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Posts Tagged ‘Eclecticism’

Back in April when I first started to come out as a Pagan, I mentioned that one of my goals was to figure out some good ways to celebrate the Wheel of the Year.  Although my emphasis is typically on the Hellenic gods, and my personal practice draws more from reconstructionism than anywhere else, I do not necessarily self-identify as a hard reconstructionist.  I’m suspicious about extensive New Age influence in Neopaganism, and I am cranky about eclecticism generally, at the same time I feel drawn to multiple strands of pagan worship and theology.  To make a long story short, I feel drawn to celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year (solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days) despite the fact that as a whole it is a recent phenomenon.  As John Michael Greer is fond of pointing out, the validity of a spiritual practice comes from whether or not it works, not whether or not it is ancient.

One of my earliest specific pagan epiphanies was with the Wheel of the Year.  As a teen, I was immensely interested in mythology and pagan religion (ancient and neo-), but was often nervous about telling other people about it, so I did a lot of reading and research in secret.  One day I was sixteen or seventeen or so, I was looking at a calendar with the eight pagan holidays on it, and I was calmly and peacefully but intensely struck by the rightness of it.  It was particularly significant to me because that kind of spiritual reaction was the kind of thing I had always been raised to believe would be the Holy Ghost’s witness of the truth of Mormonism.  And there I was having it over a pagan calendar.  I called up my best friend John (maybe he’s reading this?), and told him about it.  It was really the beginning of my secret adolescent religious rebellion.

Anyway, since I have felt comfortable ebracing my Pagan identity, I have let three of the eight major holidays pass by without doing anything about them, because I don’t know what to do.  I don’t really have a group of fellow-believers to practice my religion with, so most of my spiritual expression winds up being in a personal or family context.  Luckily, my beautiful and sexy Christian wife is more than willing to be supportive and take part, but since it is my thing, I really have to take the lead.

I like holidays and festivities a lot, and that’s what I am looking for here.  Not rituals, but traditions, the things that make the day and the season feel festive and special: decorations, meals, traditions, things to think about.  The eightfold year is a cycle, so it lends itself well to that kind of thing, but it can be hard to find resources about it.  Most of what is available on the internet is either too generally stated to be useful, or it is presented in ritual form, which is definitely not what I am loking for.  While ultimately I do plan on engaging in seasonal religious ritual as part of my Wheel of the Year celebration, I really want to also lay a festive foundation for said ritual.  Maybe I’m going about it backwards, but this is the way it makes sense to me, and it is the best way to share with friends and family.  Over time, I expect my religious and ritual explorations would influence and affect the festive traditions.  But I want something to start with.

The other consideration I have is the similarities between some of the holidays on the pagan calendar and Christian and civic holidays.  Christmas is similar to Yule, Samhain matches Halloween, the Spring Equinox parallels Easter, etc.  For most pagans, this is not a problem: they give rpesents on Yule instead of christmas, and they decorate eggs and such on the Equinox instead of Easter (shoot, the Easter Bunny actually makes a lot more sense as a part of a pagan holiday than a Christian one).  But my family is interfaith, which means we’re celebrating both sets.  So I don’t want two Easters.  I want to figure out how to celebrate Easter and the Spring Equinox, etc., in a way that makes them both not only enjoyable but also sufficiently distinct.

I finally sat down about a week ago to start hammering all of this out.  I showed it to my wife, and she thought it all seemed interesting and fun, but she also pointed out that the problem for her was that it was not always clear what all of these traditions actually mean.  It’s a fair question, and one that I can’t easily answer.  This list is really something I have cobbled together from a lot of different sources, whatever sounded good to me, and from things I intuited on my own.  Unfortunately, my own personal theology is still in development, so it is not easy to weave my own meanings into these traditions.  That gets us back to the long view: as my spirituality develops, I imagine I (we) will tinker with these holidays and alter or replace traditions that do not make sense in my own pagan context, and emphasizing those that do.

