Let’s make a better animism

Let's Make a Better Animism | Otherwise

I started identifying as an animist when I was probably about 10 or 11. I was spiritually inclined, but Christianity wasn’t doing it for me, and I said as much to my dad. My dad opined that we (modern Western society) were evolving away from monotheistic scripture-based religions and toward something more animistic. What is animism? I asked. He explained, very anthropologically and agnostically as is his wont, that it is the belief that everything is alive and aware. Well that sounded like something I already knew to be true, truer at least than scripture. I mean, when I was a kid I would agonize about walking on grass, and hug and thank my pillows and towels for being so nice and soft, and empathize with Christmas trees. Don’t even get me started on toy stuffed animals.

It looks like his prediction may be coming true, as I’m seeing more and more talk of animism among internet occultists. (Here’s an example, here’s another, here’s another.)

But as I complained in my last post about Gnosticism, we are in desperate need of a better animism, especially if we want it to get a seat at the philosophical and academic Big Table. It is not enough to say that everything has a spirit or soul or sentience. (And I do mean “we” here because I am as guilty as anyone else of using the term without sufficient reflection or explication.)

First of all, the term was coined by anthropologists as a way of distinguishing the so-called animistic (primitive, brown) cultures from their own scientistic-materialist belief that most things in the universe are inanimate and sentient. So the term is etic and generalist, and when you ask for the emic perspectives of the “animists,” you’ll find a lot of diversity. I don’t think being etic or general (even reductionist) necessarily invalidates the term, but from the perspective of those sitting at the Big Table, we will have to bring something more rigorous and well-argued. But more importantly, perhaps, do it for yourself. I think it will only benefit us to do this kind of reflection, and indeed, we can only do it for ourselves because as I said, there are many, many animisms. Trying to do this has been revelatory for me anyway.

Second, beyond merely articulating our worldviews, what are the implications of pan-animacy? Technically animism means that everything is ensouled/inspirited (i.e., has anima), but I get the impression that most of the time, what we mean is that everything is conscious and has agency. Which is perhaps not quite the same thing. How does animism differ from other philosophical/religious models of conscious-everything or ensouled-everything, from panpsychism to pantheism to panentheism? You could probably spend a lifetime just exploring the Indian philosophical takes on this question.

If we are talking about everything being conscious and/or ensouled, what do we mean by “everything”? Are we talking about a single monolithic everything, all-that-is, a Universe or Monad, whose consciousness pervades all? Are we talking about multitudinous independent consciousnesses? Perhaps some combination of both, like mini-souls within a greater soul? Do we view the other beings in an animist universe as bounded, autonomous individuals, or something more blurry? What are the relationships among us? Where are the nexus points where they touch and communicate and how does that happen? What is the place of humans and spirits within this ontology, what are our moral and ethical obligations, what epistemologies does this make possible or foreclose? What is the relationship between consciousness, sentience, anima, soul, and/or spirit to matter? For example, does consciousness arise from matter, or vice versa, or does matter even exist and if so how?

Quoth Gordon:

“Animism needs to get itself a Richard Dawkins and a seat at this Big Table because, of all the options, it better models psi effects, NDEs, spirit communication, unexplained biological effects like morphic fields… as well as UFOs and conspiratainment theories… as well as providing as good an explanation as any of the others (better than Materialism’s) for the creation and purpose of the universe.”

Jeez, I hope animism gets better than a Dawkins. (I know what Gordon means here, a popular proselytizer, but Dawkins is shit at what he actually claims to be, a scientist, and we all deserve better.) I think animism could become a better model for all these things than anything we’ve got currently, but at things stand I don’t think it is. At present I think it’s a catch-all for a bunch of different more-or-less-spiritist ontologies. And diversity of opinion is not a bad thing but it still wants deeper exploration. As it currently stands, animism is just a description, not an explanation. For example, I don’t see how animism necessarily provides any explanation for the creation and purpose of the universe, let alone a better one. If we’re talking about any one specific animist cosmogony, then chances are good I will find it much more appealing than the reductionist-materialist one, but that is a very low bar to jump, and (much as I may wish otherwise) my personal aesthetics aren’t widely recognized as a metric for accuracy.

