I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.

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The Natural Order of Things

I am an artist, deep in the center of my soul. I have many roles in this life, but I think perhaps more than any other, artwork is at the center of it. The medium may vary–hides and bones, words on the screen, ingredients in the kitchen, a carefully considered response to a counseling client’s thoughts–but at the heart of it all is a deep need for creativity and expression, arranging things just right. Most of my visual artwork for the past fifteen years has been with the dead critters, but I do like to branch out–I don’t want to be a one-trick pony, after all. One of my passions is art made from secondhand materials; this does describe some of my hides and bones, but I also want to reclaim some less biodegradable things as well. So I do like having a bunch of found objects to work with, things salvaged from thrift stores and free piles on the curb and so forth.

Because of my current counseling job, which keeps me busy 40+ hours a week, I don’t have as much time for art as I did before, and a lot of that time is spent on keeping customer favorites stocked in my Etsy shop. But sometimes I do manage to make time to really dig into more unusual projects, stretching my artistic muscles. Today I took out a couple of hours for this:

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

It’s called The Natural Order of Things, and it’s almost entirely made of recycled materials. The 6″ x 8″ canvas panel it’s based on was bought from a yard sale. The book clippings were from an old-but-not-rare, quite outdated textbook on animal anatomy that I bartered for. The foam cutouts came from a Goodwill on the Oregon coast. All I had to add was a few brushfuls of Mod Podge and a bit of cellophane tape.

It looks simple enough at first glance–brightly colored bits of foam on a stark black and white background. The tree of life branches out from the center, with an array of animals taking up their places as they should. But upon closer inspection, the animals are in no real order; rather than closely-related families being situated nearer each other, a fish is next to a bird, which sits just above a pig, and so on. Moreover, there’s only one invertebrate, a crab in one corner. The representatives of the animal kingdom are largely biased toward mammals, especially those we feel are important. And at the center of it all is humanity, represented by a god-like figure (Yahweh? Zeus?) standing on the sun. Humans are removed from the tree of life, only to be relocated at its center–“Man shall have dominion over the earth”. As if to comment on the misinterpretation of evolutionary theory that says “Humans are evolved from monkeys!”, a tiny monkey occupies the smallest and lowest branch on the tree, decidedly separated from its Homo sapiens cousin.

But what supports these animals and their tree? In the background the canvas is covered in pieces of pages from a textbook of biology. The foundation is the index, listing many animals in neat, alphabetical order–to include, along the bottom edge, “Man”. Over this are laid diagrams of the nervous systems of a rotifer and a polychaete worm, neither of which are particularly well-known animals, but which illustrate the type of simpler nervous systems from which those of vertebrates evolved. Several quotes add to the mix–one about the basic plan of the nervous system in all animals, one about how humans have often misapplied “instinct” to anything any animal does ever, and one, legible in full: “From protoplasmic irritability to cognition is a development that has required upwards of a billion years”. We extol the virtues of a select few noble animals, while we stand on the spineless backs of countless humbler creatures. Despite claims of religions worldwide and throughout time, we did not spring forth fully formed from a head or a thigh or our partner’s rib bone. We are built on billions of years of tiny changes.

The cartoonish, artificial figures in their disarray, arranged inaccurately around humanity as the reason for their existence, represent the biases we hold toward the natural world. We value what most closely resembles us–vertebrates, and especially our fellow mammals–and most of all, those who directly serve us. The man-as-god in the center is our tendency to elevate ourselves above all else, much to the detriment of all involved, humans included. One can only stand on the sun for so long before getting burned. In contrast, the neatly ordered, realistically rendered invertebrates speak of the care that has been taken to excise the secrets of evolution and other natural processes, sifting out the detritus of superstition and speculation. This brightly-colored Eden can dance all it wants, but those who wrote the stories of paradise could only do so after a parade of many generations of supposedly “lesser” beings.

But it’s also because of these pioneering beings that came before us, unknowingly contributing to the shift and change of genes and their expressions, that we can also have art. We can have religion, including beliefs that don’t match with evolution in any literal way but have their own beauty nonetheless. It’s because of them that we’re here to debate our origins today, to take strong opinions and fence with them, or to simply decide the argument’s not worth it and go play video games instead. I am grateful to them for this opportunity, and I dedicate this piece to all my ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of life.

A Caution Against Pagan Fundamentalism

A caveat to start with: No matter how well a writer writes something, inevitably someone will misinterpret what they were trying to say. Such is the limitation of language. In that spirit, allow me to make one thing very, very clear before this essay even starts: I am not equating hard polytheism with religious fundamentalism. I am concerned that because of certain patterns I have seen among some, not all, hard polytheists, that this may, not necessarily will, in the future give rise to a form of pagan religious fundamentalism. Additionally, the “You’re wrong, I’m right” attitude that I’m observing is not limited to debates regarding polytheism, but other areas of paganism as well, and any of these could also give rise to a form of fundamentalism given the right circumstances. Polytheism happens to be the topic of the moment which finally gave me a chance to voice some concerns about fundamentalism in paganism that I’ve been chewing on a while. There. Now that I’ve said that, feel free to proceed.

