On the evolution of unicorns

I haven’t posted much lately because there’s been a lot going on, but it’s mostly internal stuff which is terribly interesting to me and terribly irrelevant to everyone else. I guess you could say I’ve been navel-gazing, and I didn’t want to subject everyone to the slides from that vacation. I half-jest, but seriously, it’s also that so much of this stuff is inexpressible, and some of it even feels like it benefits from secrecy while it gestates. You all know what I’m talking about. But there are a number of thinks that may develop into posts in time, if the assays pan out.

I came here, to my family’s little corner of Appalachia, a little over a year ago now, and I laugh now to think of my plans for my future back then (best left unsaid as they are embarrassing). It all made perfect sense, logically, and I thought I had some idea of what I wanted. That might sound like no big deal but having spent my life up until late 2015 always doing what others wanted, I am only beginning to have a sense of the boundaries between my own interests and those of others. Well, I was still way short of the goal there. Anyway, shortly after I got here it became obvious that spirits had other plans. I wasn’t ready to start a new life yet, because I still had to process the end of the old one. Also I had some remedial education to go through. My ancestors ensured that I got a safe place to land and cocoon, and I have been able to forge stronger communication with them as well as reconnecting with a culture integral to my family’s experience and values. My inner power has been building though I don’t know what that means or what to do with it. That I have made friends and had fun here has been gravy.

So it’s bittersweet for me that my ancestors are now making it clear they are going to push me out of the nest soon. Economic opportunities here are severely limited, so I’ll have to leave. I mean, I don’t maintain a luxurious standard of living, but I got bills to pay. On the positive side, this will mean I get to go overseas again, that being where I stand the best chance of improving my circumstances–something my ancestors get really excited about–but I am going to miss this place and these people, the waters and the ghosts. It’s also damn difficult because while I am getting tons of synchronicities and lots of spectacular bird omens, and the helping spirits are all thumbs up, I have no idea what I am doing. There is no guiding purpose or goal here because defining one would require a better understanding of what I want. (The curse of the phlegmatic. You see why I don’t do much practical magic now, right?) Sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other is enough, of course, and I’m used to being a rambler; funnily enough the little direction I’ve been given actually confuses things more than clarifies because the intermediate steps all seem to lead in the opposite direction. Well, they don’t call it a crooked path for nothing.

Alpaca posse, assemble! We’re hitting the road.

Anyway. Something I thought might be of interest to some:

Because of reasons, I found myself having to do some research into the mythos of the unicorn. “Mythos” is maybe a bit of a stretch, since there isn’t much of a mythology when it comes to unicorns–more of a symbol set, really. What struck me, though, is that it is pretty obvious the European unicorn evolved/derived from the Chinese qilin, yet The Internet seems determined to disavow this. The obvious caveat: Of course I know the internet is not a good place to do research on anything, but it can serve as a sort of bibliography and lead you to better places. Also, I’m busy and lazy. My research is only at the beginning, and doesn’t necessarily need to go too deep–that remains to be seen–and I am certain I cannot be the first person to make this connection. But what surprises me is that this little corner of Eurasian myth apparently hasn’t been given the common-knowledge treatment yet.

Oftheunicorn_1658
Unicorn from The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell (1658) (Wikimedia Commons). Note all the extra hair on the shoulders, fetlocks, and chin, cloven hooves, and tufted tail.

It’s true there are significant differences in appearance between modern depictions of qilin and unicorns; but the historical evidence, while circumstantial, is pretty darned suggestive. Consider:

  • The first (surviving) written Chinese record of the qilin and the first more or less European (Graeco-Persian) account of unicorns are approximately contemporaneous–5th century BC. That makes it possible for the European account to be derived from the Chinese (assuming that the qilin existed in Chinese oral lore before being written about).
  • That first European account of unicorns is in Ctesias’ Indica (“On India”), which was more or less a natural history based on the accounts of Silk Roads travelers in Persia. The eastern hub of the Silk Roads was, of course, China–but to the Greeks, India was the eastern edge of the known world. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Subcontinent and everything east of it was basically “India” from the Greek point of view, and thus a Chinese creature might be understood as Indian, which is what Ctesias said of the unicorn.
  • Although qilin and unicorns have followed separate trajectories since the 5th century BC, and settled into familiar forms which are quite different today (people of a certain age may remember the plethora of folders and Trapper Keepers with airbrush unicorn pictures on them back in the ’80s…pretty sure I collected them all), there is a great deal of overlap in their earlier forms: Older (e.g., medieval) depictions of the unicorn show it with a deer-like body, horse-like head, tufted tail like a lion or ox. The hooves are sometimes cloven, sometimes horse-like, and sometimes it has a goat-like beard and/or feathery hair on the fetlocks and shoulders. Ctesias described it as a type of wild ass, as large as or larger than a horse, with a white body, red head, and blue eyes, and of course a single horn. The qilin was described differently by time and region (here is an assortment of images), but among its recognized variants were a deer-like body, cloven or horse-like hooves, a tufted tail, and a single horn. It is often depicted with flames emerging from around its shoulders, and sometimes with a goaty beard and hairy fetlocks. The main consistent differences between the two is the shape of the head (horse-like in the unicorn and dragon-like in the qilin)–although these are not entirely dissimilar in overall shape–and the color (generally white in the unicorn since the Middle Ages, and variable in the qilin). The all-white color of unicorns presumably came to be emphasized as part of its symbol set related to purity.
  • The European unicorn is symbolically associated first and foremost with purity (hence virgins), and deriving from that, healing. It is generally described as gentle and elusive, but extremely wild and pretty much impossible to capture. It is fierce only in defense of its freedom (hence its use as the symbol of Scotland). The qilin is described as an exceedingly gentle and peaceful creature, but one which is fierce in the defense of justice. It too is elusive and impossible to catch. Both are often used as symbols of forests and wilderness.

I see no reason there couldn’t be an even earlier origin for a unicorn-like creature in Indian myth, but if so it went through China before reaching Europe. I don’t find the argument that the Indus Valley Culture seals represent unicorns terribly persuasive. Maybe the representation is of a one-horned magical form of bull (elsewhere two-horned animals are shown with both horns, after all), but it is still clearly a bovine; and while it’s possible the unicorn as we know it could have evolved from a very ancient bovine prototype, there are so many more similarities to the qilin that the Chinese connection mustn’t be dismissed. I’m also not convinced by the argument that the unicorn derives from the accounts of travelers who saw oryxes in profile. I mean, are we really to believe that multiple travelers never saw an oryx turn its head even a tiny bit? The qilin connection is way more parsimonious than this oryx nonsense.

