Born of a Virgin

I cannot be the first person to think of this. But when I mention it, people are taken aback, as if it were the first time they’ve thought of it. So it probably bears asking this of those wiser than I am in the ways of language and history.

We have the miracle of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, some 2000-ish years ago. This is a central tenet of faith for Christians, and a lot of people have been tortured and killed for questioning it — or at least, they would have been tortured and killed for questioning it, had they dared do so. It’s still grounds for expulsion from most Christian congregations to deny the Virgin Birth.

However, our modern world has a much stranger medical condition at birth than the virginity of the mother, and the condition is relatively common.

These are infants who are born with silver spoons in their mouths.

We have a number of other puzzling modern medical conditions that surround us constantly. We have the “swelled head,” sometimes referred to as the “head too big for a hat,” that comes of an excessive sense of self-importance. It’s an age-related ailment, since sassy youngsters swell in the buttocks rather than the head and become “too big for their britches.” Those we truly respect exhibit an inexplicable expansion of the feet, making it hard for any of the rest of us to “fill their shoes.” And of course, we have the very common, if bizarre, spinal flexibility that allows someone to have his “head up his ass.”

These strange circumstances vary by geographic region as well. I understand that in Colombia, there are people who “piss perfume” (orinar parfume). In Germany, there are people with birds in their head (vögel im kopf).

I don’t want to belabor the point, though I find it entertaining to envision each of these as a literal reality. The point is that all of these are idioms. Figures of speech.

We know that idioms, hyperbole, and metaphor are not modern inventions. In fact, we find the virgin-born Jesus, in the Gospels, speaking of passing camels through the eye of a needle, or pulling a plank or a log from a neighbor’s eye.

It also seems that most ancient gods had miraculous births, many of them being born of a virgin (and many with far stranger origins.) But this was not restricted to gods — a fair number of civic figures around Year One CE were also “born of a virgin,” including the very Emperor Augustus mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Virgin birth was pretty common in those days, it would seem.

So my question to those wiser than I am in the ways of history and language: was there, in fact, a common idiom within the Roman Empire around Year One that would translate literally as “born of a virgin?” If so, how was it used? What did it really mean?

On Gay Marriage

I ran across a doozy today. The article is Smug, Wrong, and Stupid on Gay Marriage. The article itself is humdrum, so much so that I never quite grasped the author’s point, but there’s a comment attributed to someone named Bill Baar, which I must quote in its entirety.

It’s rare to see a constructive debate between the sides. I fault the “marriage equality” crowd as my experience is they’re usually the first to call the otherside hateful, phobic, and so on.

I have been unable to get a dialogue on two world views out of my head, so I have to vent it here.

Levitas: …but how can you attribute those particular words to Jesus in the complete absence of any corroborating evidence that he spoke them, or even that he existed?

Gravitas: Now wait a minute. First, there’s plenty of intertextual corroboration that says somebody spoke those words, so why not Jesus? Second, whether they were actually spoken in a historical context isn’t really–

Simplyass: Hi, guys! What’s up?

Gravitas: Oh, hi, Simplyass.

Levitas: Yo. We’re just having a friendly debate about Christianity.

Simplyass: (shudders) Christians make me sick. They’re so … so … unnatural.

Gravitas: There’s nothing unnatural about Christians!

Simplyass: Of course they’re unnatural. No one is born a Christian. They have to be converted.

Levitas: You know, he has a point….

Gravitas: That may be true, but–

Simplyass: It’s that Christian Agenda. They’re out to convert everyone in the country, starting with the children.

Gravitas: No responsible Christian tries to convert children, a person needs to be of the age of consent to–

Simplyass: Children. They’re after the kids. Through the schools. That’s what school prayer is all about. Christians shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children.

Levitas: What if it’s their own children?

Simplyass: (shudders) What a horrible thought! Two … Christians? With kids of their own? Those poor kids. They’ll need therapy for sure. At taxpayer expense, no doubt. It shouldn’t be allowed. Christians should have their kids taken away. If the government was any damn good, it would protect the innocent. But the government has been been bought out. We all know that.

Gravitas: Now wait just one darn–

Simplyass: My boss says the government ought to round up the Christians and put them behind fences. Big tall fences. But I think that’s too little, too late. The government needs to kill them.

Levitas: (weakly) Kill them? For being Christian?

Simplyass: Absolutely. It’s the only compassionate thing to do. They suffer so, you know. All that sin and guilt and “I’m not worthy, Lord.” It drags down all the rest of us, too. It’s what’s brought our great nation to the brink of ruin, you know.

Gravitas: You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?

Simplyass: (blinks) Are you one of them? You poor thing. You know, I belong to a club that helps people like you find their natural reason again. Why don’t you come to one of our Wednesday evening get-togethers? Good food, good fellowship, and we’ll help you find your way back to Mother Reason.