I’ve been watching the recent discussion on several pagan blogs concerning hard polytheism, “bringing back the gods”, and so forth with some interest. I admit that the older I get, the more I am moving toward a more pantheistic viewpoint, with a good dash of humanism as well. It’s not that I discount the existence of the Divine, spirits, and so forth, but that my experiences with them simply haven’t led me to adopt a hard polytheistic view (and anyway, I tend more toward totems and nature spirits than gods).

So that obviously colors my perspective on all this. I don’t have a stake in the proven reality of deities as independent entities, but neither does it bother me that some people do. What concerns me is the possibility of the rise of pagan religious fundamentalism. (Yes, I know there are polytheists dropping the term “pagan” from their experience because they associate it with Things That We Aren’t, but for the purposes of my discussion, polytheists are still pagan, in part so I don’t have to keep writing pagans/polytheists over and over.) Fundamentalism as a concept was originally described in certain areas of Protestantism in the early 1900s. These people had a very strict and literal interpretation of their religion, and today “fundamentalism” is often used to describe any of a number of religious perspectives that hold similar, inflexible views on God(s) and the way humans are supposed to act.

There are a lot of pagans (and other people, but let’s stick to pagans for now) who have had bad experiences as a result of fundamentalism, usually of the Christian variety. The community is full of stories of people growing up in strictly religious households and being treated pretty poorly for the mistake of exploring new beliefs. These could range from having their pagan religious tools and effects taken from them and destroyed, to being assaulted or thrown out of the home. Adult pagans have lost jobs, homes, and children due to religious persecution. Pagan prisoners are routinely denied access to religious materials and clergy, and it’s rare for a pagan clergyperson to be asked to lead a prayer in a civic setting where such things still occur. While Christian fundamentalists proper were not always the opposition in these cases, the attitudes of fundamentalism tend to leak out into the wider cultural consciousness (I’ll talk more about that in a minute).

With these consequences of fundamentalism in mind, it seems strange to see echoes of them in paganism. Yes, of course there’s the fact that people often subconsciously emulate the behavior patterns they were raised around, but surely that can’t be the source of every single instance of “You’re wrong, I’m right!” in paganism. And while not every one of those “I’m right!” instances constitutes fundamentalism, the long-standing tendency for some pagans to tell others “You’re doing it wrong!” seems to be heading closer to fundamentalism to a troubling degree. And so while I don’t want to point at any single claim of “hard polytheism is the best and only way!” as fundamentalist, because of the general trend I do want to put forth a warning against the dangers of falling prey to fundamentalist stances. Allow me to present a few points for consideration.

Not all pagans are theistic, and paganism is not just about the gods.

I really like Christine Kraemer’s Venn diagram in this recent post. It’s a reminder that “paganism” isn’t ONLY about gods, or ONLY about nature, or any other single influence. I agree with her when she she says in her own words (and italics), “for some pagans, polytheism is not a main focus for practice or belief.” Her post was in response to this one by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus whom I should mention, for disclosure’s sake, is a friend of mine and someone I respect highly. He wrote a really good essay (even if I don’t quite agree with all of it) that sparked a lot of discussion, and one of the key ideas was the possibility that the emphasis on “nature-based” paganism is to make non-pagans feel more comfortable with us, and that those of us who don’t embrace polytheism are making that choice because we’re uncomfortable with polytheism.

I’m not uncomfortable with polytheism. I spent most of my pagan “career” that started in 1996 being a polytheist to one degree or another. The shift toward pantheism has been a more recent thing, ironically brought on by my attempts to deepen my practice (another thing I’ll touch on more later). Being more comfortable with pantheism does not automatically mean a discomfort with polytheism, any more than choosing to be pagan means a discomfort with any other religion. If I’m uncomfortable with anything it’s the growing resemblance to fundamentalism I see in some sectors of hard polytheism, but that’s not why I am not a polytheist any more.

As my spiritual practice becomes more entwined with my path of service to the environment and to other humans, I find myself more and more rooted in this world. And my increased engagement with the physical world brings me closer to being a naturalist, with a combination of armchair scientific study and feet-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt direct experience. So pantheism–seeing the Divine as directly manifest in the natural world that I interact with–makes more sense to me at this point. Truth be told, my involvement with most deities, other than Artemis, has never been particularly deep. I worked with the Animal Father as part of a personal pantheon early in my Therioshamanism work, but he eventually faded back into the wilderness from whence he came, and the energy I touched with him I see in every living animal, and I connect more strongly that way. As to Artemis? She’s always been an internal part of me much as my primary totem Gray Wolf is; it’s hard sometimes to tell where the boundaries fall between us. These days I’m simply not that concerned with proving once and for all whether my invisible friends are independent beings or manifestations of human consciousness and myth, and I’ve never had much note from any of the beings I work with that suggested they cared what I thought, either. What’s important to me and to them are the immediate and measurable manifestations of my practice, whether that’s a shamanic journey or a day spent cleaning up litter along the river.

