W – Wimmin’s Religion (PBP week 46)

There’s been a lot of controversy in the pagan world about inclusion and exclusion and if one’s identity is defined by genetics, physiology, or something more elusive.

This all stems, as I’m sure some of you know, from a Dianic Wiccan group’s rituals at Pantheacon the last couple of years. In a public ritual, advertised as for women only, some women were turned away for not meeting the group’s criteria of womanhood. (It actually stems from deeper problems with our community, but this is what seems to have gotten the pot bubbling this time around.)

This is all old news, I guess, to many in the pagan blogosphere. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, as I’m of two minds. I figure it’s time for me to speak up and add my voice to the fray.

First, and most importantly, I believe that gender is a useless descriptor – a false dilemma created by society to tell us which roles we should play based on what shape our bodies take. I believe that we have four equally important elements that make us who we are: heart and soul, body and mind. Of these, only the body has a sex and that biological sex is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. Even on the most basic chromosomal level, not everyone is XX or XY. One just can’t put people into convenient little pink and blue boxes based on outward impressions.

But I get that I’m in the minority opinion when I say gender is meaningless. I get that it could very well by my privilege that allows me to see things this way. I am a cis woman which, for those unfamiliar with the term, means that though I have many “masculine” traits as well as “feminine” ones, I am psychologically OK with the gender assigned to me. This gives me the privilege of being able to ignore the issue if I choose. The social norm is with me. But there are a lot of people who don’t have that option. The women turned away from the Pantheacon rituals, for example, were trans*. Meaning their anatomy at birth, and thus the gender assigned to them, was different from what they knew themselves to be.

Gender identity is important to the vast majority of people. While it is a social construct, it is one that is impossible to avoid. And it can be a life or death matter for those who are constantly being told their identity is at best mistaken, at worst a lie.

What all that boils down to for me is the fact that I believe the people running the rituals in question were being bigoted. Neither they, nor I, have the right to tell someone else who she “really” is. If someone tells me she is a woman I’m going to trust her word – she knows herself far better than anyone on the outside can.

But.

I also believe in a group’s right to set limits on who participates in their rituals. In fact, I think exclusivity is not only permitted, I believe it is absolutely necessary in many cases for meaningful spiritual experiences.

I am a devotee of Dionysos, who famously had rites dedicated to Him that were forbidden to men. Pentheus and many others suffered terrible death for daring to view what they should not have.

Dionysos is also the most gender fluid of the Gods. While undeniably masculine in many ways, in others He plays with the idea of gender in ways that had to make the defenders of the status quo very uncomfortable: wearing female garb and hairstyle, taking a receptive role in some sexual encounters, and basically not seeming to care a whole lot about being “manly.”

Dionysos likes to liberate us from these assigned roles. He gave women who were housebound for most of the year the freedom to run wild on the hillside. He gives those of us who spend our lives trying to live up to what others want of us be the freedom to relax and be who we are truly meant to be.

So what about Pentheus?

It is my belief, and I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, that if a trans* woman were to join in the Bacchic rites, the God would have no problem with it. The other women, however, might not have been so accepting. I suppose it could have depended on whether they knew her, saw her living her life as a woman – which was unlikely as this would have been even more dangerous then than it is now – or whether she was a stranger to them, or someone who was closeted. It’s likely they would have been like the Dianics at Pantheacon and sent her packing. But the God, I believe, would have been welcoming to Her.

Pentheus, on the other hand, was not a woman by anyone’s definition. He was, in addition, a representative of the status quo the rites were rebelling against and an enemy of Dionysos. He did not belong.

Exclusivity, in my opinion, is necessary when dealing with religious mysteries. A mystery is something that one can only understand through experience, and not everyone can have every experience. If when someone speaks of “women’s mysteries,” they only mean menstruation, childbirth and menopause, they need to be clear about that. There are a lot of women who would get nothing from such a ritual.  (I personally think it’s an unfortunate definition that limits all of us to our reproductive biology.  Something women have been trying to get away from for a very long time.)

If they just say their ritual if “for women” then I’m going to assume they are addressing the myriad of experiences unique to being female in a world that places more value on maleness.