Not surprisingly, the European end of the Silk Roads has tended to way downplay the influence of the Asian end. We are determined to be the core and make them the periphery. Temperate Eurasia (that is, Eurasia minus the arctic or tropical parts) is basically one giant prairie, with horses, rivers, and wheels allowing for rapid and efficient transit; trans-Eurasian contact has been the norm since at least the Bronze Age. And It doesn’t take a Marco Polo traveling the breadth of the entire supercontinent* to share myths, it just takes interlinked trade networks. So as far as I can tell there is no valid reason to think the unicorn couldn’t have evolved from the qilin and yet over and over again I read how they are in no way related.

Anyway, personally it doesn’t change much for me to know that unicorns and qilin are related, except it makes me wonder what other connections we might be missing. It also gets me thinking why the unicorn caught the European (or Graeco-Persian) imagination the way it did, not only being carried across Eurasia but remaining/becoming an extremely potent symbol in the process. For me the connection, or communication, came through the symbolic vectors of healing and childhood. And finally it makes me curious what further evolution of the unicorn/qilin we may yet see.

*Although there clearly were such people: https://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/east-asian-skeletons-found-in-a-londinium-cemetery/

Salt and spirits

I just got around to Gordon’s interview with Joshua Cutchin on a Rune Soup podcast from last month. It’s pretty interesting (I mean, food, right?) but it got me thinking again about an issue that has always perplexed me: What’s the deal with salt and spirits?

From around minute 33 to 34 Gordon and Cutchin discuss salt in the context of faery food–or rather, the absence of salt.

shinto-offerings
Shinto offerings. The salt, rice, rice wine, and water are in the white vessels in the back row; the salt is in a little conical pile.

From what I know (and I’m not an expert, just spitballing here) it seems to be a widespread belief in European cultures–at the very least in northwestern Europe–that faeries/spirits are repelled by salt. So don’t give them salt as an offering unless you want them to bugger off. I have heard the same argument made about ancestor spirits, but by contrast, I’ve never heard that deities are bothered by salt; and in fact, some traditions use salt to purify before approaching a deity (I’m thinking of khernips here).

But I’ve always been a bit dubious about that because in Shinto salt is one of the essential offerings (along with sake, uncooked rice, and water) for both kami and ancestors. These four offerings are considered the essential foodstuffs in Shinto–the four elements of food, as it were–so while other things can also be offered, you cannot omit these four.

Salt, rice, rice wine, and water are also ritually pure, as emphasized by their white/transparent color. Purity vs. pollution is a huge deal in Shinto, and spirits are pure, so the offerings must also be pure, and the offerer must purify themself ritually before offering. Salt is considered purificatory and apotropaic in Japanese culture just as much as it is in Europe; in fact if this isn’t a human universal it is about as close to it as we get.

Now of course it’s easy to say, well, kami aren’t the same as faeries, and that’s true as far as it goes; but there is massive overlap between the two domains, and cultural differences notwithstanding, human ancestors are human ancestors. I want to know why kami and faeries, Japanese ancestors and European ancestors ostensibly have opposite attitudes toward salt.

  • Are there cultural differences on the other side?
  • Is this purely a human scheme imposed on the spirits, which is actually irrelevant to them?
  • Or does this reflect different modes of human interaction with spirits?
mori-shio
Mori-shio is salt placed outside the doorways of homes and businesses to repel bad luck, etc.

So both the Japanese and Europeans are agreed that salt is apotropaic. Kami and Japanese ancestors not only aren’t dispelled by salt, they seem to have some analogical kinship with it as pure beings/things. Yet faeries and European ancestors are dispelled by salt. This would seem to suggest faeries/Euro ancestors belong to a class of potentially dangerous or impure beings subject to the apotropaism of salt. They lack that analogical kinship with salt. Of course the folklore agrees that faeries are indeed potentially dangerous, but then so are kami. Does this reflect a difference in human attitudes to safe spirit contact?

Kami is kind of a catch-all term for spiritual beings that are not human, from giant powers of the land like volcanoes and the ocean, to pan-Japanese deities (at least, as close to the Western concept of deity as you’ll find in Japan) like Inari or Tenjin, to local spirits that behave pretty much exactly like faeries do in Europe. One difference between kami and faeries (as I provisionally understand it) is that whereas all faeries are tricky and temperamental, though some are basically good (i.e., well-disposed to humans) and others are bad (ill-disposed to humans), every kami or human ancestor has both a “rough” (aramitama) and a “gentle” (nigimitama) soul. One village’s protective kami can be the next village’s monster or plague demon. So whether a kami is dangerous or not depends to a large extent on the perspective of the humans involved with it and the relationship that has been cultivated.

Some accounts say that a kami first appears in its aramitama guise and must be pacified to reveal its nigimitama nature. (This reminds me of what the fox says in The Little Prince, viz. that he won’t play with the prince until the prince takes the time to establish a bond of friendship.) Does salt perhaps banish the aramitama while having no effect on the nigimitama?

Salt is a biological necessity for humans and many other animals, which is reflected in its primacy as one of the four basic Shinto foodstuffs. In other words, Shinto offerings provide the spirits (including spirits of the dead) with the same sustenance as living humans take. If the idea behind offerings is to give something of great importance to humans/the living, salt makes sense. Does the avoidance of salt for faeries and ancestors in Europe reflect a different attitude toward proper nourishment of the dead/non-embodied? It is certainly not the case that the living and dead/non-embodied require completely different foods, since many faeries seem to like things like milk, alcohol, honey, etc. Everyone seems to appreciate water and booze.

I don’t have answers to these questions but would be curious to hear of your experiences. In my own dealings with spirits, none of them has had any aversion to salt as an offering. But as I write that, I realize that none of the spirits to whom I have offered salt is a European faery-type being* or a human ancestor (though I have given food cooked with salt to my ancestors, and didn’t notice any adverse effects).