Gravitas: I have no intention of coming to one of your meetings! There’s nothing wrong with me!

Simplyass: (shrugs) Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. When the government finally wises up and realizes how much damage you’ve all done to the moral fibre of this great nation, they’ll do the right thing. They’ll do the Will of the People. Wouldn’t want to be in your shoes then.

Gravitas: You are the most bigoted, hateful, xenophobic twit I’ve ever met….

I have to fault Gravitas, of course. In my experience, people like him are usually the first to call the other side hateful, phobic, and so on.

The Teflon Hole of Evil

A couple of posts appeared over on Patheos, both by the same author: Killing Us Softly: Seduced by the Occult, and the sequel, All the Rage: Fashionable Occult Practices and Furious Consequences. I’m reluctant to post comments over there, because these two posts sparked one of the most uncivil, name-calling shouting-matches — well, not the worst I’ve seen on the Web, but the worst I’ve ever seen on Patheos.

The author of these posts, Lisa, claims to be expositing standard Catholic teaching on the subject of “the occult,” and I don’t know enough about Catholicism to confirm or deny that.

It’s also not my place or inclination to make pronouncements about what kinds of evil spirits there are, or may be, or might have been at some point in the past, or might be in the future. Or what motivates them, or how they might respond to certain human practices, be it blood sacrifice or Catholic exorcism.

What I do know a little bit about is crazy. Both of these postings, and the responses they elicited, walk the crazy side of the street.

I’m seeing a lot of that these days.

I’m personally a wild-eyed speculator. I love to think and wonder about a wide range of ideas: like the Red Queen, I’m in the habit of believing six impossible things before breakfast (and then disbelieving them before dinner.) Just tonight, we had dinner with friends, and had a long and delightfully animated conversation about negative interest rates and gift economies. I recently wondered how one might go about sanctifying a web site as a “virtual temple.” I can go on at length about the Lemurians. Heady stuff.

But I know that I’m speculating. Imagining. Wondering. I do it partly because I’m a natural-born (or early-made, I’m not sure which) iconoclast, and I don’t like to see comfortable mental structures get all middle-aged and spongey. I do it partly to keep my own mind sharp as I get older, based on the working theory of Use It Or Lose It. I do it partly to talk through different ideas for current and future works of fiction. And I do it to be funny and/or interesting to my friends.

Maybe — just maybe — there is some truth in my speculations: I like to think so. Perhaps a whole cup of metaphorical truth. Perhaps a teaspoon of literal truth. Perhaps a single granule of profound truth.

But speculation is speculation, and most of it is pure fiction.

When it comes to religious devil-talk, people seem to lose their ability to distinguish fact from fiction. They run over to the crazy side of the street and roll in the gutter.

The two articles I mentioned don’t bother me too much at a personal level. Lisa is a young mother, emphasis on “young.” Life-experience will inevitably knock some of the crazy edges off her faith, and may well mellow it into some form of wisdom. Or perhaps not: in which case she’ll become that crazy mother / aunt / neighbor who goes around sprinkling holy water on things to drive out evil spirits. I hope not — she strikes me as a nice young woman. But her life is hers to live and shape. She’ll become a wise old grandmother, or a crazy old grandmother, and her grandkids will love her either way. As a crazy old grandmother, she’ll probably get less face-time with them: that’s all the real advice I have for her.

But I have been in her shoes. Not exactly — my variant was Evangelicalism rather than Catholicism, and I was more into the Rapture and not quite so much into the Devil-fearing side of things. I read all those same books Lisa has read (written by an earlier generation of authors) and got all nervous about spirit beasties that go bump in the night. I dumped most of it as bilge before I entered college. But it was enough of an exposure for me to make some pointed observations today.

The most important is that this entire system of thought is a hole with no steps or hand-holds, coated with Teflon — what I’m calling the Teflon Hole of Evil. Once you fall in, it’s difficult to climb back out.

Here are a few basic tenets of faith that define the Teflon Hole of Evil.