So without further ado, here is my Official Wheel of the Year Resource.  Feel free to add your comments, suggestions, insights, questions, whatever.

Beltaine
Date:
May 1.
Description: A time to light bonfires and revel, to celebrate fertility and sexuality.
Traditions: Most importantly… hot sex. Possibly sex outside if practical. Hot sex and huge bonfires, lit on a hilltop (toss juniper sprigs in the fire, and leap through it for good luck)..
Holiday Food: Rabbit, Strawberries (strawberry pie or strawberry shortcake), Mead
Decorations: Flame, wildflowers, rowan crosses, may boughs hung over doors and windows.

Midsummer
Date:
June 21
Description: A second bonfire—bonfires on the water (the ashes bring good luck), and active holiday where the sun is at maximum power and energy is strongest.
Traditions: The veil between the otherworld (or the un/subconscious) and the waking world is thin, it is a good time for resolutions, and for putting plans into effect. Keep vigil through the shortest night, waiting for the rising sun. It is also a good time to gether fresh herbs.
Holiday Food: Lamb, fresh produce, lemon merangue pie.
Decorations: Wheels, sun symbols, St. John’s Wort.

Lughnasa
Date:
August 1.
Description: The first harvest festival, Lughnasa is a time for being outside, for celebrating the physical world with games and physical activity. It’s a time for dancing and bonfires, for blessing the fields. And it’s a good time for marriages.
Traditions: Bread is baked in the shape of a man and eaten to represent the Dying God (Cernunnos, Dionysus, Odin, Osiris, Jesus, Arthur, the Green Man).
Holiday Food: Bread, beer, watermelon, barbecue.
Decorations: The Green Man, a flaming wheel.

Autumn Equinox
Date: September 21
Description: The second harvest festival—the harvest of fruit—a time of thanksgiving and recollection, the in-gathering of experience.
Traditions: Make and burn a straw or wicker man, to represent the burning of the Harvest Lord.
Holiday Food: Corncakes, Nuts, Berries, Fruit Pies (not apple), Wine.
Decorations: Pinecones, acorns, gourds, gold, red, orange, and brown.

Samhain
Date:
November 1
Description: A night when the borders between the living and the dead are the thinnest, the last harvest. Time is abolished and the spirits of the dead walk free. A time for remembering those who have gone before. The time of year when livestock were slaughtered.
Traditions: Leave an extra place at the dinner table for dead ancestors. A perfect time for divination. The day after Samhain is a day forcleaning and getting rid of old things.
Holiday Food: Pork Roast, Apples, Apple Pie, Cider, Hazelnuts, Pumpkin Bread
Decorations: Leave a candle burning in a western window to guide the spirits of the dead.

Yule
Date: December 21
Description: The shortest day of the year, this is a time to celebrate the rebirth of the sun. It is a time of rebirth and stillness, a time to celebrate intuition. There is a lot of symbolism between intuition, the Pole Star, the Great Bear, and King Arthur.
Traditions: A Yule log is burned for ten days (Yuletide lasts from December 20 to December 31), and then the ashes are strewn on the plantings in the spring. The wood from the log is yept to light the yule log the next year. Give libations to the fruit trees.
Holiday Food: Baked goods in sun shapes, and mulled wine.
Decorations: Sun wheels, decorated trees, candles, wreaths of mistletoe, holly, and ivy.

Imbolc
Date: February 1
Description: The holiday of the lambing, or childbirth (it is no accident that Imbolc is exactly nine months after Beltaine…). It is a time for initiations, and purification. It is a good time for meditation.
Traditions: Write and read poetry. Share it, have a poetry competition.  Leave a white cloth out a window for the goddess to bless, and when the first light of the sun touches it, it gains healing properties throughout the year. Candlemaking.
Holiday Food: Milk, honey, dairy foods (a massive cheese smorgasbord).
Decorations: Hundreds of candles, and pools of water.

