the Confederacy did not greet the Union Army as liberators when they came marching through town: they were brought back into the Union only after a long, bloody and brutal struggle.  And let's also put the issue of "liberating the slaves" into some perspective: while the Confederate attitude toward blacks and slavery was repellent Lincoln's proposed solutions to the "Negro problem" were no less problematic:
In his annual message to Congress in December of [1861] , Lincoln made his first public statement as president in support of colonization. Former slaves seeking refuge across Union lines, who were regarded as contraband, had aroused the racist fears of northern whites and threatened to become an economic burden. To alleviate the problem, Lincoln suggested that Congress appropriate funds for colonizing the slaves. He also advocated an additional step. "It might be well to consider," he submitted, "whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization."10 Thus he called for not just a relief plan for the freedmen, but for a full program of racial separation.
This brings us to one of the pesky inconveniences of freedom: sometimes free people will make choices we find repellent.  Freed from Communist tyranny, the Serbians residing in the former Yugoslavia launched genocidal war against Bosnians and Albanians residing in the region.  With the fall of the Mubarek regime, Egypt's Muslim majority has grown increasingly intolerant of its Coptic Christian minority.   And we all know how well our plan to withdraw support to Shah Reha Pahlavi and encourage a democratic government in Iran worked out - not to mention our Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

If we were justified in preserving the Union through force and dragging the south kicking and screaming back under United States control, is the Russian government justified in maintaining control over Chechnya with an oppressive military presence?  What about our efforts to "free" Chile from the popularly elected Allende government - or the Soviet tanks that "liberated" Czechoslovakia and Hungary? When does it become necessary to take away the right to popular rule in order to protect "Freedom."

At what point are we justified in taking away freedom in order to save it? And what do we do when the newly liberated don't recognize the superiority of European and American models of democracy and choose to  build a political system and society based on other models? There are no easy answers - but I think it's important that we raise the questions anyway.  Until we have some clear idea of what "Freedom" means, we are at risk of falling prey to any demagogue looking to justify this week's convenient atrocity.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ethics Beyond Good and Evil: for Layo

Responding to my earlier post (or to the post from R.O. which inspired it: as is often the case, it's unclear what triggered this), Layo said:
Oh for fuck's sake. Only a fucking ham slice would claim that just because they personally have zero emotional intelligence, there's no difference between good and evil.
Is killing babies evil? I don't know too many people who would justify the murder of innocents.  (To be fair, my sample may be skewed since I would quickly dissociate myself from anyone who tried).  But now let's go to the next question: at what point does a fetus become an innocent baby? And for bonus points, answer this: how much obligation do we have to protect innocent babies from those who would murder them?  Is allowing 1,000 babies to be killed more evil than killing their murderer and thereby stopping the slaughter?

The readers of my blog are likely to have a certain degree of consensus on this issue.  I suspect that most are in favor of a woman's right to safe and legal abortion.  Should I post this conundrum to a Catholic forum, I suspect I might find a very different consensus.  They might well point out the inherent absurdity of condemning infanticide while permitting late-term abortions. They might even express approval at those who shut down the dark Satanic mills of the abortion industry through civil disobedience or acts of vandalism.  A few might even go so far as to state that George Tiller's murder was a mixed (or even an unmixed) blessing, since his death saved the lives of many babies. 

Speak for yourself, Filan...

People on both sides of this issue have very strong feelings: their emotional intelligence has led them to unshakeable yet contradictory conclusions.  Given this dichotomy, it's clear that "emotional intelligence" is an unreliable guide at best. 

Most abusers will happily explain to you that "the bitch had it coming." Most criminals will gladly point to all the extenuating circumstances that led up to their misdeeds and paint themselves as victims of an unjust society.  The most dastardly will find ways to excuse or explain their actions - indeed, humanity as a species may be programmed for this sort of self-justification.  Outside of horror films, very few people willfully and knowingly do what they feel is evil for the sake of evil.   