  1. People fall into one of two categories: the Righteous, and those who are influenced by the Devil. There is no real gray area, because anyone in the middle is already sliding into Devil-worship; they just don’t realize it.
  2. The Righteous know and accept the Truth; those influenced by the Devil do not know Truth, but are deceived by falsehoods. The Righteous are therefore trustworthy, the Deceived untrustworthy.
  3. The only way to tell the Righteous from the Deceived is to determine whether they know and accept Truth. In all other respects, the Deceived can seem like perfectly ordinary people, and may even seem to be sensible, moral, kind, and virtuous. But if they do not accept Truth, all of the rest is unimportant window-dressing. Conversely, if they do accept Truth, all their irrationality, immorality, cruelty, and debauchery is merely their fallen nature, and don’t we all suffer from that? God forgives them.
  4. Truth can be found only in X. For Catholics, X is the teachings of the church. For Evangelicals, X is the Bible. This is taken as axiomatic: it is inconceivable that the church teaching (for Catholics) or the Bible (for Evangelicals) could contain any falsehood, confusion, or outright craziness. For Catholics, this has culminated in the doctrine of papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra; for Evangelicals it is embedded in the idea of Biblical inerrancy.
  5. When X appears to contain falsehood, confusion, or outright craziness, it is a misunderstanding on your part, and prima facie evidence that you are in the process of being deceived by the Devil. You must seek Truth more diligently in X, and if it is still unclear, you may need to seek the assistance of the Righteous: counsel at the very least, but perhaps the Devil already has a firm grip on your soul, and you need stronger measures, like deliverance prayer or an exorcism.

I think the essential circularity of this is evident, but in case you weren’t paying attention, here’s the condensed version:

A. Truth is by definition what the Righteous believe.
B. What makes you Righteous is believing the Truth.

What it means in practice is that anyone who wants to play Rasputin and claim to be speaking for God can get away with pretty much anything. Because he speaks for God, his words are Truth. Because his words are Truth, it proves he speaks for God. Everything else goes out the window, and anyone who tells you this is nuts is working for the Devil.

Welcome to the Teflon Hole of Evil.

In her second post, Lisa talks about her subject in terms of the trap that the occultists fall into, and I fully agree with her: the Teflon Hole of Evil is quite indifferent to creed. New Age spiritual-but-not-religious people are just as likely to fall into it as a Roman Catholic or an Evangelical.

Fraud: I sense a spirit nearby, whose name starts with a P. Or maybe a T.
Victim: (face stiffens, breathing slows, pupils contract)
Fraud: I sense you parted from this person on bad terms.
Victim: (looks uncomfortable, eyes shift downward)
Fraud: I think some wrong has been done to this person.
Victim: (first glimmer of tears in the eyes, involuntary twitch of the mouth)
Fraud: Do you know this person?
Victim: Aunt… Aunt Tilly.
Fraud: Tilly? Is this you, Tilly? Oh, she’s coming through strongly now. 

A fishing expedition and some sharp observation have uncovered the first scrap of information about Aunt Tilly, a deceased woman the victim had treated badly in life. A miracle! How could the psychic have known about Aunt Tilly? He must be the real deal! Therefore, everything he says must be Truth.


The irony is that Lisa has done exactly the same thing with the priest she interviews in her second article: Father Reynolds, a “diocesan priest in New York” who has had “more than his share of experience with the paranormal.” In the interview, he blatantly claims unusual expertise, indeed a special divine calling to this kind of work, then comments that three of his own — his very own! — Eucharistic ministers were at John Edwards’ television show (John Edwards is a medium/psychic who channels the dead). The message here is that you can’t trust just anyone in the church, certainly not these unnamed eucharistic ministers, since they are already sliding toward the Devil. You can’t trust just any parish priest, either, since they don’t have the expertise and special calling. Best to trust Father Reynolds. He knows the Truth.


Father Reynolds can now tell poor Lisa pretty much anything, and she’ll swallow it whole. That evil spirits are like lint and stick to your soul if you walk into the wrong bookstore. That fights with your husband are evidence of Satan’s influence. That insomnia is a sign of spirit oppression. That you can hug your loved ones only after wrapping them in the Holy Spirit, like pulling a spiritual condom over them so they don’t “contaminate” you.

Maybe he’ll tell her someday that witches melt if they come into contact with salt. (Oops, there I go, spilling that secret again.)

It never occurs to Lisa — it can’t occur to her — that Father Reynolds may be exactly the same kind of fraud that he is warning her about. John Edwards is deceived by the Devil — Father Reynolds is guided by God and X. One is Deceived, the other knows Truth. They can’t be anything alike!

For even suggesting that they are both men with limited knowledge and less-than-noble human motivations, I’ve demonstrated that I, too, am a minion of the Devil. Anyone who doesn’t accept the Truth that Father Reynolds has filled her head with is a minion of the Devil.

I think the only way out of the Teflon Hole of Evil is to let it fill with life-experience and float you out.

You’ve all seen the various horror movies from Hollywood, like The Omen, and one of the recurring bit-parts is “the priest who knows too much.” He’s invariably found holed up somewhere in a room full of “weapons against darkness” — in some cases, it’s holy symbols and verses scrawled on all the walls, in others it’s a secret basement full of silver-tipped oak crossbow bolts. In the standard script, he steps out of line somehow — he knocks a cross off the wall, or leaves a warded window open a crack, or fumbles while loading the crossbow — and the Big Demon who’s been gunning for him for years grins and eats his head.

