Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pagan Values: Feeding the Hungry

There was once a time in my life when my husband (then boyfriend) and I were too poor for macaroni and cheese. There have been times in my life when I was grieving or tired from having and caring for a new baby or stressed out from school. I think we all have times like this when we are just not able, for whatever reason, to make food for ourselves.

One of the most basic human things is sharing food. We've been sharing food with our friends and family since we've been walking on two legs and there is nothing in this world that brings us together like a meal. Some of my best memories revolve around food and mealtimes and I make certain things to remember people I love and I hope that I'm helping to create good memories for others as well. Family mealtimes help improve communication amongst family members and serve to strengthen our relationships. Why not extend this to the rest of your human family?

Some Hellenic Polytheists have a tradition of celebrating Hekate's Deipnon around the new moon. This is a recent innovation, but I like the idea of it. The idea here is that the rich set out food at Hekate's shrines and the poor make it disappear. For this reason, it is becoming more popular to contribute to a local food bank as well as making a ritual offering. I often make food to share with others, but I may begin doing so mindfully as part of this practice. At the grocery store, they even have a display of food for purchase to give to those in need and a bin to put it in. So, it's super easy to add that to my grocery list for the week.

I wrote last time about how ethical eating is a way to honor my gods and the same holds true for shared food. We honor the gods of hospitality and we honor the gifts of life given to us as food by sharing those gifts with others.

Today, I'll be making several things to take to our Women of Faith meeting. It's Pagan Food night and our turn to show what we can do with food. Knowing the Pagans I know, we're pretty much awesome in the kitchen as a group. The Muslim ladies always have a really good spread and last time, the UU ladies fed us very well.  Unanimously, we decided that snacks are an important part of our interfaith work and my thinking is that people are more likely to listen to your ideas if they have full and happy tummies.

What good memories do you have of sharing meals? How has sharing food connected you with others in a positive way? How do you honor your gods with food?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pagan Values: Eating Gi

Jews have kosher law, Muslims have halal, Hindus have dietary laws in the Dharmaśāstra, and I eat local/organic when I can.  For me, my good friend, K, and many other Pagans, it's more than just being a locavore or eating like a hippie. There are distinct religious connotations behind the reasons we choose to eat this way, but we really don't have a word that describes this. K suggested eco-kashrut, but we both agreed that it didn't quite fit our meaning. I would like to propose the term "eating Gi" as an alternative.
Gi, or Γη, simply means Earth in Greek and it is our connection to the Earth as Pagans that often is the motivation behind how we conduct ourselves. This is integral to the Pagan tendency to be involved in environmentalism because many of us are of the understanding that being good to the Earth is no different than being good to ourselves. By "eating Gi" we're literally eating the Earth (or, rather, her fruits).

This, then, is the principle behind "eating Gi." It is not so much a set of restrictive laws or rules, but rather an ideal to work toward. Here again, we go back to the Hellenic idea of arete. If it is that I'm aiming for arete in my profession, in the upkeep of my body, in my relationships with other people and with the Theoi, there's no reason not to extend this to my eating habits. I'll try to lay out some of the ideals here. I suppose we can call them the Gi principles.

1. Organic: Whenever I walk down the aisle in the big home-improvement stores with all the pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, I feel physically ill. The idea of these poisons on the Earth, in the water, and in my food is horrific to me. Factory farming is a huge contributor to soil and water contamination from these very things, not to mention the fact that these poisons are on and in the food. To reduce the amount of poisons in my body and on the Earth, I try to eat organic whenever possible.

2. Local: First of all, local food tastes better. It just does. I had a blackberry cobbler for breakfast from locally picked blackberries and sweet gods, it was good. Secondly, I find it ridiculous to eat something trucked and shipped in from other entire continents when it grows just fine up the road a piece. Why would I eat an apple from New Zealand when I can get them from Tennessee? Why eat a peach from Chile when I can get better ones from Georgia? I would find it equally ridiculous to eat Georgia peaches in Chile. Buying food that grows closer to home means not only an improvement in flavor and quality, but helps to reduce fossil fuel consumption. The less your food has to travel, the less fuel is required to get it to your fridge. I'm not going to go into the many benefits of reduced fuel consumption, but it is better for the Earth and better for us.