Fuck. To clarify, the perception that one can either be a Powerful Abuser or a Deluded Victim is a false dichotomy. It's used by abusive fuckwads on people who disapprove of abusiveness. "If you don't like abusing people, then you're a brainwashed victim." I will beat your face in if that's what it takes to defend myself, but that's a far cry from using as much of my power as I can to force other people to do what I want just because, wow, I examined the consequences of being a fucking dick, and short-term, it's a win! Selfish, irresponsible use of power does not make you a free, lordly Ubermensch. It makes you an asshole and a coward and everybody knows it. You know it. You do it because you're afraid all the time. Everyone knows you're trying to make other people suffer the way you once suffered. The only people who think it's great are people like you: nutless porkboys.
And I'm sure that the person who gets hir face beaten in by Layo will see Layo as evil and hirself as a victim.  Nor would I expect Layo to see herself as a powerful abuser. As I pointed out above, abusers typically see themselves as victims when they are called on the carpet. I would expect her to feel quite satisfied with her morality and to justify her actions (to herself and to others) by whatever means prove necessary.

To that end, it appears Layo is engaging in a favorite technique of feminist argument: attempting to derail conversation by painting herself as a victim and those who disagree with her as abusers.    Layo would rather see herself as a victim than as an abuser, because in her circles oppressors are bad people. To that end she tries to use her femininity as a trump card: she hopes to take the moral advantage away from her male opponent, while simultaneously absolving herself from any taint of superiority. Alas, this technique is doomed to failure from the start. Victims win pity if they are lucky and contempt if they aren't, but only rarely do they get anything but scraps thrown to them by those who are more fortunate.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

New Kenaz Filan Post at Turtle Island 42 Initiative: On Columbia and Freedom

Galina Krasskova and Ukumbwa Sauti, in response to the DC40 Prayer Initiative (a Christian magical working which seeks to "lay siege to Washington" and attack "the manifestations of the acts of Satan on our TVs, radios, movies and throughout our society" have proposed a magical counterattack.  The Turtle Island 42 Initiative (named after one of the indigenous names for present-day America) seeks:
... to organize focused learning, support and daily spiritual work in validation of and gratitude for indigenous spirituality and Ancestral traditions that have sustained human life in harmony with nature and Spirit for the majority of human history. Organizers will be posting daily prayers, invocations and information in the hopes of strengthening understanding and active spiritual support within the indigenous and Ancestral traditions that so many people in this country and across the globe carry with pride and confidence.
* * * * *
TI42 rejects the disrespect inherent in the Doctrine of Discovery, monotheistic imperialism and organized and predatory missionary work.  TI42 stands with the indigenous people of Turtle Island and beyond and all those who struggle to carry forward their Ancestral indigenous traditions from all corners of this world.
In support of their cause, I have contributed an essay on Columbia, the patroness of America and protector of freedom. More precisely, I've attempted to analyze what exactly "Freedom" means.  Like any Goddess worthy of the title, Columbia is a complex and multi-faceted deity: we do Her a disservice when we reduce Her to a patriotic cliche or when we dismiss Her as a mere symbol of American imperialism and oppression.  By understanding how we have used and misused Her rallying cry, we may be better able to govern Her land in a fair and just fashion.  I hope the words which I have offered may prove to be a worthy gift and that they will be of service to Her.

Ethics, Magic and Power Claimed and Disclaimed: for Frater R.O.

Magical ethics continue to be a hotly debated topic in the blogosphere, with comments coming in from several of the regulars. Among the many worthwhile statements in an excellent post, Fr. Rufus Opus offered this:
The fact is, you don't know right from wrong, and you're really not capable of figuring it out. You might think you know right from wrong, but you don't. You just think you do.
I see R.O's assertion and raise him one: most people want to be told right from wrong.  In an upcoming piece I wrote for the TI42 Initiative, I wrote about the terrible responsibility associated with freedom.  Kierkegaard considered freedom to be the root of The Concept of Anxiety for a reason.  Freedom is scary: if we can do whatever we want, what's to stop us from any atrocity that catches our fancy?  

I think this is one of the reasons why self-righteous moralistic pronouncements have become such a big part of modern Paganism. If we can do magic, we gain access to tremendous power. We can maim or kill our enemies with no repercussions: it's been quite some time since the justice system punished people for burning poppets or calling on demons. We can make our desired lust objects fall madly into bed with us: Rophynol may be banned but love/lust spells are still perfectly legal.  We can do all sorts of wonderful and horrible things to the deserving and undeserving alike. 

