Friday, April 30, 2010

John Punshon and Opening Doors

I taught feminist theology at the Quaker school, Woodbrooke College, in Birmingham, England, many, many years ago. One of their first bi/lesbian tutors, I think I shocked the school! One famous Quaker, however, became a good mentor and short term friend: John Punshon. John is a famous Quaker historian, who taught at Woodbrooke for over a decade. While we were there, both teaching, I took private tutorials on Quaker theology and history with him. They remain some of the greatest tutorials I have ever had!

John is still famous in Quaker circles not only for his scholarly books on history and theology. For many years he took groups from first Woodbrooke, and later the American Quaker college Earlham, around England on the Great Quaker UK tour. From visiting Pendle Hill, where George Fox received revelation directly from God about founding the Quaker movement, to Swarthmore Hall, home to famous early Quakers Margaret and Judge Fell, to the vales of Lancashire and the mountains of the Lake District, the tour was a blast. I got to go back in 1987!!! (Yup, I'm that old!) I remember feeling ghosts in old Quaker meetings and spirits floating across the moors. I am not nor have I ever been Quaker, but I loved the history of this so radical Protestant group.

One of John's tutorials stands out to me; I have written about it often. Discussing my own class - where nasty me required the students to actually read their assignments if they wanted to attend class - John was amazed I got away with such stringent requirements. He spoke of how often Quakers wanted to write their own rules, attend Meeting whenever they felt like it, and support the Quaker movement of today when it is convenient. He said:

"It is up to us lowly types, those of us who aren't evolved, to show up every week and open the Meeting doors for the ones who want to come when they feel like it. It's up to us less evolved types to pay the heating bill and sweep the floor, should the spiritual ones feel moved to attend this week. We raise the money for soup kitchens, first day school, homeless shelters, and people who feel more moved by the spirit not to help, can have their religious lives conveniently"

Ouch! How is that for a scathing comment on casual religious commitment?

So when people ask, and they do, "Why do you go to church?" I find the best answer is to explain John Punshon. I go to church at least twice a week because I bring my kids to choir and lessons, and while they are there I help with serving soup and tutoring kids and sewing costumes and teaching afterschool programs and escorting children and assisting wonderful teachers and serving meals and raising funds. And the doors are partly open, the bills paid, the soup kitchen running, and the homeless shelter open because my kids and I are there. (Ok, in honesty I also gossip with friends and sometimes read a book!)

At the same time, I find much that is nurturing to me. An inclusive church, I have some of my best bisexual friends there. A multiracial church, I have some of my closest friends with multiracial families there. And despite those male-exclusive-language on Sunday sermons, I cherish the Lady Window in the Sancturary and the Lady Chapel on the side, and well, why not see church spires as Asherah poles?

Many years ago a minister at church informed me that she saw herself as very "post-denominational." I just see that "post-denominational" as inclusive of Pagan and Hindu and Wicce. I don't see the problem.

I urge everyone to find a similar church home. Well, a similar religious home. It certainly does not have to be a church! But keeping doors open is a good spiritual practice - especially in this world of closed doors and closed opportunities. As part of my Bridget worship I light a fire for her every 17 days, tending the fire and keeping it lit. Tending to something requires faith and dedication. And it adds to the world.

Years ago a Christian friend told me "constantly opening doors" was her definition of God. Tending those doors, so anyone can enter when they need, is a spiritual calling.

What will you open?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Which Celtic Goddess Are You?

I am working on a longer post about the importance of connecting to church, but may not get that post up until after my oldest finishes an important music competition next week. In the meantime, she and I and the whole gaggle of kids are hanging out at churches, comparing stained glass, decorations and alters. I will write more anon.

In the meantime how about another poll?? Here is a fairly obvious one. . .

Which Celtic Goddess Are You??