3. Humane: Happy cows taste better. Happy chickens lay tastier eggs. Just like with organic food, which might be considered as humane treatment of vegetables and fruits, meat producers that care for their animals by letting chickens eat bugs and letting cows do cow things and goats do goat things, by not poisoning them with growth hormones and excessive use of antibiotics, produce a better product. Remember that what goes in and on your food goes in to you. Additionally, the way we treat animals is reflective of the way we treat each other. If we want to be good human beings, we should be good to animals. Meat doesn't come from a cellophane-wrapped polystyrene tray at the grocery store. It comes from a living being and all living beings are deserving of a certain amount of basic respect. Cows, goats, sheep, and even pigs and chickens are sacred to a number of gods, so why not treat them as such? For some, this might extend into choosing not to eat them at all, so I would place vegetarianism here as well.

4. Whole: Organic food is one thing, unprocessed food is quite another. Take a look some time at a box of marshmallow cereal. How many things are on there that you can't pronounce? Again, we return to the idea that what's in your food goes into you. If I don't know what it is, I don't want it in me. I must admit to a weakness for marshmallow cereal, but I try to aim to eat things that I recognize. It's easier to reduce salt and other bad-for-you things this way and easier to eliminate or identify allergens. I know that if I make a peach pie from scratch, it's going to have wheat, but not citric acid or nuts. I'll know there are no chemical preservatives or fake colors or flavors. These things have been linked to all manner of maladies and both production and consumption of them is bad for us and bad for the earth.

5. Heirloom: I'd like to extend this idea both to older varieties of produce and to older farming practices. In regards to the former, large-scale agriculture often results in producing enormous monocultures of corn, tomatoes-- whatever is being produced. This means that every plant is exactly like every other plant in the field and it is a disaster waiting to happen. Natural selection favors variety and when there is a pathogenic fungus, bacteria, or insect that is resistant to chemical control, there is the potential for a disastrous loss of crops in a monoculture. When I say "disastrous," I mean "Irish potato famine" level of bad. Heirloom varieties are naturally variable in resistance to disease and pests, meaning that loss of one variety of tomatoes, for example, isn't necessarily going to mean loss of all your tomatoes. GMO crops are unnecessary and if you ask me, there's a bit of hubris involved when we think we can do better than the Earth herself.

As for older farming techniques, there is wisdom here as well. If we're not going to increase yield or reduce pests by using poisons, we have to look to other means. Here is where we draw upon the wisdom of our ancestors. In the absence of chemicals, they were very innovative in learning how to tend to the needs of their crops and we have much to learn from them. I even extend this to spiritual practice and it is important to me, as a Pagan, not only to celebrate at times of planting and harvest, but to plant and harvest at these times. It's one thing to celebrate Beltaine. It's quite another to do so because if you don't plant tomatoes, there won't be any. It's one thing to celebrate Samhain. It's quite another to know that this is your last chance for pumpkins.

I'm not perfect at this and, frankly, can't afford to eat Gi as much as I'd like to, but by keeping in mind that what's good for the Earth is good for me and by being mindful of what I'm putting into my body, I honor the gifts of the gods. To me, that's what food is. It is the holy union between Earth, Sun, and water, given to us so that we might live and be happy. God and nature are not separate for me and for many Pagans, so eating Gi becomes more than eating for health and environment. It is a way for me to connect with my gods and to honor them. So, next time you see me grinning and thanking god the peaches finally came in, you'll know it's not hyperbole.

ETA: A story on NPR about Barry Estabrook's book, Tomatoland, illustrates perfectly why I eat this way. When my choices are tasteless trucked-in poison orbs or tasty ripe ethical fruit, it's really no contest.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pagan Values: Gnothi sauton

Know thyself.