I’m all for exclusive rituals for women, for trans* people, for people of color, for GLBT* people, for diabled people, for any group that shares unique experiences that they wish to explore.  (I’ll even support the right of privileged groups to come together and celebrate their privilege, though I wouldn’t approve.  Free speech and assembly and all that.)

I think maybe a large public gathering focused on inclusiveness and pagan ecumenicism, like Pantheacon, is the wrong forum for such a thing.

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V – Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth the Witch (PBP week 43)

“It is sweeter far than flowing honey.”

– Homer, The Iliad (XVIII, 109)

Personally I find revenge to be ill-advised in most cases.  It prolongs the pain of the one seeking vengeance, adds to the overall suffering in the world, and is rarely as fulfilling as we imagine it will be.

But that’s “in most cases.”  There are times when revenge is justified, when the normal channels of justice are insufficient.

To put it another way, some folks just need hexing.

An example:

My mother is in her seventies.  She’s never been a wealthy woman, but lately has been having financial troubles and has been considering filing bankruptcy.  She contacted someone online who claimed to be a bankruptcy attorney.  Maybe they actually were, but after she gave them all her financial information and made close to $1,000 in payments she never heard from them again.  She had been referring her creditors to a phone number they gave her, but when she called it herself, it had been disconnected.  There was no answer on the other number she had for them.

Mom did everything available to her through normal channels.  She cancelled the automatic payments and closed her bank account.   She filed a complaint with the local sheriff and the FBI internet crimes division.

Local law enforcement doesn’t have the resources to pursue internet fraud.  The FBI does, but she’s one of thousands of victims and will probably never hear back from them one way or the other.

Would revenge, in this case, be justified?  “People” taking advantage of little old ladies with financial troubles?

I’m thinkin’ yeah.

While I want these people to die painfully in a fiery crash, that would probably be a little extreme.  But a nice curse to ensure their arrest and conviction, with a healthy dose financial ruin tossed in for good measure?  Totally worth it.

Most religions, pagan included, discourage acts of vengeance.  I dare say for good reason (see above re: fiery crash.) But, going back to my previous post on the Wiccan Rede:  An it harm none, do what thou wilt.  An it harm bastards who prey on the elderly?  Well, that’s a personal responsibility thing, isn’t it?  Consider the possible consequences, be willing to take responsibility for them, and make up your own mind.

The Delphic maxims don’t seems to address vengeance directly, either.  (Though but that could just be the translation I have, not being fluent in Greek myself.)  They speak about justice a great deal, one’s actions must be just.  But, while revenge definitely has the potential to be unjust, it does not have to be.

So what does your path say about revenge?  Is it forbidden?  Are there guidelines, or is it left to a personal choice?

R – The Wiccan Rede and Other Wise Advice (PBP week 36)

I spend a lot of time, in the virtual world anyway, around pagans who walk a wide variety of paths.  In this particular group, very few are Wiccan (of either the Neo- or Traditional varieties.)  Something guaranteed to raise their hackles is when some well-intentioned neophyte who doesn’t understand that paganism consists of more than what they’ve read in their Wicca101 books, or some equally-well-intentioned-but-really-should-know-better elder promoting pagan unity, comes along and, in an attempt to find some common ground, declares something like “well, at least we can all agree on the Rede, right?” 

Right?

Er, no.  Not really.  Cue hornets nest. 

Paganism* is made up of such a wide variety of religions, that this statement seems to me the equivalent of entering a convention of monotheists and stating “well, at least we can all agree on the Nicene Creed, right”?  (You’d have trouble with that even among a group of Christians.)

So, not every pagan follows the Wiccan Rede.  But some do.  I’m not Wiccan, haven’t been for decades, so I don’t.  Right?

Right?

My gut response to this kind of statement is to firmly place myself among the chorus of those declaring “Not Me!”

But I found myself thinking about the Rede recently – the actual Rede, what it really means – and it dawned on me that, well yeah.  I kinda do.

The problem is that so many 101 books and sloppy thinkers like to shorten the Rede to bumper sticker wisdom:  “Harm None.”