Instead of claiming that power and responsibility, some would rather disclaim it. And so we hear that no real Witch would ever cast a curse or try controlling the will of another, that the Threefold Law will wreak triune vengeance on anyone foolish enough to do evil magic, that their cosmic power sources can only be used for "the highest and greatest good."  Some hope that by doing so they can placate their detractors. Others hope to resist the temptation to fall into immorality. And still others shun curses and love spells because they fear failure rather than success: if your mojo doesn't rise to the occasion, it can wreak havoc on your self-image as a Great and Powerful High Priest/ess. 

Taken at its simplest meaning - and few of the Rede-Thumpers ever go beyond that - the Wiccan Rede can be summed up as "do whatever you want so long as nobody gets hurt." It allows you to feel good and righteous and moral simply by avoiding curses, negativity and general bad vibes.  It provides a structure against which you can weigh your actions and declare them virtuous.  (To be fair, this is not unique to Wicca and its spin-offs - plenty of folks use the Bible, Q'uran, etc. not to guide their actions but to justify them).  Alas, as R.O. rightly points out:
But here's the fucking thing: there is no right or wrong, there's only what you do, and the consequences, and whether you're happy with them or not. 
Everything else is motherfucking bullshit, a lie to keep you bound to the feeding trough like the good little fat piggy you are, until they're ready to eat you. Smoked, salted, fried, chopped, baked, diced with asparagus, red potatoes, and alfredo sauce. That's right, you're a ham slice. In shrink wrap, sitting on a shelf waiting to be consumed, staying carefully in the boundaries you have to stay in until someone gets hungry.
Moral and ethical codes are there for a reason - and most often that reason is "to preserve the existing order of things." When we disclaim our power, we disclaim our relevance. Giving up our right and responsibility to cast curses and "malevolent magic" will do nothing to pacify the Fundamentalists who think us servants of Satan.  Neither will it make us better, more loving people.  (Don't believe me? Take a look at a typical online witch-war.  In lieu of curses, you'll see innumerable comments about "legal actions" involving the FBI, the court system, your ISP's upstream provider and various other manifestations of the Avenging God wielding his Terrible Swift Sword against the scoffers and mockers).  

Magic works best in liminal states: it exists on the fringes of society and in the shadowy areas where science, rationality and consensus reality can no longer be trusted. Any attempt to harness it or tie it to some ironclad list of shalts and shalt nots is doomed to failure. We can offer our thoughts on why something is or is not a good idea: we can look to history in an attempt to determine what does or does not work in the short and long run. But in the end we are left with the responsibility to reshape our world in our own image and to accept the consequences of our actions. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Modern Magic and Magical Thinking: for Sean the Sorcerer

Sith Lord Sean has many powerful enemies. 
In response to my earlier post about Paul Huson's Mastering Witchcraft,  Sean the Sorcerer offered his thoughts.  I wanted to give them due attention, since Sean is not only a Sorcerer but a Mystic and a Sith Lord who has received extensive martial arts training from Bruce Lee and David Carradine.

Says Sean:

I enjoy magic as a kind of psychological art form, but if one’s goal is power, it seems pretty clear that the sorcery of technology, high finance, propaganda, organized religion, advertising, smart bombs, etc. is far more powerful than folk magic, ceremonial magic or any other magical tradition I know 

That may well be - but very few of us have any kind of real access to those types of sorcery. If I had a few dozen smart bombs the world would be a significantly less stupid place:  alas, I don't.  As far as high finance goes, I'm guessing that more than 99% of my readers are members of the 99%. Very few if any wander in the corridors of power. (Those who do are presumably smart enough to use pseudonyms so they aren't connected to weirdo occultist corners of the blogosphere).  I have no access to an advertising agency or to a bully pulpit whereby I can rally my millions of listeners.  Hence I - and everyone else reading this - have to make do with what we have, and seek out whatever competitive edge we can gain through magical or other means.

The first thing any magician needs to do is make an honest assessment of hirself.  This is especially true of those who wish to wander down the Left-Hand Path.  I've seen many a diabolical superman set up a "Satanic Temple" which consisted of a website, a chatroom and a mailing list.  Few have done anything which would suggest they were members of the "Alien Elite:" if their spelling and grammar are any indication, most would have a hard time gaining admittance to the Alien Mediocre.