The anger and debate seem to all be on the human side of things. When someone doesn’t perform a ritual properly, or refers to several goddesses as aspects of one Goddess, I haven’t seen divine bolts of lightning streak down and smite them. There are historical debates, of course, where we can argue the facts of what the people of such and such ancient and no longer extant culture did, but that doesn’t lead to proof of what a particular deity or spirit wants. It’s always the people arguing over whether a particular practice or belief is correct, sometimes to an absurd degree–I’ve seen people on Tumblr debate whether a store-bought strawberry tart was a fitting offering for Loki. Regardless, it always comes down to the “You’re wrong, I’m right” debate; it’s only the details that differ.

Saying that everyone MUST believe or practice in a particular way is at its heart fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is characterized by people insisting that their way is correct and everyone else’s isn’t. It’s what keeps fundamentalism alive. As social creatures, we like having something sure to crowd around to unite us, and religion makes a great standard for rallying. Unfortunately, we also get this idea that the more right we are, the stronger we are, and so in order to increase our strength and security we have to prove our rightness. This fervor is part of how religion has very often been used as a tool for political and social machinations and power plays. The people involved are so focused on the surface message of “You’re wrong, we’re right” that they ignore the men behind the curtain. Look at the Crusades, for example; Pope Urban II called for them in part because the nobles in Europe were being rather rowdy, and he figured that sending them east under the guise of a holy war would at least get them out of the way for a while, as well as ingratiate him to the Byzantine emperor Alexios I who was being attacked by Muslim forces. Most people think it was just a matter of Christians versus Moslems in a grand melee for the Holy Land, but that was just the surface.

Religion in general plays on a lot of human behavioral tendencies, and while these can sometimes be beneficial, as in prayer and meditation to relieve stress and anxiety, and the benefits of a healthy community, fundamentalism has a poison to it. It’s divisive and exclusionary, and it builds identity not on connection but on isolation. And this isolation can be a very bad thing indeed.

Fundamentalism has a tendency to breed ignorance.

When you build your entire worldview on an idea, any opposing idea becomes a threat to that power base. There is absolutely no incontrovertible proof that any religious belief is more objectively and measurably true than any other, and the number of people who adhere to it does not increase its truth. Because we can’t prove a belief in the same way we can prove that gravity exists, or that water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, or that a mammal’s fur retains heat, adherents of beliefs can sometimes become very insecure about what they believe.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strongly-held belief in and of itself, even if you can’t prove it. But one of the defenses against having your worldview shaken is willful ignorance. I would imagine that most, if not all, of my readers are aware that homosexuality isn’t dangerous, that gay people are not more likely to be sexual predators, and that if gays get married it won’t cause the collapse of civilization as we know it. Yet because the Bible happens to mention in a couple of places that homosexuality is a bad thing, there are people who latch onto that and who absolutely refuse to consider any other evidence to the contrary.

We live in a 21st century where for a lot of us (though certainly not everyone) we have an inconceivable amount of information at our disposal through the internet and other forms of media. Even a quarter of a century ago when I was in elementary school writing my first essays I had access to several different sets of encyclopedias, dozens of magazines, and thousands of books, just in my little school’s library. The information is there; ignorance is the choice to not access it. And, I suppose, for some people the idea that they might be wrong is a terrifying thing, so much so that they don’t step out of their safe sphere.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I might be wrong. There was a feeling of liberation a while back when I finally felt the tyranny of “I HAVE TO MAKE SURE I’M RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING” lift away from my shoulders, and I had the liberty to move through the world unencumbered by that obsession. And it allowed me to be even more curious about the world than I already was. A sure belief doesn’t have to extinguish curiosity, but my own experience has been that allowing myself ambiguity has freed me to focus more on exploration and learning for its own sake, come what may.

Ignorance is dangerous.

Again, having a strongly held belief isn’t automatically ignorance. But ignorance, when it happens, has its own dangers. When we tunnel-vision so tightly on a belief that we refuse to listen to anything else, it can hurt us and others. It’s been proven again and again that vaccinations have absolutely nothing to do with autism, and yet there are increasing numbers of parents in the United States who refuse to vaccinate their children because of the strongly-held (and incorrect) belief that autism is somehow transmitted through common shots. As a direct result, diseases we’d significantly reduced or even almost eradicated, like pertussis and measles, are on the rise, along with the highest rates of deaths from these diseases in decades. We can prove without a doubt, due to decades of statistics on vaccination effectiveness and illnesses and deaths from these diseases, that these people likely died as a direct result of lower vaccination rates. And it’s not just the people who chose not to allow vaccinations who suffer: the dead include unvaccinated children who could still be alive today had they been given routine childhood vaccines.