*Unless Emma Wilby is right about cunning persons’ familiars being faeries (I find her argument persuasive), because that would suggest that rather than referring to a specific type of being, faery in English, or sidh(e) in Gaelic, or Tylwyth Teg in Welsh, are potentially as much catch-all terms for spirits as kami is in Japanese. Wilby thinks that the faery faith in Britain retained shamanic elements from earlier times, in practice if not in doctrine; and that the familiars witches consulted were, individually, either spirits of the dead or faeries (often spirits of the dead living among the faeries, according to testimony). In other words they are the same general type of beings that shamans deal with, i.e., “spirits” sensu lato. And if that is how you define faery, then I have offered salt to faeries and they didn’t mind at all.

Thoughts on initiation and crossing the Abyss

Pine_above_the_Abyss_Yosemite

It seems very appropriate that as I write this, it’s twilight and there’s a thunderstorm going on.

I recently read this post at Theomagica about “crossing the abyss”. I was particularly struck by what Frater Acher said about the difficulty of reintegrating your life afterwards:

“The experience of Crossing the Abyss is triggered by a liminal rite and results in a series of liminal experiences in our everyday lives. It describes nothing other than the actual process of crossing the Abyss, i.e. the passing over the visionary threshold that lies between creation and divinity – as well as hopefully a safe return of the practitioner into creation. The term is not specific to a particular rite or tradition of magic but describes an underlying pattern of human existence: When we cross from creation to divinity we are stripped bare of all created forms that we hold as part of our own being: our body, our ego, our memories, our mind, etc. What passes through to the other side of the threshold is the individualised spark of divinity that we carry within ourselves. Rather than the crossing itself, it’s the process of re-integration into the world of creation upon one’s return that can be the even more problematic and painful experience.

“Wether we go through this experience as magicians or non-magicians, the crossing of the Abyss comes with the end of meaning as we knew it – and the beginning of a journey towards a new kind of meaning. The magician is supported on this path through a brief encounter of divinity as well as the fact that they chose to undertake this journey voluntarily.”

(My emphasis.) Though I have not magically undertaken anything that could be called crossing the Abyss, I was struck by how much this description resonated with other experiences I’ve had–in fact, with a pattern of repeating experiences that has dogged me my whole life.

Maybe it’s that way for everybody and other people just don’t talk about it? I don’t know.

In his interview on the Rune Soup podcast, Dr. Jeffrey Kripal said that one’s world should end at least twice before one settles on a belief system. The first time your world ends, you often simply reject your previous belief system and latch onto whatever convenient system presents itself, overzealously. The second time your world is destroyed, you realize that worlds are constructs prone to collapse, and that all belief systems are necessarily provisional and incomplete. Maybe my worlds are just especially fragile, but I’ve lost count of how many have been blown up at this point. I’ve also watched as others’ worlds were destroyed. I learned at a pretty young age that lesson about provisional beliefs.

Well, my life is once again in the process of falling apart and reassembling itself in weird, unforeseen shapes (a process that probably started when my mom died last October but which is really picking up steam now), and after reading that post at Theomagica, it occurred to me that every magical initiation is also “triggered by a liminal rite and results in a series of liminal experiences in our everyday lives”, “comes with the end of meaning as we know it–and the beginning of a journey towards a new kind of meaning”, and “it’s the process of re-integration into the world…that can be the even more problematic and painful experience.” I imagine (since I don’t have direct experience) that there is a difference of degree between these initiations and the death-within-life that is the point of crossing the Abyss. But it underscores something I do have direct experience with, which is that there is no one magical initiation–one spirals back and re-initiates over and over in one’s life. At least, that’s true if one remains involved in magic.

And initiations always come at the least convenient times, and it’s very hard to explain to non-magicians why suddenly I need 11 hours of sleep every night, have no energy, and am not all that fussed about finding a job or anything else I “should” be worried about.

As you might have guessed, I am currently going through another one of these initiations. Into what, I don’t know. First there were a bunch of synchronicities. The first ones I noticed during this go-round started shortly after I finished reading The Chaos Protocols. In it, Gordon suggests a version of the Headless Rite which can serve as a self-initiation. The result, says Gordon based on his experiences, is a sensation “almost as if you dropped a depth charge into the ocean of the spirit world. Some things get cleared away, some things get shaken loose and some things come aswimming.” During this time, I started doing two things: preparing to launch my own business, and paying more attention to my ancestors (as in physically visiting their resting places, which was formerly not an option as I didn’t live in this state). But I did not do the Headless Rite. In fact I haven’t done any rite or spell from the book. Yet right afterwards this chain of syncs started with several related to headlessness, then ones related to road-opening and to my ancestors, and then things just started to…solve (so far no coagula). Divination confirmed that I might as well strap in for the ride, because I am sure as hell not in the driver’s seat.

Spirits of place and becoming indigenous

Can members of a diasporic community become indigenous to their adopted land? What if they are the descendants/inheritors of brutal colonization? Is indigeneity something to aspire to (is it even a word?), and if so, how does one get there?

 

American_Medicinal_Plants-Pawpaw
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), a native plant I don’t know yet.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just weird (I mean, weirder than the average weirdo who is into the kinds of metaphysical and magical stuff I’m into). Maybe it’s just something about my personal neurology. Maybe it’s because I’m still a magical newbie. But for whatever reason, all my experiences of big powers–I hesitate, more and more, to use the term “god/dess”–have been very localized. I’ve tried to take them with me when I moved, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Either I have limited experience with non-place-specific beings, or I am only able to really connect in certain places.

A while back I drew on Shinto as a model for a polytheism full of spirits-of-place. And just recently I became aware that there is a growing internet presence of Westerners who consider themselves Shinto or Shinto-Pagan hybrid believers/practitioners, for example here and here. It makes me happy to see that I’m not alone. I shouldn’t feel like I have to make a disclaimer here, but with the constant kerfuffle about cultural appropriation I feel like I do: Japanophilia among Westerners is not a new thing, and I don’t know what influence that might be having in the adoption of Shinto outside Japan. When I was doing archaeological research on/in Japan, other Americans would often accuse me of being a Japanophile (and yes, it was definitely an accusation). Sometimes that would then be followed by bafflingly irrelevant comments on how “weird” the Japanese are or bad things they did during the early- to mid-20th century colonization of Korea, “Rape of Nanking,” etc., not to mention assumptions that I am into manga, anime, and cosplay (which as it happens could not be further from the truth, though I have been known to enjoy certain Japanese variety shows). In other words, in the West you can find equal parts Japanophilia and Japanophobia.