One of the things which make folk magic useful is how well-defined the magician's ends are.  It's hard to ascertain the success or failure of a ritual aimed at "enlightenment" or "inner peace." A love spell either works (your target reciprocates your feelings) or it doesn't: a job-hunting spell either leads to employment or it fails.  It helps keep a magician realistic and humble: it reminds us of what we can do and what we can't.  The Nietzschean chest-pounders may fancy themselves Übermenschen: the working magician knows hir weaknesses and through that knowledge understands hir strengths.
“Vodou Money Magic”? How’s that working out for the poor folks in Haiti? If the state of societies where this sort of thing is prevalent is any indication, power-seekers should avoid their magic like the plague. Thanks anyway, but I think I’ll stick to “Think and Grow Rich.”
As far as how things are working out for the poor folks in Haiti, perhaps Sean could take a look at the book's Introduction, wherein I note,
Cynics frequently ask "If Vodou is so powerful, why is Haiti the poorest country in the Western hemisphere?" We might turn the question around. Vodou has survived a century of slavery, three centuries of oppression, nineteen years of U.S. occupation of Haiti, and innumerable efforts by state and church (Catholic and Evangelical) to eradicate this "primitive superstition." Like the Haitian people, Vodou exists in the face of overwhelming odds; its continuing existence is testimony to its power and to the strength of its followers.
But while we are on the subject of books, let's consider Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich.  According to Wikipedia, by the time of Hill's death in 1970 this 1937 tome had sold over 20 million copies: since that time many more people have read Hill's work.  How many of them have grown rich? About the only thing we can say definitively is that it made Napoleon Hill rich - and so I must grudgingly admit that he is one up on yrs. truly in that regard.

I wonder here if Sean has not lost himself in the "American dream." Given the facts about American social mobility (or the lack thereof), I submit that Think and Grow Rich is no more likely to bring its readers wealth than Vodou Money MagicThe Key of Solomon,  or the Blu-Ray version of Star Wars Episodes I-VI.  As Kurt Vonnegut said in Slaughterhouse-Five
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, "It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but might as well be." It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"... 
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mastering Witchcraft and Love Spells

As the controversy about the Lilith Rite at PCon 2011 dies down, yet another controversy arises in the blogosphere.  ("'Twas Ever Thus," says Mr. Natural... ).  This brouhaha has nothing to do with gender privilege, Bay Area entitlement or exclusionary rites at public conventions. Instead, it concerns a dusty and eldritch tome dating back to 1970 - Paul Huson's Mastering Witchcraft.

Those who are looking for a shiny, happy, tree-hugging, none-harming, law-threefolding guide to the Great Goddess will find themselves in for a surprise when they pick up Huson.   Remember how you've been told (and told, and told...) that Witchcraft has nothing to do with Satanism? Huson was absent when that memo was distributed.  He suggests a prospective Witch start their journey by saying the Paternoster ("Our Father") backwards - a traditional method of dedicating one's soul to Ol' Splitfoot.  And if that doesn't curl your toes right down to the tips of your 10,000 year pre-Christian European lineage, he also offers some spells which are of dubious morality. At Doing Magick, Robert takes exception to Huson's "love philtres."
Huson talks about targeting a sex partner. Most of what he says is simply the grand art of seduction. No harm no foul. He then moves on to putting "philters" in the "target's" drinks. This is nothing other than a magickal roofie. 
Apologists make three arguments that I can remember. Frankly, reading about this guy just irritates me. So, I haven't read much of the recent writings on the topic. The first apology is that he is merely showing us how the magick can work, not advocating it. The second is that this book is great because no one else would dare publish that stuff. The third is that he was trying to reclaim witchcraft from the fluffy types and therefore included harsher things. 
My counter argument is as follows: Bullshit 
Yup that is about it.
Referring to a potential sleeping partner as a target is dehumanizing and wrong. There should be no debate over that. I call potential sexual partners women. Which do you feel should be used? That isn't political correctness. That is having respect for all human beings. 
There may be some good stuff in that book but the outright evil of slipping things into people's drinks negates all of that.
Robert obviously has strong feelings on this issue, and not without reason.  There's something decidedly creepy about slipping someone a magical Mickey Finn in the hopes sie will acquiesce to your sexual desires.  But I think that one thing that is coming into play here is the division between Hermetic and Ceremonial Magic(k) (which appears to be Robert's primary field of study and interest) and Folk Magic.  According to Robert:
[M]y take on magick is that it is a spiritual exercise. It isn't about raw power or control of other humans. Though, it can be used for those things. In my opinion, dropping a "philter" into someone's drink is damaging spiritually to the operator as well as the 'target'. 
My definition of magick is a rip off of Crowley's "Magick is the art and science of causing change in conformity with the will." The definition I use for my personal magick is "Magick is the willed art and science of unfolding the soul." When we do things not in alignment with the nature of our souls, we close down, not open up. I call this stepping away from our virtue.
Compare this to the opening of one of my books on Haitian folk magic, Vodou Money Magic, wherein I said "Vodou is not about finding enlightenment or attaining inner peace. Vodou is about power." This appears to be why most poor people resort to folk magic: because they seek to gain some advantage in a world where the odds are stacked against them.  It is spiritual energy channeled toward some material end. Petitioners seek to avoid trouble from the police - or, should that fail, to sway a judge and jury in their favor. They seek to improve their luck in business or in gambling: they want protection from unruly johns or hostile competitors. And, often, they want assistance in love.