The metaphorical truth to this image is that this is exactly what it is like to live in the Teflon Hole of Evil. Living there spoils the world. Better to live in abject terror in a ten-by-ten room with black walls covered with mad scribbles, than to step outside and tell the Devil to go pound sand. Better to distance yourself from your loved-ones with a Holy Spirit Love Glove than to hug your husband and let him fully into your heart without reservations. Better to worry about how much evil-spirit detritus you’ve picked up while walking past that awful New Age store on the main square than to simply take in a deep breath and thank God for a beautiful Spring day.

No healthy-minded person can continue to live like that. Over time, a healthy mind will gradually shake off the influence of a fraudulent medium or a Father Reynolds.

If you want to accelerate that process, my advice is simple: get more real life-experience. Take a college course in physics for housewives. Take up reading non-religious literature from a different country, a different time. Read poetry. Learn some history from a country and time you know nothing about. Visit a foreign country for a month. Go camping, and observe the way birds and squirrels behave.

Start taking long walks in nature, and talk with God.

Get out of the ten-by-ten black room, and tell the Devil — and Father Reynolds — to go pound sand.

Retreats and Advances

Sufenas Virius Lupus on the Pagan Portal at Patheos recently reflected on his general ennui in the post-PantheaCon letdown.

Years ago, when I was in the Christian fold, we referred to events like PantheaCon as “mountaintop experiences,” referring to Moses retreating to Mount Sinai to receive the stone tablets of the Jewish Law from none other than God Himself, only to return to the world below with a glow on his face — a glow that slowly faded, which seems to be one of the irreducible aspects of such experiences.

I’ve had a lot of experiences like that in the last four decades. Church camps. Music camps. A musical performance tour of Europe. Burning Man. A series of workshop weekends on love, intimacy, and sexuality. Our annual Dragonfest pagan event, which I’ve been attending since 1996.

Even Disney World.

I should probably explain the Disney Experience was profoundly spiritual for me because I had gone on special family vacations to Disneyland in California when I was four, and again at seven, and again at fourteen. When I went back with my own children at the age of thirty-five, I found that I had changed, but the world of Disney had not. Every image took me on an extended flashback to the beginning of my life: a past-life therapy session mediated by Snow White.

At any rate, Sufenas ponders why the religious — Pagan, Christian, or Buddhist — do so much “retreating” and so little “advancing.”

My wife and I have been discussing a related topic recently. She is nearing the end of her Bardic training in OBOD, and one of the features of this training is a number of periods of “gestation.”

Both of us have quite spontaneously taken a lot of gestational time. Our metric-oriented, work-ethic infused brains try to tell us we’ve merely been lax in our efforts — we both started the fifty-two week coursework in the Fall of 2005, and I’m still only halfway through, still immersed in the element of Earth.

As my wife moves through the final lessons, however, she’s discovering she’s already done all of the work. I suspect I will find something similar.

The key lies in the gestational periods.

I was raised in a hostile universe, as was my wife. A universe where parents smack you silly for misbehavior, and God does the same thing to the whole human race. I hear a lot of this kind of talk within the Pagan community as well — I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that “the Goddess smacked me upside the head with a two-by-four.” Just like God, but in skirts. A world where we must earn our keep, pull our weight, prove our worth. This universal hostility suffuses our entire imaginal existence.

When I first self-initiated into the Druidic tradition, years ago, I received a very different lesson. I was reading John Michael Greer’s excellent book, The Druidry Handbook, and hit a section that bothered me. He was talking about how the ancient Druids viewed reincarnation, and spoke casually of the “hard life” of the “lower life forms.”

I performed my initiation in a grove of lodgepole pines at nearly 10,000 feet elevation in Wyoming. We’d gone there to camp over the Fourth of July weekend, and many of the roads and campsites were still snowed-in. By September, the snow would fly again.  The air is very thin — you can see the brighter stars in full daylight under the right conditions.

This harsh alpine forest was overrun with wildlife, and not one of those critters seemed to be suffering from a “hard life.” As I watched them, I observed something very different: these “lower life forms” do not put up with hardship. Every natural species lives a bountiful, easy life — or they move to a more hospitable environment, or they die. The one thing they never do is to live “hard lives.” That is reserved for civilized humans.

A spiritual path is at root an attempt to find a way back to Eden: back to that place where we walk with the gods in the cool of the garden, a bountiful, easy life. That is the place the black squirrels and gray jays live and die among the alpine lodgepoles.

It is humans who are sundered from Eden.

One of the main things that separates us from Eden is civilization itself. I don’t know if it is possible to have civilization and Eden both. It would have to be a very different kind of civilization than what we’ve known for the last 10,000 years.

So if we civilized humans demand Eden, we’re faced with two alternatives.

