Book Review: Paganism; An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions

I have been intending to read this book for some years now, but time and circumstance have always seemed to be working against me. But thanks to one of the members of our newly emerging local group, I’ve finally read it. 

First, I’m glad this book was written. Whatever nitpick I have with it, I can easily see the value it has for a great many Pagans and Wiccans. It really does speak to more than just the new apostate or angsty teen.

Now for some nitpicking. While the authors try really, really hard to not be Wiccan specific, it reads to me as Wiccan specific (are the authors Wiccan?). They mention Asatru a few times, but I did get the feeling they didn’t have more than a passing familiarity with the religion. And while a couple other movements and religions got a head nod, there really wasn’t a decent explaination of these religions. I feel that, as book that purports to be introducing you to earth-centric religions, there should be a bit more about said religions.

And the earth-centered claim; in efforts to define the broad stroke that is Paganism, I feel that “earth-centered” makes claims that really shouldn’t be made. I wouldn’t consider many of the Recon religions to be earth-centered, even if there is a strong focus on the natural world. I feel like our interpretations of older religious and cultural practices in regards to nature are a bit colored by Transcendental Naturalist philosophy, in that to become intune with the Divine, we must elevate nature above civilization and industry. Especially with Recon religions, the environmental impact of civilization in the pre-industrial era was not readily apparent or widespread like it is today. So the thinking that society and civic structure need exist wholely separate from the natural world, I don’t believe, was a concern to those pre-industrialist Pagans.

I was a bit saddened by the fact that an entire chapter was devoted to the Satan arguments. I wish Paganism would stop using what it isn’t to define itself. And if Satan really isn’t part of your Pagan journey, quit giving the arguments credence. Dead horse, dead horse. 

Some of the visualizations and exercises were helpful to me, some came across as a bit corny. I feel like there is too much put into creating simplified metaphors, when we should instead present people the challenge of abstract thinking and assisting them in rising to the challenge.

I felt like the last couple chapters of the book were pretty fantastic, especially on knowing yourself and the determination of ethics. These were chapters I was glad to see in a book about Paganism, because it challenged the basis for all religious institutions.

All in all, a handy and easy read. I would recommend it to people who weren’t really interested in the meat of Paganism, but we’re open and receptive to the alternative viewpoints of others. Not really for anyone currently looking at developing a Pagan spiritual path or for those actively against religions other than their own. Instead of an introduction to earth-centered religions, I feel that I read a book that would be more aptly titled “Paganism; An Introduction to Alternative Spiritual Beliefs”.


8 (Better) Warning Signs to Look for in Pagan Groups

Yesterday, I noticed a link on my Facebook newsfeed to this article, 8 Warning Signs in a Pagan Group. As I was reading, my mind kept screaming ” Well, duh! These are things you should watch out for in any group, secular or religious. Common sense, people!” And it left me wondering, why do we think it’s ok to keep talking to Pagan adults like they can’t make rational choices (I mean, I’m pretty sure I make rational choices most of the time…).

So here’s my 8 (Better) Warning Signs to Look for in Pagan Groups (for those already possessing some basic common sense):

1. Members that seem consistently disengaged from the subject at hand. Yes, it is really helpful to have members that get along and who aren’t trying to stab others in the back, but there disengagement seems to be one I’ve noticed a lot in the few Pagan groups I’ve been around. Obviously, we don’t want to be with a group who spend the majority of their time trying to tear each other down, but we also don’t necessarily want to waste our time in a group that gets along fabulously but spends the entire meet-up discussing Dr. Who when the subject of the event was a discussion of Indo-European cultures. While it’s great that everyone loves the Doctor, but like any other group, it’s important to stay on the agenda for any progress to be made (whether that be organizational development, spiritual development, liturgical writing, whatever). This lack of focus and discipline can easily contribute to the stagnagation an disbandment of any sort of group.

