Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Deadly doings

I had been planning on marking Halloween with a somewhat ambitious storytelling performance based around the Seven Deadly Sins, drawing on world mythology for an appropriate story for each sin. However, lack of time to properly promote such an event (in all honesty, I am dismally bad at publicising much of anything) and a general feeling of being a bit frazzled has led me to postpone this till early next year. It was going to be a fund raiser for the UK Wolf Trust, so I shall have to come up with some alternative option for that.

I may upload some stories and see if I can work out a way for viewers to donate to  the charity accordingly (though it sounds all a bit technical... I miss the days when you could just pass the hat round at the end of the evening).

In the meantime, here is a prattle I recorded about the Seven Sins for the PF virtual moot. Not a subject that many would regard as overly relevant to pagan viewers, but this is my spin on the matter.

Friday, 7 October 2016

World Poetry Day

Yesterday was World Poetry Day, so I started something but - what with teaching evening classes and one thing ad another - fell asleep before posting it. So, a day late, but here is an offering of sorts. Some readers might feel it ought to be a burnt offering, which wouldn't surprise me as I'm not a fan of blank verse. Too often it's a euphemism for badly written meanderings. So at least this is in keeping with the general quality! Not entirely sure on a title... maybe Digital Deities?

Digital Deities (or, perhaps, Virtual Mythology?)

Narcissus sinks into selfies,
Lost from sight.
Eyes gouged, Aminias fallen
On the stick discarded by his love.
Clattering in the empty hall,
It dislodges, echoing –
Empty memes meaning faded,
Pasted into perpetuity, pointless.

Theseus lost, his thread unravelling
As, harried by beasts
Part-man, mostly bull who,
Troll-turf tramping with horned hunger
Bellowing, stalk each other
Armed with sharpened barbs.
Each locked in labyrinthine logic.

Medea chanting blends the ancient recipes –
Nature’s pharmacopeia purified of agenda,
Hidden in pages lit from within, unclouded
By reason.
Her children sacrificed on the altar
Of Hygeia, Hecate forgotten in the flight to become
Pelias’s saviour, vaunted healer,
Gaia’s unclaimed prophetess who
Will not be scorned
By those who chase the Golden Fleece,
Guarded by the serpent of Asclepius.

Lotus juice lulls,
Plastic petals infuse in black pools that
Flow forth from flat-screened palm pitchers,
Entrancing thirsty minds,
Saving them from the toil of talking
To each other,
An island in silence sits, citizens
Lost in a world not present, deaf
To despair untexted.
Compassion undelivered.

Olympus waits for a signal.

Monday, 19 September 2016

City of death

Whilst exploring Sicily we went to the cemetery at Pozzallo to lay flowers for relatives. I had just assumed it would look rather like a British cemetery, and was intrigued to find out that it was much more akin to an ancient Roman burial ground. There wasn't a patch of grass to be seen, but (in the richer areas) a whole series of mausoleums with varying degrees of elaborate detail some of which had to be seen to be believed. I'm told that some families spend more on their tombs than on their houses.
These works of art are laid out in Roman grid-style, roads lined with houses for the dead, at once beautiful and boastful - declarations of the status and grandeur of both the ancestors and their survivors. Many are heavily influenced in their design by classical architecture, and given that each contain altars (with statues of the Virgin, various saints etc.) along with the names and icons of the lost generations, and receptacles for the offerings of flowers, these are each fundamentally pagan temples to the lares given a patina of Catholicism... which itself is only a few steps away from the ancient roots it has tried so hard to deny ~ like a teenager who becomes ever more like its resented parents, the more desperately it tries to make a stand against them.
Sicily has been invaded a dozen times over and the mixture of historical architectural styles can be seen in the place of the dead. Spires, domes, columns, and cubes abound. Weeping angels watch from every architrave, alongside figures who never did have wings.
The less well-heeled sections involve large banks of marble-clad niches in which bodies are placed and sealed in with name plaques that also bear the photographs of the people entombed there. The plaques are equipped with small vases where mourners may leave their flowers, and some also with little lights to glow like candles (presumably in generations prior to the popularisation of electricity these really would have been candle sconces). Some of these collecting places are subsidised by trade unions, paid into over a lifetime of work, so that there are rows of deceased sailors in one area, old farm labourers in another etc.
For me British cemeteries, those attached to churches at least (hard to feel any nostalgia about those council run depositories for used up tax payers) are redolent with echoes of M R James, and I wouldn't change them at all. Yet it is fascinating to see another way of honouring the dead - and far more focus given to them than the sedate practices of low church Protestantism.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Lost in translation

