Contrasts

Saturday night, I was dancing around a cauldron ablaze with candles, with drums thundering and voices lifted high in song, at the monthly Spark Collective gathering.

Sunday morning, I attended a Unitarian Universalist service.

Tellya, there are differences.

Paganism is fundamentally an ecstatic practice: it’s about living in the body, embracing physicality both of ourselves and of our existence as creatures of the Earth, cultivating joy and intensity of emotional and meaningful experience.

UU is more about a calm and gentle cultivation of wisdom on the personal level, and activism on the societal. The service I attended incorporated some quasi-Protestant elements such as singing (rather tepid) hymns with a five-minute silent meditation, a call-and-response poetry reading, a sermon and other contemplative elements. I appreciated that there was no usage of god-words.

Both provide community and fellowship, of course. And though I think both approaches have something of value to offer, I definitely have my preferences.

One issue I have with the UU service is that it’s organized in the Abrahamic-style “audience and performers” model: attendees are mostly “passive consumers” who sit in pews and absorb what is offered to them by designated providers. That’s not intentional on their part, so much as simply inherited from the Christian traditions which were the religious norms of the English-speaking world when Unitarian Universalism was created.

I prefer an egalitarian circle to the pews-and-pulpit model. Admittedly, you need a lot of space do a circle with 200 people, but smaller and more intimate spiritual gatherings are more appealing to me anyway.

The main thing that draws me to Paganism that is missing from UU, though, is passion. The UU seems so bloodless by comparison with Paganism, so denatured, so divorced from the fact that we are embodied animals. All the things we associate with white, middle-class Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.

Looking around the congregation this morning, not only was nearly every person there in their 60s or older, I noted exactly two people of color. I live in a pretty white area, but we have a large Latinx population and none of them were there.

When Pagans mourn, they keen. When we are joyous, our eyes fill with love and we embrace one another. We laugh from the belly. We throw our heads back and howl. We fight against injustice, party hard, and confront both our own and the world’s darkness with courage. On an emotional scale, what we do is just…more.

That said, Pagans are miserable at creating institutions. And maybe that intensity scares away people who might otherwise join us.

There are Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the place with active congregations and owned buildings; Pagans have nothing like that, and show no sign that we ever will. Of course, having buildings isn’t nearly the priority for us that it is for UUs. We can practice our religion anywhere–particularly outdoors.

They need walls and seats and a pulpit.

Quite a number of Atheopagans are also UUs. They participate in the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPs) and enjoy community and fellowship in UU congregations. Makes sense; UU congregations welcome atheists and agnostics and have a strong environmental and social justice orientation.

That’s why I checked the UU service out, and though it really isn’t for me, I plan to keep participating with the congregation’s CUUPs group.

I’m a Pagan, but not so much a Unitarian Universalist. I admire their principles and their activism and the hearts of those who gravitate towards UU: I suspect, in fact, that some of those folks might have become Pagan instead, but we are still so small and invisible that they never really bumped up against us.

It was quite a contrast, I tellya.

 

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Ritual Tools I Find Useful

Ritual tools are physical objects with which one performs symbolic ritual acts. In more formal “occult” systems there are prescribed sets of these tools, but in Atheopaganism, we’re strictly practical about them; we use what is useful to us.

The items below are things I use in rituals, in combination with objects symbolizing the qualities and attributes I wish to include in a given ritual:

Focus cloths: I like to have cloths I can put down on a table or other surface, upon which I build my Focus. They vary in color by the season (bright pastels for High Spring, e.g., or spider web-patterned black fabric for Hallows).

Asperger: Asperging is the act of sprinkling water or other liquids as a “blessing” of an area, object or person. An asperging setup can be as simple as a bowl of liquid with a sprig of rosemary or other herb to dip in the liquid and then scatter upon the subject, or as ornate as actual asperging bottles (as shown) used in Catholic and Orthodox ceremonies.

Ritual Knife (known in Wicca as an “athame” (uh-THAH-may)): This is a knife which is used to symbolically “cut” things one from another, as in “cutting” a circle in space to define sacred space or to separate something unwanted from the body. You might be surprised how psychologically effective the use of this “knife” can be.

“Moon” knife: This is what I use when actual physical cutting is needed: it is a decorated grape-harvesting knife, which makes it particularly special to the region where I live, and to Pagans generally as it is shaped like the Moon.

