It’s easy to say that this pandemic, obviously a bodily health problem, is also creating mental stress. Some in the pagan community are also seeing this as the manifestation of some kind of planetary spiritual shift, which at the very least can help with the mental stress. Psychiatric research consistently suggests thats feelings of connectivity and meaningfulness have positive correlations with better mental wellbeing, which is one reason spirituality is now being taken seriously in western medicine.
Take the Nordic spirit Eir, for example. Today Bifrost, the Norwegian Åsatru organization, coordinated a worldwide virtual Blot (sacrifice and poetic invocation) to Eir as “highest among physicians.”
They called it “Eirblot i ulvetid,” which is already striking: literally it means “A Sacrifice for Eir in Wolf-Time.” They immediately added the proviso that this isn’t exactly a “wolf-time,” but giving it that name creates all sorts of ripples in the imagination. Afterwards people posted hundreds of photos of their altars.
I won’t go into the details, because my point is just to suggest that such a ritual, even if you don’t “believe in” Eir in any dogmatic way, (1) connects you with other people, (2) connects your anxiety with a structure of meaning, and (3) gives you a centerpiece around which to create something beautiful and enjoyable: using lovely ritual objects, lighting candles or even a fire, drinking beer or liquor, tasting honey or bread or fruits, creating and listening to a ritual playlist, making the offerings, and so on. The entire ritual procedure has a rhythm and balance that can be therapeutic. Of course, one might also entertain the revery that people’s coordinated movements, words, and imagination can have a real effect in the physical world. But even if that were not so, it would still be worth doing for those who think it sounds fun!
Those who read the end-notes might like to know that Bifrost borrowed these Verses from the Lay of Sigrdrifa in the Poetic Edda, and I think from another poem I can’t locate immediately. Regarding the interaction of consciousness with the extra-mental world, check out the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia or the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Last time I talked about a ritual I attended and my lingering feeling that it’s just futile escapism. Which isn’t such a bad thing. But if we’re looking to care for ourselves and the world, it’s a little disappointing.
This time I want to think about two events from this past week. The first was Ian Rees‘ talk in the Bristol Jung Lecture series. Ian was talking about the psychosocial crisis of Akhenaten’s Egypt as an analogue for thinking about problems today. How can we live through political and cultural upheaval? How can we live in a society where voters choose xenophobia, bigotry, and climate change denial, where conspiracy theories take the place of informed critical thinking about current affairs, and megalomania and hatred masquerade as “telling it like it is?”
I’m not sure I remember Ian’s talk accurately, but what I have taken away begins with the suggestion that the resources for renewal are inside: individuals and communities need to “go down” and discover the sources of pain and hatred in their own psyches. Afterward I talked with Ian about my misgivings about this message. The most important one is that these world-wide socio-political trends are not merely the result of millions of individual psychologies. They have an independent existence. In philosophical terms, we could think of them as “apparatuses” or complex systems: they include not only individual bodies and brains, but political institutions (e.g. the US Republican party), well funded think tanks (e.g. the Heritage Foundation), media networks (e.g. Fox News), companies and governments manipulating big data and targeted marketing on social media, and of course those social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) and the hardware necessary to make them so influential (ubiquitous connectivity, mobile smart phones, etc.). That’s a fiendishly complex problem. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to say the whole system operates like a pantheon of envious and often hostile gods.
Let’s stick with that god metaphor, since this is a paganism blog! In the ritual I mentioned in the last blog, the group attempted to “lay” a hostile spirit (help it pass away). That in itself doesn’t work, unless you believe that meditation or ritual interfaces with some kind of non-local Consciousness and has the power to change it. I by no means disdain that point of view. But it’s at best a weak lever for change. If magic is real, it is a weak force. I have a more positive suggestion, though it’s just a small glimmer of hope.
And in a sense it’s obvious. The groups involved in these gatherings create a space of power and action precisely by discussing and enacting the desire for change. People have no agency unless their voices are heard and the value of their opinions recognized. When we gather and work together, we rediscover the possibility to act. That’s true for all political action groups, so what difference does Jungian psychology or ritual celebration add? It allows us to rest our aspirations on a “deeper” and “higher” foundation. This foundation could be the collective unconscious or the natural world or spirits. Even if we create these things with our collective action and imagination, they’re still “real” in the sense that they “do work”: they relieve us of despair and enhance our agency. In that respect they help in a tiny way to change the pantheon we’re living with. We just mustn’t forget that we also need to think about the gods’ technological, institutional, and economic dimensions.
This morning some friends officiated at the Alban Arthan (Druidic winter solstice) celebration at the prehistoric stone circle out at Stanton Drew. About 160 people drove quite far out into the Mendips before dawn to participate. And it was cold. The message of this festival is one of hope: the new sun is being born, the world renews itself, and things will get better. There are many reasons to be cynical about this hopeful proclamation. But maybe we should suspend our critical reasoning just for this moment, and instead let ourselves be inspired by Druidry’s unabashed and sincere commitment to love and justice.