I think most people can agree that a command to “Harm None” would be impossible to live up to.  We cause any amount of harm just going through our daily lives.  We kill animals and plants to eat.  We kill bugs by walking on the grass.  We kill microbes when we breath.  We kill bacteria and viruses when we attempt to stay healthy.  Even assuming the “None” in question only refers to other humans, it is still impossible to follow.  Consider someone being violently attacked by another.  If s/he fights back, s/he harms the attacker.  If s/he doesn’t resist, s/he causes harm to hirself through inaction.

It just doesn’t work.  Good thing that’s not what the Rede actually instructs, isn’t it?  What it says is:  “Eight words the Wicca Rede fulfill: An’ it harm none, do what ye will.”  John J. Coughlin offers a history here, including some early statements of Gardner’s that actually do seem to fall more along the lines of the “Harm None” motto.

The most common interpretation of the full Rede is “If it doesn’t hurt anybody, do what you want.”  That’s a little different that “Harm none.”  This Rede isn’t proscribing any behavior – it’s an incomplete bit of moral advice that doesn’t say what to do if an action will cause harm, it just gives one full permission to do anything at all that doesn’t.

This is what the Rede means to me:  If you’re not hurting anything, go for it.  But there is also the implication that if you do need to cause harm, it’s your responsibility to be aware of the consequences of your actions and be willing to accept them.

It is a call to freedom, but one that implies an equally strong call to personal responsibility.

And yeah, I follow that Rede.  Not because it’s an element of my faith, but for the same reason I follow the Golden Rule:  it’s just plain good advice.

* The definition of paganism that I’ll be using throughout this blog is the one coined by The Cauldron:  “A Pagan religion is a religion that is not Jewish, Christian, or Islamic and self-identifies as Pagan.”

P – Pagan Piety (PBP week 32)

Piety gets a bum rap these days.

When someone is described as “pious” the intention is usually derogatory.  It is taken to mean that they have a holier-than-thou attitude or are hypocritical – faithful in action, but not in spirit. Also, because it is usually used to refer to members of the majority faith (Christianity in the US), members of the pagan minority who have had bad experiences with that faith or it’s members can sometimes react negatively to the word, even when it is intended to be complimentary.

Yet in pagan religions that place a large emphasis on practice, piety again becomes a real virtue.

To use the ADF definiton, piety in a pagan sense is “correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, (both personal and societal), we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty.”

I like this definition, though I would prefer one that also addressed intent, (though not belief.) Because most neopagans come from cultures heavily influenced by the monotheistic faiths, we often bring with us their idea of pious intentions in addition to pious action. This may not be historical, but I believe it is a good addition. A proper relationship with the gods begins in the mind and heart of the individual.

As for societal traditions and agreements, that’s complicated.

In ancient times, piety was an important civil obligation, not just a religious one. The success or failure of the society as a whole depended on every member maintaining their proper relationship with the gods.

Today it is different. Worshippers of the old gods are a tiny minority in their communities. In the west, our societies are either purely secular or are under allegiance to the god of Abraham. If I believed that I was responsible for maintaining the agreements that my society has made with the divine, I’d be obligated to be Christian and to follow the rituals and traditions of that faith.

So how to be properly pious in a social sense? A few ideas come to mind. We can define our society more narrowly – taking on the obligations of our family, coven, or other group. We can, in the course of honoring our ancestors, try to make good on obligations that they weren’t able to fulfill. We can also partake in the religious festivals of the community in which we live, as much as outsiders are welcome to. Because of the pluralist nature of much polytheism, many pagans have no issue attending rituals for deities that they do not personally worship. For those of us comfortable with the idea, this courtesy could be extended to the God of Abraham – for example, by attending mass on Christmas and Easter without participating in communion.

I think the most important aspect of piety for modern pagans is the reminder that we should be actually practicing our religion. It is easy for so many pagans, myself included, to get wrapped in study, in learning what the ancients did (and then blogging about it). But it cannot end there.

A religion that exists only in the mind of the believer is not a religion.

And, to borrow a Christian aphorism, the road to Hel is paved with good intentions.

 

(Post written and originally published 9/29/12.  Backdated to reflect PBP due date.)