Sometimes ignorance is on a grander, even deadlier scale. People have slaughtered each other for millenia based on religious and political propaganda which very often doesn’t paint the whole picture (remember Mark Twain’s The War Prayer?) And while modern paganism has not birthed such theocratic efforts, perhaps it’s only due to a lack of numbers and chance, as well as the persistent tendency for pagans to eschew preaching and converting–at least toward non-pagans.

And, in and of itself, insisting that the gods are real, independent entities a la hard polytheism isn’t particularly dangerous. You can believe whatever you like and still not be a problem to others if you just leave it to yourself and those who agree with you. It’s the desire to make others agree with you that’s the problem. And that desire stems from insecurity in one’s own belief, with ignorance another common side-effect. Ignorance only allows a person to learn about other ways far enough to be able to rail about how they’re wrong, to have fodder for their fight. They can’t venture too far from those shaking beliefs they hold for fear they’ll fall and so, like a dog chained to a rickety old dog house, they bark and snarl at the world around them, only knowing of the things that come close enough to feel like a threat.

Maybe the surest counter to this dangerous ignorance is genuine curiosity, and an openness to the world. There’s a certain strength in being able to hold your beliefs even when you’re learning about others, not out of the desire to disprove them, but simply to know more about them. This isn’t just knowing the words of others’ beliefs, but opening yourself to why people hold them. A little immersion in this way won’t make a person a convert, and the potential for a change in one’s own worldview shouldn’t be reason to shut the rest of the world out.

Fundamentalism is contagious.

Most adherents of a religion are not fundamentalists. However, many adherents do have some beliefs they hold strongly, and their communities help them to bolster that faith. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s part of religious communities as vessels of social memetics. But as we can see throughout history, extremists of any sort tend to attract a crowd, and while some may discount them, others catch hold of their message. Sometimes that extreme eventually becomes the norm; look at how Christianity grew from a tiny little cult surrounded by other tiny little cults into one of the dominant religions on Earth. Unfortunately, sometimes the messages that are the most contagious are also the most negative.

I can tell you a story of this from personal experience. When I first started this blog in 2007, it was part of my quest for a deeper, more meaningful spiritual path. I had watched a number of people I knew in the pagan community engage in some truly beautiful devotional practices to deities and spirits, with wonderfully elaborate schedules of celebrations, and creative shrines and altars. While I had certainly had good experiences with the totems and other spirits I worked with over the years, I felt the need to have something similarly focused and devotional. You can look back at the first year or two of this blog to see where I was really trying to build that. Ultimately, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I ended up finding my depth and meaning in a totally different direction, but that doesn’t invalidate the appreciation I still have for the devotions of others.

Unfortunately, one of the things I also picked up from a few–definitely not all–of the people who inspired me was a thread of one-true-way-ism. Usually this would be people who were trying to reconstruct a particular ancient polytheistic pagan faith, and who were so dead-set on doing it right that they openly criticized anyone doing things differently. I suppose, having seen that modeled, I latched onto core shamanism as my target of “You’re wrong!”, and again you can read through some of my earlier thoughts in this blog. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my path, while I still have personal disagreements with core shamanism (especially when it’s presented as “genuine ancient shamanism”), I no longer feel the need to attack it as a whole path. There are people for whom it works just fine; in fact, I’ve seen some people in the counseling field integrate elements of it to help their clients in very genuine ways. How can I argue with that effectiveness?

Honestly, I feel like an asshole for being that heavily critical. It did speak to a certain level of insecurity on my part, and I feel bad that I probably influenced other people to be critical to a similar degree. Granted, I am not responsible for what people choose to do based on their interpretations of my writings, any more than the people who I saw modeling hyper-critical behavior were responsible for my wholesale attacks on core shamanism. But it does demonstrate the tendency of people to copy those they wish to emulate, sometimes without considering what it is, exactly, they’re emulating.

If proper fundamentalism takes greater hold in paganism, I worry about what direction it may take the community as a whole. Maybe instead of polytheists dropping out because they don’t feel any connection to everyone else, it’ll be pluralists fleeing the damning whip of fundamentalist criticism and harassment as the “You’re wrong! I’m right” arguments go from small bickering online to greater pressure to conform to one party line.

We do not need fundamentalism to be legitimate.

I’ve seen the argument that if we pagans are going to be taken seriously, we have to present a more hard-line, united front of beliefs. Supposedly because we’re a group of people with a wide variety of paths and faiths, this means that there’s no way we can rank up there with well-defined single religions–never mind that they at least have denominations that may vary widely from one to the next.

