Thursday, 29 March 2012

Modern Pagan Cults ('for the forthcoming pagan geordie yearbook')

When the Borders bookshop chain used to be around, its amazing magazine racks used to offer a cornucopia of weird and wonderful, american-published magazines about wicca and crystals and angels and all that new age pagan stuff that I just don't 'get'. It was glossy & intriguing, and the sheer range of it was eye-opening, but very distant, and the pagan geordie yearbook is not meant to sit side by side with them. In fact, I see this as more the neighbour of the cheap stapled pamphlets about mysterious meteorites and stone carvings to be found on Ilkley Moor, which used to be published in Heckmondwike or Bingley.

For your edification, and my education, I shall here present a short and ignorant survey of pagan 'churches' or 'cults' - things you can join with a mailing list, high priest or membership secretary.

1. The Pagan Federation, 2. The Odinist Fellowship, 3. Wicca, 4. Druids, 5. Freemasons

1. The Pagan Federation

Founded in 1971 the PF seeks to support all Pagans to ensure they have the same rights as the followers of other beliefs and religions. It aims to promote a positive profile for Pagans and Paganism and to provide information on Pagan beliefs to the media, official bodies and the greater community.”

So far so good and necessary. Its quarterly publication, Pagan Dawn, has hilarious covers and lots of adverts for unnecessary mock-paraphernalia. It also contains a useful 'greenpages' of events, organisations etc.. to get in touch with, and I'm chuffed to see its advertising guidelines disallow 'clairvoyant, psychic or divinatory services' (there's a lot of charlatanism and bullshit-selling around). In fact I'm finding it hard to knock what the pagan fed says about itself – against discrimination, services for people in prison, attempts to get people together. There are local meetings (Hexham, Newcastle, Ryton), though I've never heard back when I've emailed them in the past. The criticism of the pagan fed that I have heard is that it inflates its importance within the pagan scene, and claims to speak on behalf of people who never gave it that permission. This, plus the usual personal weaknesses and dynamics involved in all human organisation, is worth remembering lest we inflate the pagan fed beyond what it actually is – if you hope for universal intelligence, lack of creeps, and consistency, then it will doubtless disappoint. But dagnammit, even with my cynical goggles on I've gone and persuaded myself to join for a year...

The Pagan Federation, BM Box 7097, London WC1N 3XX, England

2. The Odinist Fellowship

Odinism is the original, indigenous faith of the English people. For more information about England's native and national religion write to the address below to receive a free explanatory booklet: ODINIST FELLOWSHIP, B.M. EDDA, LONDON WC1N 3XX” (Capitals! That shows they're serious and warriorlike.)

Straight away you know we've entered dodgy ground – 'indigenous' originality; claims to sole legitimacy for one's belief system; naming a religion after its 'god' - it all implies submission, a boy's club, prejudice and bigotry. I've sent off for the booklet so you don't have to.

Odinism is the name we give to the original, indigenous form of heathen religion practised by our forefathers, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and by the related Teutonic peoples of the Continent.” A rather arbritary choice of who our forefathers were – I like to think I have a bit of South Shields Arab and Iberian Celt in me too. Maybe some homo erectus and magic mushroom too.

They say “heathen or 'natural' religions can be contrasted with the 'prophetic' or 'revealed' religions founded, at a much later period, by individual teachers such as Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus or Mohammed.” And they recognise that other cultures have or had their own pagan beliefs, with “Odinism but one branch of the heathen family of religions: that practised by the Teutonic peoples.” I'm all up for a bit of immersion into the 'teutonic' or northern, germanic worldview as revealed by sagas, riddles and historical imagination (they have a good recommended reading list), but identifying yourself as an 'Odinist', no way! I ain't no part of an iron-age warband, bonded to its warrior-chief and slaying Finns or Slavs. The Odinist Fellowship has got the wrong end of the stick, it is not religious in a healthy way, even while it contains elements of interest.

On the positive side, it has no separate priesthood (all members of the 'folk' are priests), and like all pagans they recognise the importance of nature, of free choice, and the full equality of women. It's also not so stupid as to accept anthropomorphic description of 'gods' literally, but it's taken a rather narrow and arbitrary decision as to 'which' ancient faith to follow (based on the Eddas and descriptions of Norway at a specific historic time). In doing so it has introduced specific, historic cultural elements into what it professes to be the ancient (timeless) pagan outlook, which is highly dubious. Fair enough if they're just into that era and wanna dress up together, but to then say this is 'original' and to proclaim “We are still living in the early days of the Odinist restoration”? That's taking their proclivities a bit too seriously, and turning their choices into what should be 'natural' – in short, they have turned it into nonsense.

