Changing of the Gods

When a fundamentally irreligious society takes up the comparative study of religion, it’s a safe bet that the results are going to be weird. Certainly my own encounters with the academic field of comparative religion, first in my university days and then in decades of reading since then, have left me scratching my head more often than not. The oddities aren’t accidental—far from it—and they have quite a bit to teach that’s of relevance to the project of this blog.

I’m thinking just now of a conversation I had just after a class session of my first comparative religions course at the University of Washington in Seattle. The teaching assistant who taught the course—real professors were already starting to think of themselves as above such things—spent most of an hour talking about theories that claimed to explain why people have religions. There were sociological theories, psychological theories, linguistic theories, and so on, all trying to explain why it was that people in so many different cultures and eras around the world had the curious habit of religious faith.

          There were quite a few of these theories, and some of them deployed a great deal of intellectual ingenuity in finding an explanation for religion, but I was sufficiently naive in those days to be startled that one obvious possibility had been left off the list. So I went up to the teaching assistant after the class, and commented that people all through history have reported religious experiences:  that is to say, experiences of personal contact and interaction with what seemed to them to be disembodied, superhuman intelligent beings, that is to say, gods and goddesses. Might it be reasonable to suggest, I ventured, that religion might be the normal and logical human response to those experiences?

That got me a wide-eyed look of alarm, which I mistook for an expression of interest, and warmed to my subject. All the theories he’d discussed, I suggested, were like theories about why human beings go hunting that neglect the possibility that game animals might exist. Hunting includes phenomena that can be explained usefull in sociological, psychological, linguistic, and other terms, to be sure, but trying to explain all of hunting in those terms, without reference to the behavior and edibility of game animals, is going to miss some things that arguably ought to be taken into account.

The teaching assistant was not impressed by this line of reasoning. “That’s not a valid comparison,” he huffed, and then shook himself like a dog who’s been drenched in ditch water, and headed for the door.

That’s the kind of response that usually comes up when it’s suggested, by those few individuals willing to say something that shocking in public, that the fact that nearly all human cultures have religions might have something to do with the fact that a fairly large fraction of human beings—up to a third, according to some surveys—have had experiences that certainly look like contact with disembodied intelligent beings of various kinds. Contemporary industrial culture insists that such beings do not, cannot, and must not exist, and so has to explain away the fact that people just keep on seeing them, talking to them, and receiving certain noticeable benefits from those interactions.

The irony here is that the situation wasn’t actually that much better in much of the western world in the days before scientific materialism elbowed its way to its current position as the default option in industrial society. In the days when Christianity had that position, the difficult questions were not that different, all things considered. I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.

The difficulty here is that the evidence from religious experience, and from such related phenomena as answered prayers and miraculous healings, doesn’t support the claim that so vast a difference separates the Christian God from the world’s other deities. In point of fact, religions everywhere seem to have about the same per capita incidence of religious experiences, prophetic visions, sudden reformations of character, preposterous chains of coincidence that save worshippers from unwelcome fates, sudden remissions of serious diseases, and so on. These things happen in mighty religions with tens of millions of followers, and they also happen about as often in tiny little sects where a few dozen members gather around a single teacher in a living room somewhere.

They even occur in Druidry, which is well over toward the small, quiet, and quirkily intellectual end of the spectrum of world faiths. At a Druid communion ritual not long ago—yes, we have those—I was among those who witnessed an occurrence of the classic miracle of the Grail: the bread dipped in wine tasted, to each person present, exactly like one of his or her favorite foods. Mine tasted like a really first-rate imperial stout.  I found this distinctly surprising, in that I’d used wine from the same bottle and bread from the same package repeatedly without any remotely similar result, and it was also noteworthy that the person to one side of me got the distinctive flavor of chocolate covered malted milk balls while the other got the equally definite flavor of wildflower honey.  It was, to risk some degree of understatement, a remarkable evening.

Such occurrences, it should probably be mentioned, can’t be produced on request. They happen according to a logic of their own, which according to the philosophies and theologies of pretty much all known religious traditions, is the logic of the beings who make them happen. I’m quite aware that an atheist confronted with the curious events of the evening just mentioned would start talking about gustatory hallucinations, or what have you. What does that mean, though? Simply that those present each tasted something that had nothing to do with the chemical constituents of the bread and wine—a suggestion I would find entirely plausible, but irrelevant to the significance of the event. You could as well say that a poem is explained by saying that it consists of black marks on paper:  a true statement, but one that misses most of what’s meaningful about the phenomenon.

The point of religious experience, like that of poetry, is communication:  in this case, the kind of communication that sustains a relationship, a response from the invisible side of the relationship to overtures from the visible side. It’s not meant as a source of proof, any more than an affectionate letter from a lover is intended as proof that lovers are not imaginary beings. If disbelief in lovers were as common as disbelief in deities, those of us who had experienced sexual intercourse would no doubt face constant demands for proof from—what would they be? Anerotists, perhaps?—who insisted that all sex is masturbation because lovers don’t exist.  The anerotist movement, like its atheist equivalent, would be populated by people who hadn’t had the experience in which they so loudly disbelieved, and a case could be made that this lack of experience was a sign that their attitudes and behavior toward potential lovers were not exactly well suited to encourage intimacies.

The point that I’d like to make here, though, is that communications of the sort under discussion—whether these are as simple as the occurrence at the Druid ceremony mentioned above, as spectacular as the sudden spontaneous remission of a lethal disease, or what have you—are common to all religious traditions. So are all the other dimensions of religious experience. Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions. Not all religions have this problem, though, since not all religions insist on the exclusive validity of their own teachings and the uniqueness of their own deity—a point I’ll be developing further in a bit.

It’s an interesting detail of history that serious practitioners of magic—even those who belong to faiths that uphold such claims of exclusive validity—very often reject such claims and display as much openness to the reality of other religions as the customs and legal penalties of the age permit. There’s a fascinating passage in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, for example, which discusses the role of religion in magic. As a good Christian, Agrippa draws a distinction between religion, by which he means Christianity, and superstition, by which he means all other religions.

He then goes on to explain that religion and superstition are the two things that rule every magical operation, and superstition isn’t all bad.  Even though we shouldn’t believe in it, it’s better than atheism, and God does not wholly spurn the prayers of pagans, and after all, Agrippa’s just copying down things from the classic authors on the subject, so don’t blame him for any hint of theological heterodoxy that might have crept in there somewhere.  All in all, it’s a fine example of the art of talking out of both sides of your mouth at the same time, which was much cultivated in those days. It was also effective; despite his continent-wide reputation as a mage, Agrippa managed to avoid being burnt at the stake in an era when that was an uncomfortably common occupational hazard in his line of work.

Mages of a later day, who didn’t have to deal with such dangers, tended to be even more forthright. I’m thinking here of Violet Firth Evans, much better known by her magical nom de plume Dion Fortune, who was simultaneously a devout Christian and an active participant in a variety of interactions with pagan gods. I’d encourage those of my readers who doubt this to read her Mystical Meditations on the Collects, a work of Anglican devotions—I don’t know if any of the papers she wrote for the Guild of the Master Jesus, the Christian wing of her magical order, are publicly accessible, or I’d recommend those—and then turn to such pagan essays of hers as “The Worship of Isis.” For that matter, Ross Nichols, among the 20th century’s most important Druid teachers, was a deacon in a Celtic Christian church as well as the head of a Druid order, and Gerald Gardner—yes, that Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca—was also an ordained priest in an alternative Christian church.

I’m aware that that sort of thing is practically unthinkable in today’s bitterly polarized religious scene, though we somehow get away with it in Druidry—there are quite a few Christian Druids in the order I head, for example. Still, it used to be common among mages, because the successful practice of magic requires theology to be tested against results. It’s a commonplace of old-fashioned occultism that personal devotion to one deity, or to a particular set of deities, need not exclude cordial relationships with the whole range of unseen powers in the cosmos, and that maintaining that wider range of relationships benefits the operative mage in ways that range from the spiritual to the pragmatic.

What makes this all the more interesting is that this same broad tolerance and mutual respect used to be universal, or nearly so, among religions. In classical times, to cite only one obvious example, there was no shortage of fervent religious devotion, but next to nobody thought that your devotion to your deity required you to be rude to mine. A Greek traveler who went to Phoenicia on business, say, would likely participate in the worship of Melkarth and Astarte while there, and then sail back home and sacrifice a bullock to Poseidon in gratitude for calm seas and favorable winds, without anybody, human or divine, taking offense. The same rule still applies in those countries that have retained the old way of doing things; in Japan, for example, most people go to Shinto shrines for one set of religious needs and Buddhist temples for another, without the least sense of incongruity or conflict.

These days, by contrast, most of the world’s popular religions claim exclusive ownership of the truth, and dual membership even in different denominations of the same religion is frowned on far more often than not. The transformation that made this the standard view, in place of the older take on things, is a historical process—one that I’ve discussed at length in my other blog, since that process also drove the rise of the western world’s current religious sensibility. It got under way in the sixth century BCE, and it marked one of the most drastic religious revolutions in human history: the abandonment, across most of the Old World and some parts of the New, of traditional religions that worshipped the gods of nature, and their replacement with prophetic religions that worship abstract entities separate from nature and direct much of their reverence to dead human beings.

Since this shift very often gets confused with the rise to global power of the Abrahamic religions, we’ll start outside that overfamiliar context, in a cave in the mountains of Sichuan Province in China at the beginning of the second century CE. That’s where Zhang Daoling, the founder of religious Daoism, had a vision in which he encountered the spirit of Lao Tsu. The sage told him that the traditional deities of Han-dynasty China were “dead energies,” and that he should prophesy the abolition of the old religion, the imminent arrival of the utopian kingdom of the Great Peace, and the worship of a new pantheon of abstract powers. As that tradition merged with the bubbling cauldron of Chinese folk religion, the Daoist  pantheon got filled out with the spirits of the worthy or wrathful dead—it’s been traditional for millennia in China to cope with a vengeful ghost by offering it worship as a minor deity, and if it accepts the deal and starts granting blessings, promotion up the celestial hierarchy follows in due order.

Back in the sixth century CE, a prince turned mendicant named Siddhartha dismissed the old gods of India in even loftier terms than Zhang Daoling had, proclaiming that gods were of no concern for those who followed his newly founded religion, Buddhism. Mahavira, the founder of the Jain religion, lived around the same time and had similar thoughts about deities. As both religions matured, they evolved pantheons of enlightened beings—buddhas and bodhisattvas in the one case, tirthankaras and arihants in the other—to whom worship was offered. In Buddhism, the old gods of nature finally got a look in by way of the tantric sects, where they play a variety of mostly minor roles; in Jainism, there’s a thriving underground tradition of worshipping the gods and goddesses of nature for material benefits, which is sternly frowned on by the priesthood and the more virtuous laity.

Then, of course, there are the Abrahamic religions—Jewish monotheism, which dates from the end of the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE; Christianity, which emerged in the first century CE; Islam, which was founded in the seventh century CE; and an assortment of also-ran movements such as Manicheanism, which got stomped in the blood-soaked competition for religious supremacy in the late Roman and post-Roman world. In the more traditional forms of all these faiths, the one deity of the Abrahamic tradition reigns over a we-don’t-call-it-a-pantheon of the virtuous dead—saints, prophets, tzaddikim, shaykhs, or what have you—who fill much the same role in these religions as the legions of arihants and bodhisattvas do in faiths further east.

All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set.  Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.