It is an easy poll to skew: so far I can be Brighid or Cerridwen. . . Anyway have fun, and I promise more on church soon.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

From Women, Blacksmiths and Druids

I went blacksmithing with my daugher and son this week, to a wonderful and free program run by an antique tractor association. The guys who run the program open a huge blacksmith shop, welcome anyone who comes, and teach blacksmithing every week as long as the temperature is over 40 degrees. However, though all are welcome, the teens and young kids who come get top priority from the smiths, who patiently coach and encourage the often knife and sword crazed kids who show up.

I first learned smithing 30 years ago when working for a colonial era living history museum. The museum required all volunteers and credit-earning students to learn about every shop at the museum. I worked in the weaving cabin, perched on the side of the West Virginia hills, and sat out in front of cabins teaching spinning. I had to make a hook in the smithing shop, but the boys then clearly didn't want women and girls around "their" forges. "Women weren't smiths," they lied to us repeatedly, and I hated the hot smithy enough that I didn't care at all! Let me sit in the breeze with a spinning wheel while the boys all made boring, boring hooks.

Here we are decades later, and my daughter and friend wanted to make a Viking Women's knife at a free Pennsic workshop. (Pennsic is a two week international camp out with 10,000 of your closest friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism.) I showed up with two kids at 8:30 in the morning, by the side of Cooper's Lake, and Master Eli kindly took both kids through every step of making the knife. It was a wonderful morning. We left Pennsic knowing we wanted to learn more!

So now, when weather permits, we smith every week. When too many kids show up and there is no room at the 5 forges, I help with the bellows and learn all about coke fires and forge temperatures. My best smith friend is an 83 year old retired forestry commission wild life rehabilitator, who loves Tony Hillerman books, Navajo traditions, and has too much arthritis to hammer anymore but helps run the fires with me. He is an inspirational and loving dude.

The program is typical of what I find in conservative groups. The Republican and NRA-cap wearing men who run the shop never blinked at my nosering, dreads, tattoos, or my multiracial kids. The smiths all want to keep their craft going to a new generation, and they welcome emo, goth, punk, and steampunk kids with complete happiness. I love these guys dearly. Compared to those "liberal" boys back in the WV museum, who worked hard to keep women from smithing, these guys, Republican though they are, are actually models of Christian loving.

Which brings me to the title. This is attributed to St. Patrick, though the written version comes from 8th century Ireland:

St. Patrick's Breastplate

"I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop deck.
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe."

This prayer is a "binding," a tradition Pagan prayer or spell or meditation or incantation (take your pick of words), used to protect the speaker from harm. Note that wonderful line, "against the spells of women, blacksmiths and druids."

Here is a lovely example of the powers of women in the church, in paganism, in the smithy and in druid communities. The connections between and among evils in women pagan or Christian, all smiths male and female, all druids male and female, demonstrates to me the wonderful powers we can find here on the boundaries of Pagan, Christian, Celtic and other traditions. What is truly amazing here is that the prayer itself is so Pagan, from the bindings to invocations to the Trinity - the Irish church by the 8th century was its own amalgamation. Why today would we choose spiritual paths set down by others and avoid paths others deem evil?

I dare say most readers would support me and my daughter learning to be blacksmiths - despite the antipathy of those boys 30 years ago. I would support crafty explorers of spiritual traditions in much the same genderbending/sex role defying way. Bridget, patron saint of blacksmits, holder of Bishopric in the church, herself shows new ways to be Christian, female, pagan, druid and human. I say we grab Bridget just as my daughter grabs her hammer (a gift from those Republican smiths).

No bindings needed. Liberation and freedom are much more fun.

Oh and to those boys back in the 1980's telling me and all women that "women were never smiths. . ." The above print is from the Holkham Bible Picture book, from England c. 1327. It is the first picture of a European smithy known.

The picture shows a woman working with a hammer at the forge. . .