We can retreat. We can create special times and places where civilization is temporarily suspended — retreats, festivals, workshops, deep woods and mountaintops. For a brief time, we savor a taste of Eden by stripping away our jobs, our deeply-ingrained reticence to approach others openly, our fear of living our truth and our passion. For a weekend, we pretend we do not live in a hostile world of hardship ruled by deities who will smack us upside the head “for our own good” — or for the irreligious, we pretend we live in a universe free of the zombifying effects of prejudice and superstition.

Such retreats remind us of Eden, but there is always something false about the reminder, because we know we have no choice but to return to the real world in a day or two. When we do return, we suffer again as a fresh wound the exile from Eden. The glow fades from our faces, and we wonder if the joy we felt was really worth the pain we now feel.

There is another alternative: to walk the long walk back to Eden.

What does that mean? It means we never leave PantheaCon. We never come home from Dragonfest. We never return to the “real world.”

This requires a complete transformation of consciousness. It isn’t an unnatural change; to the contrary, it is the most quintessentially “natural” transformation possible. But it necessitates that we change the way we view the universe: our civilization, our work, our homes, our neighbors and families. And that is extremely difficult for those of us raised in a hostile universe.

Such a transformation consists of planting seeds, and then allowing them to germinate and sprout. It requires gestation.

In this process, retreats can be a valuable resource. They remind us of what Eden is supposed to taste like, even if there is an artificial aftertaste. But what’s really valuable is when we pay attention to what parts of civilization — what parts of our daily life — we had to suppress to bring us even that close.

And I think I’ll leave the topic right there.

To gestate.

Generational Degeneration

Walk with me for a bit as I wrestle with a thought.

Most people have heard that the Bible is the Word of God — certainly Christians are fond of telling us this. But what does that mean?

A vocal portion of the faithful take this to mean the literal, infallible, inerrant truth of the words, even the punctuation, in the Holy Scripture.

Where did that idea come from?

Well, we have the idea of Papal Infallibility, cast into Roman Catholic doctrine in 1870. That’s based on the infallibility of the Church Councils, a concept batted about in the 1200’s. That harkens back to the original councils, beginning in the year 325, charged to settle the infighting among the hundreds of different early Christian sects: councils which put together the Holy Scripture the Christians call the Bible and defined what Christianity was, and what it was not.

Where did this authority come from? The Emperors of Rome.

So we can see a kind of ossification and degeneration occurring in this process. What began as a pragmatic and flexible political process became rigid dogma which admits to neither error nor change. As that happens, the wisdom of the tradition drains away into utter nonsense.

We see a similar process in the ossification of the United States Constitution among some Libertarians and Tea Partiers. When crafted, the Constitution was envisioned as a flexible political document that outlined the principles of governing a nation potentially as large or larger than any nation had ever been. No one knew what would work, and what would not, and so they left the details to future generations: the Constitution has written into itself a process for modification. For many, now, Constitutionalism is a religion that has already degraded into dogma that says The People are not allowed to create an income tax or a social security network because it is not present in the Holy Writ of Masters Madison and Jefferson. This degeneration hasn’t had seventeen centuries to descend into nonsense, but it is rapidly headed in that direction.

Which brings me to the real subject of this conversation: Capitalism.

Capitalism is a vehicle, like a car. When you decide to take your family on a vacation from, say, Denver to Disneyland, the car is a wonderful thing. But once you’ve reached your destination, you stop driving. If you don’t — if you are so enamored with the forward motion of this sleek, muscular machine that you don’t even slow as you pass Disneyland — you proceed westward into the Pacific Ocean and drown.

What is this “Disneyland?” Nothing complex: just a higher standard of living. For everyone.

No sensible economist in the early days of industrial capitalism ever considered that it would last. Capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable. Like a car, it can take us to Disneyland, but then it has to either stop, or proceed into the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, we humans have this pattern of ossifying our beliefs into inflexible nonsense. Religion. Politics. Economics.

We’ve reached the end of the capitalist ride, and it turns out it has only taken us to Disneyland, not to Heaven. Some might find that disappointing. I happen to think it’s pretty cool. But it’s time to put the machine in Park and stop driving, because the next stop is going to be quite uncomfortable.

It’s fascinating to watch the pro-capitalists scream about comments like this. Their first reaction is always to create the false dichotomy — if you aren’t a Capitalist, you must be a Satan-Worshipping Godless Totalitarian Communist.

If you can get past that reflexive shriek of terrified outrage, you immediately get the false pragmatism that says nothing works better than capitalism. If you’re driving to Disneyland, that’s perhaps true. If you don’t stop when you get there, not so much.

Beyond that lies the shallow moralism of “private ownership rights” and “ethical greed” taken to bizarre extremes: a long list of tiresome excuses defending the world as it is, regardless of how patently immoral and unworkable it has become.