Few things are more powerful and more disempowering than love. Love isn't just blind, it's frequently deaf, drunk and dumber than a box of thumbtacks. Those suffering from obsessive love will do anything to win their object of desire. They will continue on despite humiliation, rejection, restraining orders and common sense: they will tolerate beatings, infidelity, and abuse; they will lie, cheat, steal and even kill to win their target's heart (or, failing that, to stop its beating: many a burning love has turned into an equally fiery hate).  The Greeks called this raw, predatory, savage force eros and frequently called on it not only to win a sex partner but to curse an enemy.

From the beginning Hermetic magic has been the provence of a literate, privileged few.  The first Hermetics were largely monks and priests from wealthy families; the Golden Dawn was largely comprised of slumming bourgeoisie; while Crowley claimed "the Law is for all," his books assumed readers had a public school-honed knowledge of classical Greek and Latin. These people (like just about everyone reading this blog) had the bottom rungs of Maslow's hierarchy of needs sorted.  They had the time to concern themselves with self-actualization and unfolding their souls.  And yet they, like the peasant seeking to bed a comely village maiden, could be brought down by eros. Francis Barrett's The Magus contained instructions on how to call on Venus "to obtain the love of women" and Cornelius Agrippa described how witches procured love and lust by "venereal collyries."

Huson's love philtres may be morally questionable (OK, morally reprehensible). But they are part of a long cross-cultural tradition which has been practiced by princes and paupers, by the devout and the diabolical, by starry-eyed romantics and cynical lechers.   We can reject Mastering Witchcraft because we find its ethical premises distasteful.  We will have a much harder time constructing a useful magical system without acknowledging and mastering the force which makes us desperate enough to resort to philtres and Rophynol. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Yep, Even More on the Lilith Rite at PCon 2011: for Miss E

In response to the continuing discussion on the Amazon Priestess Tribe's ill-fated Lilith ritual at Pantheacon 2011, Miss E said:
I've been following the issue a little on Wild Hunt, and I read your blog regularly (I guess this is the blog version of "long time listener, first time caller!")
You're making me feel like the bastard child of Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo here.

Seriously, I'm glad you have enjoyed my blog so far.  Given that you are a fan of  John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces - arguably the greatest book ever written about New Orleans - it's obvious that you have good taste.  Looking at your comment, I suspect we are more in agreement than it might seem at a cursory glance.
There are loads of issues to tease out, it seemed like the primary one was the suitability of such a ritual for Pantheacon - but it always seems to segue way in to a sort of debate on the theological legitimacy of Dianic religion. I'm assuming the inflammatory comments by Budapest prompt this - but I suspect it would happen even without them, and I wonder how that element of the debate grapples with the traditions that having sub sects, rituals, and roles that differentiate between sex and/or gender. 
I've tried very hard to limit my discussion to "is a ritual which excludes transpeople appropriate at a public convention?" I recognize the Dianics' right to free association and to define their thealogy as they see fit.  Whether I agree or disagree with their conclusions is irrelevant: I am not a member of their community and have no interest in joining.  I felt that, for the purposes of working through the issue at hand, discussions about Dianic theology would only serve to derail the problems which could actually be solved by the Pantheacon organizers.

