View of my house from the river.

A quiet rain is falling on the 150ish-year-old farmhouse I now call home. The house sits on a hill overlooking the Hocking River, in the midst of 40 acres of meadow, pasture, and woodlands. The ceilings are high, there’s almost no insulation in this part of the house, and some idiot blocked up the fireplaces years ago, but it’s been a mild autumn, I’ve got a dog curled up on the couch with me, and it’s warm and cozy here. It could change any minute though; the weather here is moody to say the least. And outside it is dark as pitch and the coyotes are calling.

My new/old home is in rural southeast (Appalachian) Ohio, a place that, until a week ago, I had never been before. Yet it has always felt like home to me, and I always knew I’d come back here someday. My mother was born in Athens, and my maternal ancestors have been settled in the region for about 200 years. When my best friend got a great job here and almost immediately announced that she’d fallen in love with the area, despite not having any roots here herself, I knew it was more than coincidence. One by one obstacles cleared and pennies dropped and it became clear that I was supposed to make this my home once my mom had died and finally hang out my shingle as an herbologist (which hasn’t happened yet but is in the works; more in a later post).

I arrived two weeks ago Saturday. I’ve wanted to post something every day since then but the information and sensory overload has me tongue-tied (keyboard-tied?). Plus a lot of it is…weird…although my landing here has been soft, the welcome warm, and the orientation process pretty gentle. I just haven’t been able to find the words until now, and the ones I’ve cobbled together are entirely inadequate. My cousin visited this area once many years ago and before I moved, she told me that the whole landscape had a haunted feeling. It’s lousy with old cemeteries, decaying barns and farmhouses, historical mine disasters, a huge Victorian insane asylum, and Native American burial mounds, so haunting would seem likely (and I’m not ruling it out), but the word I would use is inspirited. One of the first things I noticed was how alive the landscape seems. “Well, of course it’s alive, dummy,” I said to myself, “you’re looking at trees.” But I mean that out of the corner of your eye the trees seem to have mischievous faces like Brian Froud creatures, that then disappear when you look directly at them. I constantly feel like I’m being watched, warily. I already love this land but it hasn’t made up its mind about me.

hawthorn 1
Honey locust branches frame a view over the pastures.

During the day it’s peaceful and calm here. In a word, bucolic. Nighttime is a different story. To some extent this is just the nature of rural places: there are a lot of critters and they come out to eat when it gets dark. My housemate and I have seen rabbits, foxes, raccoons, and more deer than we can count, hear coyotes not infrequently, and a couple days ago the newspaper reported a mountain lion in the general vicinity. (That’s just the wildlife that comes out by night, of course; there are lots of other beasties during the daytime.) When it gets dark, it gets very dark–no city light pollution here. On clear nights you can see the Milky Way. I grew up in the country until I was 7 or so and I’ve always considered myself a country mouse at heart, but after so many years in cities, the totality of nocturnal darkness here has taken some getting used to. But at the risk of sounding overdramatic, I think there are other things–eerie, uncanny things–that come out at night.

Woods at dusk.

I know it’s not just my imagination because this place is absolutely crawling with pagans, a fact which I put down to the fact that everybody senses, on some level, the presence and primacy of old powers here. The (all too brief) influence of some wormwood and anise extract one night brought intensely clear perception–my breath was taken away by the beauty of the night here; everything seemed to be reaching out to communicate with me and all other beings. I felt enmeshed in a web of sentience and radiance.

creek and sycamore
The skeletal white silhouettes of sycamores stand out against the autumn landscape.

In addition to its spooky qualities, this also feels like a wild landscape, though it’s really not. It’s been farmed and mined and deforested and pumped and excavated. It hasn’t been a frontier for a couple hundred years now. Humans have altered the ecology in many ways and there are probably as many domestic species as wild ones. I feel like I have to reiterate here that while I’m no farmer, I’m no stranger to the country and to agriculture. So this isn’t just some romantic pastoral ideal on my part when I say that this place is not tame.

On that note, I had a funny experience a couple days ago. All day I had been thinking about just this thing, the wild, magical, uncanny vibe of this place. That evening I sat down to check my email where I saw this subject line:

That's my Pan

Subsequent research uncovered that That’s My Pan!™ is a line of personalized cookware of the sort you might like if you frequent potlucks and have a really bad memory. But at the time, given my earlier line of thought, this is more what came to mind:

Pan's Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager
Pan’s Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager

…which you have to admit was a lot more a propos than spam aimed at church ladies. I recalled that some new local friends of mine have an image of Pan on their mantel, which at first I took as reflective of who my friends are, but I now realize is more a reflection of where we all live. It may not be this particular foreign Hellenic deity that we sense here (in fact, that may just be shorthand used by some less-verbal part of my mind to communicate to my more-verbal, abstracting consciousness), but there is no question that Pan’s characteristics–wildness, abandon, altered consciousness, disorientation, discomfiture, fear, ecstasy, vitality–are abundantly present. I cannot wait to get to work here.