I think about this a lot because Shinto is not like the “world” religions we tend to be most familiar with in the West–it’s not about what you believe, there’s no conversion necessary, and because it’s so intimately bound up with Japanese geography and ethnicity there has never been much effort to export it. Here in the US we do have Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Washington (State), a branch of a parent shrine in Japan, and St. Paul, Minnesota has Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora, which curiously enshrines (alongside conventional Shinto kami) Baba Yaga. The priests? proprietors? maintainers? of Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora identify it as an expression of Minzoku NEO-Shinto, which is defined thus:

“What is minzoku NEO-shintô? The technical answer is, ‘A universalist approach to existential Japanese folk religion practices.’ But what does that mean? To break it down, universalist means it’s open to anyone who’s sincerely interested, it’s not just for people of Japanese ancestory. Existential means it’s based on personal experience, not on scripture or dogma. Folk religion means it’s religion as practiced by the commons – the everyday people – and on a local basis; it’s not religion as taught in the seminaries, universities, or on a national or international basis.”

I am so down with that.

Shinto is a religion in the old sense of the word, but not as commonly understood in the West today–it’s not a “faith.” It is, more than anything else, a practice and a worldview. In Shinto terms, the “congregation” of a shrine is made up of ujiko–people born and living in the surrounding precinct, and usually descended through generations there; and sûkeisha–non-local people who for their own reasons feel committed to that shrine. A non-Japanese can become a sûkeisha, but never ujiko. I think for most Westerners, it’s more likely they would feel dedicated to a kami (spirit/god) than to a particular shrine, as most of us have had close to 2000 years enculturation within monotheistic, universalizing religions. Anyway, you don’t have too many road-to-Damascus-style conversions to Shinto, or rather if you do, it doesn’t matter much because in Shinto your personal beliefs are pretty much irrelevant as long as they’re not getting in the way of practice. Like all of Japanese culture, Shinto practice is a complex web of mutual obligations, consideration, and gift-giving. It’s amenable to evolution and to hybridization, as evidenced through its history. I sort of fell into Shinto while I was in Japan because I was already an animist philosophically, and my friends took me to shrines and showed me how to participate.

But I didn’t try to bring it back to America with me, though I thought about it and heartily wished we had something similar here. (By “we” I mean diasporic Americans and “mainstream” American culture.*) I have weird feelings about trying to translate Shinto to another continent, because while it’s eminently doable, is it right? Most of the Shinto kami are not universal–they are landform-specific. An American Shinto could honor the few universal kami, with certain modifications**, but it would also need to make room for many new kami, those that are specific to locales on this continent. Then you have to ask, do you need Shinto, or do you really need something entirely new? At some point you may end up where I am at, which is a completely individual animism with forms inspired by Shinto practice.

In the comments on John Michael Greer’s most recent post on his occult/magical blog, someone said something along the lines that they wished more American herbalists and magical types would learn to use their local North American plants rather than European ones. I agree on more than one level: First, every ecosystem has plants with purifying, cleansing, uplifting properties–usually more than one. Not only does using a non-local plant place a burden on that plant and its original community, it also arguably doesn’t work as well as a plant that belongs to the local ecosystem. There are probably exceptions to this but I think it’s a reasonable rule of thumb. Second, think of the hidden costs that are incurred in the transportation of the non-local plant to you. Not exactly eco-friendly. Third, I think everyone should be forming relationships with their local plants anyway (and not merely for their own benefit, ahem).

Consider: Have you ever thought about why white sage (Salvia apiana) is the favored herb for smudging nowadays? Because it grows around Hollywood. Seriously, that’s it: It has a very small natural distribution in the coastal sage scrub zone of Southern California. At some point white folk found out that Native Americans used it for purification, then Hollywood, the publicity capital of the world, got hold of the idea and bam, an industry was born. Now you have people in Europe thinking they need white sage to cleanse their haunted castles. Do you really want Hollywood to be the source of your sacred spiritual texts and traditions?

There were people on this continent before our diasporic ancestors arrived, who had already built up such relationships. Leaving aside the question of appropriation (which is becoming a major red herring anyway), it comes down to this: You can’t just use Native American ethnobotany as a cheat sheet to get around having to form those relationships your own damn self. They won’t tell you everything anyway, probably. Be respectful of existing traditions, of course, but ultimately, there’s no shortcut in this Work.

The same thing goes for the spirits and bigger powers here. The thing is, this is hard Work. We can’t just rely on tradition to tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how, because those traditions were built in and for other ecosystems. That means we also can’t rely on tradition for authority, justification, or legitimization. We’re on our own here. Had history gone a different way, had our ancestors made different choices, been subject to different forces, had there been no genocide, forced assimilation, and ecological destruction, we might have been able to harmoniously integrate our ways with the indigenous ones. We might have had partners in this Work. And I should note that some diasporic Americans did choose a more harmonious route, notably African Americans. But the European American ancestors opted to follow other traditions instead, so this is where we find ourselves. No matter what your race or ethnicity or cultural identity, you’re caught in this situation because it was/is the European Americans who hold the hegemony.

I started thinking about this while reading Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s (highly recommended) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She suggests that diasporic Americans won’t really have a sense of commitment and caretaking toward this land, its flora and fauna, until they/we become indigenous. Perhaps we haven’t earned that right yet. But if/when we do, how will we become indigenous? What would it take for us to rewrite our creation narratives?

In his response to my comment on his post taking up this issue, Greer wrote:

“I suspect that in the long run, the thing that’s going to make Americans of European ancestry turn to the native resources of this continent is when they have no other choice — when that’s the only source of medicine and magic they’ve got. Certainly African-American conjure magic embraced quite a bit of North American herbal lore through exactly that process — and I’ve long suspected that the white population of this continent will only become, in a deep sense, native here, once they have gone through experiences of the kind they inflicted on the First Nations and the enslaved nations of Africa.

(My emphasis.) That’s a sobering thought.