All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute. The exact nature of the substitute varies all the way from the concretely physical messianic kingdom of Jewish faith to the apophatic abstractions of the Buddhist Nirvana, with plenty of twists and turns in between, but the one thing you won’t find is the core outlook of the older religions: this is the way the gods made the world, and they’re pretty much happy with it, so you might want to consider being happy with it, too.

Then there’s the cult of relics. That’s a remarkably consistent habit of prophetic religions: the reverence devoted to dead people tends to focus on whatever’s left of their bodies. All over South Asia, you can find lavishly ornamented stupas that enshrine a tooth or finger bone of the Buddha; all over the Muslim world, the tombs of shaykhs and imams are holy places; all over the Christian world, except where the more violent phases of the Reformation left permanent marks, the relics of the saints are focal points of devotion. There’s a piece of a dead saint, or some relic of equivalent sanctity, inside the altar of every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church on the planet.

By contrast, in most of the old nature religions, bringing the remains of a dead person into a holy place rendered that place spiritually polluted.  That’s why the sacrificial altar at a Greek temple was out in front, under the open sky, and what was offered inside the temple was incense, barley cakes, votive images and the like. That’s part of a broader polarity; nature religions tend to celebrate sex as the gate to incarnate life; prophetic religions prefer to celebrate death as the gate to discarnate life. Myself, I find the cult of relics creepy, but that’s a personal matter—as noted in last month’s post, the robustly biological features of H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled monster-gods don’t spook me at all, but I get a little squeamish around dead things. To each their own.

It’s important to realize that the distinction just drawn permits of not merely gray areas but a galaxy of different shades of color as well. The prophetic religions have tended to absorb a variety of elements from the older nature religions, and surviving nature religions have returned the courtesy and borrowed elements from prophetic religions. In today’s America, you can thus find plenty of people for whom Christ is a pale and wrathful lord of the dead eternally hostile to biological existence, but you can also find people who see the first chapter of the Gospel of John as a ringing proclamation of the presence of Christ throughout living nature, and who remember that Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Other faiths have equal diversity to show.

The distinction between natural and prophetic religions is thus something more like a spectrum than a hard and fast division. That said, these days, most of the popular religions in America and much of the rest of the world fall well over toward the prophetic end of the spectrum, and most atheists suffer from the conviction that what’s true of the prophetic end of the spectrum is true of religion as a whole. As we proceed with the project of this blog, it’s going to be necessary to keep both ends of the spectrum, not to mention the middle, firmly in mind.

179 Comments

  1. This is quite an amazing account.

    In my religious community, it is considered acceptable, though not polite to speak of, that young people raised in the faith will endure a terrible inner crisis as young adults, reject the faith of their parents, and after a few years of turbulent seeking, return to faith with renewed commitment to living out the values of the community and chastened expectations of what can be known in this life. Essentially, functional atheism adopting the do-good language of faith.

    I've observed this pattern in many of my peers, and I'm not satisfied with it. I can neither deny the written testimonies of my near ancestors about their experiences of a loving, sustaining God, nor accept the written accounts of that same God which claim that he is the sole creator and ruler of the world. Which leaves me in a pretty pickle among both my religious and atheist friends!

  2. As someone who had a shamanic illness as a child, complete with near death experience, I have subsequently had a number of encounters with disembodied entities. Of course, it might just be brain damage ;< ) A bit more seriously,I have been interested in comparative religion, but from the point of view of noting common themes from various religions over time, with gods and goddesses serving similar functions in each. There are also religions, such as the Norse faiths where there is a transparent replacement of most of the old gods with new ones, apparently in a succession rather than replacement after conquest. Ditto, your Japanese example from Shintoism and Buddhism. My own beliefs are still evolving, and I am maturing in my magical outlook considerably, although over longer time frames than I would prefer. But, the core of my current ideas is that we each interpret the something out there in light of our personal culture and upbringing. Both of these are mutable, and we also change as we grow and age. That said,I am tending to be a bit more of a universalist than I was years ago, feeling like our observations and experiences of the sublime are shaped by the language in which we experience them. This is a hard idea to explain, but there is a different vocabulary in Hermeticism than there is in the Tree of Life, although both may be respected and inform the practice of a given esoteric school. In Druidry I believe that the three tracks of training reflect this somewhat–there are many ways of experiencing and describing the same thing, and people gravitate to the way that resonates with them in some way. It is curious, though, that over the course of a few centuries in many parts of the world there was this transition from concrete gods and goddesses to abstract beings. I suspect that this transition occurred during a time when the linguistic ways of expressing such a thing had evolved to the point that those in the forefront of religious sensitivities had a vehicle for expressing their experiences with the inner realms–they could put a name on things that people had probably long sensed but could no yet communicate. And, of course, they threw out the old gods when they realized there was something else–Abraham's abandonment of human sacrifice for substitute sacrifice threw out the old rules, in effect substituting a new god with new rules. They were probably also struck with the potency of new methods of religious practice–the Merkhavah visions of the Jewish prophets, for instance, strike me as the result of powerful connections with spiritual potencies that they had just recently discovered existed, and also evolving religious practice having made connections which were different in kind possible. Although it can probably get you a fat lip if you were to bring the subject up with a devout Jewish friend, archeology shows that the older synagogues in the villages had phalusses and yonis and other fertility religion artifacts associated with them–and I suspect it was not the spirit of ecumenism that encouraged them to allow the non Jews in the village to share the building. In the course of time the monotheists prevailed over the polytheists, and I believe this was in large part driven by the intensity of the personal experiences of the religious authorities of the day–a Merkhavah vision was a lot more powerful a religious experience than a successful grain crop.

  3. Dylan, I've seen that pattern also, and find it as unimpressive as you do. As for your dilemma, it's actually not that hard to solve: religious experiences come from deities, while theological claims about which deity did what come from human beings. It's standard practice in many modern religions to confuse the two, but they're not the same thing at all. This is why I consider polytheism the best explanation for human religious experience: a polytheist analysis makes sense of the data without imposing a set of arbitrary assertions on them, and losing track of the difference between deities and the extreme and often intolerant claims made in their names.

    Steve, all of that's relevant. I have a somewhat different analysis of the reasons behind the abandonment of the gods of nature, and will get to that in due time — we've got a lot of other ground to cover first — but the points you've made are also factors, of course.

  4. Religion may be described as the Waking – Being of a living creature in the moments when it overcomes , masters , denies and even destroys Being. Worldly life and the pulse of its drive dwindles as the eyes gaze into an extended , tense and light filled world , and Time yields to space .
    The higher religion requires tense alertness against the powers of blood and being that ever lurk in the depths ready to recapture their primeval rights over the younger side of life . ” Watch and pray that ye fall not into temptation ” . Nevertheless ” liberation ” is a fundamental word in every religion and an eternal wish of every waking being . In this general , almost pre- religious sense , it means the desire for freedom from the anxieties and anguishes of waking- consciousness , from the tensions of fear born thought ; from the consciousness of the Egos loneliness in the universe , the rigid conditionedness of nature , the prospect of old age and death “
    Spengler – The Decline of The West

  5. Great post, thanks.

    jmg wrote, “a fairly large fraction of human beings… have had experiences that certainly look like contact with disembodied intelligent beings of various kinds.”

    Appreciated the story about the Druid communion ritual. As much as other people are willing to share, I'd be interested in hearing more about the great variety of these religious experiences that are still happening to people now. I love that despite all the abstract, academic explanatory models such as those elucidated by your teacher's assistant, people still experience things that don't fit the mainstream culture's ideas of what is real and possible.

    jmg wrote, “It’s a commonplace of old-fashioned occultism that personal devotion to one deity, or to a particular set of deities, need not exclude cordial relationships with the whole range of unseen powers in the cosmos, and that maintaining that wider range of relationships benefits the operative mage in ways that range from the spiritual to the pragmatic.”

    Amen to that! As James Henry Breasted said, “Monotheism is but imperialism in religion.” Our psyches are multiple, and–it seems to me–naturally polytheistic.

    I find the lack of the visible presence of natural religious perspectives and imagination in American society to be sad and harmful in so many ways.

    And in a bit of a tangent, I am wondering if anyone would be interested in forming some kind of loose-knit internet group to discuss practices related to JMG's books on the Golden Dawn. I have been working through Learning Ritual Magic, Circles of Power, and Paths of Wisdom. I respect JMG's Druid tradition, but resonate more with the Golden Dawn approach. If any earnest practitioners of whatever level are interested in forming a discussion group, please contact Pierre at williammcgillis@gmail.com

    Thanks!

  6. My goodness JMG, you made me feel bad about being a Buddhist despite having recently had a gigantic confirmatory experience (ironically my confirmatory experience actually confirmed the magic in living and non-living matter). In the Mahayana they do have the concept of Buddha-nature which as I see it is a combination of the intrinsic perfection of everything from a certain standpoint combined with a notion of the universe and all the beings in it being of one substance that seems almost pantheistic to me. But at the same time I do feel that this Buddha Nature which is something I have experienced in a tangible way isn't as specific or as rich as the a truly polytheistic+nature-oriented version of religion. It's like, “so everything has this ever-changing impossible to pin down vibrant quality to it, so what?” I imagine that unless the the coming era people again become comfortable with practicing multiple religions (which would be my ideal world) something like Buddhism will have real trouble surviving. Maybe we'll finally have come to the final five hundred year period of the Dharma's end?

    The part about relics has always creeped me out. I wonder what they were thinking back then. Especially considering that to me, as a Buddhist, people don't really have any kind of eternal souls that need to be placated or worshiped or looked after.

    I have been thinking for a long time of taking on a second religion or a second practice and I feel now is the time to begin exploring that avenue. I do find Buddhism to lack a capacity to deal well with the travails of normal day to day life and I think it would help if I could find a more nature-centered religion that had something to say about life in a positive sense. In Zen they say “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I feel like I'm at a point where because I no longer take everything personally and view my life as some kind of drama reflecting on some kind of ghostly version of myself that I've never seen, I have a serious desire to go out there in the world and do stuff, but beyond enlightenment for a layperson there isn't much instruction. The final Ox-Herding picture (depicting the ten stages of practice in Chan Buddhism) is the practitioner returning to the marketplace (read – regular life) with open arms.

  7. Kutamun, Spengler's writing very much from within the mindset of the prophetic religions there. Natural religions tend to see the powers of blood and being as members of the pantheon, not opponents of religion.

    William, for obvious reasons, I'd like to see more natural religion around as well! With regard to my Golden Dawn books, by all means; I'm doing other things now, but the Golden Dawn work was my first magical training and those books will always be dear to me for that reason among others.

    Merle, good heavens, no need to feel guilty! Buddhism has come a long way from the days of Shakyamuni, and some of its denominations have borrowed heavily from nature religions. That said, if you feel that it's time to look into other paths, that's worth following, of course.

  8. To Dylan and Steve. I would highly recommend reading the Cosmic Trigger Trilogy and Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson.

    JMG, as he normally does, nails it. The menu is not the meal.

    Fantastic experience with the wine.

  9. It always struck me as highly odd when reading through the Old Testament how frequently certain people, usually kings, went worshiping other gods. The idea is so foreign to one raised in this culture at this time, and so out of character for the way people behave, clinging down through the centuries as tightly as they can to their religious heritage. But, after doing the kind of reading that I have been doing these several years now, I came to see exactly what you have described – the early Hebrews were henotheists, not monotheists, and the Old Testament itself really does not make the claim, at least not in the earlier books, that the personage known as Jehovah is the one true God. The reality of other gods is not denied at all. What in fact seems odd, in light of the fact that the whole Mediterranian culture had quite similar religious sensibilities, is that Jehovah and his angry prophets would be so unreasonable as to expect the king, who has taken wives from neighboring kingdoms, to refuse to honor the gods of those realms. Especially when you consider that the differing gods were usually not so much a matter of some personal smorgasbord of choice but that gods and goddesses had actual territories, such as city states, where they were worshiped.

