My Favorite Ritual Tool

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Ritual tools are personal things. They are objects that we find evocative, meaningful, symbolic. They whisper stories to us, and those stories are folded into the meaning of the rituals which we perform with them.

Atheopagans vary widely in the kinds of ritual tools they use, including those who don’t use tools at all. The use of tools in rituals—typically, ritual knives (“athames”), wands, patens or pentacles, chalices and incense burners and so forth—is one of the threads of Western occultism that was woven into the fabric of Neopaganism as it arose in the mid-20th century, and it persists today in most of the Wicca-style Pagan traditions.

I use tools in most of my rituals. It doesn’t matter whether I actually “use” all of them; laying out items that have symbolic significance to me in a Focus for my ritual lends psychological power to the work. And there is something lovely about having beautiful, meaningful objects with which I carry out my religious observances.

Over the decades, I have collected or made a pleasing collection of these tools: an obsidian-bladed knife with an oaken hilt made from a branch I found in my favorite state park, which fits my hand perfectly; the rest of the branch is still embedded in the Earth atop a rise in that park. A ceramic chalice with a motif of grapes and grape leaves.  A water-clear quartz crystal. A piece of slate engraved with the triple-spiral motif from the Newgrange passage grave in Ireland. A wand of redwood, with a silver dragon wound around its base.

That sort of thing.

But of all of my tools, one is most precious to me because it tells the most amazing story of all: the story of human evolution. It is an Acheulian handaxe, a quartzite stone tool typically found associated with the remains of homo erectus. Found in Libya and bought from a Dutch archaeological antiquity dealer, mine is between 200,000 and 800,000 years old.

It is hard to describe what it feels like to hold such a thing. I got mine when I was about 40, which means that if it is actually its youngest estimated age (200,000), and I live to be 80, I will have possessed it for point zero two percent of its existence.

It’s humbling, and awe-inspiring. And those aren’t even the kinds of time spans we try to comprehend when we consider life as a whole, or planets, or stars.

So when I am doing rituals that are about Deep Time, or the Big Picture, the Acheulian handaxe definitely comes out.

It’s common for humans to have things with symbolic meaning…what we often call “sentimental value”. Atheopagans are just more deliberate about it, and conscious of how to use these associations for our psychological benefit.

What are your favorite ritual tools?

Storytelling and the Mythic Landscape

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Throughout human history, religions have communicated their values and moral codes through storytelling. Both oral traditions and literate societies passed their metaphorical teaching stories from generation to generation. These stories illustrated the values of their cultures, gave explanations for how they had come to exist as distinct groups, and often populated the home landscapes of these cultures with mythological beings and histories.

As a whole, such myths had the effect not only of passing along the beliefs of their peoples, but of enchanting their landscapes. Major features of the lands where these people lived—rivers, mountains, geological features— became associated with stories of heroism, discovery, innovation, and lessons learned.

Where I live—North America—the vast majority of us have never lived in an enchanted landscape. Our myths are of far-off places like Palestine, or the British Isles, or Greece. Only the Native peoples have stories that are about this land, and we are generally not privy to them unless we are one of them. Nor would it be appropriate to appropriate (see what I did there?) their stories for our own.

The non-theist Pagan writer Steven Posch is an example of someone who is practicing this craft today. I suggest you check him out!

Some years ago, when I was still going through the motions of pretending to believe in gods, I wrote a series of stories about Sonoma County. I’m looking at them again recently, with an eye to adapting them to fit with Atheopaganism. I did use the Native character Coyote, as an homage of the fact that this trickster character appears in Native stories throughout the west.

I begin my stories with “What if..?” because they are speculative, imagined histories. They are meant for enjoyment and for illustration of their moral lessons, not to be literal instruction about the nature of the world. For that, The Great Story will more than suffice.

I think that as we develop relationships with our local landscapes, is is natural that such stories would occur to us. They’re useful for teaching lessons to children, and they imbue the features of our local terrain with a mythic sacredness that might otherwise not be as deeply felt or communicated.

Here is an example, from my Sonoma Stories.

Coyote Makes Candy

What if this happened, a long time ago, before the Human People came here?

It was just at the time when everything was beginning.  Across the land of Sonoma, everything was there just for the first time. There were Eagle, and Fox, and Salmon and Elk and Hummingbird, and all the other Animal People and Plant People, but there was only one of each.  They had sprung up in Sonoma’s footsteps as she stepped out of the sea, and each was different.

It was beautiful, in the wide valleys along the River, and the People were all happy.  Some flew, others swam.  They found places to live:  in holes, in trees, in pools.  No one ate anything.

But after awhile, it was boring and lonely.  The Animal People and the Plant People thought, what is this?  What must I do?  Is this all there is, just to sit around in all this beauty all day?

Coyote was there, too. He climbed up onto Mt. St. Helena and looked down.  He could see that Unhappiness was being invented.  Being Coyote, he wasn’t bored yet, but he could see how it might happen.  And he had an idea.

He called Bear, and Valley Oak, and Salmon, and they all came to where he sat on the mountaintop.  He had scooped a hollow in the rock up there, and the bare stone was getting hot in the midday sun.

“Friends,” said Coyote, “I am making something.  I need you to bring me what I need, and then I will share it with all of you.”

“What is it?” asked Salmon.

“I am making candy,” said Coyote.

“What is that?” said the Animal People and Oak.

“You put it in your mouth and it makes you feel very good,” said Coyote. “That is called eating.”

Well, this was the first new thing that had happened in a long time, and all the People were excited.  They said they would help Coyote make the candy.

So Coyote sent Bear to find honey, and asked Valley Oak for acorns, and sent Salmon to a clear pool in the River, where she brought back a flashing reflection from the water.