As regards Shinto as a model for functional polytheistic animism(s) outside Japan, I would suggest that rather than try to import it wholecloth, we might be inspired by it to foster the organic growth of something indigenous, working with the local spirits and powers–or kami if you will–heaven knows we could use a better vocabulary for these experiences–of our bioregions. I suspect that, like so many paths that seem simple, it will make up for its lack of superficial complexity with sheer cussedness. It’s also a lonely path. I’m a solitary person by nature, so I rarely get lonely, but the one thing that is guaranteed to have my crying in my beer is the feeling that I am alone in this and maybe I’m doing it wrong. (Oh Gods, am I doing it all wrong?) It makes me feel like even more of a magical impostor newbie than I am. I sometimes have fantasies about immigrating to one of the countries my ancestors came from and finally just getting to relax into some pre-fab pantheon. But then I’m reminded:

“At the heart, to be a witch doesn’t mean that you manipulate reality to your liking. It means that you can see and call forth manifold possibilities. It means that your perception of reality goes beyond what has been handed to you. And that you can perceive the presence of freedom, and healing, in all things.”

(My emphasis.) When I was a kid my family used to laugh at me for being a stubborn little idiot, proudly insisting on doing something the wrong way just because I would be damned if I’d let anyone tell me how to do it. I remember my aunt saying, “You always have to do everything the hard way. You always have to reinvent the wheel.” So chances are, no matter where I found myself, I’d be banging the drum for us all to start from scratch. I guess I belong where I am–when I am, how I am–doing it the hard way.

*I would hate to think this little ol’ blog’s readership was limited to white Americans. I’m speaking from my own experience, and I happen to be a white American. I assume some of my readers are too. If at any point it seems like I am privileging that viewpoint, please say so. That is to say, I welcome perspectives coming from other perspectives.

**For example, Inari, the god of rice plants, becomes a god of the more abstract principles “food” and “abundance,” because Americans aren’t culturally co-evolved with rice the way the Japanese are.

Mor Rigain, Elen, and thoughts on modern “Celtic” paganism

Elen of the Ways from John Matthews' Celtic Shaman's Pack
Elen of the Ways from John Matthews’ Celtic Shaman’s Pack

Following are just some thoughts I’ve been working with. They’re probably not very coherent, and they’re certainly not intended as the last word on anything.

First of all, I suppose some might wonder why I write “Celtic” in quotes. In the field of archaeology, there are those who believe that there was sufficient cultural unity among the Iron Age peoples who lived in the area between the Mediterranean region in the south, Scandinavia in the north, and the Scythians in the east to call them by a single cultural name, which is Celts. The name is ultimately derived from the Greek name Keltoi, but no one knows if they used such a name for themselves, and anyway Keltoi went out of vogue along with Greek hegemony. The Roman version of the word was Gaul, but they applied it more specifically (e.g., for the Romans, people from east of the Rhine were Germans, not Gauls–even though archaeologically they look the same as their neighbors west of the river). The name Celts came out of 19th-century linguistics, when languages were being categorized and placed onto phylogenetic trees; a linguist (can’t remember his name off the top of my head, sorry) grouped Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Breton together and called them “Celtic,” figuring they were representative of the languages spoken by that particular flavor of barbarian the Greeks called Keltoi. So anyway, the archaeologists in this camp argue that these Celtic-speaking people’s commonalities outweighed their local differences, and they would have all recognized one another as belonging to a semi-coherent group relative to outsider groups (Romans, Scythians, what have you), so we can safely call them all by one general name.

There is another camp who believe that, while there is evidence from placenames to suggest that languages belonging to the so-called Celtic branch of Indo-European were spoken within the region described, and a decorative style (La Tène) which became widespread (notwithstanding local variations) there, that is not sufficient evidence to conclude that everyone in temperate Europe would have identified with one another. And if they didn’t, then there’s no reason we should. For this group of scholars, use of the term Celts requires that they define the term anew every time they use it, with the literature review and the dozens of citations, the arguments for and against basing cultural ascriptions on language, etc., that inevitably would require–so it’s just not worth the effort. It’s much easier to use a more specific term like “the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age population of Lower-Humpton-on-Doodle” for example, since academic papers always tend to be focused on one narrow little time and place anyway.

I find the second argument more persuasive–and would apply it equally to other putative unified groups like Scythians and Germans and Native Americans–but I recognize that Celts has a certain meaning for most people today: that is, Celtic-speaking people living in temperate Europe from the Iron Age up through the early middle ages, who made La Tène- or medieval Irish-style art. In modern times, people from Ireland, Wales, and Scotland and their American descendants have found common cause in Celtic identity, which in part has enabled resistance to British (English) colonialism, and that shared identity has been retrojected into the past. That’s problematic, if understandable, and if I were writing for an academic journal I wouldn’t use the term Celtic at all; but I use it since it has meaning for people today, though I put it in quotes to show the word has issues.

Wow, that digression was rather longer than I intended. But in a way, it’s emblematic of the entire problem that has been bothering me, which is:

We need to stop trying to shoehorn the past into our modern categories. And we need to get more rigorous about our epistemology.

I’ll be honest. There’s a side of me that is really bothered by historical inaccuracy. There is another side of me that is aware of all the myriad problems with “history” and “accuracy” but just doesn’t want to go there right now. I know how to keep my historical-reactionary side in her place but she is right that this need to apply modern categories to the past, or for that matter human categories to the divine, and the inability to recognize why these categories are irrelevant, have led to a lot of BS in paganism. By BS I don’t just mean trivial historical inaccuracies; I mean a complete unmooring from context. In the first Rune Soup podcast, an interview with Peter Grey from Scarlet Imprint, Gordon opines that if the current magical renaissance can be said to have a unique form or trajectory, it is the restoration of context to magic. That stuck with me because I have talked before about the pitfalls of loss of context, but to sum up my view, we don’t need to worry so much about accurate replication of some ritual practice or magical tech, but rather why we are doing it, why it even exists in the first place. And this should be an ongoing dialogue with ourselves and our spiritually significant others.

It’s cool to see people working to restore context to magic; is that happening within paganism too? I honestly don’t know as I’m not really a pagan. And the main reason I’m not is because of this lack of context.

What specifically do I mean when I say lack of context? In my last post as I was singing the praises of the Story Archaeology podcast, I mentioned (not quite in so many words) that the hosts have basically demolished the notion that Mór Rígain (a.k.a., the Morrigan) was a war or death goddess. Yet this is the prevailing view of her in modern paganism even/especially among devotees of Irish deities. (See the Wikipedia article if you don’t believe me. It is terrible even by Wikipedia standards.) Now I’m not going to tell the Great Queen what she can and can’t do; perhaps she’s happy to be addressed as a war goddess. But we can only see her that way by essentially ignoring everything she does and says in the extant texts, and what kind of devotion or scholarship is that?