    If one reads the OT with an eye toward that question, one sees that Jehovah was a god among gods, and perhaps that has somewhat detracted from a more abstract kind of monotheism such as Hinduism has. That is, what you call the Christian god is a sort of confluence of Jehovah as a personality and the later idea of monotheism, with some Jesus thrown in).

    In your book, World Full of Gods, I was not satisfied with your dismissal of the cosmological argument, i.e., that existence itself requires explanation, cannot be explained via anything we find in this plane of existence, and that whatever this principle of existence is, there can be only one of it.

    I thoroughly agree with you and find it sad and tragic that Christians and no doubt Muslims are caught in a belief trap that stops their love and slows their wisdom. What a tragic way to carry your heart through this world, all the while constantly dividing humanity, whom you have been told to love and not judge but cannot refrain from, into those who know God and those who have been left out and ignored.

    The Holy Spirit freed me from all that. An unspeakable gift of lightness of being, to have no barriers and be free to enjoy everyone without limitations and stops.

    But about the divinities, what might be their nature and origin? What does it mean to call them divine? Is any disembodied being a divinity? Whom do you honor and why?
    ++++
    I had no idea that the far east had gone though such a similar overturning of the old ways. Isn't that interesting? Is there some sort of world cycle, and surely it also is related to the increase in patriarchy and decrease in the feminine divine?

  10. Interesting discussion. I've experienced a theistic parallel to your experience in the comparative religions class.

    Among Christians today (perhaps not always), there is a strong desire to characterize Yahweh as an abstract, impersonal entity with little or motivation or desire of His own. God is Love, God is omni-potent/scient/benevolent, disease was nonexistent during the Fall, and let's not forget the Prosperity Theology of the TV preachers.

    It makes Christians uncomfortable to suggest, but many theological and teleological problems in Christianity could be solved by suggesting God is a spiritual entity with motivations, plans, and whims that do not revolve entirely around Humans, just like nearly every other spiritual entity people have bumped into or spoken to at some point. In fact, in the very first book of the Bible, after eating the fruit, God expels Adam and Eve because He's afraid they'll gain immortality and become “like us.” This was never brought up in Sunday school. Why does God not want Humans to have immortality (on Earth)? Well, gee, maybe He's just selfish.

    Indeed, what's fascinating about the Bible, to me, is just how unwilling God is to say exactly what is going on, theologically. The angels look like Lovecraftian abominations, and they have to say “be not afraid.” And God's the guy in charge of them?

    The weirdness and secrecy in the Bible is not well-reflected in Church services. If you were illiterate and went to church, you would likely have an image of the Trinity that looked like a Michaelangelo painting. Having read the Bible, I imagine Yahweh as a some kind of whimsical Flying Spaghetti Monster (the irony is palpable), sometimes loving, sometimes spiteful, often egotistical, and at times very funny. In other words, of course His prophet would wash other peoples' feet, ride a donkey proudly, compose the Beatitudes, and confuse people for millennia by claiming bread and wine to be his body and blood.

  11. Merle-

    “The part about relics has always creeped me out. I wonder what they were thinking back then.”

    I can tell you exactly what they were thinking. It goes like this, that nature is corrupted by sin, but that a saint has taken on enough of the divine perfection or Christ nature, and that as the
    body and nature are also things of divine perfection, why leave the body out? That the body of a saint retains some spiritual power. Spiritual power can be in nature and come through things of nature. If someone is a saint, even their earthly body has partaken of some spiritual power. To discard it is to lack reverence.

    I actually love the idea of the final ox-herding picture. It might be compared to the Orthodox idea of man as the terrestrial angel. What makes this life a trial is the fear and anxiety, worry and uncertainty. If you can get above that, life could be a great joy, nothing to run from, nothing to run toward.

  12. What happens to the old deities who get forgotten by the fickle humans? Or to the ones who remain unknown? Can deities die?

    Are there any deities that you suspect are personal to you only?

  13. JMG, regarding your comment about the experience at your communion and how an atheist would dismiss it as coincidence. I watched a discussion/debate run by Deepak Chopra and which included the author of Why Materialism Is Baloney. They had Michael Shermer, who runs some sort of skeptics magazine.

    A heart surgeon spoke of a case, and he says all who work with transplanted organs run into this sort of thing, in which a man who had just received a heart and was recovering in the ICU kept waking up screaming. He was having a nightmare. In it, he was in an alley, as a woman, being raped at gunpoint. The gun would appear and then he would wake up terrified. They contacted the family of the woman whose heart he received. She was a young woman who died by being shot after being raped in an alley.

    Michael Shermer tried to use the coincidence explanation. He didn't even allow himself a bit of wonder. After all, he says, there are lots of nightmares and probably only a certain number of dream categories. I would say he has some kind of mathematical misunderstanding. To be sure, if someone in the world had a dream that matched this woman's death, that would be one thing. But for the person who received the still living heart to repeatedly have a nightmare which was an exact replication of the circumstances of her death, and for him to even switch genders for this dream, and which began as soon as he overcame the anesthesia, that is no coincidence.

  14. “…gods were of no concern for those who followed his newly founded religion, Buddhism.”

    Depending on who is presenting the story, there's different views on this. English materials tend to be rather insistent you can have your Buddhism without gods, but early literature is full of deities. The Atanatiya Sutta for example has an invocation for summoning deities for protection. Several members of the old pantheon are also said to be disciples of the Buddha, like Indra.

    The historical trend in Buddhist history has been to subvert nature deities and assign them as guardians of some sort. Their existence isn't denied, but just that there's less karmic merit when making offerings to them, whereas if you make offerings to buddhas and bodhisattvas the merit is much more.

    This sort of logic though was not necessarily universal. The Japanese accommodated native gods and Buddhist gods, even sometimes merging the two with interesting results.

    There's also a little known belief that early Buddhism had which suggested certain devas descend into the world according to the lunar cycle. The Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra states:

    “Question – Why only speak of thirty-three devas? Answer – The devas frequently gather to discuss good deeds and misdeeds. Hence the partial discussion of them. The devas during the waxing and waning moons on every eighth, fourteenth and fifteenth always gather in the hall of saddharma to weigh the amount of good deeds and misdeeds in the world. Furthermore, the thirty-three devas always together inspect the creators of good deeds and misdeeds. Seeing one who has created good deeds, they then protect them. Seeing one who has created misdeeds, they then together resent and ruin them.”

    Of course western Buddhists seldom know about this sort of thing, because it isn't kosher.

    But as far as the Buddha's yogic program goes, it is mechanistic in that if you eliminate the causes for involuntary rebirth, you cease rebirth and that's that. No more rebirth for you. Nirvana is attained. However, that's maybe the ultimate goal, yet consideration is also given to worldly affairs since until you're liberated from samsara you still need to deal with real life (gods and humans included). The Mahayana of course changed things by suggesting the bodhisattva sticks around samsara, but due to their wisdom they no longer experience mental anguish.

  15. Please tell me more about these Christian Druids! Are there any books or blogs or such I might read about this? I was raised by a neo-pagan, druidish mother (of no distinct dogma) and a right wing conservative Christian father (the marraige, unsurprisingly, did not last long). My religious identity has been in a rather uncomfortable middle state my whole life, though I've been thinking about theology and having powerful religious experiences since kindergarten.

    As much as I wrestle with it, I do believe that there is a Loving Source responsible for the Creation we know and that this entity did incarnate in human form, and through its life, teachings, death, and resurrection, bring about a fundamental change in the relationship of humanity with itself. As far as I can tell, the Bible and related documents are the best account we have of this event, and people who believe in this are called Christians. So that makes me a Christian. But most of my values and ethics, as well as some of my additional theological thoughts, are at odds with the way that religion is popularly taught and practiced in my era and country….so I need a framework and further teachings in order to continue my spiritual path. And also – to figure out what sort of religious teachings and rituals to bring to my children (I have one very small son right now and hope for more).

    I am pretty thoroughly a creature of the new religious sensibility, so far as I understand it. The work of interpreting various teachings and practices (religious/spiritual, intellectual, ethical, and magical) into the new world we face and making them useful is a life-work that deeply appeals to me.

    I just celebrated my 30th birthday, and if, 30 years from now, I am looked on as a source of wisdom by my descendents and community, I will call it a life well lived.

    William – I will write you. I just started Learning Ritual Magic a few weeks ago and have been working through the first lesson.

  16. Hi John!
    First of all, I want to thank you for offering a great framework to approach magic, helpful for those that, as I, have set aside magic for a while to embrace a somewhat reductionist materialism, but anyway can't deny that magic is there, no matter if one can explain it or not. Reading your blog pushed me to give to the magical side of life the value it deserves.
    I want to begin to practice magic; but I'm having trouble finding a magical/religious tradition suitable for my ideology and values. I value Wild Nature most, and for various reasons I think civilization is mostly noxious for wilderness, so I don't find satisfactory Nature religions such as Druidry or Wicca. Do you know of a magical/religious tradition wilderness-oriented? If not, what approach would do you recommend me? I'm from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the native peoples of the Pampa, who were nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples, were exterminated a long ago, and there is very little record of their cultures, and practically nothing about their religion and magical practices.
    Would it be dangerous to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and create my own personal practice? It's possible in that way to discover the gods of the land I inhabit?
    Thanks a lot for your work and time, best wishes John!

  17. Onething, I've noticed with wry amusement that people generally aren't convinced by any argument in A World Full of Gods that contradicts their own beliefs. I should probably have put more stress on the point that the weaknesses of the cosmological argument don't make anybody's beliefs impossible — they just don't provide the sort of justification for monotheism that so many people have claimed. There's a marvelous essay — I have long since forgotten the source — that points out that the world we live in doesn't look like a world planned from eternity by a single all-knowing being; it looks like the sort of free-form improvization you get with jazz musicians who know their stuff and just let things flow…and of course that's more or less how polytheist religions think about the gods and their relationship to the cosmos.

    Carnegie, I've also watched the continuing efforts to transform the terrifying, majestic, intensely personal god of the Bible into an impersonal abstraction or an equally impersonal goodie-dispensing machine, and rolled my eyes. It's precisely the weirdness in the Bible that makes me take it seriously as a rich (though massively misused and misquoted) spiritual document.

    K, to answer your last question, no, the deities I've experienced are all known to others as well. As for the other questions, those will require a bunch of discussion, which should probably go in a post of its own.

    Onething, belief in coincidence is the most popular superstition of the age of science. Shermer was talking out of his backside; it would have taken him thirty seconds of calculation to realize that the number of possible dreams exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe, and to realize that the odds against coincidence explaining the events he was trying to dismiss were stupendously high. He couldn't do that, though, because his religion of scientific atheism demands that such events have to be explained away. I suppose muttering “Eppur si muove” at him wouldn't have done any more good than it did in Galileo's case.

    Indrajala, fascinating! Everything I'd read about early Buddhism claimed that it was basically uninterested in gods, but that the gods slipped back in later while nobody was looking. Can you point me to some good English language sources on the role of gods in early Buddhism?