2. Groups with beliefs that you don’t share. This one may fall a bit into the common sense category, but it’s important, especially for those who don’t have a firm belief system at the time. It isn’t always as obvious as the worship of the sparkly rainbow unicorn, but sometimes a group has beliefs and practices that are in contradiction to our own morals and ethics. Let’s say you’re a vegan, but a key element to every major ritual your group hosts is animal sacrifice (in the form of the Holy Hog Roast or the Blessed Chicken BBQ). Not that either you or the group are wrong or out of line in your beliefs, but you may want to step back a bit and find a more vegan-friendly group. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your morals or beliefs to a group, but they in turn shouldn’t have to drastically change theirs to accommodate you.

3. Inept leadership. For any group beyond the scope of occasional meetup or study group, those in leadership roles need to possess a diverse skill set. Along with having a solid spiritual foundation from which they can facilitate spiritual growth in others, leaders should also have a sense of business building, public speaking, and organizational skills. And if they lack any of these skills, they should at least delegate to other members in the group who do.

4. Predatory groups. I really disagree with the original article on dissuading people from looking into teen groups. I think there is more paranoia regarding the inclusion of teen members than needs to be; indeed, most Christian churches run youth ministry programs. I think the real issue is when a group targets an easily victimized demographic for nefarious purposes. Luring teens and children into groups that are not structured to be family-friendly, targeting abused women for groups that practice ritual sex, scamming low-income families with promises of money and luck charms, these are the groups we need to be on the look-out for.

5. Cults. Every religion and belief system has its share of cults, whether they want to admit it or not. Quite simply, a cult is an exclusionary group that controls its members through restrictive methods. Like an abusive partner, cults exert their control through means such as brain-washing, sexual abuse, financial abuse, isolation, guilt, blame, and a host of other controlling behaviors. If you are worried that group you want to join is a potential cult, please check out the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame. It’s a pretty handy resource. But do keep in mind that not all private or exclusionary groups are necessarily cults.

6. Groups that promote or engage in illegal activities. Here’s one the original article and I agree upon. Even if the groups’ stance on an issue is that it should be legal, such as marijuana use, there are channels in place to effect change that are perfectly legal. While we may or may not agree with laws, encouragement by a spiritual group to disregard said laws demonstrates a lack of regard for boundaries, and that should be a huge red flag.

7. Groups that pass the buck. I’ve heard countless times “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a (insert Pagan event or building) in our area,” often times followed by “Yeah, that would be great, but (insert excuse).” Obviously, there are times when certain ideas or plans are outrageous or unfeasible in a certain area, but if your group spends a good amount of time identifying gaps and areas for improvement in your local Pagan community, but seems to only come up with excuses as to why those issues can’t be addressed, it may be time to find a group to better serve you and your Pagan community. 

8. Improper use of terminology. For many of us, Pagan was not a term we heard growing up, or if we did, it was in a derogatory or negative context. So when we look to join a Pagan group, we are also encountering different terms and words that we may have never used before, and it’s important that we use such words in the proper context. Not every Pagan group calls quarters or has High Priests or athames, and if the leadership and members of these groups use the improper words when referring to themselves or other groups, either out of ignorance or disregard, then we create more divisions and misrepresentation for those who consider themselves a part of the greater Pagan community.

I hope this list helps to spark some questions in your mind the next time you contact a Pagan group. There are many wonderful groups and wonderful people out there, and nothing contributes more to growing our community than when we connect with other people that help us to better ourselves.

Exploring Liminality; An Intro

Recently I read The Well of D’yerree-in-Dowan, in which three brothers are sent out to find a sacred well at the end of the world which would heal their father, and whichever brother brought back the water from this well would follow as king. After reaching the first crossroad, only one brother ventured forth, while the other two remained at an inn. The brother, Cart, travels throughout the day, and as night is falling, comes upon a house in the woods and is boarded by an old woman. She sends him on his way to find her older sister. After two more visits to the older sisters, Cart then encounters a brother, who leads him to island the well is on. Cart collects some water, kisses some ladies, and returns to his father. And in the end, after some problems with his brothers, he is recognized as the heir. While there are many relevant points we can take away from this tale, the one I want to focus on is the Otherworldly, liminal aspect. Cart is tasked with undertaking a journey to the end of the world, which we can understand to be in an Otherworld. The help he encounters along the way is found at liminal places (crossroads) and times (dusk). These themes are not exclusive to this story; rather, they are very common in many Irish tales, especially echtrai and immrama. So what is it about liminality that we can incorporate into our modern practices?