When they brought back these things, Coyote ground the acorns, and put them into the warm hollow in the mountaintop.  Then he crushed in the honeycombs, and the flash of Sun, and stirred these all together.
“Now go down the mountain, and don’t come back until the moon has risen,” said Coyote.

When they were gone, Coyote invited another Animal Person to help him.  Black Widow Spider was living in a crack on top of Mt. St. Helena, and still lives there to this day.  “Grandmother,” said Coyote, “will you help me to make this candy?”

So Grandmother Spider came out and added what she had to the hollow in the mountaintop.  And Coyote put in the shining reflection that Salmon had brought back from the River, and covered the candy up.

“Now we wait,” he said.

Soon the moon rose. Word had gone around about Coyote’s wonderful idea, so when the Moon rose, all the Animal People and Plant People came there, up to the top of Mt. St. Helena.  They all wanted to see what this candy was going to be like.

Coyote stood on top of a rock, and he looked out in the moonlight at all the People gathered there.

“Friends, this is a special candy.  It is very sweet, but it will be bitter, too.  When you come to the hollow for a taste, first look at the candy, and I will show you what to do.”

So Squirrel, who is always in a hurry, stepped up to the hollow, and took away the cover. In the moonlight, the surface of the candy was black and shining.  Squirrel could see an exact copy of herself reflected there…and then the copy stepped up out of the hollow to stand next to her!  Now there were two squirrels.

They weren’t exactly the same, either.

Coyote took some of the candy and rubbed it on the parts of the two Squirrels that were different from each other.  “This will make these parts sweet.  So now you don’t have to be alone, and you can make more Squirrels. We will have children now, and fill the world with our families.”

The Animal People and the Plant People crowded around, excited, and they all brought their mates out of the candy and rubbed their new genitals with it.  This was wonderful!  No more loneliness!

The Moon had almost set when the last of them went back down the mountain, happy with a new mate.

Then Black Widow Spider came out again.  She said, “You didn’t tell them about the other part.”

“Yeah,” said Coyote.  “We needed to get things going around here, and I was afraid they wouldn’t take the candy if I told them.”

“If they had thought about it a little, they would have known.  It wouldn’t have taken long to fill up the whole world.” Spider shifted a little and sighed, and walked over to where the last of the candy lay glimmering in the hollow. She leaned over the edge to see her lover’s face, and when he had climbed, with his handsome shining new legs, to stand beside her, she solemnly rubbed their genitals with the sweetness and bitterness of love and death.

 

Shown: Mt. St. Helena

 

 

 

Accountability: a Pagan Missing Piece?

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There’s been some discussion of the concept of “sin” in the Pagan blogosphere lately: here, and here, and my own contribution some time ago, here.

Now, I should say: that’s a freighted word for many people, but not so much for me. I was never a Christian, nor a Jew nor Muslim. So I don’t feel the oppressive weight of the concept of sin that those religions transmit. Please bear this in mind as you read the following.

I’ve been involved with the Northern California Pagan community for a long time–30 years next year. And in that time, I have seen a deep imbalance between the community’s orientation to pleasure-seeking and its orientation to accountability. In many instances I have seen over the years, community “leaders” have flatly refused to be accountable for their hurtful actions, and little or nothing in the way of rebalancing or rectifying these actions has been the result.

I see this as the lingering hangover of the Neopagan revival having happened in the era of “do your own thing”. In my experience, the Sixties generation, particularly, seems reflexively averse to the idea of being accountable to others, to community, or to society.

Things are changing, I grant. They are better than they were, and we have begun sincere conversations about challenging issues within our community which are intended to clean up inappropriate behavior and add transparency and accountability to the roles of those in positions of power.

Still, “accountability” is not a word that leaps to mind in describing the Pagan community. We have such a deeply ingrained value of letting others “follow their paths” that when they do something lousy, while we might erupt into yet another “witch war” over it, in my experience there is little history of confrontation over an injury leading to sober reflection, apology and—if possible—forgiveness and/or atonement, which is action to make things feel right again.

In the big monotheisms, the ideas of sin and guilt are so deeply ingrained that if they did not have mechanisms for lifting some of that guilt, their members would be completely paralyzed, unable to act lest they transgress. Ours is not a path so burdened, but the fact remains that in every human life, there are regrets. There are ways we have not lived up to the person we wish to be. There are ways we have hurt others, whether intentionally or not so.

Though there are some who argue that Paganism does not require forgiveness as a part of its practice, in my opinion there is a place in a life for the ceremonial implementation of apology, atonement, and forgiveness. It cannot help but to lighten the heart, for all of us have things we carry which we would prefer to put down.

Now, Christians do this in a way that I find frankly awful. Though communion (and confession, for Catholics), they go to their Authority Figures—their priests and their god—for that forgiveness. This leaves the injured party entirely out of the process.

Jews, on the other hand, have Yom Kippur: the Day of Atonement. It is a day for the expression of apologies and the making right of grievances. It is a human-scale mechanism for making things right, and it happens every year, typically 2 or 3 weeks before Hallows/Samhain.

Where, on our Wheel of the Year, is the time for apology and forgiveness? We might say that Hallows is a time for laying down of that which is “no longer needed”, but that’s a personal process, not an interpersonal one. What about making it right with the injured party?

Hallows is also a time of grief and solemnity, and not so much anger. I wouldn’t want my Hallows observance overshadowed by having to process a conflict.

As I celebrate the Wheel, Riverain, the Festival of Water is at the beginning of February. Perhaps that is the time to “wash away” grievances, just as spring is beginning?

I will think more about this, and I’m open to suggestions. But I feel that incorporation of the principle of accountability to not just ourselves, but to those with whom we interact and to our society at large, is a Pagan missing piece.

Having an annual day in which we exercise accountability with one another would be a good thing.