Oh, and the hymn of Saint Patrick's breastplate was re-written in Victorian times, with pesky notes about smiths and druids removed. You can hear many versions on Youtube, and here is one I like most:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bridget's Fire at Yahoo Groups

Celtic Nation on yahoogroups is closing on April 30th, at sundown, appropriately. I will miss the group, though I admit it is hardly a place for careful feminist hermeneutics. Tearleach, listowner, challenged those of us saddened at the impending loss to go forth and start a new group. A good challenge and good idea!

So I registered Bridget's Fire with yahoogroups, with yours truly as moderator. I have no idea if this group can fill the gap left by Celtic Nation (I am not Tearleach, who has endless patience for sexist myth), however it will better be a place for anyone to explore puja/worship/meditation/prayer/scholarship to Bridget, Goddess or Saint. I certainly welcome anyone of any faith.

And we'll see if this is useful or not!

If ya wanna sign up, just go to yahoogroups: Bridget's Fire.

Cead Mil Failte and Croeso to all.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Throwing swords into water

I fell in love with Cornwall the first time I crossed the Tamar. My Cornish great aunt and her Kentish Cockney husband drove me to their luxury flat in St. Ives, fed me up on local seafood and pasties, and set me off down the north Cornish Coastal path every day for over two weeks. I would hike all morning, and they would meet me in some tiny hamlet where I photographed holy wells, dolmens, stone circles,barrows, and Celtic crosses to my little heart's delight. I first encountered clouties, small threads tied to branches near holy wells, in Cornwall. I picnicked by Wicce Pool, on Green Man downs, and danced around hillforts. It was a magical time.

Cornwall is a religious soup. Celtic saints abound, and many switch genders with impunity. (Gender bending could easily be seen as Celtic custom!) I adore St. Senara, mermaid saint of Zennor Church; Saint Madron and Uny are listen as male and female depending on your hagiographers; St. Buryon church stands at a crossways of five roads, each with a stone cross. St. Brigid's well is near Launceston, and is one I haven't seen but hope to one day.

Cornwall, like the rest of the European Iron age, Roman Era and early medieval world, has its share of swords, knives, jewelry, pots, tankards and bones happily strewn across bogs, lakes, rivers, cricks and pools. I first encountered these watery finds in little historical museums in Cornwall, and then later saw more at the Welsh National Museum and National Museum of Scotland. This was some 30 years ago, and the research on European bog finds was just percolating in academic circles and had not reached small Cornish historical societies. Yet even in the 1980's, the museum volunteers told me the swords were possibly votive offerings to (gender undefined) gods.

Three decades and several huge archaeological finds later, and the picture of neolithic, bronze age, iron age, Roman age and modern era sword bunging is much more clear. Flag Fen, in Cambridgeshire, that huge repository of thousands of swords and knives, spans millennia in the sword tossing world! Archaeologists there are finding swords from the bronze age right through to the 14th century. My favorite archaeologist, Francis Pryor, sees this amazing continuity as proof of neolithic religious culture surviving well into modern times.

Pryor goes even farther. Instead of seeing the Christian church as stifling and eradicating pre-Christian beliefs, he points out that in many ways the early church just plopped down next to pagan sights, often with apparent ease. Early British worshipers plopped their swords into pools, went to church, and honored pagan devas turned saint. The Romans, in some but not all instances, persecuted druids, but the early church men and women often were themselves druids. (St. Bridget, daughter of a druid, is not so unusual at all.)

Pryor is somewhat at the forefront of British archaeologists re-writing the Dark Ages: contrary to the written, and biased, historical record, the archeological world can find not one shred of evidence that either the Anglo Saxons or the Vikings arrived in England as conquering armies. Instead, the research in the UK today points instead to massive trade amongst Britain, the Continent and even Byzantine cultures in the east. That trade began before the Romans, and continued without pause after the Romans bopped off. The bloody period of fighting and conquest we all learned about in our text books never happened.