In the course of our daily, secular lives, we encounter many liminal places. Every time we take a drive, whether to work or school or the grocery store, we come across a crossroad. These intersections were once a place where many travelers from different places, going different places encountered one another, something that may have never happened had they not been journeying. Even today, where inns at the crossroads have been replaced by restaurants and shopping malls and coffee shops, we can still encounter people who are outside our spheres of influence. And in acknowledging that openness of the crossroad, we can also be open to interacting with spiritual creatures.

With liminal times, such as dawn and dusk or any transition of season, our perception of the world in which we live is altered, to the point where it is almost as if we are in another world. It is during these times of transition that the world in which we live and the Otherworlds are closest. Not only are these optimum times for which to undertake spiritual journeys, but also for communicating with spirits, Ancestors, and other various Gods and Ungods, and, of course, for spiritual workings.


The Height of Winter and the Cailleach

“Summer of youth in which we have been
I spent with its autumn;
winter of age which overwhelms everyone,
its first months have come to me.” –The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare

It’s finally winter in my area of Ohio; we had some snowfall around Thanksgiving, but most of December was spent in the 40’s and up (it was 60* Jan. 3). Two nights ago, the temperatures plummeted down to the teens, and we had our first real snowstorm move through. While we don’t get as many inches as places up near the Great Lakes, we do usually have a power outage or three every winter that affects not only the rural-er areas, but many of us townies (I hate being a townie). Last year, both my husband and I slid off the icy roads; blessedly, neither of us were injured, though I was eight months pregnant at the time and driving about 60mph, and he almost went down the hillside and tore off the back bumper. But when I talk to people that don’t live or have never lived in Ohio, we aren’t one of the states that comes to mind when the term “extreme weather” is thrown out. Yeah, we don’t really get 18+ inches of accumulation in one night, and we don’t have to deal with hurricane force winds and flooding, but the idea that what experience isn’t “extreme” is completely subjective.

Before modern communication, we had very little means of knowing what was going on in other areas of the country, let alone the world. So when regions discussed contingency plans for what to do when something extreme happened, it was always in relation to the immediate area. Extreme weather, or any sort of extreme circumstances, are situations that largely interrupt the normal course of life and pose serious threat to life and health. And our season of extreme weather just began.

And with the onslaught of winter comes the need to discuss the Cailleach. Seen as a title, a name, or a group of land deities/spirits, most forms of this being point to her sovereignty during the winter months, the season of potentially deadly weather. And unlike many other deities, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get on her good side.

The Cailleach reminds me a little of one of my grandmothers, and my husband’s grandmother. While there is a 20 year difference in their ages, they are both old women (I think of old as more a frame of mind than an age). They are fond of complaining about their ill-health (most of which is self-inflicted), the lack of care they receive from family (neither of them are isolated or abandoned), and their inability to do the things they once did (because they are the only ones who have ever grown old). There is no reasoning with them, and what compassion and empathy you could once muster has been exhausted by the deaf ears and ungrateful hearts it fell upon. But you keep going back, you keep trying, and you keep helping, because they are family, because you love them, and because someday you too will be faced with growing old. And you will have to decide how to take that.

Interacting with the Cailleach is like interacting with these grandmothers; it is a very one-sided relationship (hint: the one side is not in your favor). Unlike most relationships outlined in old Irish culture, there is no reciprocity and no way to get out of this one when the other side doesn’t contribute. You enter in with no expectation of personal reward, you prepare to just give, and you hope to weather the storm. Sometimes, you receive some recognition or personal fulfillment, but it’s always fleeting. You just have to keep giving.

So when making offerings to the Cailleach, you don’t really try to form a relationship or get anything back. You just try to ease through the season, knowing soon enough it will be over.


Reawakening- Reflections on Imbolg

So this winter has been wild. I saw a week or so ago that three cities in Ohio were among the 20 coldest in the US, one of which is our nearest metropolitan center. Early last week, schools and businesses were closing due to the extreme cold, and tonight we’re being told to look for 6-10 inches of snowfall. I don’t know about anyone else, but I definitely feel like the Cailleach has her hands all over us this winter. It has been wild and unpredictable and extreme, yet I do see that coming to an end. It was in the 50’s over this past weekend, I totally felt like Brighid gave us a bit of a respite, a sign that, yes, this winter shall end.