Odinists are also into sacrifice (symbolic), meeting at ancient open-air sites (when available), runes, pledging yourself to the faith, and celebrating the four quarter days (in a suitably jolly spirit). But then it adds to these two more days, “the national festivals of Sigurd's Day (23rd April) and Heroes' Day or Einheriar (11th November). The former commemorates England's patron, Sigurd the dragon-slayer, on whom the legend of St. George is based. The latter is a solemn occasion during what our forefathers named the 'month of sacrifices', when they made oblations in honour of their dead.” Sigurd's Day? What the fuck? I don't personally mind the commemoration of the dead (see earlier essay) but 'England's patron'? I'm on the side of the dragon any day, and when it comes to Sigurd, St.George himself might be preferable at least as a Palestinian defender of tolerance against government persecution. Overall, the Odinists walk an uneasy line proposing (a) the positive side of 'personal freedom'/creativity/respect for natural life, but then choosing (b) to tie these to “order … the well-being of the folk, faith and family... the necessity of a common law for the common good.” Which smells shitty to me, even though - on purely religious terms - they're less fascist in their thinking than the average monotheism: “Odinist ethics are not expressed in terms of prohibitions and commandments, but in terms of the positive virtues which all Odinists should aspire to practise. We call these the 'Nine Noble Virtues': Courage, Truth, Honour, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-reliance and Perseverance.” Why not spend the next week living according to these 9 principles – see if it doesn't make your chin jut out a little more and make you walk in a somewhat more teutonic fashion.

One of the key aims of the Odinist restoration is to institute a network of temples in every county, and in every major town and city up and down the land.” Good luck with that. (They were also the first pagan organisation to get charitable status).

The Odinists have chosen to make Thor's hammer a symbol and a fetish for their faith and use it in rituals, naming ceremonies etc.. - this to me is another sign of weakness, an aping of the superstitious (christian) belief that a symbol brings in power from an outside deity to make a ritual more than just itself. A cross 'holds' something of the power of God and sacralises a place and moment? No, and nor does Thor's bloody hammer. Symbols must somehow crystallise and emphasise something of the sacred power of that place, that particular moment, in order to be legitimate in my view. That's why I quite like the more usual pagan imagery and symbolism of natural greenery – trees, flowers, ancient earth, springs and hillsides, even feathers and personal keepsakes. They make sense in and of themselves, do not seek to 'pollute' or diminish a moment or experience, but rather work as a means of remembering and focussing what is there and present at the time.

I also want to mention here that this last year I have come to LOVE comedy pagan metal! A lot of it is Odinist in some form, and a fair whack is 'patriotic' (by which read fascist) too, so it's not to be taken entirely seriously & is much better heard in a foreign, unintelligible language. But there's nothing beats the sight of, say, Spanish metallers dressed up as Vikings banging their tankards in a tapas bar; or Ukrainian hairies singing a catchy incantation to a witchy deity – so I thank the Odinists for making me smile with pleasure loads this winter! Check out

3. Wicca

When I used to knock about the anti-roads camps of the '90s, I was thrilled to see practical application of old protection runes, talk of Wicca, and symbolism of the sort that was a not-Druidic, not-comedy metal, not-weirdy-starey-eyed occult, living practical paganism. So that's how I see Wicca, and it was a little jarring to then see the version of it imported via American TV series (Charmed, Buffy) and naff little teenage books about spells. Look up Wicca on a bookshelf and you'll find the naffest most pointless misdirection – things that disguise and misplace pagan ideas (bedroom spell-making, literalism, stupid minds interpreting things they don't understand, and self-publishers who treat spirituality the same way as baking a cake, and probably sell books about both).

It is not a stream of contemporary paganism that is centred upon an organisation, like the Druids, but it's big in magazines, online, in symbolism, the pagan fed and also appears at gatherings like Thornborough Henge. It has witchy and celtic tendencies and is big on nature, which is probably why I feel affection for it. To be honest I don't really know much about it in its 'taking itself seriously' form (& beware the bizarre, new age eclecticism that seeps into its online versions). I'm not a witch, have no interest in spellcraft, I don't like the neologism of Wicca and the fact it feels so false when it claims to be so authentic (its roots are kinda rooted in america in the '70s, which is a bit like having no roots at all). So I recognise that I'm not best placed to describe it as a living tradition, and this may also be the source of my problems with it: online forums display pompous ignorance; hundreds of peddlers of naff ritual materials corrupt the terminology for marketing ends; and the expressions of it I come across are not community- or place-based but isolated, atomised individuals making something up to try and make themselves feel the roots that they live without in this modern age.

