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!

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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

20151117_135329
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.

 

Gods of place? Religion in pre-Roman Britain in light of Shinto

Were pre-Roman British god/desses tied to places or landforms? If so, does this make them not gods but something else (e.g., genii loci, spirits)? What does one’s answer mean for one’s practice of Brythonic-flavored polytheism, or for how we understand polytheism in general?

Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan
Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan (photo by yours truly). The rope (shimenawa) and paper streamers (shide) mark the tree as ritually pure and inspirited. I like to think of it as the Otherworld’s velvet rope.

I’m not sure if the subject matter of this post will be controversial or a whole lotta so-what. I don’t have enough (embodied) people to discuss this sort of thing with so perhaps I’m just reinventing a wheel that has already been worn down to the rim. But the conversation isn’t over until I weigh in, right? (Right?)

Speaking purely from gut instinct, intuition, opinion, and UPG, I have this persistent feeling that 20th-21st century polytheists are much too  limited in how they/we define “god/desses.” And at the same time, not nearly limited enough.

This idea was ratting around and then today I came upon this (in internet terms very old) discussion on the Caer Feddwyd forum. Thematically, it’s consistent with many others I’ve seen there and in other polytheist theological discussions. This particular iteration of the theme revolves around author Dorothy Watts’ (Religion in Late Roman Britain, Routledge 1998) argument that pre-Roman religion in Britain was animistic and tied to local places and landforms, and it was only after the Romans came around naming things and trying to make them equivalent to Roman deities that the British gods came to be represented as human (-ish). User Heron, who opened the topic, writes:

“There has been much debate in the past on this forum about the distinction between gods and spirits of place. I’m not sure that the early Romans, before they absorbed the Greek pantheon, made the distinction in a particularly hard and fast way. But what about all the named gods? Watts suggests, for example, that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring.”

Another user then opines:

“If the comparative evidence is of any use at all, I think all of our core gods must be fairly human. Okay, Lugus was born from an egg, Belgios was a giant serpentine cyclops, and Rigantona occasionally turns into a horse, but the essential nature of the gods is human.”

And finally a third adds:

If the pre-Roman populations did not tie identity strongly with the individual because the survival strategy relied on the communal tribal identity, then I would suggest that the synopsis presented would have a very good basis to take it forward.”

(All emphases mine.) I don’t mean to reduce these forum users’ entire polytheistic lives to these three quotes, but I do think there are assumptions underlying these quotes that deserve to be, as the academics like to say, “unpacked.” Regarding this topic, religion in pre-Roman Britain, or “Celtic” religion as some like to think of it, I think we can learn a lot from Shinto. I’m not alleging a prehistoric connection between Britain and Japan, nor am I arguing that Shinto can somehow be a stand-in for all ancient religions. Rather, I believe that as a thriving, non-diasporic, non-colonized*, never-Christianized, polytheistic religion**, one which has been around in some form for a good 2000+ years and possibly since the Upper Palaeolithic if Japanese opinion is to be believed, Shinto may be the only comparand we have for understanding the lived experience of a pre-Christian polytheism. (There might be others, and if you know of one I would love to hear about it.) For me, Shinto is doubly useful because it’s a religion I have some personal experience of.

View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Shinto is a religion such as Dorothy Watts described–animistic, and focused on local landforms that are recognized as embodying spiritual power. Once when I was visiting friends and doing research in Japan, my friend’s mom, knowing my interest in Shinto, pointed to a mountain and said what I took to mean, “There’s a kami on that mountain.” Kami can be translated “god” or “spirit,” but Shinto makes no distinction between the two. I asked where the kami was; I could see the vermilion torii gate that denotes a sacred shrine precinct in Shinto but didn’t see a shrine. “No,” she said, “the mountain is the kami.” I don’t know exactly where we were–we were on the road at the time–nor the name of the mountain, but the story stuck with me because it was the first time I realized what kami are.

How does this relate to pre-Roman British religion? Well, note that the first user brings up named gods specifically, evidently presuming a contrast between animated places in the landscape and gods with  names. I don’t understand where the perceived dichotomy comes from. Major landmarks typically have names. Heck, even tiny hills and creeks have names. In Appalachia, where my maternal family is from, every “holler” (hollow) has a name. In Shinto, the landform and the kami are coterminous and consubstantial; naturally they share the same name because they are the same thing. So when we read that “Watts suggests…that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring,” in reference to our comparand Shinto, we might speculate that “Coventina” was the name of the sacred spring who was the goddess/spirit. Not a water goddess, but water-as-goddess. Much in the way that Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji) is the name (one of the names, actually) of the kami who is that mountain.