If you can penetrate all of these fuming reeks, there lie stunning vistas of possibility. Gift economies. Patronage. Distributivism. Guilds and Brotherhoods. Social democracies. And more importantly, the things we haven’t yet imagined.

Some ten thousand years ago, people responded to increasing population by abandoning traditional hunting and gathering, to farm. It was an unthinkable transition at the time. The transition to cities, and then city-states, and then national states was equally unthinkable. Every such shift was a way to deal with increasing population, more people living in less space.

We approach another such transition. Capitalism has taken us as far as it can, and now we have to stop the machine, get out, and figure out what will replace it.

The Tyranny of the Past

I’ve just endured the now-traditional screech of the Fundamentalist Christians over the Evils of Halloween, and dread the now-traditional bickering over whether Christ is present in or absent from Christmas. It’s all quite tiresome.

One of the things that keeps spewing from the Fundamentalists about Halloween is something along the lines of “…this is a wicked, Satanic practice because the X used to do Y back in the mists of history.” Perhaps it’s the Druids and bone-fires. Or some superstition about Jack O’ Lanterns and evil spirits. Or it’s the distasteful practice of dining in a graveyard with your ancestors.

This all seems strange to me, because nearly any traditional practice is rooted in bizarre ancient practices. Look at the Cross of the Christians — a symbol of torment, torture, and mass execution. Or the Eucharist, a symbolic act of cannibalism.

Are modern Christians committing an act of cannibalism during their Communion rite? With Wonder Bread and grape juice?

Oh, puh-leeze.

What modern people do is what modern people do, regardless of what it might (or might not) have meant to their grandparents, or their remote ancestors.

Did the ancient Druids build Wicker Men and roast criminals alive inside them? I don’t know, but more pointedly, I don’t care. I’m a modern Druid, and I certainly don’t build Wicker Men. Nor do any of the other Druids I know about.

Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, had garden parties at the Vatican in which prostitutes crawled about on hands and knees and picked up coins spread on the floor, while the male guests mounted them — and the Pope awarded prizes to the men who ejaculated (publicly) the greatest number of times during the evening. He reputedly took his own daughter, Lucrezia, as a lover, and shared her affections with his son, Cesare. What does this say about modern Catholics?

Nothing at all.

The past can be both a guide and a prison. Increasingly, I see it as a prison.

One way of looking at the entire sweep of history is as a vast, sustained effort in solving the problems of increasing population.

Stable tribal societies benefit from the past, because the past contains strategies that are relevant to the present. It tells you what plants to eat, when to migrate, how to hunt without destroying your food source. It tells you the auspicious times to have children, and the times to hold back.

Increasing the population dilutes the value of tribal knowledge. If you follow the old ways, people starve. The auspicious times to bear young are no longer auspicious.

So new ways are created. Agriculture. Cities. Religions. Nations. Divine Right. Rule of Law. Every one of these is a method of solving the problem of more people living in closer quarters.

Not a single one of these strategies works for very long, because the population keeps growing. Last time I checked, the world population adds a city the size of Los Angeles every month. Every increase in population forces us to solve problems in new ways.

Medieval Christianity is long gone, replaced by modern Christianity, which is fading quickly into post-modern Christianity. Socialism had its day. Capitalism is rapidly coming to its predictably catastrophic close. The Republic may have a short future ahead, or it may also be dying. Will popular Democracy replace it? Or Fascism? Or Theocracy? Or something completely different?

Paganism has successfully re-invented itself — what passes for Pagan today would be unrecognizable to any ancient Roman or Celt, as would our lifestyles, our stresses, and our systems of coping with those stresses. As a modern outlook, Paganism might have a future, but only if it remains flexible and part of the problem-solving process.

I wonder what it was like in the generations just before people started clearing fields and forcing the earth to produce food. The old verities of hunting and gathering would have begun to fail. There were too many people, too many “others.” Thinning herds. Vanishing birds. Polluted rivers. Always the stink of burning in the air.

Patterns of life that had guided tribes for hundreds of years, perhaps hundreds of generations, simply didn’t work any more. Could the average tribal person have envisioned living in one of the first true cities? Surrounded by strangers, neighbors rather than clan? Purchasing strange food from strangers? The noise, the stink, the being stuck in one place with one abode, doing only one thing every day like baking or tanning or forging?

We face a similar period of radical change. Our web of commerce has circled the world, and we cannot fight a war without damaging our own economy. There are no places left to discover, conquer, or exploit. All is owned — if it isn’t, it soon will be. We can feed the world easily, yet we do not, because our past is a prison that says we must do hard, productive work to eat, yet there is not enough productive work.

And the population continues to grow.

I try to imagine what living will be like in a century, and I fall short. I’ve read science fiction all my life, but it is clear that everything I’ve read was a product of its own time, not of the future. It’s like visiting Future World at Disneyland — it feels dated, nostalgic. Even the works of science fiction with enormous scope, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Frank Herbert’s Dune, read like period pieces only fifty years later.