None of this is to say there aren’t people working to articulate a better animism. I can’t claim to have read all the recent works of/about animism, though I’m working on it. (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall-Kimmerer is highly recommended as a series of personal reflections born of a deeply held animistic worldview which give a sense of the potential moral obligations that entails. Meanwhile in my opinion Tim Ingold is one of the best anthropologist-philosophers of animism, among other things, though he’s not usually considered a philosopher. His work is also a good source for learning about specific permutations of animism. And here is a useful post articulating what the term “bioregional animism” was, and wasn’t, meant to describe.) My point here is not to say that no one is thinking about this, but that we should be too. We, as esotericists, occultists, armchair philosophers, and assorted magical folk, need to engage with this more fully and explicitly. We owe it to ourselves to define animism(s) that are more than just a reactionary stance against materialism, especially if we want them to be explanatory.

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t attempt to articulate my own beliefs more clearly, so in the next post I shall do so.

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Who are the sycamores?

 

big sycamore
Too bad about the terrible picture quality; my cell phone camera leaves much to be desired. Still a beautiful tree though.

Might sound like a weird question, but I guess I have a thing about sycamores–that is, the American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. (All the pictures in this post are of American sycamores.)

When I lived, for my sins, in southern California, the pitiful, stunted little sycamores there used to break my heart and make me apoplectic by turns. But I got a few bitter laughs from the irony too: In southern California, all parking lots are studded with trees. It’s hotter than hell in the summer (and increasingly other seasons too) and you need all the shade you can get. But what trees do they plant for shade? Platanus occidentalis, which never seems to get above 15 feet high and constantly drops its crispy brown leaves because it needs lots of water. In southern California, it’s just about the worst shade tree you can plant, after palms. And this is in spite of the fact that there is a variety of sycamore native to southern California, P. racemosa, which looks extremely similar, grows to majestic heights, and provides plenty of shade, without needing much water. I am so, so curious what goes on in the minds of the people who plant P. occidentalis in the desert. Do they pick them up on clearance? Are they all from the east coast, and did they so deeply internalize the idea that P. occidentalis = shade that they can’t see sense? Are they secretly looking for shriveled trees to drop their dead leaves on people’s cars? What?

As another wilting transplant, I really identified with those poor trees. I could actually feel their distress whenever I was near them.

Now here in southeast Ohio, sycamores are in their natural environment and they are magnificent. I think they really come into their own in winter when the trees are bare, towering above their neighbors (frequently alder, willow, and cottonwood), with their white bark and twisted branches stark against the surrounding sea of brown. It seems to me that these are the sort of trees that tend to accrue folktales and myths as their relationship with us humans unfolds. I believe Americans need to forge stronger, more reciprocal relationships with our floral and faunal neighbors and the spiritual powers inherent in the land, and there are people doing just that. (Thank you for your work.) But each of us is in the formidable, if exciting, position of having to do it all from scratch, without the benefit of ancient traditions at our back. And I’m just getting started.

As usual I take a two-pronged approach: (1) Observe nature. (2) Book (and internet) learnin’. Sadly, I’ve found only one site that speaks, briefly and vaguely, about American sycamore lore (oh, and one other that shamelessly plagiarizes from the first–tsk tsk). The task is complicated by the fact that “sycamore” is the common name for a number of often quite unrelated species all over the English-speaking world. This page is a perfect example of what can result, in that the author identifies sycamores in Scotland as Platanus, referencing their sacred role in acient Egypt–where “sycamores” are actually Ficus sycamorus–and then describes the seed pods of her local trees as helicopters, which means she is actually describing Acer pseudoplatanus. (Only maples have helicopter seeds; Platanus seeds are contained in prickly spheres, and Ficus sycamorus makes round, fig-like fruit.) Superficially, it’s an understandable conflation; but at a deeper level I think this speaks to a certain polyvalence in sycamores, less confusion and more semiotic shift. All the various trees, whether from the fig family or the maple, Genus Acer or Genus Platanus, Californian or Ohioan, would seem to share in some kind of elusive sycamoreness.

sycamore leaves and fruits

 

 

So what might that sycamoreness be? Or should I say, who are the sycamores?

I look first to natural history. All these different sycamores provide abundant shade with their wide-spreading crowns. One thing I learned in southern California is that not all trees are equal when it comes to shade production. For good shade you need a tall tree with a dense canopy and big leaves.