Shinto does have more universal kami, who are linked less to landforms than to natural things or processes which exist throughout Japan: for example, Amaterasu (embodied in the sun), Susano-o (a god of plague and storms), and Inari (god/dess–gender varies by region–of growing rice plants). Whether or not these deities are viewed as greater, higher, or more powerful than the local kami depends on where you live and what your goal is. Though Shinto doesn’t distinguish, as outsiders we might draw a distinction between the deities of myth (such as Amaterasu, Susano-o, Izanami and Izanagi) and those represented and honored only in local practice. The mythic deities appear in cosmological stories such as the creation of the Japanese archipelago and of other deities (as recorded in Nihon shoki and the Kojiki), but we would do well to bear in mind that the only reason these myths were written down, and not others, is because they served the hegemonic purposes of the ruling dynasty. They were, in effect, the royal family’s genealogy and ancestor stories. As far as I know there is zero basis for assuming that these myths were widely held, or these deities widely worshiped, throughout ancient Japan. This reminded me of Lewis Spence’s hypothesis regarding druids (in The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain), viz. that they were the priests of a cult of divine kingship, and not representative of the religion or practices of your ordinary Brython or Irish farmer. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to substantiate that hypothesis, but given that all the extant “Celtic” myths pertain to royal and/or divine lineages, I think it’s pretty darn plausible. It might be that pre-Roman British religion “on-the-ground” was a more animistic, idiosyncratic, shamanistic affair.

Supposing that there were local landform deities in pre-Roman Britain; would they have been “human”? I am of the opinion that no deity is human except insofar as this is our frame of reference for them. A human, or partly-human, shape makes a good interface allowing us to relate to beings that are ultimately beyond our ken. In Shinto, some deities are represented in human form (e.g., Amaterasu, Susano-o), others are indicated by the presence of their representatives or images thereof, usually animals such as deer or foxes, while still others have no physical form other than their shape in the landscape, but may temporarily occupy objects called go-shintai 神体 (literally “god/spirit-bodies”). Go-shintai are seen only by priests but during annual festivals are carried around outside the shrine on palanquins.  Amaterasu is represented by/embodied in mirrors. All of these various representations or symbols are designed to facilitate contact and communion between the kami and the human community. They are a way of making mountains, diseases, thunderstorms, and trees relatable for humans. In return, the kami get attention, honor, music and dance, and offerings. Without these, my understanding is that a kami can degenerate into a “monster” or demon, or even die. Sometimes, one community’s kami is the next town’s monster***.

I find that last bit interesting given the fate of the Romano-British temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, which survived for quite a while after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, but once the Romans had left Britain, came to be regarded as the abode of scary faeries and goblins.

The notion that gods/spirits embodied in an animated landscape would be predicated on a prioritization of group vs. individual identity is intriguing, but I don’t see any evidence for it. I mean, even societies that strongly emphasize the individual’s communal context (Japan being an oft-cited example) don’t lack a concept of individuality, or of individual deities. I have no doubt that pre-Roman British concepts of the individual were different from ours, but in ways we’ll never fully know, and I don’t think it’s relevant to the question at hand. However, in this brief article on the Green Shinto blog, the author speculates that the much vaunted Japanese consideration for others might derive from the values of Shinto. As the author puts it, kami is the word for “mirror” (kagami), minus the ga (“ego”). (The Japanese language elevates puns to an art form.) In a world amply populated with spirits, on whom the people’s dependence is recognized and performed daily, mutual respect and responsibility is a high priority.

I do think it likely that the Romans introduced a new way of relating to deities, specifically, through representing them in human form. Iron Age Europeans had the technological chops to create representations of deities had they so desired (and maybe they did, only we don’t recognize them as such). Especially in the metallurgical domain, the La Tène culture’s skills were unrivaled at the time. We must therefore conclude that the dearth of human forms represented before the arrival of the Romans was due to a lack of interest in them. Evidently, however they related to their deities was good enough without statues and carvings. (And after all, how would you make a statue of a river? Why sculpt a mountain when the mountain is right there before you?) Instead, we see a preference for swirling, ambiguous curves that morph into any number of shapes depending on the light and the angle and the state of consciousness the viewer brings to them. This ambiguity is so prevalent, so clearly intentional, that I find it unsurprising that we still get confused trying to imagine how these peoples might have related to the natural and numinous worlds. But the peoples of the Mediterranean region all seemed to share a love of representing their deities and interacting with those representations, and clearly that practice was so essential to their religious practice that the Romans (and Christians) took it with them wherever they went.