Wands: Sometimes it feels more right to use a wand than a knife for invoking a “magic circle”, or for “releasing the magic” into an object, chalice full of liquid, etc. I have several: one of dried kelp, one of oak, one of redwood, as well as a human femur I have used as a wand in Hallows and Underworld rituals. Mine are simple and natural but some people like wands that have symbols or crystals mounted on them.

Chalice: A chalice typically contains water or wine. It can simply stand in to serve as a symbol of the life-giving nature of water, the ocean, etc., or it can also be passed around the circle to share a sip of wine with each participant (if you do that, ask participants who aren’t feeling well to opt out–it’s no fun to spread cold or flu germs)

Censer: A censer is an incense burner. It can be as simple as an oyster or abalone shell, or as ornate as a Roman Catholic censer hanging from chains. You will also want charcoal pellets or discs so you can burn powder and resin incense.

Acheulian handaxe: I don’t necessarily recommend that everyone go out and get one, but this is my favorite ritual tool due to its antiquity and amazing history.

Tingsha, clear-toned bell, chime, tuning fork or singing bowl: A clear, ringing tone can “clear the air”, rendering a sense of purity and stillness. This is useful for establishing a sense of sacred space or “dispelling” something you wish to be rid of.

Ritual mask: Used to create an “otherworldly” quality or to enable you to portray a persona of someone/something other than yourself in a ritual.

Ritual rattle: Useful as a passed “talking tool” or used as an instrument in a group ritual to accompany singing or drumming. Mine has colorful ribbons attached to it, which flare out behind it when it is shaken and create a pleasing effect.

Jewelry (not shown): I have a ritual earring I wear most of the time when I attend public or group rituals: it is a brass snake eating its own tail (an Ouroboros) and coiled into a figure-8, thus forming two symbols for Infinity. I also have a few pieces of ritual jewelry for Hallows, specifically: two rings (an old-fashioned coffin and a ring of skulls) and a skull earring.

Cauldron (not shown): Some rituals involve mixing potions or dissolving/burning unwanted qualities in a cauldron over a fire or filled with water. An iron cauldron is a useful ritual tool.

Sun broom (not shown): a ritual tool created each year at Midsummer “filled with sunlight” and useful for cleansing, purifying and illuminating with virtual “light”.

Colorful and/or cool piece of stone (not shown): a weighty stone (ten pounds or so) is useful for grounding. Just sit cross-legged and heft it into your lap, feel the weight of gravity. A stone can also be useful as a symbol of the Earth.

Cat: Optional, but recommended. Otherwise, what will walk through your Focus, or sit in the middle of it, in the midst of your ritual?

 

What are some of your favorite ritual tools?

 

Paganism, Gothic Aesthetic, and the Sensibility of Darkness: An Observation

‘Tis the season, so let’s talk about it: it’s a thing, among us Pagans.

Cemeteries, bones, skulls, ravens. Vampires and absinthe and Ye Olde Occulte Symboles.

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Dark. Spooky. Sexy.

It scares some people. Particularly non-Pagan, white-light-obsessed Christians and New Age folks.

At this time of year, the Pagan community leaps with particular gusto into the seasonal enthusiasm for skulls and graves and blood. Much of this is because our paths, rather than phobically avoiding the subject of death, actually embrace it as a necessary and inevitable part of the human story. We understand that life is not just light, but is also darkness. That the human experience is not only of joy and discovery and striving, but of horror and suffering.

And sex. In gothic aesthetic, the sex and death frequently go together. Thus the gothic obsession with vampires.

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Some of it is our joy in natural objects. Bones and antlers and skulls are cool. For others, it is about the presumed gloomy/spooky/gothic aesthetic of the gods they revere.

Some of it is recognition that we die, and all who have gone before us did, too: it is a time to reflect on and honor our ancestors.

Sometimes I think people get a bit carried away by it. That said, I’ll take it over pastels and polo shirts any day of the week.

But more than anything, I suspect that what this enthusiasm is really about is a hunger for the intensity of experience. A willingness to confront even pain, even sorrow, even death in order truly to feel in a world that commodifies experience and meets suffering with contempt or saccharine platitudes. To take joy in eerie moods and night chills.

Many of our rituals—at any time of year—are about exactly that: to feel intensely and with authenticity.

So when you see goths—real goths, not just people in “sexy witch” outfits they put together at the Halloween store—see them for more than a morbid subculture.

Their way may not be my way, entirely, but they’re honest about who they are and what they want. They have chosen not to pretend. They have chosen to wear their feelings rather than hide them.

That takes courage. So give them some credit.

And who knows? They might be Pagans, too.