And yet I’ve seen some really admirable interfaith efforts on the part of people representing paganism in general. Look at what Patrick McCollum has been doing over the years in criticizing the “dominant religion lens” of Christianity in the U.S. He hasn’t only been advocating for Wiccans, but for pagans in general, and in fact his work could very well benefit people of many other minority faiths. He’s just one of many examples of how paganism can be a legitimate religious presence in the cultural and social consciousness without having to resort to fundamentalism for strict definition.

Final Thoughts.

As it stands, we are not embroiled in a massive pagan fundamentalism movement. I have no problem with hard polytheists wanting to define themselves more as such–or anyone else taking the time to more clearly explain who they are and what they believe and why. I don’t even particularly care about the existence of the ongoing “You’re wrong! I’m right!” argument that’s manifested in everything from the “Only Brit-trad Wiccans are REAL Wiccans” debate to the current trends toward a more hardline polytheism. What worries me is the possibility of any of the “You’re wrong! I’m right!” debates to turn into genuine fundamentalism with all its problems and poisons. I feel it’s better to bring it up now, before it ever happens–if it even ever happens for that matter–than after the fact.

Because I don’t feel I’m being too cautious about potential fundamentalism. We don’t really know for sure what happens when you offend a god, but we sure as hell know what happens when someone is so very focused on keeping others from offending the gods that they’ll go to extreme, dangerous, and even lethal lengths to prevent or avenge that offense. Even if that’s not a real threat in paganism today, let’s start creating a setting now that will keep it from being a reality in the future.

The Foxes of the Four Seasons

A long time ago, the world was a lot different than it is now. There were no seasons, no changes in the weather. If you wanted snow, you had to go to one part of the world. If you wanted sun, you had to go to another. And everybody had to bring back rain from the only place in the world that had it, though it got enough for everybody. Since the animals couldn’t only have rain or only sun, there was a lot of moving around, and you didn’t have so many animals who stayed in one place. Some animals hardly ever saw another of their kind, but others would organize reunions every so often so as to not get lonely.

So it was that every seven years, all the foxes of the world would come together in one place for one great conclave. Long-separated friends caught up with each other, families introduced their youngest kits, disputes were addressed and resolved, and at night there was much celebration to be had. It was all rather a busy affair, as one might imagine would happen with that many foxes in one place.

It just so happened that one year, there was a contest over which fox was most beloved by the Earth, who gave the foxes’ paws somewhere to go. Finally, it came down to White Fox from the North, Black Fox from the East, Red Fox from the South, and Gray Fox from the West. Everyone agreed that these were the very best, cleverest, swiftest and strongest foxes of them all. They spent an entire day debating who was going to be elected the best fox when the Earth would make her presence known that night. They had heard that the very best fox would receive a special gift from the Earth, and they each wanted to prove they deserved it.

“She’ll choose me,” White Fox said, “because I am the only one who holds the cold snow and ice with my tall, proud mountains!” And everyone agreed that his mountains were indeed quite impressive.

“Nobody likes being cold, silly thing,” said Black Fox. “She’ll choose me, because I carry the soft, warm winds that help new seedlings to grow.” And all the foxes assembled thought she made a very good point.

“Ha! Just a little warmth? I’ll give you all the warmth you need with all the sunshine you could ever want!” declared Red Fox. “That’s why I’ll be chosen!” There was a good deal of agreement with that, as basking in the sun was a favorite activity of foxes all over.

“Surely we cannot have any snow or plants or cooling off from the sun without rain,” said Gray Fox. “I have the most water, which means that I’m sure to be the one the Earth will choose.” And the other foxes licked their chops at the thought of cool, refreshing rain water to drink.

But who would be chosen? The four foxes fell to arguing amongst each other, and had almost come to blows when there was a great trembling beneath their paws, and the Earth made her spirit present as a great, glowing golden Fox. “Dear children, what are you doing?” she asked.

“We were trying to figure out who you were going to choose as your favorite fox, and we can’t all be your favorite!” the four foxes said.

The Earth thought a moment and looked at each of the little foxes at her feet, each one so strong and talented in her or his own way. Then she smiled.

“Of course you can all be my favorites. Why choose one among you when all four of you have so much to offer?

My lovely Black Fox, you are the deep, rich soil which allows all the plants to grow healthy and strong. You take what has died and rebirth it as new living things. Your warm winds help to bring life to the land. Therefore, I will give you the first part of the year, when my friend the Sun is on his journey back here.

And you, bright Red Fox, you give the Sun a place to show us his strength the best. You allow him a place to set down the burden of rays on his back, and unwrap them so that all of us may see them and enjoy their warmth. To you, I give the second part of the year so the Sun may share with us every year.

Dear Gray Fox, your rains are invaluable to us all; without water we would be parched. I give you the third part of the year, where your rains may be the tears that bid farewell to the Sun as he leaves again, and your bright colors will be reflected in the leaves of the trees as they wear their finery to see him off.