Things have been a bit chaotic in our house, and so we didn’t celebrate Imbolg in any particular way. With having the poultry out at the in-laws, I do try to at least make time for some small rite to ensure their continued health and fertility (that’s my goal for this weekend). We just bought a house (closing next week!) and have been busily packing for our move. That, along with my return to school, E’s busyness at work, and the cabin fever and minor illness that has just lingered through the winter (sniffles, colds, and sinus issues), have just not made for a “good” time for celebrating. Though one could argue that it’s the perfect time to celebrate, we made it through the winter! I’m just not in the mood to be in charge of that celebration, and I think this is a hang-up all solitaries face.

But I have been reflecting on what it means to be pregnant at this time of the year. During my last pregnancy, I spent this time freaking out and going over all of my options (abortion, adoption, carrying to term), and didn’t spend much time thinking about how awesome it is to be pregnant at Imbolg.  We see the first signs of returning life, the first sheep are coming into their milk, soon we can put down our cold weather vegetables, and winter is nearly over! While winter itself is cold, we retreat into the warmth of our homes until we can reemerge into the bright warmth of summer, like a babe emerging from the womb. Due to the circumstances of my son’s birth, it is medically inadvisable for me to carry past my due date. So I know this baby will be here by Earth Day, we will be moved into our new home (hopefully) long before then, and we can take that time to welcome in the fullness of spring and the reawakening of the Earth. But for now, I can feel the baby getting bigger, and I know his time is coming, just like the Earth is awakening and preparing for another year of richness and abundance.


Sovreignty and Marriage- Part I

I had an awesomely vivid dream last night. Nothing supernatural about it, pregnancy just does this to me. But the entirety of the dream involved my husband and I beginning to hike the Appalachian Trail up in Maine. Just us getting stinky, hiking through the woods, along a dried river bed that was muddy in some places and turning to hardpack, then having to swim across a lake to reach the other side of the trail. I remember jumping in the lake and tasting the water, not clear and springlike, but slightly muddy, algae-ish, lakewater. And my husband climbed back out and looked at me and asked “Wouldn’t you rather rent a canoe?”. Then I woke up. It was so awesomely normal, and us, it was a great reprieve from the completely whacked out weather we’ve been experiencing in Ohio lately (it’s 40 degrees today, but was -10 on Monday). But I feel like this dream not only came from my need for some idyllic nature time with my life partner, but from some of the ideas that have been bothering me lately.

One of those ideas has been marriage counseling. Especially, spiritually based marriage counseling. Like, why do we not have this available in the Pagan community? Other than the fact that we have such a diverse collection of religions and beliefs, but why do we not have this within the individual groups? We were married by some awesomely out of the box Christians, and spent a few months right before our wedding with them doing some pre-marital counseling. Then spent a couple months this past summer in marriage counseling with them again. Yeah, the first year of marriage is hard, and it definitely was taking its toll on me. And I was taking it out on E. This was good for us, and especially good that we were able to go to a couple that knew us, and our somewhat unique situation, for advice. They obviously drew their advice and inspiration from their Christian beliefs, but never pulled out a Bible (they’re somewhat anti-Bible people) to back it up. They’re believers of “Do-er” faith, not book faith. This is why we connect. But where are the Pagan equivalents? These are normal people, without degrees, who have training in counseling. Something anyone who was dedicated to offering this service could do.

While most of us don’t have a sacred book, we do have our myths. And a recurring theme in Irish mythology is the importance of the marriage of the king with the land. Definitely not advocating a submission of one partner to the other, I don’t believe at its core that’s what this marriage is about. But the importance of partnership and accountability to the health and fruitfulness of the family/community/land/etc. While the land is often referred to as female, and the king as male, there is an interesting attribute to these myths that one doesn’t usually see in effect in certain other religions. If the king fails in his duty to protect and nurture, the land sickens, and the people depose (or kill) the king. Not advocating killing your husband. But I think it shows the seriousness of of accountability in marriage to your partner, and your family. One person isn’t just declared head, and can do whatever they want, with little to no repercussions. Its a duty to always be encouraging and nurturing everyone else toward fruitfulness, before the self. That is the sacred duty of the king. Who, I feel, need not be the male, or more “masculine”, partner.