We discussed how to work with, deal with, and work around your inner demons at our weekly discussion group last Wednesday. The offspring refers to it as "kind of Pagan church," but only because she knows that some Christians go to church on Wednesdays. I keep hoping that someone will invite her to a vacation Bible school, just so she can have a better understanding of what Christianity is all about, but I digress.

My student led the discussion and did a pretty bang-up job of it. I found myself nodding through most of it because he managed to hit just about all the important points in how to confront those aspects of your personality that are bothersome or otherwise a hindrance to your spiritual progress. For him this is anger and for me, it's control. For others it could be anxiety or even being too friendly and cheerful. Whatever it is that hinders your spiritual progress and gets in the way of your connection with deity, it must be dealt with sooner or later.

This is especially true for someone working on the second act of the path to priesthood. It's like Empire Strikes Back. The most troublesome thing you're going to ever have to deal with is yourself. That was the point of the whole Degobah vision quest where Luke whacks off "Vader's" head and sees his own face behind the mask. Sure, it was partly foreshadowing about the whole Vader is his father thing, but Luke has to find balance within himself before he can confront the great evils of the universe. This is true for a priest or priestess and the one thing we kept moving back to in the discussion was "Know thyself." Without the ability to find and name all the parts of your personality, we go about reacting to what the universe is inevitably going to throw at us, whether it be a difficult coworker or an evil emperor. The difference between Jedi Luke and Empire Luke is that in the last chapter, he has begun to accept that he must deal with his own dark side. He becomes aware of his impatience and anger and eventually brings about balance within himself. It's still a challenge to him at this point, but he is able to do it. Reactive New Hope Luke had no chance of defeating the Emperor and, likewise, those of us who don't know how to look within run toward difficulty without realizing that we have no idea how to use the force.

Delving into omphaloskepsis is not all there is to being an effective priest or even an effective human being. We need more than this, but applied self-knowledge can help us be much more skilled at living in this world. I place it amongst Pagan values not only because it helps us confront the difficult aspects within our own personalities, but because discerning what is truly ourselves is to understand what is beautiful and divine. We often repeat the words of Doreen Valiente, "If that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without." In other words, if we want to know kindness and beauty, it's not there unless we can find it within ourselves. If we want an end to suffering, we must know that suffering originates within.

Perhaps this isn't Pagan Values in the sense that environmentalism or acceptance of all paths may be, but it is in the sense that it is a thing we hold to be important or precious to us. By looking within, we become better able to act (and not react) to these external things that need attention and by understanding the divine within, we can see it in others. We see that we're no different than Bob the Baptist next door or Mariam the Muslim down the road a piece or Quincy the queer guy across town.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pagan Values

The things that I value as a Pagan are no different than the things that I value as a human being. I think people should be treated like people. I value helping others through acts of charity. I value clean water, clean air, clean dirt, good food, my family and my friends. I first came to Paganism as a biologist more than anything else. This was in my first year or so as an undergraduate and I actively sought a faith that would not conflict with what I knew to be true as a scientist. I first stumbled across Wicca and found that the idea of balance and the celebration of the cycles of nature were right in tune with the ideas that I had formed as a scientist. Creating a synthesis between my thinking and my belief was not only easy, but connections practically formed themselves. One of the biggest things that took me a long time to figure out was a moral compass that extended beyond my gut feelings of right and wrong.