The sycamores all indicate the presence of water. Even in the eastern US where rainfall is generally plentiful, left to its own devices P. occidentalis primarily grows along rivers and streams. It has drinkable sap that can even, with much effort, be rendered into syrup. In dry places like southern California and Egypt, sycamores only grow where there is a stream or an unusually high water table. Shade and water are welcome on a hot day, of course, but the presence of water also means the presence of food, if not from the sycamore itself then from nearby trees, plants, or animals. And when it comes to plants, water is a necessary (though not sufficient) component of fertility.

In dry landscapes, sycamores’ need for water means that sometimes they grow alone, yet being long-lived they can reach massive size, which makes them truly striking–and that brings me to the third characteristic I’ve observed. Sycamores, whether of the desert or the woods, are nothing if not dramatic within their landscapes.

 

American sycamore

Looking to cultural history next, it seems that ancient Egypt’s sycamore was associated with the goddesses Isis, Hathor, and Nuit. Royal coffins were (at least sometimes) built from sycamore wood, and the wood used in tombs, various parts used for medicine, and in the Duat, sycamores provided nourishment for the ba of the deceased. The tree was referred to as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Love. During their flight to Egypt, Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were said to have taken shelter under a sycamore that supposedly still lives, near modern Cairo. An Egyptian poem states:

“The sycamore tree moves her mouth and speaks to me:
The drops of sap in her mouth are like the honey of bees.
She is a beauty, her leaves lovely, flourishing
And verdant, laden with fruit, both ripe and green.”

The creation story of the Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) of Kenya states that the creator, Ngai, directed the first man down from the summit of Mt. Kenya to a grove of sycamores at its base, where he met the first woman. These original humans were directed to make contact with the creator by sacrificing goats under the sycamores, and white body paint was made from sycamore ashes mixed with fat. Indeed, the name Gikuyu means “a huge fig [sycamore] tree.” So the Gikuyu are, in effect, the People of the Sycamore.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates was said to have taught beneath a sycamore, while the philosophers of the Athenian Academy gathered in a sacred grove of sycamores. (It’s nice to teach in the shade if you’re going to be outdoors.) Though Pliny claims the tree was introduced to Greece purely for its shade, he goes on to list some 25 medicinal applications.

In northern India, sycamores were planted in association with temples to Bhavani, a demon-slaying goddess embodying the qualities of both ferocity and mercy.

Sycamores receive some mention in the Bible, but only in passing, quotidian references. Sometimes sycamores are contrasted with cedars, with the implication being that sycamores were ordinary orchard trees while the cedars were more prestigious.

I have been unable to find any information on Native American culture history of sycamores, except the claim (cited above) that they were called “ghosts of the forest” by some group, somewhere. University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Native ethnobotany catalogue gives a number of medicinal uses, especially among the Delaware (search for Platanus as I can’t link directly to the search results). Though I don’t know the reason it was deemed so important, Tongva leaders reportedly traveled great distances to meet under a large sycamore where Los Angeles now stands.

When and how, I wonder, did the Greek name sycomorus (literally “fig-mulberry”) come to be applied to the plane (Platanus) and the very similar looking but only distantly related great maple (Acer pseudoplatanus). The Greeks did not conflate the species, for which they had different names. Possibly the name sycamore was applied to Platanus because the broad leaves and round “fruits” (technically they are indeed fruits, but not of the edible-for-humans kind) were thought to resemble those of F. sycomorus, but I’m not convinced. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t one of those historical-linguistic “accidents” that maybe aren’t really accidents. In a weird little synchronicity, the page I just cited also contains this:

“Greeks also call the [Platanus] tree Daphne, a strange little word. Depending upon the accent in Greek it can be the tree and an area of Athens [Ohio] that once had an insane asylum, and where we get the word ‘daffy’ in English.”

That asylum, popularly known as The Ridges, still exists, it’s just not used for the insane anymore–though by all accounts, many of them are still hanging around. My family used to live pretty much across the street from it. But daphne in Greek means laurel, and neither that nor The Ridges is where we get the word “daffy” from. It’s peculiar that the author of that page, who lives in Florida and is not, as far as I know, from Athens, would think to mention it in a post about sycamores. Another non-accident?

sycamore at Butts Run

From my own direct experience of them, the first word that comes when I call sycamores to mind is grace. Not only in the sense of physical beauty but also graciousness and generosity. I frequently find myself returning to the words power and majesty, and sometimes haunting (especially in winter). Within this landscape, they remind me a little of Japanese hinoki cypresses within theirs. Hinoki couldn’t look more different, but they are often considered shinboku (divine trees). The large sycamore that grows by the run (stream) back of the house is one of the beings around here that seems to resonate with extra magic. I just noticed last night when looking at a map that the sycamore, a little cluster of honey locusts on the side of the hill, and a group of trees in front of the house whose species I have not yet been able to identify are all magical spots and form a nearly-straight WSW-ENE line across the property. If I drew a line from the sycamore to the unknown trees, which I swear are full of gnomes or trolls or something, it would pass directly through this house (the honey locusts are a little out of line to the north). If you extended the line it would connect the ridge to the west of us with the river to the east. I don’t know what to make of that yet, but I’m filing it away for future reference.