    Breanna, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids has a thoughtful discussion of the Christian Druid movement here. There have been Christian Druids since the beginning of the Druid Revival — William Stukeley, one of the founders of the movement, was also an Anglican priest, for example — but in recent years, most of 'em have been very quiet due to the really rather vicious abuse they've tended to get from the Neopagan scene. I have an elderly friend in Britain who falls into that category, and who has written some remarkable things along these lines — focusing on the Trinity, and in particular on Christ as the indwelling creative power in nature (the first chapter of the Gospel of John features largely in his argument); I'm trying to talk him into letting me publish some of it under a pseudonym one of these days.

  18. Emmanuel, lots of people like the idea of picking up a bit here and a bit there, based on what feels right to them, assembling the results into some kind of spiritual practice, and assuming that this is going to get them where they want to go. The problem is that it's a bit like trying to walk to a place you've never been without knowing where it is or consulting a map! Spirituality is not whatever you want it to be; it's a demanding art and craft, and doing it well requires a fair amount of practical knowledge and guidance, which you can get either by studying with a teacher or by finding a system of study and practice that can be done solo, and doing it, exactly as written. If aspects of the system don't appeal to you, all the better: the self-mastery you'll gain by overcoming your discomfort and doing it anyway will stand you in good stead when you've finished the course of study, and can take what you've learned and apply it to the work you really want to do.

  19. And I had so hoped, JMG, that you would illuminate that tribal transition, some time in early Neolithic, to begin worshiping ancestors (rather than nature gods), even to the point of digging up their decaying parts, and painting the skulls, to keep them on display. No discreetly stashed tiny bit of the nose of St. George for these people! Howz that for uber-gruesome…. in fact, they were so attached to those dead bodies they interred them in the floors of their rooms…

    Nature forces were mixed in, but the ancestors were really big. And are to this day, some places. I just don't get this one. I can see worshiping a disembodied spirit, but my great grandmother? Not so much…

  20. “Everything I'd read about early Buddhism claimed that it was basically uninterested in gods…”

    That's understandable because early scholarship of Pali/Theravada Buddhism was done by basically European Protestants who wanted a “rationalist religion” and thus picked out the agreeable parts of the canon while discarding the rest. The result is that you get this narrative where an originally rationalist religion was tainted and corrupted by later individuals (the Mahayanists and Tantric communities), whereas from the very beginning gods were rather significant and in fact often venerated and taken very seriously. The Buddha was a polytheist, he just believed that ultimately liberation from rebirth/samsara was out of their hands. You had to do it yourself, though various gods could offer protection (and many did offer the Buddha protection according to scripture).

    I'm presently doing my PhD and researching Buddhist astrology, so you can imagine the kind of reaction I get from people when I tell them that, yes, plenty of Buddhists in both India and China believed in astrology. The same happens when you talk about gods and magic.

    The best resource on the nature of gods in early Buddhism is not found in monographs, but actually encyclopedias. The following online resource is based on the “Dictionary of Pali Names” by Malalasekera (1899-1973), and there's no issues with copyright.

    Some articles I would recommend looking at:

    Deva (all about gods in Buddhism)

    http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/d/devaa.htm

    Indra/Sakka

    http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/sa/sakka.htm

    Brahmaloka

    http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/b/brahmaloka.htm

    Maharajas

    http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/c/caatummahaaraajikaa.htm

    That will give you a solid idea about gods in early Buddhism.

    I've written up a brief survey of Buddhist sorcery in East Asia which might also be of interest:

    https://sites.google.com/site/dharmadepository/writings/buddhist-sorcery-in-east-asia

    The truth is that for most of Buddhist history magic, deity invocations, blessings and apotropaic rites were what Buddhist clerics mostly did for a living, but modern “protestant” Buddhists generally ignore this historical reality, thinking they're going back to a “pure form” of Buddhism, which again cherry picks items from the early canon.

  21. JMG
    ” There's a marvelous essay — I have long since forgotten the source — that points out that the world we live in doesn't look like a world planned from eternity by a single all-knowing being; it looks like the sort of free-form improvization you get with jazz musicians who know their stuff and just let things flow..”

    You know, my understanding that there is a necessity for a principle of existence, and also for the primacy of consciousness, says very little about the nature of such an entity, nor have I got a very firm set of opinions on the matter. Since I cannot fathom eternity, I've not been able to decide if God started extremely simple and learns, or not, largely because nothing makes sense in light of eternity. But I suspect a process of learning. For example, I'm quite sure that Darwinian mechanisms are not adequate to create the life forms, yet I note that it was a very long learning process. Knowing what I do about how biology works, I can easily see it taking millions and billions of years to work out. Nor do I think it was actually God who created them. Let it be the gods. Let it be a committee. Perhaps a competition. Who was the dufus who entered the duck billed platypus?

    My favorite theory, which has actually been growing on me, was brought out, tentatively, in Jeremy Narby's book The Cosmic Serpent. He makes the case that DNA could be an entity who is evolving itself.

  22. “The point of religious experience, like that of poetry, is communication: in this case, the kind of communication that sustains a relationship, a response from the invisible side of the relationship to overtures from the visible side.”

    It has been much in my mind lately that the meaning of the word “invoke” is something like “envoice” – that is to say to call (someone) into an exchange of communication.

    Though, personally, I have not ventured further than to consider that every living BODY I can see the outside surface of – tree, bug, soil, furry creature, ecosystem, slime mold, all the way to the whole embodiment, Gaia herself – has an indwelling (invisible)intelligence that may only be perceptible, or encounterable with the open heart that grasps meaning.

    It may be some while before I could get my head the concept of intelligence that is NOT entangled with living bodies… that is not an aspect of embodied, incarnate, earthly life.

    But, the key experience here is communication with the invisible, intelligent heart of the living world, and my pagan heart has no difficulty with that, at all.

  23. I was raised Southern Baptist, so much of this is eye opening and getting me to think in new ways. I'll admit I don't understand all of it, but will take it on faith, and hope that understanding comes later. I've been mildly surprised lately that those in my circles I've been closest to in mindset are Christian, and, after reading this, I see it's no reason to concern me.

  24. Dear John,

    What I would like to know is how Advaita Vedanta and Neo Advaita fits in to all this.

    Many modern teachers of Advaita (non duality) trace their lineage back to Nisargadatta Maharaj, people such as 'Sailor' Bob Adams, John Wheeler etc. Then there are others like Eckhart Tolle and Tony Parsons who awaken spontaneously, but they all point to the same thing: that we don't live in the world, the world lives in us. Or to put it another way, that they identify with the Universal Mind rather than the individuated mind.

    In all this, there is never any mention of gods/godesses, spirits, demons or what have you. Why not? What is the state of conciuosness of these so-called enlightened beings? Are they looking from beyond the Abyss i.e. From the Supernals?

    Sorry if this is a bit off topic but I do hope you can shed some light on these questions!

  25. I had a very similar experience in college. I was taking a course called “Anthropology of Religion,” and I was just astounded at how reliably the anthropologists went looking for some fault in the culture that would cause religious experience or the naivete of the people. I definitely caused a stir by constantly taking the “side” of the “natives” and suggesting that perhaps they believed such things because they happened. For example, we were reading about a ritual in the Amazon to help women through difficult births. Everyone in the class was talking about how crazy they were to believe that a song and dance could help someone give birth and that maybe it was just the culture's way of feeling like they had done something to help. I suggested that perhaps they did it because it reliably made giving birth easier, that these people aren't stupid and see a lot of births, so if it didn't do anything, they wouldn't do it. Then the really atheist kid I was constantly clashing with decided to agree with me for once and said, “Yeah, maybe it does do something. I mean, it obviously wouldn't work as well as, say, penicillin…”

    I do enjoy the way atheists have their standard arguments against religion that simply don't work against natural religions. I also find it so fascinating the way they really do just wave away anything that doesn't fit their worldview. I recently met an atheist at a party, and mentioned that I was religious, and I watched him put me in the “fundamentalist Christian” box, so then I said I was a pagan, and he put me in the “totally crazy person” box. But then as I was talking about it, he was very confused that what I was saying actually had some sense to it and wasn't just crazy ramblings that I was a true dilemma to him. He met my twin sister a week later and told her about our previous conversation, and told her that he's decided that I only think I believe such things because I like to think that I do, but that I don't really, actually believe them because I'm a reasonable person. I just couldn't get over how silly it was that he went out of his way to tell her what I really believe because he couldn't take what I said at face value.

  26. “That’s part of a broader polarity; nature religions tend to celebrate sex as the gate to incarnate life; prophetic religions prefer to celebrate death as the gate to discarnate life.”

    It sounds like nature religion is a much better fit for me. Any suggestions on where to start?

  27. On the topic of the creepiness of relics and “dead things:”

    Before I start, let me say that the feelings and attitudes I'm describing are one side of my profound respect for life, and I mean no disrespect to anyone or to their beliefs.

    I've always been drawn to the dead. My strongest experience of fighting through enculturation occured when I found a freshly dead crow on the sidewalk. I had always been fascinated by bones and such, but had always passed up a “find” such as this. This time, I was insistent with myself that I wouldn't give in to a lifetime of biophobic cultural conditioning, and managed to bring the carcass home. Then came the real struggle against ingrained cultural habits. I now have a crow skull and two crow's feet that I am very proud of and that resonate strongly with me, and have added a few other bits to my collection as well, including one of my own wisdom teeth (all other animal parts came from the “found dead”).

    Though I don't know much about the authentic traditions of Voodoo (or is it Hoodoo?), the media portrayals I've seen of it have always held a certain attraction.

    I've also seriously considered the mortuary sciences and funereal arts as career paths, but find our culture's versions of these tend to be too biophobic (I love having that word in my lexicon) and commercialized for my tastes. Though I did once have the profound honor of being given the responsibility of killing three sickly and injured chickens on a farm I was working on, and held a small rite to honor their passing.

    The idea of saintly (or similar) relics also makes a kind of intuitive sense to me, though I'm not sure the logic I see is the same as those of the prophetic faiths. In a similar vein, there are a number of tribal peoples with varying kinds of cannibalistic funereal rites, and these also make an obvious sense to and hold much meaning for me (though I have never participated in such a practice).

    Just wanted to share my take, as this is obviously an area where I am pretty far to one side of the spectrum.

  28. I'm reminded of the narrator's words in Till We Have Faces:

    “I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman's buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?”

  29. There's an interesting theoretical difference that all but determine the details of one's religion: approaching religious experiences from the bottom up and approaching them from the top down. The former involves the accounting for and the analyzing of religious experiences with as little pre-theory as one can manage; looking at things as if for the first time. Phenomenology is key here. The latter deliberately situates a religious experience in the background of already accepted theory, sometimes to straining of abstract principles.

    A middle road seems to involve approaching religious experiences, not with a minset as if one hasn't already come to various conclusions, but neither with an unwillingness to accept what seems to be the case, even if that requires theoretical revision. This latter method prioritizes what seems to be the case, not what seemed to be the case, or what may do so.

  30. To my mind, what is creepy about relics and similar, is the fact that a dead remnant of a lived life is now being prevented from rejoining the stream of life through the normal processes of decomposition and recomposition into new living forms…

  31. JMG said:

    “As for your dilemma, it's actually not that hard to solve: religious experiences come from deities, while theological claims about which deity did what come from human beings. “

    This morning as I walked the long, snowy road to church, I laughed aloud, thinking of these words. It's not every crisis of faith that can be solved by a simple logical twist; in fact, I think that's the exception to the rule. But in my case this simple affirmation is exactly what I've been needing in order to firmly grasp both horns and choose neither. Instead I'm leaping the bull.