One of the first things that I looked at was Lady Sheba's laws. As part of my training as a priestess, I did an extensive project that looked at the historical and cultural context from which these laws came and that deconstructed and analyzed them individually and as a whole. As is my understanding, Jesse Wicker Bell, aka Lady Sheba, was a friend Gerald Gardener's. Either she or the both of them composed these in the early 1950's to be used as a kind of Leviticus for Wiccans. These laws are used by the more orthodox Wiccans, Gardenarians and Alexandrians in particular, as a code of conduct. There are laws regarding the persecution of witchcraft1, group dynamics2, how to worship3, and laws about the laws4. Though the fake-archaic language distracts terribly from what they were trying to achieve, there are some very good lessons that can be found within. I summed them up by listing the major points of what the laws are trying to do:
  1. Above all, protect the Craft and do what is good for the Craft
  2. Protect your fellows in the Craft
  3. Don't draw undue attention to yourself, other Craft persons or groups, or to the Craft as a whole
  4. Practice in secret
  5. Maintain order and discipline within a coven
  6. Respect your fellows in the Craft
  7. As a High Priest or High Priestess, govern as though the Gods were watching - because They are.
  8. Harm none.
  9. Act as though the Gods know what you are doing, because they do. Behave ethically and justly.
  10. Use magick ethically and mind your karma
  11. Respect the HP and HPS; they are the representatives of the God and Goddess
  12. Give due and fit worship to the Gods
  13. Serve the will of the Gods
To read these in such a way as to find any valuable lessons, one must remember the cultural context in which they were written. I believed, at the time of my detailed analysis of these, that many of them were outdated and no longer useful, even to the most orthodox of Wiccans. That which cannot adapt or change to the environment will eventually die out and if we cling to laws such as these or that of any other religious tradition without a willingness to examine their usefulness, we will be intellectually and spiritually stagnant.

Even though I do not self-identify as a Wiccan now, there are still valuable lessons to be found here. By and large, I reject most of the persecution-related laws, but remain mindful of how I may be received by the general public in regards to my religion. As a result, there are aspects of my faith and practice that I keep to myself. This is just one example. As a Buddhist, I've learned to pick up that which is useful and not worry too much about what isn't.

Moving down my spiritual path, I have come to Hellenic Polytheism and a slightly different perspective-- not much different from my Wiccan days, but somewhat. Here, the Delphic Maxims serve a similar purpose as a set of laws, guidelines, commandments, or a code of conduct. One might consider it like the Leviticus of the Hellenics (except that it predates Christianity). Though these are actually ancient and are outdated by 2500 years, many of them still ring true. "Obey the law," seems pretty straightforward. "Speak plainly" is another good one, as is "Help your friends." These have been used as a way to teach both Greek language and the Greek way of life and as I go through them slowly and deliberately, I learn a little Greek and a little more about what it was like to live as a follower of the gods then and what it can be now. I've only started in my analysis of these "commandments," but already I'm finding a great deal of valuable insight here.

So are these lists the sum of my "Pagan Values?" Not really. After a little more than a decade of being Pagan, I return to where I started. I return to those gut feelings of right and wrong, but now I do so with a little more self-knowledge. I've never really extensively studied any other religious laws and I imagine that each one has its own idiosyncrasies, archaisms, and bits of outdated advice, but having met a wide variety of religious people who are really trying to live a good life, the take-home lesson that I've learned is that the most important law is the law of love. If you choose to proceed through your life with an attitude of love and compassion toward yourself and others, you will become more skilled at being a human being. Every one of my ethical and moral values returns to this and you don't even have to be any kind of theist to practice that. Our religious laws can serve to give us a means to examine whether we are living in right relationship to the world and our deity or deities of choice, but there is no set of laws that defines the entirety of human ethics and morality.

Lord Serphant, the elder of my elders and now gone almost fifteen years (for those of you doing the math, he passed before I became Pagan), said "Love is the law." I heard a recording of him saying this very early on in my path to becoming a priestess and it struck something deep within me. This is not his innovation, of course. Others have said this very same thing, but I hear his throaty cigarette-damaged voice saying this in my head and I can't help but think that this sums up my Pagan Values better than anything else. That's it. That's all there is to it. Love. And it's simultaneously exceedingly simple and mind-numbingly difficult.