Spring Equinox
Date:
March 21
Description: A time to celebrate planting and prepare for the gifts of the summer, and to recognize the power and presence of spring. A time of emergence, fertility, and balance. A time that is sacred to Persephone, to celebrate her return from the Underworld and her reunion with her mother Demeter.
Traditions: Decorate eggs.
Holiday Food: Twisted bread, honey cakes, eggs, carrots.
Decorations: Flowers (honeysuckle, iris, peony, violet, lily, daffodil), in baskets or garlands.

FOLLOW-UP: I have put up a new post about trying to piece together the ritual and religious aspects of the Wheel of the Year, specifically from a Hellenic polytheist perspective.

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I have been giving some thought to theology as of late. I know I think about and talk about religion all the time; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is giving thought to my own theology in a constructive way. Something more than “ZOMG I just don’t know what I believe.” The thing is, I am starting to actually figure out what I do believe, and I am starting to think about how to put all of the pieces together. So here goes:

My philosophical foundation is essentially Advaita Vedanta. I have read the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads and I am blown away by them. When I read from those texts, I feel like I am hearing the voice of God–not “god’ as in a divine being, but GOD, the entire universe, the ultimate divine reality that is all things and is beyond all things. I believe that everything is a part of this ultimate reality, but that in total it is something entirely beyond out conception. Nothing is like God, and so no analogy or metaphor could possibly do God justice. The differences we perceive, the identities we imagine ourselves as having, are all ultimately illusions. The world of sense objects and empirical data is basically an illusion, called maya. On one level, the creation of the universe as we know it was the creation of this illusion of separateness. Maya is practically necessary for us to function, but it is nevertheless illusory, and it can mislead us powerfully.

In the deepest parts of our own consciousness, we are one with everything, even the gods. But we spend most of our time identifying ourselves as the tips of the fingers, as entirely bound in the world of the five senses. When we dream we withdraw into our own consciousness, which is further back but still a world of deceptive distinction. In dreamless sleep we come closer to our essential oneness, which the Hindus call Atman, the Self that is all-self, the ultimate divine reality of Brahman.

From a practical standpoint, however, this knowledge or philosophy doesn’t do much. Maya is powerful, and it is difficult to even be sure of the Atman, much less to be able to fully identify with it. Because we are out on the branches, functioning in the practical maya-divided world of sense and identity, we need to be able to thing in those terms, even when we think about divinity. The Hindu Vedanta thinkers do this, but their gods are culturally alien to me. Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, and Shiva are extremely interesting, sure, but they are not compelling to me the same way that Zeus, Aphrodite, and Odin are. And furthermore, the gods I have had personal contact with are decidedly Western.

So instead of thinking about divinity in terms of Indian myth, I choose to think about it in terms of the mythology that is compelling and accessible to me, and as an American of Western European descent, that basically points the way to three clusters of myth-tradition: the Celtic/Arthurian, the Norse/Germanic, and the Greek/Classical. The former two are the mythologies of my genealogical ancestors, and the latter is the mythology of my cultural ancestors. These three mythologies are extremely powerful to me. Their gods have spoken to me. I believe that their stories point to the ultimate divine truth that unifies and unites all of reality and that fundamentally explains and gives meaning to my existence.

In these mythologies, I find inspiration, wisdom, a guide to behavior, and a tangible connection to divinity. These are the gods that speak to me, and so when I try to connect to the Ultimate, these gods are my mediators. Why do I need mythology and mediator gods? I guess I could theoretically do without them, but practically, that’s not what my brain is hard-wired to do. And I need something practical that can serve as a kind of stepping stone towards the ultimate.