Over the summer I spent a week holidaying in Sicily - the first time I have been on a plane in about 30-ish years. My brain has been rather all over the place since getting back, and it has taken me a while to marshal my thoughts sufficiently to share the experience. There are a number of different angles I shall approach over the next few posts.
We met up with many relatives and friends of Francesco, and dined out a great deal. At one particularly impressive meal I was asked to conclude the evening with a story. Only a small number of the people at table spoke any English, and I currently have only about a dozen words of Italian. So the story of Pomona and Vertumnus was conveyed by a combination of Francesco's translation of my words, a sprinkling of what little Italian I do know, and even more body language than usual.
Edward Sapir claimed that language shapes thought (a concept now known as linguistic relativity)- people thinking in Dutch will do so very differently from someone thinking in Mandarin. One of my holiday reads was Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' which makes a similar claim that thinking in Ancient Greek is very different from thinking in (American) English - and not just thinking, it changes the way that characters in the novel see and experience the world.
As my Italian improves I may discover that it alters how I think and comprehend the world. The musicality of languages is also interesting - a small example being that English speakers say the name Aphrodite with a long i-sound, to rhyme with mighty. Italians say it with a short i-sound, to rhyme with pity. Not a massive difference, but Roman poetry is based on patterns of long and short vowel sounds (all those iambs and trochees you might remember from school) - rhyme and rhythm schemes can often indicate the accent of the poet. Does the invocation of a deity have a different effect if done in one language rather than another? Our minds, to some extent, mediate the presence of a deity within our lives - and if Sapir is even only partially correct about the way words shape our minds, then Aphrodite flowing through Italian, Greek, or German-structured minds might express herself very differently than if she were moving through English, Zimbabwean, or Tagalog-structured minds.
The experience of telling a story through the medium of translation was an interesting one, and may lead to further thought on issues of purveying stories and meaning in other languages - in this case putting a story back into what is almost its original language.
There are a number of curious stories - snippets of stories, really - from Sicily that could be worked up into interesting stories. When I finally get the chance to string some brain cells together, I'll record some and post them here.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Animal Rites

On June 8th this year West Suffolk College’s Religious Studies & Ethics department held a free conference on the role of animals in religion and ethics, which a number of pagans attended and spoke at. It’s an intriguing area and practically every religion has drawn on animal imagery to convey lessons and philosophical concepts. For example, take the regal lion. In the New Testament, Revelations 5:5 predicts a future descendant of the tribe of Judah: "And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof”. Many Christians regard this as a reference to Jesus, though he is more usually depicted as a lamb – partly because they are very gentle creatures, but also because they were a common sacrificial animal at that time, and the crucifixion was seen as the final sacrifice. In Judaism the Meshach, or messiah, is seen as a far more forceful character who will lead future armies to victory, sweep away the enemies of G-d, and reclaim the Holy Land. As such, the Meshach is a decidedly leonine figure, and an inspiration behind C S Lewis’ character of Aslan. The war-like character is also reflective of the Egyptian lion-headed deities Maahes and Sekhmet, who also battled the forces of evil. Within Rastafarianism the Emperor Haile Selassie was regarded as the living incarnation of the Lion of Judah.

The same animals can be seen in quite distinct ways by different religions, with something reviled in one faith being revered in another. Not all religions regard animals as simply metaphoric; the ancient animistic religions of the world have a very genuine conviction that all things have soul or consciousness, and that the souls of many animals are capable of communicating with humans. To such religions the spirit of wolf is not a poetic allegory, but seen as the actual animating force of the creature. One of the issues under discussion at the conference was the degree to which non-human species have consciousness and therefore a greater level of legal recognition and protection (whether the word ‘rights’ is applicable here was also a topic for consideration). Without getting too side-tracked by the historical roots, for a long time law makers have regarded consciousness as a key issue in the granting of full legal status – questions arise as to when a foetus becomes a person, when children’s mind are sufficiently mature that they can be held legally accountable for their actions, which animal species deserve protection from cruelty (which is at least partly connected to their perceived capacity to experience pain and mental distress), etc.

Evidence from science combines with philosophical views and religious values to create varied views about the nature of animals and how humans ought to treat them. Some governments have granted personhood to specific species. For a brief period in 2015 a New York judge granted legal status to two chimps held in a research laboratory, though another judge later overturned this. Whilst this might sound like an abstract issue for people to mull over whilst scratching their beards, the legality brings home a degree of reality. There are things we cannot do to people that we might get away with doing to non-people. People cannot be forcibly caged up without good reason and due legal process, nor can they be eaten (even if they are voraphiles who relish the prospect), subject to unwanted medical experimentation, or any of dozens of other things.

This is not simply a sentimental argument emanating from people who love furry creatures. Many societies around the world, both in ancient times and some still today, have debated whether certain humans are actually fully people or not. Doubtless most of readers, if asked what a person was, would automatically assume that any human was a person. However, this outlook is much more recent than many might assume it to be, and not necessarily as widespread around the world as may be hoped either.

Slave-owning societies of the past usually struggled to think of slaves as completely human (and certainly not worthy of the fully fledged rights of a citizen), whilst others have looked at disabled people, women, despised ethnicities, the mentally ill, and various other groups as being somehow less than “real people”. Once someone has been demoted to a lesser status, it is easier to maltreat them and deny them full legal rights. When English-speakers wish to insult someone they often refer to them as an animal (pig, snake in the grass etc.), as indeed do many other languages. Implicit in this is an assumption that an animal is an inferior being, something that no human would wish to be like. Not all cultures denigrate the non-human in this way, and some positively celebrate other forms of life. Nepalese Hindus celebrate Kikur Tihar, a festival in November that gives thanks to dog-kind and all which they do for humanity. The dog festival is just one of many examples of ways in which other species are honoured. Look around the world and one can find ancient and current festivities dedicated to cats, cows, bears, wolves, crows and so forth. On the other hand some religions have made a practice of sacrificing animals and, where those religions have proliferated in scale, this can lead to enormously large numbers of creatures being dispatched. Being an object of reverence is not always a pleasant experience.