The sweetest holiday

beehives 14th century

Nope, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow (13 February) is the feast day of St. Modomnóc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Sorry, I never give you enough notice on these things, do I?

In case you were wondering, I consulted with an Irish scholar and confirmed that the name was probably pronounced MOTH-ov-nohg, with the first Os short like in sock, the last one long like in oats, and the TH as in there, not as in think. In modern Irish it would be spelled Modhomhnóc. The accent mark in Irish doesn’t indicate which syllable gets the stress, but lengthens the vowel. I’m told that although we can’t be sure which syllable was stressed in Old Irish, the first syllable is a good guess.

Modomnóc came from Ossory (Osraige) in southeastern Ireland. He traveled to Wales to study with St. David (a.k.a., Dewi Sant, patron saint of Wales, his feast day is 1 March) and live at the monastery where the lovely town of St. Davids now stands. Now, David was all about celebrating the magical in the everyday, the divinity immanent in all of creation. At his intentional living community monastery Modomnóc cared for the beehives, planting bee-beloved flowers and talking to the bees, who buzzed all around him and never stung. When Modomnóc returned to Ireland, three times the bees flew after him and swarmed on the ship’s mast, so they all went to Ireland together. Modomnóc established his own monastery, with a garden and hives for the bees. It’s clear that he walked the walk of David’s teaching, “be joyful and do the little things.” Real devotion, real love, is shown in humble, everyday acts, not in grand displays.

St. Ambrose of Milan is also considered a patron saint of bees and beekeeping, but in his case it was because of a legend that his father found his infant son’s face covered with bees, which of course didn’t sting, and that was taken as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence. That’s cool and all, but I think Modomnóc deserves all the credit, since he actually undertook to care for the bees. He loved the bees, and they loved him back. However, another patron of bees arguably worthy of that title is St. Gobnait (pronounced, I am thinking, GOV-nat*), a rough contemporary of Modomnóc’s. She charmed her bees into attacking invaders and thieves and driving them away, and like Modomnóc is said to have been a devoted bee-tender, as well as a healer. Her feast day is 11 February, so while we missed it this year, next year you could do a joint Modomnóc-Gobnait thing, if you so desire.

A friend of mine started his own tradition of celebrating St. Modomnóc’s Day rather than Valentine’s, and making bee- and honey-themed “modomnócs” rather than “valentines” to give to loved ones. I won’t bore you by repeating what I wrote before, but given the precarious situation that both bumblebees and honeybees face (maybe other types too), I wholeheartedly embraced this idea.

bees on clover

Every year on Modomnóc’s Day I think about what I will do to support bees’ work this year. It’s not just because bees have been harmed by human activities and now need us to realize the error of our ways and make amends; it’s also because bees are awesome and deserve to be loved and thanked just for being what they are and being part of our ecosystem. (That’s true for all living beings, I believe.) Add to that the fact that they sometimes share with us a gift of delicious, medicinal, beautiful honey, and I think it’s clear which saint’s holiday we should really be celebrating.

This year I will be:

  • Planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers in the meadow in front of our house. One of the varieties of flower seeds I bought are Phacelia tanacetifolia. I had always just heard it called “phacelia,” but in German its common name is Bienenfreund, “bee’s friend.” How cute is that? There will also be many bee favorites among the herbs I grow in my garden closer to the house.
  • Tomorrow I will be taking a Beekeeping for Beginners class and I joined our local beekeeping association. I don’t know whether I will be able to afford to start keeping bees this year, but if not this year, then next.
  • I checked out Rudolf Steiner’s Bees and a book on beekeeping from my local public library. I’ve also been doing internet research on bees and bee-friendly methods of apiculture.
  • I’m going to try my hand at pouring my own beeswax candles for ritual and household use.