Almost everything in this description is wrong.
With all due respect to the artist, almost everything in this description is wrong.

Is our psycho-cultural need to shoehorn Mór Rígain into a war goddess role so great that we are going to let it blind us (1) to everything else she actually is and (2) everything we could learn about ancient Irish/”Celtic” society/beliefs/values through a better understanding of her? And if our need is so great, what effect does that have on our personal gnosis of Mór Rígain?

This gets to my point about having a more rigorous approach to epistemology. On the one hand, we must learn to content ourselves with the fact that very little is known about the “Celtic” deities–in most cases we don’t even know who is a deity! This makes it all the more tempting to try and force a modern (usually Classically-inspired) framework onto them, to create a pantheon and categorize them according to what they are god/desses “of.”On the other, we really need to interrogate the assumptions and psycho-cultural needs we are bringing to the table and how they limit our experiences of these deities.

I think the case of “Elen of the Ways” is one of the most egregious examples of lack of context leading us into neopagan fantasyland. Like a lot of people with British ancestors, I’m a descendant of Elen Luyddog, or Elen “of the Hosts,” a Romano-British ancestrix saint to whom–or rather, to whose putative husband, the 4th-century Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus–many families trace their descent. We don’t know much about her from history, she could even be a historical fabrication or pure legend; much as I would like to claim descent from her as a goddess, it is a leap too far to ascribe divine status to her. Elen is also called “of the Ways,” because according to one medieval text, “Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made.”

This article is a thorough and concise explanation of this epistemological quagmire. Elen appears in the tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion, in which Magnus Maximus (Macsen) is totally mythologized; there’s no reason to assume Elen didn’t get the same treatment. No one argues Magnus was a god, yet the magical elements of Elen’s part in the story are taken at face value:

“…which has led many modern pagans to proclaim her as a goddess of roads, ley lines, shamanic journeying etc….a goddess presiding over ‘dream pathways’ and the ‘Guardian of all who journey’….Some modern pagans see Elen Luyddog as a ‘goddess of sovereignty’…”

Oh boy. But wait, it gets better:

“…the modern pagan goddess Elen is often visualised or encountered as an antlered woman, often wearing deer hides or possessing fur herself. This image is as far from a cultured Romano-British Empress as is possible. Now, to take a sceptical view, this may be a chicken and egg situation. It happens that the Bulgarian word for reindeer is ‘elen’, and I wonder if someone has put two and two together and made five. To take a generous view, there is a remote possibility that Elen was originally a reindeer goddess whose name has miraculously survived into a modern language, and that she was the original ‘Elen of the Ways’ who later became conflated with Elen of the Hosts….For those looking for the oldest of the old religions, Elen becomes perfect. Not only does she appear to be a goddess of sovereignty, whom Macsen Wledig weds to gain the kingship of Britain, she also becomes a goddess of ancient pathways walked by a species of deer not seen in Britain since the end of the last ice age.

“This image of Elen, as far as I can gather, originates with Caroline Wise in the 1980’s…”

I think “someone has put two and two together and made five” sums this story up perfectly. Not only do we have the leap from politically powerful Romano-British woman to pre-Roman goddess of sovereignty, we also have the leap from commissioner of roads to primeval goddess of all forms of journeying. Now as far as that goes, it just seems to be a case of assuming every person in legend must be a god/dess and proceeding to inflate the case accordingly. A classic case of de-contextualization. But there is a weirder, more interesting, and potentially more problematic issue at stake:

“…it remains true that Someone out there, and possibly more than one Someone, is answering to the name ‘Elen’. This may be the ancestral spirit of Elen Luyddog, or it may be something else altogether….It is not unlikely that a goddess, perhaps because she likes the offerings being given, or because she is a powerful being in that particular locality, chooses to answer when a name is called. [It is not unlikely that a hungry ghost would answer, either.]…I have no problem believing that she could be a powerful ancestral being that has become attached to the roads that she has been associated with for at least eight hundred years, or that another entity interested in these roads has begun answering to the name of Elen.”

It’s that “another entity” that bothers me. We can never be completely certain, when we dial the Other side, who is going to pick up. To some extent that may even be a-feature-not-a-bug of the connection. But on a purely practical level, as a descendant of Elen, I want to know that when I call, it’s my 46th great-grandma who is answering and not some random stranger with no vested interest in my wellbeing. And if I reach out and touch someone who shows up as a reindeer goddess, I want to know who that being is–I don’t want to force a square peg into an Elen-shaped hole.

Improving signal strength and fidelity, however, is supposed to be part of what we are doing here, part of the whole point of magic. For those who are drawn to “Celtic” paganism, this all begs the question, do you want to know your deities (bearing in mind you’ll never have all the organizational details you would for Greek, Roman or Egyptian ones) or would you rather just play with Celtic deity paper dolls? And for all of us, what are we going to do to improve signal strength and fidelity? How are we going to improve our spiritual scholarship? How are we going to return context to what has been de-contextualized for 1000+ years? Are we really struggling down this old crooked path just to see our own psychodramas reflected back at us, or are we trying to do something greater here?

The violence of the rootless

Sculpture of "a world citizen" by Bruno Catalano
Sculpture of “a world citizen” by Bruno Catalano, Marseille, France

This topic has been rattling around in my head like a pebble in a rock tumbler. I had one of those as a kid. I loved the shiny jewels that emerged but was way too impatient to wait for them. And so it is with writing. The words for this post have been slow in coming so I’ve just been letting the ideas sit for a while, but now I see other minds are thinking and writing about subjects that dovetail with this one, so I think it’s time has come. Although I might point out to the Powers That Be that their timing really could be a lot better. As a writer, I am not at my best right now, unless you like raw and unpolished rocks. But come to think of it, I love raw and unpolished rocks.

Anyway, I assume that you are all aware, at least in a general sense, of the genocide of indigenous Americans that happened with the arrival of European colonists. While it in no way is meant to deny their/our responsibility, or to downplay the reality or the cruelty of that genocide, I came across the idea awhile back that the Euro-American perpetrators of that violence were themselves victims of violence, and therefore really kind of messed up.

I would like to cite the author of this idea of warped Euro-Americans, but I encountered it years ago on a now-defunct blog and I don’t remember, if credit was even given, who the author was. Maybe there was no single author, but many people arriving at the same conclusion. I’m also pretty sure the idea was a bit more sophisticated and well-thought-out than I’m making it seem here.