In pagan Spain, Part III

In Part I, if you missed it, I wrote about the paganness of bullfighting; in Part II I wrote about Andalucía’s Virgin Mother goddesses. In Part III, we talk about Jesus…

Hospital de la Caridad retablo by Pedro Roldan

My ramblings about “pagan” Spain are not just a matter of ethnographic interest. It’s the broader themes they touch on, which have been tapping at my mental window for the latter half of 2015, that are the juicy bits. In particular, death and sacrifice. I haven’t met many non-Latin Westerners who aren’t at least a little uncomfortable with bullfighting, for example; and yet animal sacrifice is something some pagans are quite comfortable with, as are many African and diasporic religions. I believe a big chunk of our bad feels about bullfighting come from the misapprehension of it as merely an entertainment; but regardless, I believe a sober reflection on bullfighting and how it makes us feel can help us dig a little deeper into what sacrifice means, why we do (or don’t) it, what values it enacts, our relationship (as humans, as priest/esses, as devotees, etc. etc.) to the sacrificee, and how best to go about performing a sacrifice. A life unexamined is wasted, but a religion unexamined is dangerous to all concerned.

With Jesus we come back around to sacrifice, since in Christian theology his crucifixion was said to be the ultimate sacrifice, that renders any other unnecessary forever. That sacrifice wrote a blank check to the cosmos. In the Spanish context, though, it seems that it’s a check that needs to be signed again every year through ritual reenactment. That’s hardly unusual in the context of pagan Mediterranean religions, but you don’t see it too much in mainstream Christianity.

There’s been some discussion of animal sacrifice in comments on the Well of Galabes blog (the comments about sacrifice are somewhat peripheral to the subject of the blog post). If I remember correctly, one person said they would have no part of blood sacrifice and any deity who would demand it is, if not actually evil, then certainly not the sort one wants to associate with. Someone else said, if you have a problem sacrificing chickens I sure hope you’re not eating meat because hello, hypocrisy? And yet another person said something like, slaughtering animals was a normal part of life until very recently, and dedicating to a deity a death that was going to happen regardless just makes sense. It’s like inviting the deity over for dinner.

This latter approach makes a lot of sense to me. I have to be honest–if and when I ever find myself keeping livestock, I am not going to be the one slaughtering it. It’s not a moral virtue on my part–quite the contrary, in fact–it’s just a personal limitation, even a weakness if you will. I think our society’s squeamishness around death is both silly and damaging to the dying and the grieving–which, let’s face it, is all of us at various times–but even so, I don’t think animal slaughter was ever meant to be ho-hum. When you bring about someone else’s death, that should matter to you. You should take it seriously and reflect on your own mortality and that of the deceased. It should be uncomfortable enough that you can’t ever undertake it lightly or in excess. A little ritual hedging around the event can only help.

On the other hand, I believe it was the anthropologist Michael Taussig who said that sacrifice is not about an exchange (“Hey, thanks for all that rain you’ve been sending our way; here, have a virgin,” or, “If you give me a million dollars, I’ll give you a chicken”) but is instead a way of entering a non-normal state of being that enables communion with the deity/ies. (It’s been many years since I read that, so I might be garbling it a bit.) I wonder (because I don’t remember) whether Taussig was viewing sacrifice as an essentially taboo activity that, in left-hand path fashion, acts to liberate the participants from stultifying social norms.

Greer writes, in the Galabes post linked above:

“When Christianity first emerged, after all, it did so in a world where the practice of animal sacrifice was a normal part of religious worship; everybody knew from personal experience what was involved in killing an animal in honor of a god and feasting on its flesh. In that context, reenacting the sacrificial death of Christ and ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood must have packed emotional force of an intensity and concreteness that can barely be imagined today. Even now, though, the Mass is edgy stuff; the symbolic cannibalism at its heart reaches straight down into primal desires and fears about eating and being eaten—and that’s an important part of what gives it its power.”

Gordon proposes that in sacrifice,

“…the non-physical recipients are fed not by the things they accrue, but by the things we deny ourselves….To me, this implies that the awareness of lack in our consciousness is the actual ‘sacrifice’, the actual ‘currency’, that is exchanged between the physical and the non-physical.”