I feel like one of those pre-agricultural nomads, who cannot grasp the idea of a “city.” To the extent that I can imagine the future, the prospect is horrible, just as the idea of being pinned in one place among strangers must have been horrible to those first nomadic city-dwellers. Yet our children will adapt, and they will look back on our Democracy and our Capitalism and pity us.

Is Halloween based on ancient Pagan practices? Is Christ in Christmas?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Sam Hane

Halloween, which is the witches’ New Year, originated among the ancient Druid priests from Britain and France. This pagan holiday is held to celebrate the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic year. The festival is named after Samhain (sah-ween), the God of the dead. The druids believed that on this night the spirits of the dead would come back and walk amongst the living to terrorize and harass them, some even possessing the bodies of animals. Also, during this time human and animal sacrifices are common, the blood spilled believed to open the gates to the dead, releasing them. To ward off these evil spirits the druids dress up as witches, demons or in other evil costumes, some participating in satanic rituals.

— newspaper quote reprinted in

I have just returned from a Druidic Gorsedd where we discussed our sinister plans for our upcoming Samhain rite. For those who are unaware, a Gorsedd is a dark and secretive gathering of Druids in which we ritually sacrifice one or more food groups. Tonight we took the sharpened blade to a nicely-ripened virgin Brie, covered with an evil sauce (brewed by my wife) that contained unborn Pecan Trees and other vegetarian sacrifice. We also had popcorn. Salted popcorn. Bwaaa-haa-haa![1]

George, the eldest Druid present, set me straight on this confusing matter of Samhain, Celtic Lord of the Dead.

Pagans have been deliberately mispronouncing his name for centuries as “Sah-wen,” mostly to confuse Christians. I think this is mean. So I will reveal to the world the truth as George revealed it to me: it is pronounced Sam Hane. Actually, it is more correctly pronounced SAH-yum HAYN (just as Jesus is correctly pronounced jah-EEE-zuss.)

Sam Hane is not, however, the Celtic Lord of the Dead. He is not even the Celtic Lord of Darkness. He is the Celtic Lord of Dark Underwear, and was popular among the Celts for many of the same reasons he is still popular today, only more so, since they did not have automatic washing machines with bleach. His chief rival in the Celtic pantheon was Frugh Tuatha Lughm. Their wet-towel duels were legendary as far away as Carthage.

His beloved consort, Belle Tayne, broke his heart when she abandoned him, claiming that she could never love a god who did not wear tightie-whities. She ran off with a Persian God named Mithras, a matter that was quickly hushed up by her family, but not soon enough. Her festival on May 2 was thereafter ritually celebrated by a quick shag in the bushes accompanied by much winking and nudging — a cruel reminder that enraged Sam every year and caused him to get drunk and fight to the death with the Oak King, who had nothing to do with anything other than bearing a passing resemblance to Mithras.

Sam left the lands of the Celts for the New World in 1421, hitching a ride on the Chinese ships sailing by on their mission to map the world. He ended up in what is now Texas, where he paired up with Quetzalcoatl, Lord of the Living. As a team, “Lords of the Living and the Dark Underwear” simply didn’t work, so Sam took on the title of Lord of the Dead. It was never more than a stage name, and he never personally used it outside the Americas.

In 1845, after the team broke up and Quetz took off for parts unknown, Sam boarded a steamship bound for Belgium with a brief stopover in Ireland. Potatoes transported in the hold of the ship carried the dreaded potato blight, Phytophthora infestans. Sam debarked in Dublin, carrying a sackful of infected potatoes that he hoped to make into a stew that evening, and thus caused the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1852. As a direct result, his American stage name, Lord of the Dead, stuck (most of the Irish referred to him as Laird o’ the Fokkin’ Dead[2]). His career never quite recovered in Ireland.

Modern Celtic scholars have recovered Sam Hane’s original role as Lord of Dark Underwear, and it is in this mode that he is worshiped by modern Druids.[3]

— Themon the Bard, 27 Oct 2009

(Please feel free to circulate this article as you see fit. Do not circulate if this does not fit; check your bleach levels. The scholarship in this article is highly suspect, as all facts were drawn from questionable Internet sources and/or a bottle of cheap Merlot.)

[1] It is a fact documented on film that witches melt when they eat salt. Druids, however, are totally immune to salt. How cool is that?

[2] According to astute reader Karen Marsh, this should be “Laird o’ the Feckin’ Dead,” citing as reference the book The Feckin’ Book of Everything Irish. I stand corrected.

[3] Wiccans do not worship Sam Hane; they instead follow his one-time consort’s preference for tightie-whities. Darn them all to heck, anyway.