Oh, beautiful White Fox, I haven’t forgotten you! Your cold climate cries out to the Sun for what warmth he will give, and your snows reflect his rays so that he can see this land no matter where he goes. To you, I give the final part of the year, to remind the Sun of us when he is at the farthest part of his travels, while we await his return here.”

And so it was that every year after that, all the places of the world received the gifts of the four foxes, each one in turn. Of course, each Fox had her or his own favorite places where they might tarry a little longer. But the animals no longer had to travel so far just to get sunshine or rain, or to get out of the cold or the heat. And so all but the most adventurous were able to settle down and create nests and dens, and allow the seasons to come to them.

Fox drum, acrylic on deerskin with fox tails, by Lupa, 2011

I Am in Awe

This past weekend I set up a vending booth at the Yule Bazaar. The first day was held down at the Unitarian Universalist church in Salem, OR, and the branch of organizers there had arranged for a group of traditional Aztec dancers to come and share some of their dances. These weren’t white people “inspired by” the Aztecs; these were folks in the broader Hispanic community here in the area who had connections with people in Mexico who had still hung onto pieces of the indigenous Aztec lore. This was knowledge that had gone underground as a result of the genocide perpetrated by Spanish invaders, and over the past fifteen years or so there’s been more of an effort to try to combine what’s left and recreate the traditions.

One of the dancers spent a good amount of time giving a lot of context for how the knowledge had been revived, and what the importance of the practices was. I was especially fascinated by the assertion that each footstep, each move, in each dance had its own special meaning and piece of lore; the shell-covered ankle cuffs the dancers wore that made lovely ringing noises as they moved represented the various sounds that running water makes–not just THE sound, but many sounds. The spear that one of the dancers carried wasn’t a weapon, but a tool to pierce through to truth. And so forth. I paid close attention to each individual step and move, the voices, the conch shells and other tools, how everything flowed. I was awed and humbled.

It’s not my first time watching other cultures’ dances; I’ve seen dancers at powwows, for example, though it’s been many years. However, probably due to my age and better context this moved me even more than those earlier beautiful experiences.

What struck me the most was just how rich in symbolism and meaning every element of the dance was. I realized that what I am creating here in some ways pales by comparison, not because I’m not sincere or not trying hard enough, but because what I was watching had been developed from the observations, experimentations, and sheer creativity of thousands upon thousands of people over many generations. All of those people had contributed their day by day observation of the sounds of rivers, or the bright colors of bird feathers. These were woven into centuries of myth and legend, art and dance and other expression.

So many of us practicing neoshamanisms simply don’t have that sort of shared community support. Getting together once a week for a drum circle, or once a month for a full moon ritual, can’t compare to a community living on the same piece of land with the same people for many lifetimes. We can have good friends, and we can have good family, but so many of us live far away from our families, or have families who are not supportive of our paths. Friends move away; we move, too. I have moved an average of once a year since 2001, and am now in my fourth state. I can keep up with old friends online, but it’s not the same.

This is not to say that I am deterred. But it does offer me some idea of what is missing in much of neoshamanism, and some direction in further developing my own practice. I can’t necessarily create community, and it’s highly unlikely that I would given how much of a solitary I tend to be. But I can at least explore Meaning more deeply, and connect it to more than just intellectual understanding of “This is what North means”. Which is a lot of what I’ve been doing anyway, but I have more inspiration now. Not taking from the Aztec dancers, of course, but looking at my own relationships.

How Wolverine Devoured the Sun

Wolverine was the fiercest animal in the forest. Even great Grizzly Bear ran away when Wolverine was angry. Wolverine was also the hungriest animal in the forest. He ate everything he could find that wouldn’t bite him back, and even most of the ones that would. All the animals of the forest told their young to stay away from Wolverine, lest he gobble them up for breakfast.

After a while, everyone learned to stay far away, and he found it harder and harder to find food to eat. One day, there was an enormous rumbling in his stomach, and he knew that if he did not eat soon his stomach might just try to eat him! So he left his den to go out and see whether some animal or another might be close enough for at least a snack.

Yet the snow covered the land so thickly that not even the tiny field mice with their enormous families could be found. And because all the animals had hidden away while it snowed, there were no tracks to be found anywhere.

Wolverine looked all around him. There was only snow, that melted in his stomach and did no good. And there were trees and rocks, but even his formidable stomach would reject them. Finally he looked up, and saw the Sun in the sky.

And he thought to himself, “All life comes from the Sun. She feeds the plants, who feed the animals, who feed me. So if I eat the Sun, then I’ll never be hungry again!”

Sunburst, Lupa, 2011

Just then, the Sun was approaching the top of the highest mountain peak. So Wolverine ran as fast as he could, climbing the mountain with his sharp claws gouging gashes in the rocks, and shredding the boulders into rock slides. He destroyed the mountainside homes of the pikas, who to this day will still complain loudly and shrilly about it to anyone who comes near.