Bell, Jessie Wicker. The Grimoire of Lady Sheba. 2001 St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2001.
  1. #22-35, 51-88, 102-119, 127, 130-135, 139-140
  2. #11-21, 36-50, 93-101, 128-129, 141-162
  3. #3-10, 89-92, 108, 120-126, 136-137, 153-155
  4. #1-2, 88, 115-119

Oikonomides, A.N., Records of "The Commandments of the Seven Wise Men" in the 3rd c. BC, Classical Bulletin, 63 (1987), p. 67-73

Friday, May 27, 2011

I met with the lady yesterday to sign the paperwork so that I could officially be hired for my fellowship. Basically, what I'll be doing is going into a high school classroom and working with a teacher to see what we can do to get kids excited about science. I love watching anyone get excited about science and especially kids. I initially decided on a career in science when I was in high school, though the direction of entomology came later. I love how much we don't know about the world and the excitement of finding out new things. This is pretty much a perfect job for me and is going to pay a decent wage. I've never made this much money in a year ever.

Anyway, we got to talking about how much work it's going to be to keep up with what I have to do for this and I mentioned that I have a family and I'm "very active in my church." Well, I should have known better than to say a thing like that because the natural follow-up question is "What church do you go to?" I suppose it would have been subtler if I hadn't been wearing my petite purple pagan shirt, but that's neither here nor there. My heart skips a little every time I explain that I'm Pagan, that we don't have a physical church building, and that we meet in each others' homes. Fortunately, she took it in stride. One thing I can say about Yankees is that they're less likely to freak out on me when I say something like this-- not unlikely, but less likely. She very kindly reminded me that not everyone, not even the teachers, will be so open-minded and she told me a story about one of the chemistry teachers who left to teach at a Seventh Day Adventist school and said that she was glad not to be working with atheists and evolutionists anymore.

While I do appreciate her concern about how my faith will be received in the public school system, I've lived in the South my entire life, I've gone to public schools in the South since Kindergarten, and I know what it's like. I assured her that I'm not going to be too open about being Pagan and that I'm going to be professional, but there's still this thread of worry. What if I happen to wear a pentacle one day? What if it comes up?

I have to keep reminding myself that by wearing a pentacle or being Pagan, I'm not doing anything wrong. I don't want to be overly flamboyant and rude about my faith, but it's okay to be who I am. If I were Muslim, would I take off my hijab because I was in a classroom in Murfreesboro, TN? I'd consider it, I really would, but my commitment to my gods is bigger than this. It's my commitment to my gods that led me to science in the first place and though I'm really afraid, I think it's ultimately going to be okay.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Daily Show

I've become a regular reader of the Pantheon blog, partly because it helps me come up with topics for Wednesday night class when I'm stumped. Here recently, Star Foster, who runs the thing, proposed that we Pagans start a campaign to get Jason Pitzl-Waters on The Daily Show to counter and challenge David Barton, a recent guest on the program. I for one am all for it. I have my doubts that this campaign will actually work, but it's this kind of thing that gives me a little bit of hope for the future of Paganism. Any time that Pagans come together to do something positive, that's a good thing. Any time we decide to work together because we're more alike than not, that's a good thing.

This is why I love working in the Interfaith community. I love seeing all different kinds of people come together to do good things and I believe that this has been part of my calling as a priestess since very early on. When I was President of the Student Pagan Organization back in the late 90's, we held interfaith dinners and though it didn't really stick as an SPO tradition, the feeling of sharing food with others did stick with me. Last Saturday, I sat down with the Women of Faith and did the very same thing with my Muslim friends, Christian and Christian Scientist friends, UU friends, and fellow Pagans. It was a wonderful thing and I look forward to future picnics and events and whatever it is that we decide to do in the future. No matter where I go, I can hold this calling with me and follow where it leads. Losing the ability to do this kind of ecumenical work was one of my biggest fears as my professional path eventually leads me down PhD lane. I talked about the portability of my faith over on the Lace Maze blog and the conclusion I came to is that I can do this kind of thing wherever I go.

I love bringing people together and, to that end, am hoping that this recent endeavor to build a bricks-and-mortar community center takes off. It's not just my idea and I'm not the only one working to make it happen. Even this isn't going to always require my physical presence in order for me to support the effort.

We Pagans talk about community a lot, but it isn't often that we see something in the real world that reflects the way in which we are connected with our brothers and sisters. I want to make that happen. I think it's possible. I think this kind of thing can happen and that now is a good time to get these sorts of efforts started across the country.