    It's been dawning on me since your December post, slowly and with much inner resistance, that the things you're writing about here describe my experiences better than the simple faith of my childhood, the atheism I was exposed to as a teenager, or the practical agnosticism of my adult church community. They've all missed a crucial piece of the story, which is that gods and spirits don't do what we want them to do. Or as C. S. Lewis put it, describing Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, “he is not a tame lion.”

    You have helped free my intellect to follow where my intuition is leading. I'm glad to be moving again, but I'll be stepping cautiously, knowing that I'm entering into a realm of lions.

  32. @onething

    You might want to reconsider exactly what you’re seeing in the Old Testament. According to the scholarship as I understand it, the Torah and Former Prophets, as well as several other books, are heavily edited compilations of pre-existing material. The editing consisted of removing everything from the pre-existing Hebrew pantheon except YHVH, as well as aggrandizing their ancestors' warlike powers. This was pushed through by Jeremiah, who had the curious idea that it was his people’s failings that had allowed the Assyrians and Babylonians to conquer them. There’s a book titled The Nine Commandments that points out a passage in each of the first nine books where each of the commandments in the Compact was broken, one by one, by the people as a corporate whole (sometimes in the person of the current ruler). The breaking of the second commandment, for instance, is the Golden Calf incident in Exodus.

    @Indrajala

    Everything I’ve read on Buddhism says that the teachings weren’t written down for about 500 years, and that when they were they were so voluminous that one person couldn’t possibly have said them all in several lifetimes, let alone one. Nor could his attendant have memorized them, as the tradition holds. My personal opinion is that the Buddha didn’t reject the gods and spirits as much as ignored them as not being relevant to his program of breaking free of the wheel of karma and the curse of rebirth.

  33. JMG,

    Re. Relations with non-material persons

    Assuming such entities can be related to (more or less) as persons, one question that occurred to me is “How should one relate to them?” I think the only universally applicable answer is “With guarded respect”. I think this works no matter what one's theological bent. Perhaps, after long positive association, one can let one's guard down.

    I suppose this demonstrates nothing more than a firm grasp of the obvious. Nonetheless, this is my approach to the situation.

    Re. Druids and Christianity

    It had been my practice to recite a version of a well know Christian prayer of invocation and protection (Patrick's Lorica) each morning. It was some time before I comprehended the basic Druidic bent of the prayer. Biblical poetry is generally binary in form. As far as I know, Druidic thinking (ancient and modern) tends to tertiaries, often with a focus on nature.

    Those portions of the prayer that are overtly Christian are of a binary form. Those portions referring to the powers of nature are tertiary. The prayer's opening emphasis on the Trinity, without explicitly naming its persons, is also suggestive (though less conclusively) of Druidic tertiary thinking. As a consequence, some scholars regard the prayer to be the product of a Christian Druid (http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/Poetry/StPatrick.html).

    So one of the most important prayers of the Celtic Christian Church was probably composed by a Druid! And, notwithstanding the often assumed antipathy between the old religion of historic Druids and the new Celtic Christianity, what evidence there is suggests at least some of the last historic Druids found a home in the early Celtic Christian Church as the old social institutions that supported Druids died out.

    All this is just to support the assertion that there is no inherent conflict between late historic (and so modern) Druidry and Christianity.

    Incidentally, in typically Irish fashion, there is more than a little subtle humour in the payer's alternate name of “Deer Cry”. What noise do deer make when faced with a potential threat? They make a loud, rather rude sounding, snort that gives the impression of complete disgust on their part! And what do they do after they have identified a real threat? They run for their lives! So what did Patrick and his men do in similar situations which they no doubt encountered often?

  34. I noticed your reply to Emmanuel and have a few questions that have been on my mind from this blog and some of your writings that I would like some clarification on.

    You write, “Spirituality is not whatever you want it to be; it's a demanding art and craft, and doing it well requires a fair amount of practical knowledge and guidance, which you can get either by studying with a teacher or by finding a system of study and practice that can be done solo, and doing it, exactly as written.”

    The first part makes total sense to me, of course spirituality isn't anything I want it to be, and like any other skill I understand it needs plenty of practice. What I hope that you'll clarify more for me is why you say one system needs to be learned exactly and we shouldn't mix and match, because I've done plenty of mixing and matching with other skills and often have good results.

    I know the analogy you have used a number of times is with guitar playing, but I don't play an instrument so I'll use gardening and cooking. While judgements on these things are certainly subjective, most people who've see the results say that I'm a skilled gardener and good cook. I have done tons of reading on the subjects (particularly gardening), have learned directly from others at times, but mostly I've learned from getting a broad range of perspectives from reading and communication with others and then practiced, seen what works and what doesn't in my own situation, closely paying attention to results and learning from my mistakes, and building skills that way. In cooking, I will occasionally follow a recipe exactly a couple of times at first, but find I learn most from experimenting and improvising, and that also is important in terms of using the ingredients well that I have on hand rather than needing to get whatever the book says.

    If someone were to suggest that the only way to learn cooking was to get a book on a particular cuisine and make all the recipes exactly, or that the only way to learn gardening is to read up on a particular method and do everything exactly as written (and I have met people who say those kind of things), I wouldn't take that seriously, I've learned those things (and am still learning more and more every year) in a far less rigid way, not only is it the way I naturally learn but I feel like reading a broad variety of ideas, figuring out general principles, experimenting with ideas and paying close attention to the results has allowed me to have greater resilience than the people who i know that are more completely attached to a particular way.

    Since I have way less experience with spirituality than with gardening, cooking, or many other things in my life, I'm open to the possibility that it needs to be learned differently as well, but I would like to hear your thoughts as to why.

  35. @ Scotlyn RE: Preventing a dead remnant from rejoining the stream of life.

    The same can be said of the wood used to build a house. Nothing ever fully avoids the normal processes of decomposition and recomposition into new living forms, but there are many different paths in the cycle, some much longer than others. Even the mummies of ancient Egypt will eventually succumb, though admittedly their bodies' journeys are far longer (and deliberately so) than most.

    The “preventing” (or preserving) factors needn't even be intentional. Continuing the mummy example, I remember reading about “natural” mummies found in bogs, staying very well preserved for millenia.

  36. Indrajala,

    Awesome, thanks for the link!

    Archdruid,

    The version of Buddhism I learned accounted for and accepted the existence of the gods. For example the Axis Mundi was supposed to have been prepared for the Buddha by Prithivi Tattwa herself. At least in the version of the enlightenment I heard. I didn't hear about a non-theistic Buddhism until I started interacting with western Buddhists.

    I like to think of the gods as keepers of the various wheels and structures of the universe. All of which are needed for life to thrive.

    The whole monotheistic thing still frightens me. Crazy seems to emerge when people think the have divine writ to do whatever they want.

    Regards,

    Varun

  37. JMG,
    Thanks so much for your advise. “[…] overcoming your discomfort and doing it anyway […]”, that exact wording matches perfectly with what the universe is saying me constantly I should do. So I think its better to do it once and for all. I'm thinking I´m going to start with your book, The Druid Magic Handbook, the next full moon!

    I wish to contribute to the discussion, so here is my current opinion about the nature of magic, hope it isn't too much out of topic:

    I think materialism can explain a lot of things very well, mind/conciousness inclusive, as evolutionary psychology does. Nevertheless,what it certainly can not explain is that phenomena philosophers like to call it “qualia”.
    I consider the posibility that the astral light could be precisely that aspect of reality, the qualia of things. If one uses the word “spirit”, it makes much sense to equal it with qualia.
    Within this hypothesis, then, every phenomena of physical reality would have its own spirit; for instance, an atom has its own spirit, and the molecule in which the atom is, has it own distinctive spirit, as the other supersystems of increasing complexity that comprehend the molecule. Ultimately, the universe itself has its own distinctive spirit.

    Our brain process information, and when we recall a qualia, that is, a spirit, that recalling influences the plane of spiritual phenomena.

    As for gods, this hypothesis would suggest that there is a lot of gods, an that their power could be proportional to that of the phenomena of which they are its corresponding spirit. So the monotheist God, a.k.a. the spirit of the whole universe, certainly would be incommensurably more powerful than the Nature gods of our planet. But there it follows too that we are so incommensurably tiny for the universe (that is, for God), that God probably would not care too much about what a human could wish. In other words, our capacity to influence the spiritual word is not in the scale to which God could work noticeably.
    Then, it would be incredible more fruitful to work with the spirits of planet Earth than with spirits that are too big as to notice us.

    Well, greetings to you all!

  38. I'd like to hear what you have to say to the Gnostic. From everything I understand about what you've said, you see human beings as people who grow out of the world, and are as woven into the fabric of the cosmos in such a profound way that it's almost difficult to imagine what it would mean for them to be separate from it.

    But Gnosticism is the great counterpoint to that worldview, IMO. Instead of a childish and churlish atheism, Gnostics acknowledge the immanence and reality of the spirit world, but see human beings as exiles from it; the dispossessed. To me, this attitude seems highly difficult to shake. My shower can grow mold literally overnight no matter how scrupulous I am. My allergies are going wild this season and my eyes itch and puff and drive me to distraction. I have a tedious and unrewarding job because I can't find any better way to pay the bills.

    Alan Watts, of course, was very keen about the idea that humans grow out of the world. But it seems to me like the world is a hostile and alienating in our lives. Everything is always breaking and going wrong, from our shoddy consumer products right down to our very own bodies, which wither and decay until we inevitably die. Is it mistaken to hope for release into the spirit world? Is this fundamental attitude of alienation wrong, misguided, a choice, inborn, or what?

  39. When I was practicing Zen with my former teacher and sangha, I came up against the exclusivity issue you mention. He's a good example of the Zen version of postmodern religious teacher you have been describing in this blog. In his sangha he uses his own translations of key religious texts rather than the official one used by the majority of teachers of Soto Zen. One of his translations, in the text for the jukai ceremony (a rough equivalent to the Christian first communion), includes the phrasing that Buddhism is your way and not any other way. To him Buddhism is the one universal religious practice (which did not prevent him from participating in interfaith organizations).

    While I found his postmodern Zen practice refreshing at first, it became less satisfying as the years passed for reasons I didn't really understand until I began to read your other blog. I am still practicing Zen a bit, though with a different sangha that has formed quite recently. My own religious practice is now much more in AODA's Druidry than in Zen, a fact known to and fully accepted by the current sangha.

    Several years ago an exhibit of Buddhist cremation relics came to town. These were found in the remains from the funeral pyres of various Buddhist priests. Knowing I'd not have any other opportunity to see them, I went to the exhibition. The organization putting on the exhibit (not Zen, I have forgotten its lineage) offered written material on their interpretation of the significance of the relics, with the room containing the relics set up similarly to the Buddha hall in which we practiced. The overall effect was rather moving, though that may have been due to the reverence with which the organizers approached the relics. To me they looked like semiprecious stones such as moonstones, with nothing humanoid about them.

    Re William's request for stories, I will share a recent experience. In the AODA we practice a ritual, the Sphere of Protection, daily. It can be modified to make specific requests of the deity(ies) of our choice. I've been practicing it about two years now but only recently have I begun to make such requests. A few days back, a cold I'd caught had progressed into a fever and symptoms consistent with a sinus infection. I wanted some help with healing as I was feeling pretty miserable and hadn't so far had much luck with the usual self-care methods. So I modified the S of P to invoke healing and banish obstacles to healing. Upon completing it, I was so tired I went to sleep for over an hour. When I woke up I felt much improved and have continued to improve since. A materialist would ascribe this to coincidence. Maybe it was. But perhaps, as I tend to think, the Powers of Nature responded to a simple request made from someone who has done her best to honor and respect such beings and to cultivate the conditions under which they might respond to such a request. The few other requests I've made so far have also had positive results.