Right when the Sun was crossing over the tip of the mountain, Wolverine reached the summit. With a running leap, he opened his jaws just as wide as they would go—and he swallowed the Sun! The world was thrown into complete darkness, since the Moon was still slumbering on the other side of the world, and the Stars were too surprised to shine.

Down in the forest, the startled animals panicked, shoving their way through the cold and snow to see if their neighbors, too, had experienced this sudden nightfall. Some were lost in snowdrifts; others tripped over rocks or fell off cliffs or stumbled into rivers. The trees and other plants shook and wailed as their only source of food had disappeared. “We are lost!” they exclaimed.

Meanwhile, Wolverine attempted to pick his way down the mountain with a very round, very full, and very uncomfortable stomach. He was so busy trying to not roll down the mountain that he didn’t even stop to consider whether he was even hungry any more. And he certainly didn’t notice that he had, in his haste, swallowed the Sun quite alive.

For her part, the Sun had shaken off the indignity and inconvenience of having been eaten whole, and she began to look for a way out. First she looked up Wolverine’s throat, but she only saw his sharp teeth, and having avoided them once she did not wish to try her luck again. She then looked toward his tail, but she only saw his long, long tangle of intestines, and she did not wish to find herself lost in that maze. She even tapped at his ribs, but found the bones to make all too effective a cage.

Wolverine totem headdress, Lupa, 2011

So finally she decided she would stay right where she was and look for any possible way out. She began to roll around, testing every surface she touched for any sign of an opening. As the Sun pressed up against Wolverine’s insides, she burned him terribly. Wolverine, even so strong and stoic as he was, could not help but cry, and the pain was so great that he began to shed tears of blood that flowed down his body.

Finally, the Sun found a weak spot at the back of his belly. And she pushed, and she pushed, and Wolverine clawed the ground trying to keep her in, and his howls of fury and pain were so great that all the other creatures ran far away.

And then with a great tearing and rending, the Sun burst through Wolverine’s back. She scorched his fur as she escaped, and left an impression of her beams radiating out from the hole she created. She flew back up into the sky and brought the day to the land again.

As she looked down upon Wolverine, who lay dead upon the ground, she took pity on him. And lifting him up into the sky, she breathed life back into him, and knit together his torn form. And Wolverine stood up, as healthy—and hungry—as ever. But as he looked back to see whether the hole still remained in his back, he saw a ring of pale sunbeams on his fur.

“These are to remind you of the consequences of your gluttony,” the Sun said. “You were only so very hungry, my fearsome child, but you are a creature of the earth, not the sky, and there are many things for you to eat where you came from.” And so she placed him back down right by his den.

And from that day forward, no matter how hungry Wolverine was, and no matter how far he had to travel to find food even in the middle of Winter, he had only to look at the Sun’s touch upon his back to remind him of the folly of his past.

Wolverine Fur, Lupa, 2011

How Coyote Lost His Hearing

Coyote Fool Mask by Lupa, 2011

Now Coyote was a fine young man, if a little rough around the edges. And there came a day when he decided he was going to go courting, because no one had married him yet, and that was a rather sad state of affairs if he said so himself! So he went on down to the river, jumped in and swam around a while, came back out and shook himself dry in the sunshine. Then he put on his finest clothes, which were rather threadbare and shabby and a bit out of style, puffed his chest out, and went to go find someone to court.

Soon he ran into Rabbit, who was grazing in some clover at the edge of a buffalo wallow. “Look, there’s Rabbit! She’s not married, but she has a lot of children. I bet she’ll want to marry me!”

So Coyote sidled on up to Rabbit. “Why hallo there,” he said. “How might you be this lovely day?”

“I’m doing quite well, thank you! Would you care to join me for lunch? The clover here’s so luscious!” Rabbit replied. “This little patch right here is especially nice,” she said with a wink. So Coyote settled down next to Rabbit and began to mouth the clover, just to make Rabbit feel better and hopefully like him a little more.

But soon all that pretend eating made him hungry for real food. And Rabbit was looking mighty tasty. Of course, Rabbit had seen that look in Coyote’s eyes before. So before he could snap his teeth at her, she up and ran as fast as she could away from him. She even kicked a cloud of dust all over Coyote and his finery.

While he was sitting there in the dust, with his finest clothes filthy and his stomach growling, along came Scrub Jay. “What seems to be the problem?” Scrub Jay asked.

“I tried to court Rabbit so she’d think to marry me, but instead she ran away from me and left me here in the dirt!” Coyote complained.

Scrub Jay looked very grave. “Well, I see the problem here. You just don’t look enough like a rabbit. Now, we can’t very well shorten your tail, and we can’t round your nose off no matter how much you wiggle it, but we could make your ears fluffier, like hers are. Here, get some of this dandelion fluff and stuff it in your ears, just like so.” So Coyote tucked his ears full of fluff, and then went off in pursuit of Rabbit.