Even so, belief in these mythologies doesn’t fully carve out a path of action, at least spiritually speaking. I need a set of spiritual practices to serve as a vehicle to take me through the triple-lens of these mythologies and ultimately back to the Divine Self that lies behind everything. For that, I think I have chosen Revival Druidry. Revival Druidry is flexible enough to accommodate the theology I have constructed, and it gives me practices that take me places spiritually that I want to go. I intend to start with the AODA’s first-year curriculum, which includes meditation, regular celebration of the seasons and the position of the sun, and care for the environment leading to an increased awareness of my place in the natural world. In addition, I will probably do some extensive work on poetry.

Vedanta is the philosophy, my three chosen mythologies are together the conceptual lens that I use to construct meaning, and Revival Druidry is the way I will put it all into action. At least… that’s the idea.

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In short, the problem with eclecticism is that it seems just too dang unprincipled to be viable.

I have written before about how I get to feel claustrophobic with boxed religion.  Although I was specifically talking about religions that present the whole package–theology, practice, etcetera–in one neatly-defined package with firm orthodoxy-borders all the way around it so that everything in the box is prescribed and everything outside the box is proscribed, I feel similarly about conceptual boxes on a smaller scale.  This is part of why I can’t go with a reconstructionist religion like Hellenismos or Asátrú.  Even having experienced intense mystical contact with gods from Greek mythology, a single flavor of paganism is just not sufficiently spiritually fulfilling.

The thing is, although I see the value in picking one direction and sticking with it, I genuinely feel spiritually moved by the Celtic and the Norse as well as the Greco-Roman.  Maybe it’s a heritage thing; my ancestors were Celts, Teutons, and Vikings, and my cultural ancestors are the Greeks and Romans.  I am a fusion of multiple strands of paganism, so it is only natural that I should feel some attachment to each of them.  And again, while I can see that there could be personal benefit in picking just one, I don’t think I am capable of doing that.  My connection to these three (at least) mythical-cultural traditions is not one that allows for picking and choosing.  It is sufficiently strong so that I would feel that I was denying a part of myself if I left one of them behind.

(Interesting: three traditions.  Possible Druidic significance?)

In short, while I acknowledge the probable spiritual benefits gained by embracing one tradition exclusively, it is vastly outweighed by the sense of deep personal spiritual connection that I feel to each of these three: they touch my heart, mind, and soul in a deep and primal way.  It’s basic economics of the soul, really: what I stand to gain by specializing  is worth less to me than what I stand to lose by specializing, so I choose not to specialize.

On the other hand, I look down on eclecticism.  I think of it as unprincipled, ridiculous.  If you can have three different mythic traditions, why not four?  Why not ten?  Why not all?  Why not just take whatever you want from whatever tradition you want?

The questions actually aren’t completely rhetorical.  I think it’s worth asking whether picking and choosing is a big deal, especially given that we’re going to pick and choose to a certain extent no matter what.  In the end, though their reasons may be subtle and complicated, everyone is going to choose the religious expression that most suits them.  I’m not Muslim after all, because on some level and for whatever reason, Islam does not suit me.  If not for some permutation of personal preference then we would have a much harder time picking a religion.  What metric would we use to decide what we believe, even if we stayed in the religious tradition we were born into?

But at the same time, I think that the idea of submission is incredibly important to religion.  One of the most religious utterances ever made is “not my will but thine be done.”  The ultimate spiritual experience is mystical union with the divine, where the self is swallowed up into somehting greater.  Self-denial, putting aside your own special narcisissm in favor of something greater and higher, is at the heart of religion and real spirituality.

If you’re just ordering whatever you want from the menu and cobbling together a religious gumbo from whatever concepts, practices, and gods suit your fancy, then you are really not worshipping a Deity at all, but in a twisted way you are actually worshipping yourself.  Real gods demand that we grow and change in order to worship and experience them.  Real religion has to be fundamentally transformative; otherwise it’s just a sociocultural phenomenon that serves no individual spiritual purpose.  And in order to be transformative, religion has to be demanding.  On a certain level, God is undamentally alien to humans, and in order to experience God, humans have to be willing to bend and be shaped to be able to meet God partway.  If you’re assembling some kind of a FrankenGod from a pile of divine characteristics, then all you have is an imaginary god born of individual fancy.  Your own fancy.  That’s what you are worshipping.