That being said, I think every religion is, and should be, subject to questioning about controversial tenets.  The Roman Catholic Church is regularly called to task for its refusal to ordain women and married men to the priesthood.  Islamic authorities are often questioned about the meaning of "jihad" and what it requires when an individual's perceived duties as a Muslim conflict with hir duties as a citizen of a secular state.  Often these questions are critical: sometimes they are put forth by people with hostile agendas. But they are part and parcel of an open society. While the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, it does not promise you a cheering section.
The whole situation, in several writings, feels laden with a sort of "Oppression Olympics" flavor, perhaps that's inevitable.
Unfortunately, there is a disparity in privilege and cultural capital here. While this may cause discomfort for some people who prefer to think themselves innocent victims of the Evil Patriarchy, it needs to be dragged into the light.  Here's Sarah Thompson talking about her experiences:
I am, as it turns out, the second transsexual woman in my family. My first cousin committed suicide about 20 years ago as a direct reaction to the negative responses of my own family to her coming out as transsexual. My family’s response to her death was to remain absolutely silent – I didn’t find out for many years what had really happened. Her death, and the guilt that it incubated in my family, meant that I had a slightly easier time – all they did was disown me. 
Some people say that transsexual women possess male privilege, and that they seek to use that privilege, consciously or otherwise, to oppress other women or to gain access to women’s space. Some say that transsexual women aren’t women at all, twisting the argument into one over the mere definition of a word, rather than honestly owning up to their bigotry. 
I can say, quite categorically, that transsexual women do not have privilege over other women. In practice, I have found that, when someone doesn’t know that I’m transsexual, I’m discriminated against just like any other woman. When they know, or suspect, that I’m also transsexual, this typically causes further discrimination. I’ve been thrown off a D.Phil programme at Oxford University, survived a violent attempted murder that was ignored by the police, been fired from several jobs, denied many job interviews, been paid less than my male (and cis-female) counterparts, all specifically because people knew I was transsexual. I’m lucky. I have a bitter privilege that was denied my cousin:  
I’m alive.
I may add that Sarah is not only more fortunate than her cousin: she is more fortunate than those honored each year at the International Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Transwomen are regularly beaten, murdered and discriminated against: as an SPLC report put it, many consider them to be "Disposable People." Given this, it behooves the Dianics to recognize that their trans-exclusionary policies cause pain to a group which has no shortage of detractors and enemies.  If they feel their theology requires this exclusion - and I recognize their right to exclude whom they will for any reason or for no reason at all - it would be fitting for them to at least acknowledge their privileged position in this particular state of affairs.
I'm certainly not a Dianic, or even a Wiccan for that matter, but I am a humourless feminist, and as such, I've just been marveling over your last paragraph! So, by finding value in physiological, biochemical experience of being female, women are somehow reducing themselves to...yeah, wow!
As I said in the original post to which you responded, "Since a number of women have chimed in with testimonials about how Dianic Witchcraft has had a positive effect on them, I presume at least some people are getting something out of it. It's not my thing, but it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg if a bunch of people want to get together for dick-swinging or Yoni-worshipping." I don't get it, but that is not surprising.  As someone said once in a Usenet .sigfile "the things which I do not know are part of an infinite set."

My major objection to "moon-blood mysteries" comes when they are used like literacy tests and poll taxes in the Jim Crow-era South.  Invariably when pressed I've heard that yes, a cisgendered woman who had never experienced menarche for medical reasons would be welcomed at a Dianic "moon-blood celebration," where a transwoman would not.  At which point the argument shifts to questions of "socialization" and "childhood experiences." Frankly, I think that this convenient use of one's mysteries to keep out "the wrong sort" is far more blasphemous than grunting misogynistic jokes.  The fratboy who makes jokes about women being "life support systems for vaginas" acknowledges his vulgarity and profanity. He doesn't try to express his bigotry in religious terms, or claim that it is his sacred duty to objectify those whose bodies are different than his own.
Personally I think all feminine identified should get the opportunity to celebrate that embodied experience if they feel called to it. Unfortunately, I doubt the current atmosphere is conducive to discussions of shared and disparate experiences with the nature of physicality between women of all identities.
I think the major issue is whether an exclusionary ritual should be held at a public event. There is some chance we will be able to come to some resolution of that problem. The value of exclusionary "womyn-born-womyn" policies and their inherent oppressiveness or lack thereof will probably get solved around the time the Catholics resolve the issue of ordaining women... in other words, I ain't holding my breath. But as with many conundrums, I think there is value in respectful discussion even when there is little or no hope of coming to universal agreement.