He never found where Rabbit went, but he soon ran into Crow, who was building her nest. “Well,” he thought to himself, “I don’t think Crow’s married either, and I think she’s just as nice as Rabbit, even if she is a gossip. I’ll court her instead!”

Coyote headed up to the tree where Crow was building her nest. “Good day!” he called to her, a little loudly since he was having a bit of trouble hearing himself, but everybody had that problem from time to time, didn’t they?

“Why, look, it’s Coyote—wait, what on earth do you have stuck in your ears?” Crow cawed.

“Oh, you won’t convince me of the worth of lucky hares—their feet never did me any good at cards anyway!” Coyote replied. “So, have you found any good carrion lately?”

Crow cocked her head to one side at him. “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, you silly creature! I need to eat, and I don’t want you stealing my food!”

Coyote cocked his head right back at her, hoping maybe mimicking her would make her like him a little more, though he was also more than a little confused. “But my feet are just fine! Why do you think they had peeling grooves? Those cracks in the pads are natural-born, baby!”

“No! Not FEET! EAAAAAAAT!” Crow cawed as loud as she could. She flew down from her nest and flapped her wings in his face. “EAT! EAT! You fool, I said EAT! As in FOOD!”

Leather corvid wall hanging by Lupa, 2009

Coyote backed away from this mad black whirlwind, then turned tail and ran, feathers coating his dusty finery, leaving a trail of fluff in his wake. He eventually shook Crow off, and soon found himself in a panting heap right where he’d left Scrub Jay.

“How’s it going, Casanova?” Scrub Jay said. “You panting because Crow was just too much for you?”

“You could say that,” Coyote grumbled. “But she didn’t like the fluff! And I don’t think she’s going to marry me any time soon, either.”

“That’s because she doesn’t care about fluff, silly dog. She’s right in the middle of building a nest—and believe me, I know nests,” Scrub Jay bragged. “What you want to court her with is something pretty that she can decorate her nest with! In fact, I know just the thing! Follow me.”

So Scrub Jay and Coyote went east, and they went west, and maybe just a little north—but never south, not when courting. And they came to a place where humans lived, a little hut with fences all around it. By the door of the hut was a basket, and in the basket were many balls of brightly colored yarn.

“See that?’ Scrub Jay pointed to the basket. “That’s exactly what you need, right there! Crow would love that in her nest! Now, here’s what you do. You want her to definitely notice that you have yarn for her, even from a mile away, and maybe especially so since she’s all spooked now. So tuck some of that yarn into your ears so she can see it, and go find her! But you’d better put this fluff back in, too, because you might run into Rabbit instead, and then your problem will still be solved! I’ll just sit right here and keep an eye out for the humans.”

So Coyote stuffed the fluff back in his ears, then sneaked over to the house, grabbed some yarn, and went and hid in the back field by the pond while he tucked that in his ears, too. Just as he was finishing up, something big shoved him over onto his head! He turned around, and saw Cow, all black and white and surprised, looking down at him.

“Ohhhhhhh, my! What are you doing here? And what is that in your ears? Is that the new fashion, then?” she said.

“WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!!!!” Coyote shouted at the top of his lungs.

“Ohhhhhhh, dear, now my husband will have heard you, and he’ll come and chase you away! You’d better run now, or else!” Cow looked around nervously.

Coyote was confused. “I STILL CAN’T HEAR A THING YOU’RE SAYING! WHAT WAS THAT AGAIN?”

Cow said again, “Ohhhhhhhh, goodness! My husband is coming! You’d better run away or he’ll get you!”

“I GIVE UP! YOU TALK TOO SOFTLY! I’M NOT COURTING YOU!” Coyote was about to turn and head home, when the ground began to shake, and Cow’s husband came barreling to a stop over him.

“WHO WERE YOU GOING TO COURT, LITTLE DOG?” Cow’s husband bellowed.

“WHO ARE YOU, AND WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU ALL SAYING?” Coyote shouted right in Cow’s husband’s face.

“I SAID YOU’RE IN MY FIELD, TRYING TO COURT MY WIFE, AND I DON’T CARE FOR THAT, NOT AT ALL!”

“NO, I’M NOT THAT TALL, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH CARROTS, AND BORING YOUR EYES, AND THE COLOR TEAL?”

At which Cow’s husband snorted, caught Coyote and his finery and his fluff and his yarn and his dust and his feathers, and tossed it all into the pond with a mighty splash!

“Well, at least you’re clean again!” Scrub Jay shouted to poor Coyote, who still couldn’t hear anything anyone was saying as he dragged his muddy self to dry land.

And Scrub Jay flew away, laughing “Vweeeeet! Vweeeeet! Vweeeeet!”

Scrub Jay painted by Lupa, 2010