I should mention Gerald Gardner who coined the term Wicca and made various unconvincing claims to its ancientness, his initiation etc.. in the same way as other New Age and cult-creators do. 'The Craft', 'the Old Religion', secret covens, it all reads like a second-rate fantasy novel. In fact the early (twentieth century) history of Wicca is enough to discredit it, unless you're actually into all that 'Golden Dawn', Aleister Crowley-type secret society imagining. But it's had better developments than its origins, informed by feminist (yay) and, with Starhawk, activist attitudes. I'm not a follower, but the one time I met Starhawk, there was this desultory, confused protest almost-happening. Her and her group had the confidence and togetherness to convert a lot of hanging-around into an effective, calm and clear road blockade. And it took them maybe 20 seconds to do it, so I do have respect for the consequences of the group process and self-work that must be involved in her particular religious practice. I just cannot claim it in my experience. Also, covens as a basis for (heathen) political action are not a bad idea at all.

4. Druids

It developed during the European Iron Age that began almost 3,000 years ago, but grew out of an even earlier stratum of practice and belief.” (it didn't really, it was made up – it is wrong to conflate Druidry with all ancient pagan beliefs)

“Druidry is traditionally divided into three areas of study and practice; those of bard, ovate and Druid. Bards are keepers of tradition, storytellers, singers, poets, musicians, creative artists; Ovates are seers, diviners, philosophers and healers; Druids are teachers, ritualists, counsellors and shamans.” (Is or was? Are these 3 divisions still a suitable way to mark off society's 'special' castes from the oi polloi? Possibly so, but I would dispute the druids' right to assign themselves the status of the third role – actual teachers, actual counsellors, and shamans like Richard Dawson might fit the bill better).

The British Druid Order teaches and practices a creative, celebratory, elemental, shamanic Druidry, drawing inspiration from the past, yet deeply relevant to the needs of the present: caring for the earth, empowering the spirit, promoting peace and understanding. Inspired by the rich heritage of the British Isles, we see Druidry as a path without boundaries, open to all.” (This, and other stuff about ancestors and polytheism and animism I generally concur with - “BDO Druidry is animistic, recognising all things as imbued with spirit.” It's their own organisation and trappings that I dispute).

My problem with the druids is not the conventional one (that they pretend to be something more than they're not – an ancient authentic tradition, a genuine priesthood of knowledge) but is one commonly held amongst contemporary pagans. It is that they are aping christian churchmen. They dress like monks, they move like catholic priests, they are all solemnity and an attempted visual impressiveness. They stand in lines or in liturgical rites that are pale imitations of all that occult solemnity that the Catholic Church developed. They have a hierarchy and layers of initiation so that you know exactly where you stand – above whom and below whom. This is church hierarchy – a load of crap. And they think they're better than us? More spiritual? A different caste? Bullshit! They're just followers who want one day to gain by such careful following the right to one day lead the other followers. Like a queue going round in circles. It is worthless in itself. I'd rather be outside dancing. And it is parallelling all that corrosive, anti-natural nonsense that church history, church hierarchy, power games of elites and states and conservative oppression made manifest from the dark ages onwards. This is and was an illegitimate social phenomenon and for a pagan organisation to resemble it is an insult to the reality of (whatever) paganism (is). So they offer distance learning courses in which they have (weirdly) dogmatised processes of elite development. And that, plus gatherings, is where they appear to put most of their energy. I'll pass.

Disclaimer – the only druids I've actually met have been lovely and sensitive to this and are in it for the right reasons (personal spiritual development, community, 'doing something' rather than just watching from the home computer).

5. Freemasons

A red herring. Freemasons aren't pagan at all. In fact I wasn't allowed to join because I could not profess to faith in one overall divine creator-architect. Bastards.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Ancient Surveys

"Anyone (N.East) willing to help with my latest zine project?
It involves coming out with me (ideally this weekend) to one of 4 ancient locations and filling in a simple questionnaire! 1 is Newcastle, 1 on Hadrian's Wall, the other 2 more of a journey but if you can commit your time, I will make the necessary travel arrangements and it's all beautiful walking locations!
Message me if you're intrigued!"

This is for the next chapter of the 'pagan geordie yearbook', just mentioning in case anyone thinks I've stopped making zines, for I certainly have not!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Public Experiments with Light

On 8th March, the first event of newcastle sciencefest was something that I organised at the Star & Shadow. Which means it was shambolic and amateur as is my style, but definitely participatory and I had a really good day - think the others did too! Here's a write-up before I forget we did it, using some photos lent me by Camille.