The world is moving in an interesting, arguably positive, direction in which most countries legally recognise the personhood of most humans. I say legally, because daily reality in many countries doesn’t always live up to the ideal set by law. No country on earth legally permits slavery, though it clearly still goes on illicitly and the gang masters and owners of today can have little better view of the humanity of their captives than did the slave owners of the 18th century plantations or those in Ancient Rome. Almost all countries now treat women as fully equal to men at the level of basic humanity – that not every single government does beggars belief in the 21st century. Clearly this equality often fails to grasp parity of pay and other such practical recognition of personal worth. Most nations likewise recognise the human worth of disabled people, and a growing number also of LGBT people.

Just as most of the world’s governments are finally acknowledging that (almost) all humans are people and have the same basic rights, so several are now starting to debate if other species might also be considered people – for the purposes of law, at least.

A groundswell of individuals already do extend recognition that cats, dogs, dolphins, apes and whatnot have sufficient sapience to be treated with respect. Within some religions and philosophical movements all life, regardless of how sapient it may be, is granted a high level of respect and seen as having spiritual worth.

This may be a trend that expands in the future, as levels of consciousness are formally recognised in other species, and perhaps we will restrict the uses we put other creatures to. With the exponential growth of Artificial Intelligence, we may very soon find ourselves discussing whether some robots and computers are also conscious and, if so, does this make them persons worthy of legal recognition and protection? The future may hold any unusual developments when it comes to who and what is a person and what “merely” an animal.

Thursday, 11 August 2016


Went to a book swap last night and picked up a copy of a 2013 anthology to which I had quite forgotten I had contributed a chapter. There are some excellent essays in here on all manner of subjects by people such as Morgan Daimler, Emma Restall Orr, Lucya Starza, and Brendan Myers - so it's well worth a read. If you fancy a copy, you can order it in via any bookshop or (if you can't get to any bookshops) on-line retailers.
My own contribution is a rather basic reflection on the development of polytheist psychology.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Baaling out

There's a chap who lives a few streets away from me and whom I sometimes bump into whilst walking the hounds. He is always very pleasant and seems well informed on many issues. He's also a devout Christian (not sure which denomination), and often talks about religious matters. Recently he spoke to me about the destruction of antiquities by Daesh in what is now Islamic State territory. He sympathised about how horrified I must be by their historical loss, but then suddenly said that - as some of the temples were associated with "Baal worship" - maybe their loss was a good thing as it would save people from being tempted into devoting themselves to Baal.
It was an awkward moment where I wondered whether to laugh, cry, or rage. By the time I'd made up my mind, he'd already gone on his way. I don't even know where to really begin with this sentiment - it is horrifying when members of one religion crow about the destruction of the sites sacred to another, more so in a sense when those places are largely fallen out of use as places of worship (is it not enough that another religion has been shunted almost completely off the pages of history, without needing to feel smug that their historical contributions are also obliterated? It says something to how much that older religion must be feared, that even when it is reduced to a tiny of handful of devotees it's edging towards extinction is still craved).
By synchronicity, I happen to be listening to the audio version of James Herbert's 'Sepulchre', which also portrays Baal worship as a malevolent force. Ba'al, of course, just means Lord and is even used to refer to YHWH in the Old Testament - one needn't get all Manichean to see alternate ways of reading the title as referring to a dangerous, malign entity (though not necessarily the one writers of horror novels envisage).
The Baal which the chap in the street referred to is the shadowy demonic presence described in the Bible, which serves as a rather generic "scary pagan deity" that does such shocking things as demanding child sacrifice, which of course YHWH would never do....
Primarily it is the Canaanite Baal that the Bible writers found so fearful, and who has provided literary inspiration for writers of film scripts and penny dreadfuls. Despite his unfortunate PR, Baal of the Syrian city Ugarit was regarded as a vanquisher of evil who battled assorted giant serpents and monsters. It was only under the emerging conflict with the Hebrew tribes that he became seen as the basis of Baal Zebub, or Beelzebub.
It is disturbing to see how deeply rooted the conditioning is in even the nicest of people, that the fantasy of devilish cults scares people enough to be glad to see exquisite ancient buildings reduced to rubble by people whom they would otherwise despise - yet with whom they share the same basic dread. Obviously there are horrible religious sects in the world who engage in deeply unsavoury practices, but they are few and far between. Let's face it, if a person were to fall prey to brutality at the hands of an unhinged religious extremist, it is hundreds of times more likely to be a Christian, Muslim or other conventional devotee abusing them than a worshipper of an ancient Canaanite deity.