That works for explaining how our offerings are received, but not so much in the case of an animal that is ritually slaughtered but then eaten by the humans involved, because arguably, the people might not otherwise have been about to eat that chicken, but they would probably have been eating a chicken. I don’t find the lack argument totally persuasive; it may well be true some of the time, but it can’t explain all the forms of sacrifice. My own experience isn’t sufficient to have formed a strong opinion on this though.

Yet thinking about the “awareness of lack” brings me back to the grieving that is so central to Andalucían religion. (Incidentally, grief also forms the main subject matter of flamenco songs, which is part of why people look so tortured when dancing to the “deep song.”*) Grief is the ultimate awareness of lack. If, as Gordon says, our non-physical neighbors are fascinated by lack, something they don’t experience, then the entities honored as various Virgins and Christs must be loving 20th/21st-century Spain.

I keep coming back to the question, how–and why?–does one celebrate grief? That’s what I see happening in Sevilla’s Holy Week rituals (and indeed Spanish comedy as well). But it proves that it can be done. Perhaps even that it should be done, sometimes.

Death more generally runs through (what I consider to be) Andalucía’s pagan traditions like an underground river. You may not see it clearly, but you can always hear it burbling away beneath. For people who know how to enjoy life so well (¡fiesta y siesta!), Spaniards have always struck me as quite morbid. Actually, I’m sure that’s no accident. If they are unusually preoccupied with their own mortality, they arguably have reason to be: just in the 20th-21st centuries they endured a tremendous amount of wealth inequality with grinding poverty for most, a vicious civil war, an oppressive dictatorship (which many perversely love in retrospect), regime change, drought and famine, and a collapsed economy. I noticed when I lived there how, in addition to preferring their Virgins to be depicted in a state of eternal mourning, they like their Christs battered and bloody. In Spain they want a Jesus who really knows what it means to suffer.

El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)
El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)

There’s a famous story about the artist who sculpted one of Sevilla’s images of Jesus, popularly known as El Cachorro (The Puppy). The artist, Francisco Ruiz Gijón, couldn’t get the look of agony on the face right, until one evening when he stumbled upon a Gypsy man–whose nickname was The Puppy–dying of a knife wound in an alley. Now that was how Jesus should look! (I imagine Ruiz Gijón whipping out his sketchbook on the spot, to The Puppy’s brief but no less massive consternation.)

In Sevilla, the wee hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Jesus ostensibly died, are far more socially important than Easter Sunday is. Which is kind of funny when you think about it: The central mystery of Christianity is not supposed to be Christ’s death but his resurrection. Osiris was also defined by his resurrection, and though he was often depicted as a mummy, it seems to me (not an Egyptologist here) that he’s mostly depicted alive. Even when he’s dead, Isis is usually in the midst of reviving him or he has ripe grain growing from his body. So what’s with all the gory Jesus iconography?

Well, you can’t resurrect unless you first die. Part of Jesus’ mythology is that he is human (among other things), so by definition his body has to be able to die. Evidently this is something Spanish people (Andaluzes anyway) can really connect with. Likewise, maybe they identify better with a Virgin Mary who grieves because they too know grief and find the deepest wells of empathy within it.

Yes, when it comes to Spanish Jesus, the deader the better. One might even say it’s a case of overkill. One might say the same about bullfighting, even if one regards that as a ritual sacrifice. In turn I wonder, are we to learn from this that a more torturous sacrifice has more juju? Must the sacrificee be put to the test in order to prove himself** worthy of the best possible completion of his life? Are these things relevant to the non-physical honorees of the sacrifice at all, or do they only matter within human categories?

As I mentioned in my last post, there is something very Attis-like about Andalucían Jesus. I’m not saying that he “is” Attis in the sense of direct continuity with that specific deity in pre-Christian contexts, but modern Spanish Jesus certainly seems to play a similar role. The annual reenactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death in springtime, with his body subsequently transforming into bread/food/grain, and the repeated bull sacrifices from spring through autumn, smack of agrarian fertility concerns. I also want to emphasize that I do not see parallels exclusively with Attis; there are obvious parallels that can be drawn between Spanish Jesus and Osiris, Horus, and Mithra, for example. None of this is about one-to-one correlations but about specific iterations of enduring themes and mythic truths, and to a lesser extent playing around with how we understand the category “pagan.”

Make of it what you will.

*There are folkloric forms of flamenco grouped under the rubric of “little song,” in contrast to the more classical deep song. They tend to be danced in a more upbeat style, but even there, the songs are almost always about grief.

**Jesus and bulls all being male, I use the masculine pronoun deliberately here. It does beg the question of what the female role(s) in this passion play might be–grieving only, or something more?