All this archaeological research, just like in Israelite society, points to a far more complex, multicultural and polytheistic world. And a world where religious offerings to water continued unabated across eras. ( See some of Pryor's telly shows here. )

The sword offerings point, again, to a far greater role for women and Goddess than many modern pagans want to embrace. The endless web listings of Celtic Goddesses - all noted as "healing" and "fertility" Goddesses on website after website - make any online feminist research completely barf making. Go ahead and google "Celtic Goddess" yourself: find endless descriptions of Sulis and Coventina and Sequanna and even Brigantia as "water goddesses." That all the just mentioned Goddesses have swords tossed into their wells, pools, bogs and streams just means they were connected to "healing," if you want to believe that.

Francis Pryor, white, male archaeologist that he is, has, thankfully, other ideas. Since most of the boggy finds are swords/knives/jewelry specially made for offering, he neither connects the offerings with war or healing. Instead he believes they were part of denoting status. Want to show your high rank? Order a really amazing bronze sword, and then bung it in a pool to Sulis. Make a really cool iron knife, and drop it in a stream for Brigantia. Roman sword and offering inscriptions, left behind at Hadrian's wall and other sites, almost always mention the fulfilling of vows to the Goddess so honored. We can't "know" what the non-written offerings meant in quite the same way, but that centuries of people made gorgeous swords and shields and knives and jewelry and pots and tankards, and then all bunged them into the water for health - well, even if that is so does not the high status activity point to a greater position for female deity than "fertility goddess?"

And the neo-Celtic groups, now claiming that Celtic goddesses weren't of the same stature as the boys, have a lot of explaining to do. Nobody, nowhere, left thousands of swords in streams for one single male Celtic deity. Hmmmm. Who is high status now??? Given that the offerings do span so many millennia, I would suggest that high ranking women deities were of greater importance than those poor boys who never got a sword at all.

And I admit, for me, with my own learnings in blacksmithing, I find myself seeing swords in quite a new light. My daughter has been learning to smith - faster than I, truth be told, and she is a Society for Creative Anachronism warrior who deeply loves all things sword and knife related. I have spent many an SCA battle sniffing at all the silly sword play. Yet with archaeological research so clearly connecting high status non-martial offerings to female deity, I may have to work a bit harder on knife making the next time I'm at the forge.

Bridget herself has ever been the patron saint of blacksmiths, something Christian and Pagan writers have long tried to explain given our modern attitude as swords not being feminine. Yet the archaeological record is far more complex.

Swords were used as offerings for something that was clearly not martial for several thousand years. And those swords were given to Goddesses.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Which Archangel are you?

Ok, new poll time. Which Archangel are you?

This one was a surprise for me again, because I know so little about archangels! I will explore the theme in coming weeks, but hope everyone takes the little poll, and please feel free to post your own angel and archangel stories here!

Let's share!

As for me? I am archangel Uriel! I like having a strong presence in the apochrypha! Seems fitting!

Enjoy everybody!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hebrews 13:2 Hosting Angels

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

I spent part of Easter with my good friend, and asked her if she could dedicate a space to angels. Yes, she could. I had forgotten how Protestant friends - often uncomfortable with Goddesses and devas and spirits and totems - are quite happy to accept angels. I don't really understand the Protestant hierarchy of where angels stand in the cosmos thing, but of course don't really worry about it. Angels come in too many packages so it makes sense to me that they cross religious boundaries with ease.

Angels make up a tremendous part of traditional and Celtic pagan belief, especially within the construct of hospitality. Indeed, God welcomes all - each of us a stranger - to the household of heaven, and extending that hospitality to all strangers is a deeply rooted part of religious expression. Hospice, hospital, hostels, hotels, all are rooted in notions of hospitality. For centuries, providing hospice, hospitals, hotels, hostels, was an important part of Christian and Celtic practice.

Bridget, of course, as Celtic Goddess and Christian Saint, shares both traditions of hospitality: To welcome a stranger to your own fireside is to follow the example of Brigid, who made a welcome for all and made the Abbey a safe place of refuge and sanctuary. The fire to Bride was a flame that welcomed all, women and men, whatever faith, whatever nation.