So how to reconcile this with the undeniable fact that people pick and choose when it comes to religion, and with my personal spiritual connection to multiple strands of paganism?  I don’t really know, but I feel like there’s a line between the extremes that can be walked.  If we recognize and embrace the tension between these competing religious metavalues or realities or whatever, then maybe there’s a way to navigate them and even benefit from them without being torn apart or thrown one way or the other.

Incidentally, Tony Lamb has a good post on the topic at the Association of Polytheist Traditions.

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So, based on my experience with Dionysus, I started looking into Hellenic Reconstructionism as a possible spiritual avenue. I realized that a vague spiritual closeness to one particular god could have a number of other possible interpretations and could signal the beginning of a lot of different things, but taking it on its face seemed the simplest, at least while I was just feeling things out.

So I started poking around a bit on Reconstructionist blogs, sites, and forums. It was fruitful in a sense, because a discussion on a Hellenic Recon forum is what provoked my intense experience with Aphrodite. But moving from that point forward, Hellenic Reconstructionism seemed like a dead end, and it still does.

Part of it is a basic head-space issue. When I try to think of myself as a Hellenic Reconstructionist or a member of the religion “Hellenismos,” it just doesn’t click right. It seems foolish, even–the idea of me as a Hellenic Recon, not the idea of Hellenic Recon itself. I started looking into Sponde (which is a great site that seems to have sadly and suddenly disappeared), and reading Tim Alexander’s forum a lot, with the end result being that is just didn’t all feel right. In fact, I started to even waver in how I felt about the gods: trying to force myself into a Reconstructionist mold was actually pushing me away from the divine, not propelling me towards it.

When I realized it, I almost breathed a sigh of relief. I was getting to that same place I always get, when I wake up one morning and decide that everything I thought was so great last night is now stupid and even embarrassing. And that’s not acceptable: if Reconstructionism makes me embarrassed about my gods–gods whose presence I believe I have really felt–then regardless of the arguments for it, Reconstructionism is not for me.

Although I have had powerful experiences with gods who were worshipped by the ancient Greeks, I don’t necessarily feel like that means that I am bound to worship them or think about them the way the ancient Greeks did. In fact, I feel that there’s no particular reason at all to draw that conclusion except for lack of any other viable spiritual avenue.

This is not to say that I think the religious practices of the ancients are irrelevant or worthless: at the moment my spiritual life consists primarily of prayer, libations, and small sacrifices of barleycorns and wine to the gods. Those are practices that the ancients most certainly would recognize if they walked into my living room or kitchen today. But I can’t see myself identifying as a true Recon for a number of reasons (partly a gut thing, and partly because I’m not sure the Greek Myth paradigm punches all of the spiritual buttons that I feel like need to be punched in order to be fulfilled, but more on that in a future post), and I certainly have no interest in drawing the borders of my spiritual beliefs and practices in the range that is generally considered acceptable to Reconstructionists.

So the gods are in, but Hellenismos is out. What does that mean for me? I have indicated that I have a hunger for the divine that I want to fill, and I have an intuition that appropriate spiritual practice is an extremely important part of what I am after. So where do I get those practices? Do I look outside myself at all for the limits of my belief, or do I shoot completely from the hip, accepting the consequences and dealing with the likelihood that in the end my beliefs will be an undisciplined pile of incomprehensible, substanceless mish-mash? Or is that really true, or is it just the Mormon in me still thinking that religion is only legitimate if its borders are clearly defined and its beliefs and practices are clearly prescribed by a hierarchical authority? These are the questions that try my soul. Not as an academic exercise, but as real things for me to consider as I try to move forward spiritually.

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