Torii, Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan
Torii at the entrance to Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan

I think what we are seeing here is the difficulty that people raised on a 19th-20th-century model of the Greek model of polytheism within a Christian milieu have wrapping their/our minds around other polytheisms. I think for most of us in the West, our first encounters with gods other than Yahweh or Allah are stories from Greek mythology, which portray the gods in very human terms (unflatteringly so, even). We think of deities as characters. We imagine them as gods of–goddess of love, god of music, etc. I very much doubt that the Greeks understood their gods in this way, but I certainly don’t think it’s representative of what other cultures did and thought. For one thing, we might consider the possibility that the reason we have no surviving “Celtic” cosmologies is not only due to Christianity and colonization, but possibly because their stories never fit neatly into that package to begin with. I have always considered the assignments of figures from Welsh and Irish myth as gods of to be extremely tenuous, generally based on very reaching interpretations; now I think it’s time we chuck them and start over with radically different polytheisms. Ones where the gods aren’t characters, but presences; ones where the gods aren’t human, but, well, gods; ones where the distinctions among “god/dess” and “spirit” and “land” and “animal” and “ancestor” are porous at best; ones that are deeply, intensely local and consubstantial with place–and simultaneously, the land is equal parts animate, ensouled, inspirited, haunted, magical, genealogical, numinous, and mundane. There will still be room for universal deities, but even then they will have local interfaces. More importantly, they will be understood as part of a complex but more immanent network of relationships rather than as the default deity model.

Consider the huge number of Celtic deity names that are only attested in one inscription (e.g., Cernunnos), or in one region, and/or which we know are cognate with the name of a single landform. There are others that appear in different regional variations across a broad territory where Celtic-family languages were spoken, such as Dôn/Danu. What if the deities we so long to make universal, to render gods of abstract notions like “nature”and “sovereignty” are local landforms? What if the wide distribution of names like Nodens (and cognates thereof) and Danu is as much, or more, due to the habits of Roman soldiers and scribes as it is to some putative pan-Celtic (or Gaulo-Brythonic, or Germano-Celtic, etc.) belief, as we know was the case with Epona? Or what if these more widely-distributed deities are those claimed as ancestors by royal families, like Amaterasu in Japan? My point is not that any of these is the answer but that there are many answers, some of which haven’t gotten enough airtime. Similarly, one doesn’t have to approach polytheism via Shinto–light can come from other directions too. My questions are intended as food for thought.

This is not just anthropological navel-gazing. It’s not just about more closely approximating how our ancestors may have seen their relationship to deity. It’s about setting our own relationship to the land and cosmos in better order, evolving our “religious sensibility” (sensu Greer) to something less ontologically reductionist and abstract. I think what Shinto as a comparand can teach us about polytheism is:

  1. There need be no dichotomy between gods and spirits, or named gods and ensouled landforms, or animism and polytheism. We maybe should question why we like those dichotomies so much.
  2. Universality and the hyper-local, the abstract and the super-specific, both have roles to play in polytheism and their relationship is not necessarily a hierarchical one.
  3. Social machinations of elites, cultural contact, movements of armies, and many other less-than-divine processes are formative in the evolution of a religion and put the lie to culturally-essentialist notions of spirituality. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded of it and sometimes it’s easier to see clearly when you are an outsider looking in.
  4. Although I didn’t get into details of Shinto practice, it gives us a model for ways of relating to deities that are different from what most Western, non-African-diasporic polytheists know. For instance, belief is very much secondary to participation, and who a kami was “originally” is less important than what they do now. It’s not that we should replicate these ways of relating–and we couldn’t, because in the West we don’t have a widespread network of temples and professional priests and shrine attendants, but I think it’s refreshing to see a flourishing polytheism that isn’t consigned to “alternative religion” status.
  5. There are few gods of. Rather there are gods as, gods in, and gods who. Kami are phenomenological. For me at least, this makes their presence and nature more immediate and more intimate, though thoroughly ineffable.