The notion that a stranger may be an angel "unawares" makes our smallest relationships holy. My own encounters with angels are in this vein: a little old man on a train in central Wales shocked me by taking my hand and telling me lovely things about myself and my life just minutes before he popped off to Welshpool. I headed on to Brum thinking I had been sitting with an angel without even noticing! Another time, while living on the bus during summer vacs, a navy midshipmen gave me a week of food on a busride near Newport News. Those sandwiches were the only change from peanut butter and apples that I ate for well over a month! Since the midshipman boarded in Richmond at midnight and bopped off to the Navy Yard around 4 a.m, I never even saw his face.

In later travels through Wales and Ireland, welcoming strangers drove me to Welsh chapels, remote stone circles, cairns and dolmens, out of the way churches and holy wells, gifted me with food and drink and free places to kip for a night, and almost all cited the traditional custom of entertaining angels. A Christian Unitarian chapel in Carmarthenshire, with services in Welsh, actually invited me to communion - the only time in my entire life when I was so welcomed - despite my protests that I was not Christian nor ever baptized - and the entire congregation of 12 assured me that sharing communion with me was a religious necessity - for them. Thus I have had communion once in my life. And I would ask who in this story was the angel?

Entertaining angels, then, can be a part of puja anywhere on a pagan/Christian boundary. Asking angels to help with matters of the heart, or work, or family or creativity, does not deflect from a Christian belief in God. In parts of Scotland, that most Protestant of countries, it is still custom to leave food to the angels. Surely doing so today is not idolatry.

So, I will add Bridget to the angel category. She spread her magical mantle over Ireland to claim room for her hostel, and she welcomed strangers for centuries to her bed and board. This is angelic behavior.

The angel Bridget. Ok. Works for me.

Light her a candle today, and see what arrives in your life.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Reclaiming Goddess traditons in Judaism and Christianity

Or alternate title: Blow your mind with archaeological proof of polytheism in early Judaism and Christianity!

My friend's struggle with building an alter, concerned at breaking Christian rules about worshiping images, has stuck in my head these past few days. Then today, another friend through an online Christian/pagan support group, sent me some kick-butt articles on retrieving polytheistic and Goddess religion from Judaic history. As we enter the major holidays of both Christianity and Judaism, I offer both articles for everyone here.

The reality that multiple gods existed during Jewish and Christian histories is obvious: Do Not Have Any Other Gods Before Me. If that were not possible, no need for the commandment. It takes a good degree in mythology and archeology and history to sort out which deities were worshiped in Biblical times. There were so many! And teasing out the differing strands of theistic worship that come down to us in the Bible is yet another academic undertaking. We get some of them in the Bible, especially that Queen of Heaven with her cakes that so upset Jeremiah. Asherah presents all sorts of trouble for monotheistic Judaism throughout Exodus, Judges, Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Micah.

Recent scholarship presents Asherah even more fully. Archaeologists can't ignore the physical evidence they are finding at excavations, and reputable historians are having to take note: "Can a history of Iron Age Jerusalem and Palestine be written? I do not think it can be done as long as our historical perspectives remain captive within a historicized Bible," writes Thomas L. Thompson in Jerusalem an Ancient History and Tradition. And in the same book Firas Sawah writes "The discovery of ever more of these archaeological finds has led conservative archaeologists. . . to reconsider the matter and take the worship of the Goddess Asherah more seriously than before."

These authors are hardly radical pagans nor are they feminist theologians reconstructing a feminine language for god. They are academics pointing out the physical record that brings far greater light to Jewish and later Christian polytheism, because when you go with physical fact, it is much harder to screen Goddess worship than in textual patriarchy.

So here are two great articles for blowing your minds, oh gentle readers. The first, by linguist Elizabeth Willet, explores the physical evidence of women's worship in Israelite homes. "Women and House Religion" explores the objects in everyday Israelite homes, and what they meant for the women working therein.