Not that Europeans in Europe weren’t capable of doing nasty stuff–nice guys don’t build empires. And the Americas weren’t the only place where European colonists were busy ruining the native cultures as they rapaciously extracted every last resource, be it animal, mineral, botanical, vaginal, spiritual or what have you. Yet the roots of that violence go back long before the proximal causes that drove, or lured, Europeans to other lands. How deep those roots go just depends on what perspective you take. One thing a career in archaeology leaves you with is a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun. Technologies come and go, but the overwhelming impression is one of cycles. So I don’t think the Native American holocaust was unique in the long duree of human time, but in terms of sheer numbers it might have been the worst.

I think about this in the context of my ancestors. One line of my Irish* ancestors arrived in the US almost exactly 200 years ago. Although I don’t have direct documentation, all the evidence suggests that they left when industrialization destroyed the household flax-growing and linen-weaving economy in the north of Ireland (County Monaghan, specifically). Monaghan is itself far away (in Irish terms) from the family seat around Waterford and Kilkenny, so I think my ancestors were already displaced. Did they settle in Ulster in hopes of making a fortune in linen? I don’t know. At the turn of the 19th century they must have smelled their impending ruin on the wind, because they left just before it got really bad, but they and their neighbors had already long been enclosed, in Caffentzis’ sense of that word, by capitalist and colonial exchange dynamics:

“Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. …Thus did ‘exchange become more independent of them,’ its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove ‘everyone’ into the monetary system [and, I might add, into new lands].”

They settled in the area where Ohio, West Virginia (then just Virginia, of course), and Kentucky meet with the Ohio River as their shared border. The native inhabitants of this area had been forcibly ejected and divested of their lands during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812. My ancestors were among the first white settlers of southern Ohio, but even so, they didn’t, or couldn’t, stay put. The first couple of generations zigzagged through southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, Illinois, and eastern Missouri. They were still rootless.

By the first and second generations born in the US (my great- and great-great grandparents), they were no longer farmers. Whatever land they owned had been lost, and most of the men worked their way into an early grave as coal miners. The townships and “hollers” (hollows) where they lived have mostly vanished now, abandoned when each local mining operation had finally raped the land to death. They were still rootless.

I haven’t been back there yet, but will be going this fall. My cousin went there years ago and said the whole landscape feels haunted. No surprise there. The little town where my great-grandparents built their home has 22 Adena burial mounds in an area of only 2.3 square miles. Yet the population is only 0.31% Native. From 100% to 0.31% in 200 years. That makes for a lot of ghosts. It always cracks me up when I hear someone claim that their house is haunted because it was built “on an Indian burial ground.” Find me someplace in the US that isn’t an Indian burial ground. But I wonder if the colonists don’t have reason to haunt too.

What sort of lessons learned do these rootless people reify in their new  communities? It is instructive to consider what happens to our traditions:

“Pay attention to most any living tradition, though, and you should see that they are never singular. Find one living tradition and you will discover around it at least one other tradition with which it is in dialogue and debate. In most cases, a living tradition is in dialogue and debate with a whole family of traditions. When push comes to shove, it is the dialogue and debate with other practices that defines a tradition. To understand a tradition, we need to appreciate its fellow travelers.

“In most cases, the boundaries between those traditions is [sic] permeable. One is not a member of this tradition or that tradition, but a member of the world in which these traditions play out their tension….

“One of the greatest dangers to a tradition’s viability is the loss of these interlocutor traditions that help to define it. When a tradition’s practices enter into diaspora or are adopted in contexts far removed from its origin, the tradition must reconstitute for itself a world of fellow travelers or slip into dogmatic dissipation. A similar conundrum faces a tradition whose fellow travelers become increasingly marginalized from it.”

So it is with people. Removed from our context, we lose our familiar interlocutors and the dialogue begins to stutter. It would be nice if we could always regroup and adapt and enter into new dialogues with new neighbors–and sometimes we do–but too often the result is “dogmatic dissipation” at best and genocide at worst.

In American terms, 200 years is a long time; but it doesn’t seem to have been long enough for us to develop a sense of this land and its inhabitants. This is true of our spiritual and ecological interlocutors just as much as our human ones. First we demonized everything native, then we fantasized it (as “in tune with nature” or as vengeful poltergeists, for example), but we still haven’t met the natives on their own terms. We are cut off from the powers and beings our ancestors knew in their own lands, but we haven’t earned the right to work within indigenous traditions. So we make ridiculous over-the-top celebrations of our ancestral identity that make our relatives on the Old Sod gag and roll their eyes at us, ironically cutting us off even further. And as Gordon says, you can make magic anywhere, but you can’t overlook the importance of physicality and place in magic. You can make magic, you just can’t make the same magic.

Some languages have words for the feeling of rootlessness, the longing to return, and the understanding that “you can never go home again,” like Welsh hiraeth and Gallego morriña. It is a feeling visualized in the sculptures of Moroccan-French artist Bruno Catalano.

World citizens by Bruno Catalano

“Mr Catalano said: ‘I have travelled a lot and I left Morocco when I was 12 years old. I felt that a part of me was gone and will never come back….So the meaning can be different for everyone, but to me the sculptures represent a world citizen.'”

Aren’t we all essentially rootless in this global culture? In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer–a botanist of Native descent–argues that without a sense of indigeneity (is that a word?), how can one have a sense of responsibility to and for the land? She is not saying that white Americans should ape Native cultures, but that we should develop our own relationship to this land as our home. I think we might have done that, if globalism (especially globalism qua multinational banks, corporations, and government entities) hadn’t derailed us. Multinationals and genocide are alike fruit of the same root.

I don’t have an answer to what we should do about this. Well, as individuals we stay weird, re-enchant, re-wild, subvert, see our own and others’ hollow spots, and cultivate our minds and spirits as we are already doing. We form relationships to the land we find ourselves on. We plant seeds, we put down roots, hoping future generations will enjoy the shade. Is there anything else we can do?

*I have other ancestral lineages that came to the US much earlier, and a few that came after; but culturally speaking, the Irish side of the family has dominated, because it’s the maternal side. It is the source of our home life and everything that women teach their daughters. So I identify more with these ancestors than some of the others.