*Shinto and Buddhism have influenced one another in Japan, and to some extent been syncretized, but the arrival of Buddhism in Japan and its subsequent spread was not so much a result of colonization as royal dynastic strategy and diplomatic relations with Chinese and Korean kingdoms. It’s interesting, but too big a topic for one blog post.

**It depends how you define “religion,” but here I’m defining it on the basis of participation in community rituals that are aimed at communing with numinous, supernatural, or divine presences.

***Sorry, I know it’s bad form but I can’t give you a source on that. It may have been personal communication from an acquaintance who is a particularly devout Shintoist, whom I once helped with translating a presentation on kami and concepts of spiritual purity and pollution. Or possibly it was in A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine by John K. Nelson?

Connecting to this land–an assay

silvery blue butterfly

I begin with a story to set the stage. It is a very Homo sapiens story.

Sometimes we find ourselves living in places where we just don’t fit, and so it is for me. During my previous incarnation as an academic, one of the topics I studied intensively was human population movements, which archaeologists usually refer to as “migration” although we’re not talking about a seasonal migration like that of animals. Anyway, the motivations for picking up sticks are various, but the pattern is pretty consistent. It usually starts with a bunch of young men in search of land or booty or glory. A few of them settle down in a new place and marry local women. Word gets around that they found a good patch or a made their pile, and others follow–significantly, relatives of those first young men. Entire families start to relocate, along with women and children and animals. From then on, barring some calamity, there is usually a more or less continuous trickle of people from the Old Sod to the New.

This pattern has played out in my own family over and over. I come from a long line of younger sons and daughters of younger sons and daughters. I have traced my ancestry back to the late Roman Empire and perhaps even earlier, but dates get fuzzy that far back–a thousand years or so ago, many of my ancestors were wealthy members of European warrior aristocracies. But by the time my ancestors started coming to the Americas, 350-400 years ago for most of them, they were just ordinary Joes and Janes. The first sons had inherited, so the younger sons had to make their own fortunes, and the daughters had to marry them, or die trying. Younger children of younger children grew ever more distant from the patrilineal line of primogeniture, first becoming poor cousins, then merchants and peasants, until there was no room left for them in Europe, no more booty, no more glory.

A warrior-pillager ethos seems to have been pretty common in European societies, from Odysseus to the Vikings. Its eldest son was empire and colonialism; its youngest son was poverty and exile.

In the last couple generations of my family, this pattern played out again. It started with my uncle, the young warrior (an Air Force officer). He settled where I now find myself, the suburban jungle of greater Los Angeles/inland Southern California. He didn’t have any choice about coming here, but he and his wife decided to stay. His wife, my aunt, was my mother’s eldest sister. When I was away at college, my mother was caring for my grandmother. My aunt promised to help. So my mother followed her family out here. Necessity was the engine of the move, but family was the compass. And when my mother became ill and it was my turn to be the caregiver, I had to move here because she was already too weak to come to where I was. But it all started with a young warrior.

There is no truly empty land, and with young men roaming around in search of brave deeds to do and whatnot, it’s inevitable they will bump up against other people. After all, there has to be somebody else to make war on, somebody else to trade with, somebody else’s women to…er, marry. In the Americas–and maybe other places as well, lost to history–this story became a tragedy when the settlers find their New World inconveniently occupied.


I like cities (lots to do, good food, museums), and I love the countryside (because nature and ponies), but I can’t stand the suburbs. Suburbs have none of those good things. From where I live, you can drive almost an hour in every direction and never leave the suburbs; in some directions you can drive considerably further, like three or four hours, all the way to the sea. One ‘burb simply fades into another. The rivers of this landscape are freeways, the hills are overpasses, the soil is concrete and asphalt, the sky is smog. Everything is tamed, flattened, homogenized, neutered, policed, regimented, and ranked.

Plus it’s hot here. What little green there is, is not native and is inappropriate considering the severity of the drought.

But since this is where I find myself, I have been trying to learn about the land and its history. I have studied some of the native plants. I try to learn the names of the species I encounter so I can try to be friends with them. In spite of all this, it feels incredibly sterile here. I was honestly wondering if the spirits of this land had fled elsewhere, or just gone to sleep underground, to reawaken when wildness comes back to the region.

The first thing I looked for was native folklore, but there isn’t any. No one bothered to write it down in the brief period–about 100 years–between Europeans first settling here and the indigenous peoples being almost exterminated. One of the “Indian Schools” is right in this area–they brought native children from all over the country to this spot to rub the Indianness out of them. There are still some native people left, and I don’t mean to detract from their survival or achievements, but overall, what I see in this area is a monument to their erasure.