The everyday Israelite home was filled with religious artifacts to help women with their daily work: cooking, childrearing, and maintaining the homes spiritual base were all evidenced by archaeologists excavating homes from Lachish, Beer-Sheebah, Tell Masos and Tell Halif. Homes were filled with cultic figures, incense burners and shrines that women cared for along with daily chores. Archaeologists found beads, scarabs, Goddess figurines, cowrie shells, amulets, and incense holders that made up cooking and weaving and baking areas.

More importantly, Willet writes of specific worship areas in some homes:

"The structures and artifacts in several dwellings at Tell Masos suggest that early Israelites maintained household shrines. The presence in Room 307 of the four figurines typical of votives deposited in the Hathor temple at Timna demonstrates that the residents of House 314 depended on an established relationship with a personal protective goddess whom they worshiped in their home in addition to or instead of in a public sanctuary." It is impossible to use a Biblical interpretation of monotheism to explain these archaeological finds of women's daily lives.

Another attempt to maintain a Jewish identity, while exploring polytheism, comes in Judith Klein's "Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism." Klein writes knowingly:

"Because of this, I feel it is necessary to search for Jewish goddesses in the Tanach and to reinstate them in the mainstream religions based on this Book, rather than moving with them to the modern feminist spiritually movement and neo-Paganism. It is clear that such goddesses would be much more welcome there but, although neo-Paganism is the most rapidly growing religion in North American, it does not yet reach into the core of mainstream society. And this is where I feel that deep change must be effected for our society truly to transform itself into one that respects women."

Here writes a woman who holds on to Judaism as her religion, while moving to polytheism therein. So how cool is that?

I love these paragraphs from Klein:

"What can we find about women's disappearance from the Jewish cult? We need to be obstinate, since looking at our history is a way of honoring our foremothers, rather than writing them off or tossing them into oblivion. Searching for our history moves us away from passive acquiescence with patriarchal strategies of disinformation, and into active opposition. As active participants within Judaism, looking for women's history will make it clear to us that women were active in religion for a long time and that women's situation in this millennium, even in this century, is worse than in earlier millennia. Realizing this, and realizing that achieving women's rights in Judaism is nothing new, but rather a return, may encourage us to set out sights high and to be thankful for nothing less.

Looking to women's history also makes us comprehend more acutely what is missing form the historical books of the Tanach. We find that they tell about men's history but not women's. And this awareness is one step toward women achieving a critical distance necessary for formulating what we want and need in religion, what we want in religious teaching and interpretation of the Tanach, and even how much we want to use the Tanach. Looking at women's history is one means for women to find their way to creating what they want in their religion, instead of it being dictated to them by men who tell them they speak in women's name, but who speak at them and not for them."

What she says applies to Judaism and Christianity, to the Irish Lebor Gabala Erenn or the Welsh Mabinogian. Historical records, Biblical or other mythological canon, were written within historical and political contexts. Even when their contexts are fully understood, none of these texts can stand today to enforce oppression and inequity.

And both Klein and Willet point to fun ways to play with religion. I really have no concern, personally, for polytheism or monotheism. The monotheists write at length these days about how the trinity implies a theology of relaitonship, which, hey, is totally wicked. However, one could say polytheism encourages relationship, too, no? But whatever. . . as I have written here before, I don't consider the belief as important as what the belief does.

So, this holy weekend, whether polytheistic or mono, whether Jewish or Christian or Pagan or Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Wiccan or atheist or agnostic. . . well you know what I mean, why not look at these two cool articles.

How can they add to your faith?

After all, if Israelite women had house shrines, well that is a major precedent. Wearing a bead for a prayer or a spell or a wish or to focus energy, well, is that so bad? In the context of puja, and with millennia of history behind you, alters, shrines, figurines, amulets and beads make up most of our human traditions.

Happy Ishtar and Passover everybody.