What might one do magically on this day? Just brainstorming here:

  • Make or obtain beeswax candles and consecrate them for…whatever.
  • Bless the bees, the beekeepers, and the scientists doing research to solve Colony Collapse Disorder.
  • Do the opposite to the makers and purveyors of neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Meditate on bees.
  • Go talk or sing to the bees. Start a dialogue.
  • Do a honey jar spell, with special thanks to the bees.
  • Do some garden magic to promote flourishing flowers.
  • Set up an altar and make offerings, prayers, or petitions to Modomnóc, Gobnait, Ambrose if you’re into him, or any of the deities associated with bees. Consider doing something nice for bees as one of your offerings.
  • Give your ancestors some honey.
  • Do some food magic with honey.
  • Launch a “swarm” of sigils.

Now the vegans among us disagree with using the fruits of the bees’ labor, wax and honey (and propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, let’s not forget those). My own thoughts are that using these products–provided they are obtained from local, small-scale, ethical apiculturalists–helps ensure that small beekeepers can keep doing what they do. Some beekeeping is done at a virtually industrial level, and that’s another matter.

Locally produced raw unfiltered honey is usually rather expensive, which helps us treasure it and treat it like the medicine it is. Likewise, pure beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin, but they last longer and produce less soot, they smell nice, and some claim they purify the air (but I don’t know what the source of that claim is, so, grain of salt and all).

Small scale, ethical apiculture is one form of animal husbandry where humans can benefit from the animal products without actually harming the animals. It is, moreover, a step towards self-sufficiency for the humans involved. That is to say, we will never be “self-sufficient” independent of nature–nor, I would argue, should we try. But we can make it a goal to disconnect as much as possible from an inherently exploitative monetary system of value (yes, even though, for now, I am advocating giving money to beekeepers!) and instead (re)connect with our ecosytem and bioregion. My main motivation for keeping bees is not to pilfer their honey and resell it, but to enter into a relationship with a beehive. I want to make friends with bees and see what happens. Maybe they will give me some of their honey and wax, maybe not. I’ll be happy if they just hang around and bring their bee-ness.

Bees Attend Keeper's Funeral

For magnificent magical weirdos like us, there is even more to love about bees. Bees have been associated with resurrection and psychopompery, sometimes the soul is even envisioned as a bee; prophecy, as good omens and messengers of God/the gods; eloquence–the metaphor of a honeyed tongue, face, or mouth is seen in India and the Classical world, as well as in English, so may have deep Indo-European roots; and “mother” or “fertility” goddesses–e.g., Potnia (Minoan), Artemis (Greek/Anatolian), Demeter (Greek), Bhramani (Indian; a wrathful incarnation of Shakti), Hannahannah (Hittite) (as well as various gods, such as Ra, Telipinu, and Aristaios, but in my non-expert assessment it seems the male deities are usually either more associated with beekeeping as opposed to bees and honey, or are somewhat indirectly associated). And of course the beehive is often held up as a model for human society. Here’s a weird bit of trivia: bee boles with openings carved to look like flowers are built into the towers of Rosslyn Chapel. They were only discovered during restoration work and are way too high up for anyone to get into them to remove honey–they’re there just for the bees, it seems.  In Irish custom, bees must be told about major events in the family of the beekeeper, such as weddings and especially deaths–otherwise it is feared they will take offense at being left out of the loop and abandon the family or even cause more deaths in the family. Or, if the hives are not draped in black crepe, the bees themselves may die. In one account, “telling the bees” involved making offerings of sweet foods, shaking keys (very interesting, that), and saying:

“Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say. Your master, J.A., has passed away. But his wife now begs you will freely stay. And gather honey for many a day. Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.”

I like this recognition that bees can leave if they want; they are really not domestic animals, for all that they sweeten domestic life. I think there was some now-lost Irish metaphor or symbolism to do with bees, because the three extant medieval mnemonic glosses for the fourth ogham (corresponding to S**) are, respectively, “pallor of a lifeless one,” “sustenance of bees,” and “beginning of honey.” I don’t know if that speaks to some association between bees and death, or nectar or flowers (bees’ sustenance and metaphorically a “beginning” of honey) and a pale, perhaps light green or yellow color…there could have been a folk belief that bees subsisted on something other than nectar and honey.