Traffic here gets worse every year. When my aunt and uncle first moved here, people regularly commuted to LA to catch a show or visit a museum. Now you take your life in your hands with LA drivers, if you’re willing to put in the hours of freeway commute to get there. So these former bedroom communities have been cut off and are slowly necrotizing. I do believe the apartment complex is in the most moribund neighborhood of these moribund suburbs. On one side is a concrete-and-chain-link drainage channel that only ever has enough water in it to stink. Usually it’s full of trash and invasive plants. On the opposite side is an abandoned orchard full of dead and neglected trees–at least the cats love that place–and a small nursing home where Alzheimer’s patients are sent to die. The nursing home is hidden from the street, but you can tell where it is because the driveway is lined with cypresses, the “mourning trees.” How perfect.

And yet, the river.

The Santa Ana river–Wanaawna to the Tongva people–flows from the San Bernardino mountains,  across the heart of the Inland Empire, through the Santa Ana mountains that bear her name, and onto the flats of Orange County, out to the sea. She may not seem very grand compared to your Nile or your Mississippi, but she is ancient, millions of years old, and her watershed covers more than 2500 square miles.

Santa Ana river in flood, 1938.
Santa Ana river in flood, 1938.

Every generation, the river would flood, bringing nutrient-dense river silt to the plain. It was this silt that made this area so agriculturally rich. (In the early 1890s, Riverside was the wealthiest city in the nation thanks to citrus agriculture.) But flooding and permanent settlements are not very compatible, and the last great flood in 1938 killed more than 50 people, so they lined much of the river bed with concrete, made her straight where she was curvy, built dams and drains, flumes, canals, and ditches, and now they say there will never be another flood. I wonder. Although I don’t want to see anyone hurt or made homeless, part of me wants the river to flood, to show everyone that Wanaawna cannot be tamed.

My garden allotment is in the mouth of what once was a shallow canyon where seasonal storm water flowed to the river. It actually has its own microclimate, a few degrees cooler and just a little more humid than the rest of this dusty place. We gardeners share the place with rabbits, mice, ground and tree squirrels, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, teenage skateboarders, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, roadrunners, bicyclists, and a homeless community. My point is it’s a desirable locale. And it’s all because of the river.


Recently I’ve been thinking that I’ve gone as far as I can with book learning about this area, and while my meditation skills are still pretty weak, I decided to just go ahead and try to make contact with the genius of this land. (I tend to be unwilling to move forward until I have perfected whatever skill I’m currently working on, and sometimes I have to remind myself that perfection will never happen–and neither will progress, unless I just go for it.) As the first part of my story shows, this isn’t a land where I have any natural links–no deep ancestral roots, no particular love for the scenery, no attachment to any denizens other than my small immediate family. When my mom passes, I don’t expect I’ll linger here. But who knows what the Fates have in store? This is where I am now, and I’m sure there is much it could teach me if I can only bring myself to open to it. And so the obvious candidate for me to try contacting in vision was the river herself, as the dominant natural feature and shaper of this land.

There’s not a lot to tell. I guess it’s not much of a reward for you, if you’ve stuck with me this long! I was interrupted at what I anticipated would be about the halfway point. Oh and also I’m not very good at this yet. I saw the river in her natural state in a kind of flyover, racing from the source out to the sea; then I was taken back to the source, but this time I could see a native person canoeing down the river. It was impressed upon me that the river enabled many cultures to travel and communicate along her length. And then it was just water rushing over me, on and on.

At the end of the vision I saw the lined, brown face of an old gnomish woman–that’s why I call the river “she”–and then in a flash, superimposed on her face, a glowing blue butterfly.

I tried to research the butterfly, but aside from finding out that there are several species of blue butterfly in the area, I can’t find any stories or traditions that might explain or describe it.

Since this vision, I have been struck several times by the beauty of moving water. I suppose that sounds sort of duh; I mean, we’re in the middle of a horrendous drought and we live on the edge of the desert, obviously water is precious. All I can say is that I am more aware. I see this silvery luminosity in it, and the simple act of pouring out a stream of water for a plant touches me and makes me feel connected in a way it never did before.

I plan to revisit the river, both physically and in vision. If I learn any more I will share it, though of course it’s only my UPG. I’d like to try drawing what I see too, though my art skillz are not up to the job.

Santa-Ana-River