  40. Hey ADJMG, it seems that you performed a miracle by turning wine into stout. And since you are the Pope of Druidry, this means you are on the path to becoming canonized as St. Greer !

  41. @ hereward

    “In all this, there is never any mention of gods/godesses, spirits, demons or what have you. Why not? What is the state of conciuosness of these so-called enlightened beings? Are they looking from beyond the Abyss i.e. From the Supernals? “

    For what its worth, regarding Advaita Vedanta, I can speak to this:
    To use the sky as an analogy; those forms that appear in the sky, the gods/godesses, spirits, demons, etc are like clouds. They are an integral part of the sky, contained within the sky, but not the sky itself, which is unknowable, unfathomable, boundless, empty yet excluding nothing.
    The Sky encompasses All.
    Forms are learnt and known through mind.
    The Sky is empty; how indeed can you know anything about 'it' at all!
    The so-called enlightened sages have been enveloped by the Sky.

  42. Greetings JMG,

    I've been a bit reluctant to post in this blog, I feel on the outside of everything you have been describing over the past few months. At the moment I consider myself an atheist, but not of the rabid variety. On the contrary, I'm the reluctant sort of atheist. I honestly wished I believed that the world was full of magic and spirits. Unfortunately belief isn't something you can convince yourself of, you have to experience something strong enough to shake your existing beliefs. I'm still waiting for that moment.

    I've spent time searching for something to believe in. In the past I read a lot of Alan Watts, and I even read your Druidry handbook back in undergrad. I was always drawn to nature based faiths. I remember whenever I would go hiking in the woods by myself I had this overwhelming feeling like I was searching for something. I was desperate to encounter something, anything, outside my normal experience that might point to a hidden world. I never found it.

    I've had some uncanny experiences. I remember backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, my Uncle and I, far in the back country, camped near a lake. We hiked out onto a rocky ridge one night, my uncle was showing me constellations. Then, behind us an incredibly bright light started shining from out of nowhere. We turned to see the full moon rising, centered directly over the triangular peak of a mountain at the end of the valley. It was incredible, at the time it felt like something magical.

    Now though, it just feels like dumb luck, the right place, at the right time, with the right mindset. I will never forget that moment, but I don't feel like I was communicating with the earth/lunar spirits or anything, at least not anymore.

    How do you separate experiences from normal to spiritual. Is everyone who hears voices communicating with a spirit? Or are many of them genuinely suffering a mental/biological condition and nothing more?

    As I said before, I wish I could believe in something. Another Uncle of mine lost his battle with cancer 5 days ago. Most of my family members are certain in their belief that he is in heaven watching over us, with my grandpa. I wish that was the case, if there is a heaven, he deserved to make the cut. But to me, he is just gone, and it fills me with despair. Death terrifies me even though I know there is no stopping it. I just try to enjoy this brief flicker of life we are all miraculously given.

    I know you can't fix this dilemma for me. I just wanted you to know that not all of us materialist are militant. Some of us feel completely lost in a vast and incomprehensibly beautiful cosmos of which we came into being by miraculous chance.

  43. Another great post. As usual, I find I have fifty different thoughts trying to speak themselves at the same time…

    Thought 1: A friend of mine from work recently got into mystical practices and has been working with lucid dreaming, using the book Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. He's been having success, but came to me with a problem: Strange creatures have been appearing in his bedroom after he wakes up!

    I asked a few questions, and found that, among other things, he'd neglected the practice the protective invocations prescribed by the book before going to sleep. I told him to make sure to do so, and that he could use the same invocations to protect himself if the entities became hostile, and gave a few other pieces of advice. The rest of our conversation went roughly like this:

    Him: “Okay, but what were they?”

    Me: “Well… The scientific explanation is probably REM cross over.”

    “What's that?”

    “Basically, dream-stuff appearing in the physical world.”

    “Okay. What's the occult explanation?”

    “Dream stuff. Appearing in the physical world.”

    “That's… exactly the same.”

    “Yep. The only difference is, we give you some idea of how to deal with it.”

    Thought 2: I really appreciated the discussion of natural and prophetic religion, and especially the observation that these represent poles, with a lot of area in between. I personally feel like I need aspects of both the ritualized Christianity I grew up with and the animistic paganism that has also kind of been natural to me since childhood. By themselves, I don't see any reason that this should be a problem.

    The ocean exists. It is bigger than me, and it's always been a big part of my life. It either has consciousness and personhood, or it doesn't. I think, with the vast majority of humanity over the vast majority of our history, that the ocean does indeed have consciousness and personhood, even if it's of a type that I can't quite understand. But that has no bearing whatsoever on what I think about a figure like Jesus or Buddha.

    To put it another way, I think it's likely that most Christians return home from church and pet their cats or feed their dogs, whom they regard as beings with minds (which is, of course, a modern way of saying beings with souls.) Cats and dogs are beings with souls, and there is a proper way of interacting with them– because they are less powerful than we are, we have to care for them, sometimes stop them from doing things we know they shouldn't, and in general take responsibility for their welfare. The oceans, the mountains, the sky, the land– if these are also ensouled beings, and they are, then there is a proper way to interact with them. And it makes sense that, instead of reinventing wheels that have been spinning for at least 40,00 years, we would make use of the traditions, practices, names and stories that our ancestors did. I have no idea why so many churchgoers can't understand this, but it's the major thing that keeps me away from any Christian church, which is something I regret.

  44. One of the ideas from this month's post resonated particularly for me: folk tradition in China offering bothersome ghosts veneration as minor deities with the possibility of promotion later if that veneration produced good results. I've always been struck by the description in the gospels of Jesus' reappearance after the crucifixion. In the versions that I've read, the disciples seem really freaked out when he shows up again. I can't say I blame them–I'd be freaked out too. I'm wondering now about Jesus' ghost accepting veneration and, since the conditions were favorable, a quick promotion up the spiritual hierarchy.

  45. John,

    The other day I started the practice of actually writing down my abstract thoughts so that I might get them down into a less fleeting form. I became transfixed by the “pervasive blindness to whole systems” that is so common among the science and progress minded. I was wondering if you could direct me in the direction of the roots of this blindness? The sole reason scientist cant cure cancer is the same reason they are blind to whole systems. Also are there any magical dimensions to this blindness?

    Also are you going to talk about theophagy? I wonder if during the Pleistocene age of mega-fauna we learned to worship the largest mammals around and subsequently eat them.

    Best wishes,
    Andrew Crews

  46. Vera, we know next to nothing about the Neolithic transition, since we don't have any written accounts of those who actually witnessed it. I tend to shy away from speculations about prehistory, precisely because you can project anything onto that particular inkblot!

    Indrajala, many thanks for this. All things considered, I'm not surprised that the history of Buddhism got rewritten by Western scholars — the history of religion in the West has been put through similar distortions often enough.

    Onething, I see Darwinian evolution as a learning process, for whatever that's worth! Funny that you should mention the platypus; the essay I was trying to remember had Bacchus, very drunk, creating a sequence of increasingly silly animals, culminating in the platypus…

    Scotlyn, have you considered the possibility that not every body may be perceptible by the extremely narrow range of senses human beings happen to have?

    Shane, Christianity's a rich and very deep tradition; I just wish more of its practitioners were a little less insecure about their own faith, and thus more easily able to tolerate the faiths of others.

    Hereward, Vedanta's a path to a particular set of spiritual experiences, and in the currently popular westernized form of the tradition, it doesn't have a lot to do with gods. (My understanding is that traditional forms of Vedanta in India pay a lot more attention to the role of the Isvara or personally worshipped deity as mediator between atman and Brahman.) The point I'd make, though, is that Vedanta's not the only game in town; if that's the path you want to walk, may it be blessed, but there are many other paths that involve a lot of interactions with deities, and those can also take you worthwhile places.

    It's been popular for quite a while to claim that all religions and spiritual paths are different routes up the same mountain. With all due respect, I disagree. From everything I've experienced, different paths can lead to very different places — the dissolution of the individual mind in the Universal Mind Vedanta offers is not the same thing as the salvation of the uniquely individual human soul that Christ offers, say, and there are other paths as well. I prefer to stand the metaphor on its head, and say that all religions start in the same village, which we can call ordinary human consciousness, and they take different routes that very often climb different mountains, each of which offers a unique view of the landscape.

    Flameinbloom, I've seen the same thing over and over again. Have you ever watched an atheist insist that he knows more about some other person's polytheist religion than the polytheist does, and proceed to insist that the polytheist must believe in all these caricatured monotheist beliefs, because that's what religion is? I have.

    Raven, funny. For what it's worth, I have no difficulty whatsoever believing in the doctrine of the Real Presence; if a god can bridge the immense existential gap necessary to incarnate in a human body, he can certainly incarnate just as easily in a cup of wine and a piece of bread.

    Synthase, depends on where you are and what specific traditions interest you. We have a saying in Druidry: “There ain't no such thing as one true way.”

  47. Alexander, and that's also a perfectly valid approach. When I said that my squeamishness about dead things was a personal matter, I meant it — if death and the relics of the dead work for you as focal points for spiritual practice, then by all means go ye forth and work with that. In a traditional Pagan society, you and I would simply go to different temples and shrines to make our offerings, without any sense of conflict or contradiction; as the old Neoplatonists used to say, each human soul has its natural place among the companions of one of the gods or goddesses, and will eventually find its way there.

    Logan, good. Now compare the behavior Orual is complaining about to the behavior of lovers, who flirt, tease, whisper and murmur, drawing closer to one another only a little at a time, and keep some mystery even at the closest moments…

    Steven, good. In some sense, a top-down approach can't be avoided — we always sort out our experiences in terms of our mental models of experience — but that habit needs to be controlled as tightly as possible, so it doesn't get in the way of the data.

    Scotlyn, with me, it's just an emotional reaction. Everything goes back into the cycle eventually; some things, like relics and dinosaur fossils, just take longer than others.

    Dylan, delighted to hear it. Since Lewis seems to be the author du jour, I'd remind you of this comment by the Priest of Ungit from Till We Have Faces:

    “I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

    Agent, respect and courtesy will normally get you good relations with most categories of being, yes. As for Druidry, it's probably worth noting that the Druid Revival, which got under way in the 18th century, has as far as we know no historical connection at all with the ancient Druids of Patrick's day, much less before then. Insofar as contemporary Druidry gets along well with other faiths, that's a function of what modern Druids have made of their tradition, not of any ancient lineage.

    Ozark, my answer is simply that some things are like cooking, and some things are like electrical engineering or brain surgery. My experience is that any spirituality that goes beyond simple devotion, a bit of theology, and the kind of ritual that doesn't bring through any real power, is closer to the latter than the former. Of course, your mileage may vary!

    Varun, I don't know that it's a necessary feature of monotheism to get swept up in frenzied persecution of those who dare to disagree with the alleged One True Way, but that's happened often enough in history, granted.

    Emmanuel, fair enough. Taking that theory as your starting point, can you make testable predictions about the behavior of deities? I mean that quite seriously — it's past time that we find out whether or not some form of the scientific method can be used to put theologies to the test, and compare them to the facts of religious experience.