New Year Musings

  • Accountability… I’m such a failure in this. We had our monthly meet-up, which I’ve kind of become the organizer for since the other gal that I was originally working with just had a brand new baby. And I was 40 minutes late. And no one was there. I did hang around for about an hour, just in case someone wandered in late. But I didn’t have my cell on me, and no internet until I got to the coffee shop, so no way to send out last minute reminders. While I acknowledge I dropped the ball on this, what about the people that had RSVP’d they were coming? Just because it’s an informal event, doesn’t give a person leave to just not show without some contact with the organizer. This mentality has been a big deterrent in my desire to offer workshops, or work with Pagans on their personal learning tracks. As you can gather from my last post, my husband believes I already stretch myself to thin between projects. Why would I take on the further responsibility of teaching, whether just a short workshop or a long-term commitment, when those who so adamantly shout for more, better, accessible teaching aren’t willing to prove they can hold up their end of things? Three years ago, I was that person. I hate that I was ever that way, but we can always grow out of our shortcomings. I hope I am well and truly on the other side of that one.


  • Beginner books… This just popped up on me today. I see so many people recommending “beginner books” or “101 books”, but they all seem to have the same flavor. It’s eclectic witchcraft, pretty bland, trying to encompass the entirety of the Pagan movement, or at least not delve too far into any particular branch. But is this really how we should always approach “Paganism 101”? I have yet to read “Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions”, but shouldn’t we start new Pagans off with books talking more about what Paganism is/can be, instead of “here, cast this good luck spell”? Then offer introductory books that are more path/tradition/culture specific? I just find it frustrating to be faced with circumstances where Pagans are ignorant of the other branches out there because their introduction to Paganism was focused on spellcraft and deity worship, and not about Paganism.


  • Thoughts on the priesthood in modern paganism… I reading an article the other day (probably on one of the blogs I follow, but I’m not sure) discussing the evolution of the priesthood in Christianity. How at the time of inception as a religious force, the priesthood was trained class, separate from the masses it served. Then with the Great Schism and Martin Luther’s break with Roman Catholicism, we see the introduction of the laity into the priest class. Then it branched off into the Anabaptist movement (which would be the groundwork for the Amish and Mennonite cultures), and the idea that everybody is equally equipped to join the priesthood, So we’ve gone from the specially-called elite group to the ordinary everybody group. And I wonder what parallels can be drawn in the Pagan community.

I find myself looking mostly at American/eclectic Wicca, and the prevalence of the term “Priest/ess”. It seems that everyone is/claims to be a priest, or is at least a priest of such-and-such deity. And of course your coven cannot be legit unless headed by the High Priest/ess. Now, I realize that it just may be the Wiccans I’ve had the opportunity to come in contact with, none of whom are in traditions that are even similar to BTW or any other secret/initiatory traditions, but what it begs the question “What is a priest?”

For me, a priest is a person that has taken vows in the name of a specific deity, tradition, or spiritual/religious belief. And with those vows comes a caveat of service, to deity/tradition/belief AND the community based around deity/tradition/belief. If one were simply to focus solely on the deity/tradition/belief, I would argue that one is more of a monk than a priest. I also feel that there should be a formal ceremony/acknowledgement of those vows, even as simple as members of the community bearing witness to the priest’s vows.

I feel like there are others in the community working towards a more formal structure for Pagan priesthood (I’m talking Cherry Hill Seminary), but, just as not all Christians can afford to attend seminary, not all Pagans can either. I do find it especially troublesome that they still aren’t fully accredited (I believe they are as a distance learning school). It is one of the major turn-offs for me, as someone sitting on 20k in undergrad debt, with more to come before I have my BA in hand. If I am going to pay even more for graduate level work, I need  it to mean something to people outside the Pagan community. (After writing this, I think it was a post by Sam Webster that started this off)