Death and taxes: or, how capitalism harshed my morbid mellow

memento mori

Sorry for all the death stuff, dear readers. I hope I’m not bringing you down. Still, it’s something we all must deal with, for in the end, we all come to dust.

My grandma told me that when she was a kid in Appalachia, “funerarials,” as she called them, lasted three days. On the first day, the living sat in overnight vigil at home with the deceased. On the second day, the deceased was embalmed, and on the third was the burial followed by a memorial feast. I always thought that sounded nice, minus the embalming part. I’ve always loved the idea of wakes. I used to say I didn’t want any kind of funeral for myself, because I felt like I wouldn’t need it (being dead) and I didn’t want to put the burden of the cost and organizing all the details on my bereaved loved ones (though I can only assume there would be throngs and throngs of them).

My mom says she doesn’t want any funeral or memorial service, and in one sense that’s a relief because I rather doubt I would be capable of organizing such a thing. Plus almost all her friends are dead already. But as I think about it, it makes me really sad that a good person who lived an interesting life should be sent away without a celebration of that life. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the rest of the family cannot wait for my mom to die. It’s not because my mom was a difficult or cruel or obnoxious person, nor is it because they want to get their hands on a big inheritance. No, it’s for one simple reason: she’s inconvenient. They don’t want to be bothered with her. And they aren’t. I do everything that needs doing, I pay for everything that needs paying. They live in the same city and they cannot even be bothered to call my mom, let alone come visit her.

This is an injustice to my mom and to me. Do I even need to say that these people have some serious *issues* when it comes to death? That’s what it really comes down to. Seeing my mom, even thinking about her, is inconvenient because it would force them to face up to not only mortality itself but all the gross bodily deterioration, loneliness, and fear that leads up to it.

Unfortunately if our family has a legacy it is The Grudge. Very small offenses can get you blacklisted for life. There are two parts of my family–each descended from one of my mom’s sisters–that haven’t spoken to each other or even so much as exchanged Christmas cards for decades. While her sisters were alive, my mom managed to be a bridge between them, but after my aunts died and my mom got sick, the family fissioned. Although my relatives can be surprisingly generous at times (mostly with stuff you don’t need), suffice to say if you stumble along the road they don’t stop to lend a hand. I’ve survived this long because I stay innocuous and don’t get sick much.

My ancestors and I have a lot to talk about.

So anyway, I found out about The Order of the Good Death via Blood & Coffee and it’s a great concept. (Check out the blog, there are some very interesting articles there.) Modern Western society has a seriously messed up relationship to death, which is to say, really no relationship at all. I was struck by this post by Anne Crossey: Whereas she and I agree that many societal ills can be laid at the doorstep of what she calls “death-denying ideologies,” she attributes them to deluded belief in a nonexistent afterlife, while I think it’s the fear that there is no afterlife that leads to death-denial. After about 200 centuries of increasingly reductionist, scientistic, atheist materialism, I think most people alive today have thoroughly absorbed the idea that there is no afterlife. They may be struggling with it, they may have faith in spite of their fears, but the people of magic know the cognitive dissonance that comes with the fight to keep hold of knowledge–even empirical, directly-experienced knowledge–while being constantly bombarded and mocked by contrary messages. I wouldn’t say that an unchallenged, hegemonic belief in an afterlife would remove all death’s fear or grief, but it is quite clear to me that our death-denial derives from our materialism, and not vice versa. Regardless of whether or how you conceive of an afterlife, dying, that most liminal of places, is inevitably and immanently numinous. But if your worldview cannot admit the numinous, then death is just rot and failure and the end of our dearest illusions, Forward Progress and Productivity and Ever Greater Acquisition. Not something your average American can handle. I think every person who waits in line for the latest iToy should have to spend at least a month in corpse meditation and hospice work.

Moving on. (No pun intended.)

I know my mom wants to be cremated, but I would prefer to biodegrade if possible, so I clicked on the OGD’s natural burial link. There I noticed (as I have elsewhere since I started researching this stuff) that cemeteries, the Neptune Society, basically any organization that deals with dead bodies, seem very loath to talk prices. I suppose this is viewed as crass, but I’ve also observed that any product or service where they don’t tell you the price up front is going to be more than you can afford.

And so it is with death.

funeral industry

And it pisses me off.

It’s a good thing my mom wants to be cremated, because I can’t afford anything else. My mom isn’t leaving behind any estate, any estate she did have would be taken by Medicare as reimbursement anyway. I have no problem with morticians or other death professionals (deathfessionals?) being recompensed for their time, effort, skill, and expertise, except in the larger sense that I am not a fan of capitalist exchange dynamics and the monetization of human relationships. Unfortunately, we live in a society where you gotta make money to live, and deathfessionals deserve to live too. I suspect–call me crazy here, but I suspect–that deathfessionals don’t get into that biz full of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But as I think about some of the efficient, green, time-honored ways to facilitate a body’s decomposition, or touching stories about honoring the dead and faring-them-well, I realize that I and countless other Americans can’t afford any of these things. In the US, a cemetery plot is real estate, and priced accordingly. A coffin can cost you as much as a downpayment on a house. According to the New York Times, the average cost of an American funeral is $6,000. That article I linked makes it sound like it’s super cheap to bury someone at home, but think about it–Are you going to be able to dig the burial yourself, or will you need to hire help? Will you need legal advice on how to obtain the necessary permits? Are you going to have to refrigerate the body while you get the permits and dig the hole, and do you have the facilities (or, e.g., dry ice)? Do you own rural or semi-rural land on which to bury your loved one?

And don’t lets forget that the State and the “funeral industry” have to get their grubby paws in on the matter:

“Recently [this article was written in 2009], some states, with the backing of the funeral industry, have considered restricting the practice of home funerals. Oregon legislators last month passed a bill that would require death midwives to be licensed, something no state currently does.”

(I have learned through my experience with herbalism that we must be very, very grateful for those few vocations that don’t require licensure and regulation.)

At the beginning of this post I apologized for talking so much about death. But you know, it’s something we could all stand to talk about a little more. As I’ve worked through the process of stewarding my mom into death, I realize that not only do I need to talk much more with her about what a good death means to her, but I also need to talk to my friends–my family of choice and, for all the reasons I mentioned above, the only family I could hope to depend on to send me off well–about my own good death. Let’s not end up as hungry ghosts. Let’s all have the good deaths we deserve.