  48. Angelus, that's something that will probably have to get a post of its own, because Gnosticism is a far more complex phenomenon than its modern interpreters sometimes like to admit. The sort of hard dualism that contrasts “this world,” with all its itchy eyes and jobs that suck, with a world of the spirit that lacks all such inconveniences, is only one expression of the old Gnosis, and it has some serious problems of its own. I'll see if I can work in a post on gnosis and Gnosticism in the near future.

    SLClaire, there can definitely be something refreshing about a bit of postmodernism here and there — it's when it becomes the only spice in the stew that it gets cloying!

    DaShui, nah, Druidry doesn't have popes — I'm the head of one order, and not the largest, either — and I wasn't the one who was officiating at the ceremony, either.

    Anthony, as long as you go looking for some external event that will make you give up your rationalist faith, you'll look in vain. You have to make the choice freely, yourself, to let go of it and follow another path; nobody and nothing else will do that for you.

    Steve, thank you! “The only difference is, we give you some idea how to deal with it” is a first-rate keeper. As for the possible common ground between Christianity and nature worship, I hope to see that become more common as the old religious sensibility winds down; both sides have so much to gain by it.

    Stacy, you know, that may be the most creative Christology I've encountered in the last five years!

    Andrew, that's a huge issue — the blindness to whole systems, after all, is far and away the most important of the tangle of voluntary blindnesses that are dragging modern industrial civilization down to ruin. I'll see what I can say about that as we proceed. Still, you know the way magic works; if I knew the source of it, it would be possible to strike at that and break the spell. The root will be well hidden.

    As for theophagy, I hadn't planned on saying much about it, no. Since as far as I know nobody got any Pleistocene hunters on video talking about their spiritual relationships with mammoths, anything that could be said about that would be the most arbitrary speculation, you know.

  49. @Alexander Marcus, you are absolutely correct, of course, and the fact that every living thing is biodegrading all the time does not specify a rate at which this happens, or prescribe a rate at which it must. For myself, I spend a lot of time with the dead in the form of my compost heap, which at times may contain the remains of a stillborn lamb, but I think it is the process of decay and decomposition and its essential contribution to life that fills me with wonder and curiosity.

    I have to tell you your first post was very interesting, and if you don't mind the advice of an old biddy, please do follow your heart into the mortuary/funerary arts if they continue to draw you. The teaching may be heavy with cultural nuance, but you can take away what works for you and also create something special.

    As people approach the transitional edge from life to death they do contemplate the manner in which they wish to traverse it, and I have witnessed a yearning on the part of many for a different path to the culturally prescribed one.

  50. Thanks for another interesting post. Three comments:

    1. The rise of the new (universalist, abstract, detached) religious sensitivity of the axial age parallels the invention of coinage and widespread anonymous markets at about the same time. David Graeber notes this fact and adds: “While the precise links are yet to be fully explored, in certain ways, these religions appear to have arisen in direct reaction to the logic of the market. To put the matter somewhat crudely: if one relegates a certain social space simply to the selfish acquisition of material things, it is almost inevitable that soon someone else will come to set aside another domain in which to preach that, from the perspective of ultimate values, material things are unimportant, and selfishness – or even the self – illusory.”

    Charles Eisenstein writes: “I mentioned the idea that we have created a god in the image of our money: an unseen force that moves all things, that animates the world, an “invisible hand” that orders human activity, non-material yet ubiquitous. Many of these attributes of God or spirit go back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers who developed their ideas at precisely the time that money took over their society. According to Seaford, they were the first to even distinguish between essence and appearance, between the concrete and the abstract—a distinction completely absent (even implicitly) from Homer.”

    2. I'm really interested in the idea of worshiping the God of Jewish tradition in a polytheistic context. I even wrote about it a while ago (in Hebrew…). Demands a lot of chutzpah from the worshiper (the denial of other gods is the founding act of Jewish tradition), but worth exploring…

    3. Official Jewish tradition takes monotheism seriously, and takes great precaution not to create a pantheon. Therefore it doesn't have a relics culture, and the standard explanation for why Moses' burial place was hidden is to prevent him from becoming an object of worship. But popular traditions sanctifying saints' graves were never successfully suppressed.

  51. JMG & all
    I might, if I may, add a jotting on the different practice of temples. I have visited many megalithic sites in N/W Europe: New Grange (about 5200 years BP) and other sites in Eire and many in Brittany including now isolated menhir, as well as many of the later henge sites in Britain as well as our earlier Long Barrow sites.

    We seem from the archaeology these days to know a bit more about the final flourish of this Neolithic civilisation. Our household’s occasional TV-watching caught with some synchronicity a programme about Stonehenge the other night. (This article in Science Jan 2014 contains some of the information if you have access http://www.sciencemag.org/content/343/6166/20.full)

    They identified at least 60 cremation burials apparently in a fully active temple – some meticulous forensics was required. There was some interesting chronology. The Stonehenge that we see was a late construction 4600 years ago on a 500 year old site, which then rapidly fell out of use. There was other interesting data connecting the site with Orkney Islands some 700 miles north, including cattle having been driven down those 700 miles, which is remarkable enough, but there was a different part of the story that totally nonplussed me concerning the last stretch of ‘avenue’ track way that leads directly into the Stonehenge monument.

    Like the monument itself this bit of the avenue is oriented both to the midwinter sunrise and the summer sunset at our latitude. According to their archaeology the twin parallel grooves that defined this path and its orientation not only pre-dated the earliest construction of the monument but was actually a geological feature dating from the Ice Age. It just happened to be in the precise direction to found a solar-oriented temple! My first reaction was, “you have to be joking!” The archaeologists assume that those orientation-minded people found the grooves mysteriously laid in the ground in the right direction and took it from there. I remain a bit incredulous.

    Then I was reminded that not far from here there is a ‘sacred ridge walk’ and just below it a large boulder with a 5 or more foot hole through it discovered by a couple who became friends of mine. Boulders (‘erratic’ rocks from glacial deposition) are common enough and shorter holes and grooves worn by water not that unusual. But what is more than unusual is that this boulder is tilted so that the narrow hole on average IIRC less than 2 inches in diameter is oriented along that same solstice axis at an angle to intercept both the eastern and western horizon. The friends took some fine shots of the sun blazing through the rock as it rose above the eastern sea or dropped below the western rim of the hill. They got an archaeologist up there to look but he was having none of it – so it goes.

    best
    Phil

  52. @JMG: ” the essay I was trying to remember had Bacchus, very drunk, creating a sequence of increasingly silly animals, culminating in the platypus…”

    I never ran across the essay, but Leslie Fish has a delightful song called “The Gods Are Not Crazy”, with the premise that some occult phenomena are due to the gods getting drunk on an unusually good batch of ambrosia. (The mead of poetry?) You'd have to do an online search for her work; it was known only to the s/f community way back when and may be out of print now, but I think not. She's a polytheist and has a pawky sense of humor.

  53. JMG, thanks for the suggestion of bodies not “ordinarily” perceptible. I shall think on this.

    As to Alexander M and myself, I suspect we each have a “morbid” interest that, from sightly different directions, might tweak others' sense of “squick”… but not so different either… biophilia at a 90deg angle, so to speak.

  54. OK, that makes more sense. I guess I've always gravitated toward things that can be learned more through grasping the concepts and then improvising and learning from trial and error, and some things just don't work that way. I never even considered becoming a brain surgeon.

    I guess I have a knee jerk reaction that comes from all the times in my life that people have told me that I was doing everything all the wrong way and I ended up successful anyway. It's also true that my preferred method of learning is much better suited to some situations than others, and this may be one of the areas where I need to change my method.

    However it seems like there are at least a few people out there who've done some interesting things without necessarily sticking to one system. I wonder if you're familiar with Robert Monroe and what your opinion of him is, I recently read his book “Journeys Outside of the Body”. I haven't read anything else of his although I've heard this first one is his best. Even though he seems pretty “Old Sensibility”, his perspective on his experiences and the way he writes about them seem way easier to relate to than any others on the non material planes that I've read. For some reason he doesn't like the term astral or any other term that is associated with the occult so I guess he's reinventing the wheel in some sense. I guess the thing that makes him so unusual is that he just started having these experiences without any prior interest in the subject, but then once he had them was open minded enough to start exploring. It seems like few people have experiences anywhere close to as intense as his without the sort of practices that you describe.

  55. @ Anthony Romano

    Anthony, you've provided your own excellent example of why you can't find anything magical. You've provided an account of a magical-seeming event, to experience which you had to be at a particular place at a particular time with a particular mindset, and you say it was just dumb luck that these all coincided. So for you, “luck” cannot be magical.

    This suggests that, for you, an event is either determined – in which case it cannot be produced by magic – or it is the result of chance (or 'dumb luck') – in which case it cannot be produced by magic. You have divided the world up in such a way that magic will always be excluded.

    Just suppose that some benevolent being wanted you to have that magical-seeming experience. I'm not saying it did, but just suppose. Suppose that it knew that if you were just there at just that time you would have an experience that you would never forget. You think that you and your uncle went to that place of your own accord, but what lay behind your decision? Remember that according to both neuroscience and psychology we do not initiate our actions consciously. We can stop them consciously, but not start them. So there was plenty of room for a benevolent being to intervene.and guide you to just that place at just that time. Yet you rule it out a priori as “dumb luck”.

    I suggest that, if you want to find the magical, one of the ways to start would be to tell yourself that nothing happens by chance. There is no such thing as “dumb luck”. (I am not suggesting that the magical is limited to so-called chance events, merely that this is a good place for you to start.)

    Remember that the behaviour of elementary particles is strictly random, yet you know exactly what a friend of yours will do in a given situation. So cascading layers of probability from particles to atoms to molecules to cells in the muscles and nerves and brain result in your friend doing something quite predictable. The implication is that whether we regard something as random or not is simply a matter of the level of organisation we are considering. If something happens, then at some level something wants it to happen. Before the event, you yourself did not consciously want to have your magical experience, but something wanted you to have it.

  56. JMG,

    Yes, I knew I was making a bit of leap. I did so for the sake of brevity. Let me be less brief here.

    As you no doubt you know, “Celtic Christianity” is as much a scholarly creation as any other historical notion. It does have the advantage over “historic Druidry” in that there are far more artifacts to put together a good story. Celtic Christianity has the further advantage of having a story that (almost … or more or less) brings us to the present whereas there is a enormous chronological break in the story of historic Druidry and the story of modern Druidry.

    I'm not comparing religions to suggest any one is superior. I'm just comparing different but overlapping products of that creative process called “history”.

    Is there any continuity between story of historic Druidry and the story of modern Druidry? There is likely to be some given the later is inspired by the former. Admittedly “some” in this case is almost nothing. Nonetheless, there is a spirit that I think is imperfectly recreated. The two share many elements that make the common term “Druid” more than an inappropriate culture appropriation from the past.

    Interestingly (at least to me), one thin thread of actual historical continuity between historic Druidry and modern Druidry may be elements of Celtic Christianity itself. Its the emphasis on nature and a relaxed approach to dogma and authority that makes so called Celtic Christianity different from other forms of Christianity. Modern Druidry seems to have largely retained these elements from its (Celtic) Christian influenced beginning. I admit that these “facts” are too thin to constitute historic proof. They fall into that realm that some adventurous historians might, when in a generous mood, grace with the term “conjecture”. I won't write more on these themes as you have written at least one book that addresses them.