Conversation with Death

I’m at our annual gathering, Dragonfest, a five-day festival in the supremely beautiful Rocky Mountains. This is my first visit to the new festival site, and the land is gorgeous. We all miss the big lake, of course, and the dramatic swoop of the slope up to the shattered ridge we call “the dragon.” Here the land is more rolling and spotted with meadows of brilliant wildflowers. They had eleven hours of rain on Tuesday, the day before we arrived, and several hours on Wednesday, which turned all the roads into a slick, muddy mess. But the rain slacked off, and this Saturday morning dawned clear and cool.

I’ve had a fascist plant in my heel for a few weeks, Mussolini I think. (The doctor actually called it plantar fasciitis, but it feels more like Mussolini.) Whatever I call it, walking has been painful. So I sat this morning in a canvas chair under a sun awning performing a “blank page meditation” — notebook in my lap, pen alertly poised to write witty and significant words, eyes distantly unfocused as I mulled the vast silences of a completely empty head.

Then Death walked by and stopped to chat.

His given name is Michael, and he’s a gentle man with a sweet energy and a broad, engaging smile. I’ve known him for several years. In his day job, he’s a guy just like anyone else: owned a scrap and salvage operation before he sold it, and got crunched in the Great Recession of 2008 like everyone. We talked for a while about what we’ve been doing lately — his personal downsizing process, my unpaid furlough from work.

Then the conversation turned to last night’s Drawing Down, where he channeled Hades, Lord of the Underworld.

We do the Drawing Down rite every year at Dragonfest. It’s a little different from the Wiccan rite of the same name: it’s rooted in that tradition, but adapted to a group of hundreds. Roughly a half-dozen to a dozen priests and priestesses serve as channels for a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. Everyone else — the questioners — meditate in a waiting area, and “walkers” escort them, one at a time, to the channels where they can ask questions or have a conversation with a manifestation of the divine.

Channeling itself is a fascinating phenomenon. Some channels lose conscious awareness entirely during the experience: Edgar Cayce, the “sleeping prophet,” was one of the most well-known channels of this sort. Others retain consciousness, but view their words and actions from the back of the bus, so to speak, while the deity they channel drives the bus. Still others, like Michael, experience it more as an intimate “being with,” where they are aware of and pass along what they know the deity would have said had they been driving the bus, along with cryptic bits of information that are meaningless to the channel, but meaningful to the questioner.

Sacred theater plays a role, too, in preparing both the channel and the questioners. Michael set up in a small, circular grove of living trees that contained substantial deadfall. It was a long walk from the gathering area, mostly uphill. Downhill might have been better symbolism, but an uphill hike requires a certain determination: a long and difficult walk in the evening darkness that passes through the circle of life and into the realm of death, to speak with the Lord of the Dead.

This morning I could still hear an echo of Hades in Michael’s voice as he spoke of the experience: a quiet authority that ran deeper than Michael’s normal tone.

He said that the most common recurring theme — both last night and through all the centuries of man — is regret. Dreams abandoned. Things never attempted. Misdeeds unrectified. The message from Hades to all of these people is the same: You don’t need to make peace with me. You need to make peace with yourself. If you have regrets now, while you still live, then stop regretting and start living your life. Make use of the time you have.

The other recurring theme is fear of death. Hades’ response: Every person comes to me. I am patient. I am in no hurry to ‘collect’ anyone. Each person finds their way to me at the appropriate time, and then I help them move into what comes after. It is not something to be afraid of.

There is a universe of wisdom in these two, short, matter-of-fact statements.

Make use of the time you have. Good advice, almost trivially obvious. Yet deathbed regrets are so common. Even if it is trivially obvious advice, it seems we still need to be reminded.

Every person comes to me. The inevitability of death is something most people don’t appreciate, and our culture spends tremendous effort and expense in denying it. In our majority religions, we hear such things as “victory over death,” as though there is some conflict and it is somehow possible to win. But it isn’t a conflict in the first place. Life isn’t life without death, just as there can be no light without darkness. Death is what makes life precious and worth living.

Yesterday evening I had been discussing the Drawing Down with my wife, and apart from the fact that Mussolini would have made it difficult for me to participate, my only question for the gods this year was, “What is the point of you?” It wasn’t meant impertinently — in past months I’ve been pondering if there is any relevance left to religions and gods. The outrageous statements made by the religious, and the ways in which these bizarre beliefs warp individual lives and our entire culture, usually at great cost and to great pain, has made me wonder if we would all be better off without any gods.

This conversation answered my question with remarkable parsimony. I don’t know what the gods are — disembodied blobs of mystic energy floating through the universe just beyond the perception of our microscopes and telescopes, or perhaps just a shared fantasy based on the way our brains are built — but whatever they are, they can offer simple, matter-of-fact conversation with some of the deepest issues we face as living creatures and as human beings.