The idea began with the aurora borealis that was widely seen across Northumberland in February. I raced out to dark Northumberland hoping to see it, and didn't, but it still planted a seed of thinking, and so I started re-reading a book by Arthur Zajonc which had fascinating elements but REALLY annoyed me - his writing style, his inaccuracies, pomposity etc.. So the first time I had left it half way through and that is often the best way to keep a read in your head. In fact I have two comics and one classic novel that I have deliberately left unfinished because I just loved the place I was at with them and didn't want to lose it by gaining the 'closure' that comes from finishing the last page. This time I ripped out the pages as I went, keeping the intriguing ones and using a few of them for the flyer/poster/dada-mentalist-zine I made for the sciencefest event.

Then I borrowed the camcorder from work, decided I would learn how to do video editing, and made an educational science video with the help of my old schoolfriend Simon (a positron physicist). An out-take from the filming features a huge trout or salmon freaking us out. As it turns out, no-one who turned up on the 8th had even watched the video, but it was good fun to make and think about anyway. I am no scientist, in fact I am one of those people who starts to get a headache as soon as complicated maths or scientific theories get talked about. So this too was a good and challenging process for me. I believe in always doing something new, always attempting, branching out, refusing elitism and learning throughout life. So the ethos of the 8th march experiments was very much about having a go. As the Star & Shadow website had it: "Do not expect professional razmatazz. The experiments may fail. This is a part of experimental science and the way that new discoveries are found."

For the detail of the historical experiments we tried to recreate you must watch the video. I thought I might video on the day too but was too busy & involved. I'm anyhow quite happy to leave it there, and have this blog post as the conclusion.

(pic - camille cocaud)

Experiment 1: Alhazen's camera obscura with candles!

Everyone got stuck in with cardboard boxes and masking tape to bodge our own attempt at making not just one candle flame, but several, appear through a camera obscura hole and thus disprove two ancient theories of light. At first it didn't seem very promising, but we tweaked the holes and the distance and I was personally thrilled when it actually worked and we could move our candles around on one side of the box, and see them inverted and moving the opposite direction on the cinema screen!

(pic - camille cocaud)

One participant had even brought his own opaque plastic device (probably once from a wedding cake stand) that had its own mind-bending effect: instead of turning images upside down, like the small hole does, it switched left to right. So if you stood next to your friend and were watched by a third party, they would see you standing on the opposite side of each other. I literally CANNOT GET MY HEAD AROUND THIS and am quite impressed that our brains manage to cope with it on a daily basis without freaking out. I mean, the world's UPSIDE DOWN for cripe's sake, and I don't know why, but our brain quietly puts it the right way up for to soothe us. It's more science fiction than your average arthur c.clarke novel and beats the matrix for having a secret universe all around us that no one talks about...

Experiment 2:
Brunelleschi's perspective illusion, making light geometric etc.. (see video for what and why!) had everyone drawing with felt tips outside the cinema, but I think we have to mark this one down as an 'unfinished' experiment - no one seemed especially proud to show off their efforts! Let me know if you fancy having another go with me another day.

(pic - camille cocaud)

Experiments 3 & 4: Prisms and Beams

(pic - camille cocaud)

An appeal sent out on facebook had got me a prism and some lenses, which we then combined with some of the spot lights in the bar to get some rainbows out of white light and play about with what Newton and Goethe disagreed about. One participant (who came straight from the city library after seeing the event on the website) was able to link this to current thinking and disputes about photography and digital cameras and how green is replacing blue as the basis for light replication? Again, I don't really understand this, but it was great to have this kinda thing talked about and brought the historical past-ness of my thinking into the present day.

(pic - camille cocaud)

Colour shadows are not really, objectively, there. The red shadow in the picture (below) yes, because there is a red light shining from one side, and a white from the other. But the eye tells us that the other shadow is greenish (a bit clearer to the eye than to the camera) when it is not 'really' - we see colour as an intelligent, interpreted process - in this case because red is the dominant colour, our mind supplies the 'green'. As Zajonc put it, "The human visual organisation accommodates to the dominant colour, [in this case red], then it responds by 'seeing' white as green, which is the colour complementary to red."

(pic - camille cocaud)

Not convinced? Well we tested it, changed the filter to blue, and sure enough we saw the shadow as yellow/orange, the complementary colour to blue.

(pic - camille cocaud)

Finally, thankyou to the group of people who came, who were a diverse bunch of genuinely inquisitive, patient and practical folk, most of whom were entirely new to me, and who happily worked together to get round my failings and try, communally, to get our heads round the mind-bending, light-bending realities of sight and light.

(pic - camille cocaud)

On the morning of the experiments, the news was reporting unusually strong sunspot activity and the likelihood of more aurora visibility, which was a really nice circularity to the day. And so what if I didn't see the aurora this time either - the fact that it is happening and that electricity and light and charged particles and wave activity and all that is going on is WONDERFUL. Science and stars, the cinema salutes you!