The bee has filled our world with beautiful flowers (which may have evolved entirely because of bees–source), brightened it with candles lit against the dark, healed our wounds, and is directly responsible for at least a third of our food–and that’s not counting the honey. Yet these little marvels may well ask what we have done for them lately. On the feast of St. Modomnóc, let us give thanks for the sacred work, life, and messages of the bees. Let us be inspired to love them and not only to tell them, but to show that love everyday in joyful little acts of care toward them and the other members of our “hives.” And if you choose to also celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, just remember who pollinated those roses.

 

*The Wikipedia page (grain of salt) says that Gobnait was a patron of ironworking, and that archaeological remains of ironworking were found at the site of her church at Ballyvourney, County Cork, and her name is apparently the feminine form of Gobniu, the “god” of smithcraft. Gobnait is also associated with white deer, which smacks of faeries.

**Nowadays this few (the Anglicized term for an ogham character) is called Saille (willow), but it’s well to remember that the tree names were also mnemonics. Ogham is not really a “tree alphabet” any more than “A is for Apple” makes the Roman alphabet a “tree alphabet.” Though I admit I love the poetry of the tree names.

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.

Time to get started

The Coming of Bride by John Duncan 1917
The Coming of Bride by John Duncan (1917)

If you’ve got any projects you’ve been planning to begin, or changes to make, this is the time to (as Shia LeBeouf would say) DOOOO IT!!!

Specifically, now through Wednesday, 3 February. Here’s why:

  • Today (1 Feb) is the feast day of St. Brigid. Some people regard this as a holy day of the putative goddess Brighid (for whom there is no textual evidence but whatever) and celebrate Imbolc now. Whether you regard her as a saint or goddess, Brigid (meaning “eminence”, “high place”) seems to be a pretty good person to have on your side. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, the nuns at her abbey in Kildare (“Church of the Oak”), known as “daughters of fire,” guarded a sacred flame. Keep that in mind because you will see a pattern…
  • Tomorrow (2 Feb) is Candlemas, the feast of the Purification of Mary, when in Christian mythology, Jesus was first taken out of the home and presented at the temple. Socially this is significant in two ways: first, Mary was cleansed of her birthing impurity (it ain’t fair, but we’re talking about ancient Hebrew society here, so don’t look for a vag-positive worldview) and could return to regular public worship, and Jesus officially became a person and a member of society. The theme is coming forth into the light. And of course, Candlemas refers to the lighting of candles which is a celebration of the return of light.
  • Tomorrow is also Groundhog Day here in the US. For those of you not familiar with this silly ritual, it is sortilege by rodent. If the ceremonial groundhog, christened Punxsutawney Phil, sees his shadow when he comes out of his burrow (i.e., if it is sunny), there will be six more weeks of cold weather.
  • Wednesday, 3 February, is Imbolc proper. Imbolc is the “cross-quarter” day between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and thus the first day of spring according to the solar calendar. (It is usually ceremonially observed on the 1st or 2nd of February, but this year it is, in fact, the 3rd.) Beyond that we don’t really know anything about it historically, so you can get creative. Only-slightly-tangential sidebar: Have you noticed how the solstices are regarded as the middle of their respective seasons–Midsummer, Midwinter–but the equinoxes are treated as the beginning of their seasons? That makes no sense. The solstices and equinoxes evenly divide the year, so if a solstice is in the middle of a season then an equinox is also in the middle. That means that March 21/22 is NOT the beginning of spring but the middle of spring–which certainly corresponds better to what one can observe going on in nature and on the farm at that time. Ergo the cross-quarter days are more properly treated as the beginnings of the seasons. And indeed, according to folklore that is exactly what they were in the British Isles in the old days. So, Imbolc is the beginning of spring, huzzah! You don’t need the calendar to tell you that–there are buds on the trees, the days are getting noticeably longer, it’s very muddy, dog poop has re-emerged where snow is melting, the geese are returning, the sap has started running, and the ewes (they say) are beginning to lactate (March 21 the beginning of spring my ass…arglebargle)…though it’s not exactly getting warmer around here, as it never really got cold to begin with this winter.
  • Also on Wednesday, the space weather will be good: The Sun in Aquarius sextiles Saturn in Sagittarius, putting them in mutual reception, which is nice because they will be getting along well. That makes it a good day for implementing new structures, patterns, routines, and boundaries. (Doubly nice for me, Saturn is finally moving off my personal Neptune. Whew!) Wednesday is the planetary day of Mercury and sacred to Hermes, a god of magic, so arguably a great time for divination or magic. Things start to get astrologically hairy again on Friday, so get while the gettin’s good.
  • Also also on Wednesday is the Japanese festival of Setsubun or Risshun, the day before the official first day of spring (as they currently calculate it; formerly the last day of the old year/winter). It is another purification day. Traditionally, roasted soybeans were thrown out the door, making a tremendous rattle as they hit the wooden porches that surround old-style Japanese houses, and people yell, “Oni wa…soto! Fuku wa…uchi!” (“Demons out! Good luck in!”). People still throw beans, they probably just don’t make quite the same apotropaically-potent racket. (Here is someone after my own heart, a “British Shinto-Pagan”, writing about “Japan’s Imbolc”.)
  • Also there is a rare quintet of planets visible before dawn, the “spear-bearers” heralding the return of the sun (this also from the Coppock link above), making it an extra juicy and powerful sun. These are Mercury (finally out of his retrograde and returning from the underworld), Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is the first time all 5 planets have been visible at the same time since 2005.
  • Other things happening this month: February derives from the Latin meaning to purify. It refers to the purification rituals held at Lupercalia during the February full moon (that will be on the 22nd by our calendar). The 8th is the Chinese New Year, which is to say the traditional lunar new year in East Asia, beginning the year of the Fire Monkey (which sounds terrifying to me, but there’s a hint of light again). February 13 is the feast of St. Modomnoc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping–they could use our help. I will be taking a beekeeping-for-beginners class that day–someone in our local beekeeper’s association has got their finger on the saintly pulse, I see. I guess some people are into the feast of St. Valentine, but that day has been so tarted up and divorced from real love that, following Gordon, I have chosen to celebrate St. Dwynwen instead (her day is 25 January).

