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.
Despite isolated good news stories like the new Finnish government, all in all the politics of the last few years have been not only depressing, but downright worrying. Here in the UK, this week’s election saw confirmed in leadership another strong male authority: someone who can “get things done,” who will embody “the will of the people” — no matter that only 43.6% of the electorate voted Conservative, since the ridiculous first-past-the-post system translates that into 56% of the parliamentary seats. The new PM has always borrowed moves from the populist nationalist playbook, and this appears to be continuing. The status quo is crumbling, and that’s no bad thing, but what’s emerging? It can feel like concerning ourselves with old religions amounts to fiddling while Rome burns.
Do ancient and modern paganisms offer us any resources for these despairing times?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: no religion must aspire to establish the goals of a political community. If you claim your political decisions are authorized by divine will, either you personally or the culture that underpins your claim is deluded. We can see all over the world that nationalist populism often incorporates a national religion. This kind of politicized tribal religiosity is almost always extremely damaging. Modern paganism has often fallen into the same pitfall — a problem we’ll have to visit in some later post.
If paganism isn’t just escapism and avoids trying to shape political goals, what good could it do? Actually there are lots of answers out there, so this will take a few posts. I’ll just start very briefly with a Lammas ritual I attended way back in high summer. One major element in the fundamental mythical cycle underpinning the modern pagan “wheel of the year” concerns the life and death of the “year king.” He’s born at the winter equinox, flourishes in the spring, and is supposed to die at high summer. Then it all starts over the following year. If he refuses to pass on, he becomes a bitter tyrant, and the land becomes sick. You see where I’m going with this?
The Lammas ritual involved one practitioner becoming possessed with the spirit of the Old King (actually a woman, as the lots fell out) surrounded by adoring members of the community, while the other key ritualist was possessed by a shamanic spirit. The shaman (in full mask) had to seduce the citizens away from the Old King, then call his spirit out of the person it was inhabiting. This was a pretty high-intensity confrontation, with high-intensity music, a brass rattle, screaming, and so on. There followed a mournful “laying” of the spirit over the body of the person it had inhabited, which was accompanied by a song of grief. It’s important to say that this ritual did not approach the Old King as a human to be killed (gods forbid), but as a spirit to be laid. Moreover, the acts of calling and mourning presuppose that this spirit is only accidentally our opponent: we’re profoundly connected to this spirit, and mourn its sacrifice.
So, did this do some good? To the contrary, I’m afraid to say that for six months I’ve been thinking of it as an illustration of futility. The “old king” of Brazil was in the news at the time as the rain forests burned. They’re still burning. Misogynistic, climate destroying, would-be despotic masculine leaders are in power everywhere. But maybe there is another perspective on this. I’m re-listening to the mourning song from the ritual as I write this, “Amdy Baryp Hongan Cheri…” by Yat-Kha. I’ll return to this in the next post.