Seriously guys, there is so much juju in the air right now, and it’s all ripe for clearing out the old and bringing in the new. It is also a time, as Austin Coppock mentions in his weekly forecast to which I linked above, when the sun seems to take on a very feminine energy. Those of us familiar with the Classical, reconstructed Celtic, and Egyptian pantheons are accustomed to thinking of the sun as a distinctly masculine presence, but it’s by no means universal and I for one really feel the feminine sun this year.

I’m taking this opportunity to resume in earnest the magical studies that dropped off around the time my mom was dying. My autumn and winter were consumed by that event and its fallout, so now I am rejoining the world of the living (at least to the extent that I ever do). Things are getting rolling here at Firefly Farm too, as I expect to be getting a few laying hens as soon as I can convert one of our outbuildings into a coop, starting a compost pile, and ordering seeds. It would help if I had a job to fund the necessary supplies, but hopefully this month will see a new beginning for my income too. Bees will likely have to wait till next year, but you never know.

Let’s get to work!

Ghost forest

20151117_132922
Near my house.

I’m on my way back home after three weeks of Too Much Christmas out west with friends and family. I was homesick the whole time and so spent a lot of time thinking about the house I live in, the landscape, and the many spirits therein.

Along the way a penny dropped and I think I understand why I keep thinking of my home as in the woods when in fact it’s in the middle of fallow fields. I mean yes, there are stands of trees all over, some are even quite old I suspect, but they are discontinuous patches along the side of the road, the riverbanks, the edge of the creek (or “run” in local parlance)–they aren’t the old-growth, undisturbed deciduous woodlands I have in mind when I think of “our” 40 acres.

It’s a ghost forest.

Once it hit me the haunted feeling of that landscape started to take on more dimension, to be less a question mark and more a comma. There are human ghosts there, yes, but there are non-human ghosts as well, and things that never had bodies at all.

Around the same time, I finally succeeded in digging up a little information about the family who built the house I live in. The patriarch and matriarch are buried on what used to be part of their property, which now belongs to a separate parcel of land (luckily our neighbors are cool and let my housemate and me go up and check out the gravesite). I even found a picture of the patriarch, who looked just like I had imagined him. Now I can put a name to him when I talk to him.

I say “ghost” forest but maybe that’s not quite the right word, or rather, it only captures part of the phenomenon. It might be best understood as overlapping worlds, much as the human and faery worlds were conceived in the “Celtic” countries: immanent to each other, interpenetrating, on separate timelines and yet inextricably connected. This ghost forest may also be a foretaste of a forest yet to be. Maybe this forest is in the underworld; maybe the underworld is just closer, where I live.

(Dis)orientation

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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.

20151117_132922
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.