    There is a analogy to folk music here. For every tune there are often several versions. This is so even when the creator of the tune is still alive to tell us (if he can remember correctly) what the original was. People in a given place just play what works for them. Faithfulness to the original is a guide but not a deciding factor. A tune can be embellished, improvised on, or even “improved” . A dead tune can be resurrected from an imperfect manuscript and then radically changed. There is continuity and there isn't all in the same tune. Or is it the same tune? The search for authenticity or appeals to tradition are largely pointless in this context. Its not entirely formless though. Harmony and faithfulness to the core motifs (however modified) are important constraints.

    So it is with religions or any other cultural meme. The important thing is what is happening now and what works. A historical perspective is helpful but certainly not the last word.

  57. I wonder if you might go into a bit more detail about your comment to Andrew, “Still, you know the way magic works; if I knew the source of it, it would be possible to strike at that and break the spell.”

    As you know, I'm fairly new to magic, having started practicing 25 months ago this Thursday. There is a lot I don't understand, and I'd like to see if I can think this through…

    Humans think in stories. A spell, in this context, is a story woven to have a particular effect on the mind of the target audience. An effective one, I suppose, takes on a life of its own, as less self-aware storytellers, artists and filmmakers, retell the same story again and again, and people live that story as though it were simple fact.

    The corollary to “Humans think in stories, which they then act out” would be “at the root of any cultural behavior pattern is a story.” It would seem, also, that that story is often well-hidden.

    So, for example, a few months back someone mentioned a James Randi routine where he “takes a fatal dose” of a homeopathic remedy. The effect is to strongly bias his audience against homeopathy, so that they don't try homeopathic medicine and also try to stop others from making, selling or using homeopathics, and possibly also to create a reverse placebo effect, in case they do try it. The whole thing is done in the context of “stage magic,” in which seemingly miraculous results are agreed upon by all to be “fake”– ironically, this “fake magic” is, by this telling, a very effective magical tool employed in the service of militant rationalism and disenchantment. And at the root of the “fatal dose of homeopathic medicine” is a story about the nature of medicine which includes the idea “All real medicine is poisonous.”

    So how would you “strike at the root of it” and break the spell? It seems like this is easier said than done. It would be one thing, for example, to simply use homeopathics or another form of nontoxic medicine and have it work. That would go a long way, but it wouldn't necessarily break the spell because the part of the mind ensorcelled by rationalism has defenses, like, “That was only a coincidence.” For some reason, this seems to work even where it's very easy to prove that the odds against chance are astronomical, as in the example of the nightmare and the heart transplant.

    Hmm. So perhaps the root is even deeper? The idea of “coincidence” itself is dependent on a story. What story? The definition is “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.” The word coincidence, meanwhile, often is accompanied by or at least implies “meaningless.” But these ideas, “unconnected” and “meaningless” are themselves dependent on a conception of the universe in which it is possible for things to be meaningless. We pretend that “meaning” is something imposed upon the universe by the human mind while “meaninglessness” is neutral, but in fact, both “meaning” and “meaninglessness” are experienced by humans, and neither is necessarily native to anything but the human mind. So why choose meaninglessness? At this point it's easy to point to the actual historical moments when meaninglessness was chosen, arbitrarily and as part of a religious and not rationalist worldview, by the founders of the scientific revolution.

    But at that point, haven't you reeled things back a bit too far? Do you have to get all the way back every time? How *would* you break the spell? Am I just rambling at this point, or am I on to something?

  58. Interesting stuff. I wonder if, while the monotheists and atheists think they are battling it out for world supremacy, the ground is shifting under their feet, and there is a groundswell of interest in less totalitarian options – paganism, nature religions, various forms of magic, etc.

    A few things that come to mind as interesting options are the psychedelic experience, UFOs, and chaos magic:

    Psychedelics, because it brings many people into direct contact with what seem to be very real discarnate intelligences. Terence McKenna is famous for the idea that psilocybin, DMT, etc. open channels of communication with alien entities. I’m already seeing people talk about McKenna the way other believers talk about their prophets. Maybe this is a new religion in the making?

    UFOs, because again it’s a direct experience with alien intelligences. The UFO scene has a definite cultish aspect that could become the basis of a new religiosity, particularly if the right “prophet” comes along. One could make the case that several recognized prophets were basically UFO contactees.

    Chaos magic – by which I mean taking any mythos at all, including movies, comic books, etc., and turning it into an object of cultish devotion – brings the entire multiverse of imagination into the domain of religion. Look at the popularity of the Star Wars mythos, and the real Jedi orders it has inspired, or the cultishness of cosplayers and fantasy fandom, and you can see the beginnings of possible new religions.

    You’re probably familiar with Chaos magician Peter Carroll’s model of the evolution of religious belief: Paganism -> Monotheism -> Atheism -> Nihilism -> Chaoism -> Superstition, and the cycle repeats. This seems fairly plausible; from where I sit, increasing numbers of people are in stage 4, 5 or 6, if not back to Paganism already.

  59. Steve Dillon 2/22 @ 1:08 pm

    It seems your proposal would require some forethought. But I had a life changing experience when I was a Christian, and so of course I interpreted it thus, however, over time it revealed more truth to me than could be contained within it, so I had to adjust to what seemed to be the case.

    John Roth 2/22 @ 3:22 pm
    You said I might reconsider, but it sounds like you are saying that there is scholarly work that corroborates what I said, and it makes a lot of sense, too. I just can't see why people believe that, given human nature, scriptures could be pure and uncorrupted.

    Indrajala,

    “The whole monotheistic thing still frightens me. Crazy seems to emerge when people think the have divine writ to do whatever they want.”

    You might be confusing monotheism with revealed religion and scriptures. There is no particular reason why monotheism need be that way, and I am sure there are many examples of revelation and direction from deities that give plenty of divine direction, and it even seems to me that Jehovah was quite warlike in the time when he was not the only god. I think it is historical rewriting that pretends Jehovah was always thought of as the ultimate Creator and only god. For one thing, there was the God El, and now they pretend it is the same, but I think not.

  60. Angelus @ 2/22 9 pm

    I struggle with gnostic attitudes as well. When I first read about gnosticism, I resonated with almost all of it but completely rejected their attitude towards this world, which I saw as infused with joy and holiness. But then, I was rather high in those days.
    It does seem, if you squint your eyes a bit, that actually this world is a kind of beautiful hell.
    +++++
    In thinking about the root of blindness to whole systems, consider greed, hubris and, closely related to hubris, a kind of ignorance of attitude, a profound lack of respect.
    +++++++

    If people are interested in the dead and from a funerary point of view, I recommend the Japanese movie “Departures.”

    Ozark, If I recall correctly, I thought that Monroe's 3rd book was the best.

  61. Hi JMG,

    The change from polytheistic nature gods to prophetic monotheism looks rather linear. Even more so if you add animism to the beginning of the sequence. Then it almost looks like 'progress' from very concrete gods to abstract gods.

    Once the abstract religious ideas have become dysfunctional, some new form of religion will appear. In a cyclical view of history this would probably be a return to the nature gods and polytheism.

    But why not top the cycle off with some form of deeply experienced pantheism? One in which you actually can experience a tree as being sacred because it a part of a living god. This is similar to how some mystics seem to have experienced the divine, I think. It would constitute something like a compromise between abstract monotheism and concrete nature religions. Moreover, such a form of pantheism would also see nature as sacred and treat it with respect. Such a religion could also prevent future civilisations from causing as much environmental destruction as our civilisation has done.

    A less important but very intriguing aspect that you have avoided in your post, is how the gods themselves experienced the transition from concrete nature gods to a single abstract deity. Did they have any motives to make/let the abstraction to prophetic religion happen? Since the prophetic religions are revealed, the founder of such a religion must have had an encounter with the divine. That implies that the transition to monotheism was actively encouraged by the gods.

    Did all the gods come together and decide (maybe unanimously) to pretend to be a single deity? Did the gods do this just to see what would happen (as an experiment or for fun) or did the gods have a (serious) plan. It might also be that a single deity did it without asking permission from his colleges. Then it would be somewhat like a coup in the divine world (e.g. by jehovah).

  62. @ Scotlyn
    I love the phrasing of “biophilia at 90 degree angles.”

    And I agree about the wonder and curiosity at the functions of decay and decomposition for creating and sustaining life, and extend it to the role of death in sustaining life (which is the fundamental concept in the prayer I say before eating).

    And to paint a bit clearer of a picture: my morbid and macabre interests are definitely a background presence. I don't often seek out the kinds of experiences I described as meaningful to me, but I do sincerely appreciate them when they happen.

    As far as the Mortuary/Funerary career path, the other reason I haven't pursued it is that upon reflection I realized that I am more attracted to the reverential/religious/spiritual side. I would be staggeringly honored to preside over a funeral, and (and even I think this is a bit strange) expect to at some point.

  63. @Steve Thomas
    For what it's worth, I definitely think you're on to something, and will be thinking about the points you've raised. As an aside, the structure and flow of the train of thought you've described reminds me of my more fruitful sessions of meditation.

  64. Alexander Marcus, I suspect you will so do. And there will always be deaths and funeral ceremonies, and people wanting and needing help around the edges of such powerful transitions. Death and suffering cannot (in my opinion) be separated from the fabric of life, but loneliness (also in my opinion) is NOT built in. A part of this kind of work is simple “companioning” or “alongsidership”… A critically important lifepath.

    I can tell you also that the relative we cared for who suffered from dementia began to be much concerned with the details of his funeral and burial during the last three years he lived with us, up to his death. We had long conversations about where & in what suit & what priest & what prayers and so on… My job to reassure his spirit that all would be done exactly as he requested. And so it was. We held a two day Irish wake at our home to which EVERYONE turns up. The Irish do wakes very, very well.

    I just want you to know that, though it may not seem so to the young, these details do become intensely personal concerns to anyone approaching their death. And someone who will take that care & treat it with due respect will be much in demand.

  65. @dadaharm – your question re the godly POV on all this seems so obvious now you've raised it… VERY interesting.

    @Alexander Marcus – two films I've enjoyed that might fall under the genre macabre humour – “Harold and Maude” and “Waking Ned”. Also a really fabulous deathbed vigil drama “The Big Fish”

  66. While I don't really dispute the general validity of the nature/prophetic distinction, reality on the ground is certainly more subtle. Coming from the backlands of a backland country, 'Christianity' and Catholicism/folk Catholicism seem very different to me.

    Theological works and the living religious beliefs and practices of the people are not quite the same thing. And yet, whenever there's talk of Christianity it appears to me that what is being talked about is some Protestant theology. For instance, I'd say the main divinity of our pantheon is Our Lady, the mother of God. God Himself is too far away and too abstract for most people. Next comes an army of beings from the saints and angels down to the spirits of our forefathers. And they are not just some abstract concepts, but active in the daily life and in the mythic origins of our flora, fauna and history.

    And yet this never shows up except as some footnote when there's talk of Christianity. Instead of the constanly appearing, forgiving and sweet heavenly mother, there's only talk of the ineffable violent desert god who hasn't directly communicated with us in millennia. Instead of the lives and sentences of the saints, there's only talk of the life and sentences of Christ.

    Instead of focusing on the Bible or some big name theologian, I think a good start for people who are not ready to give up their attachment to Christ and the Christian tradition might be found in the lives of the saints, French Hermeticism, French and German Romanticism, the Catholic and Orthodox mystics, and, if they are from a Catholic/Orthodox region, the local folklore.

  67. Brother Greer points out that up to a third of the population will admit to experiencing something supernatural. I submit that this is probably one of the crazy-making attributes of our modern societies: if one started a conversation about such an experience, in specifics, with acquaintances, all hearing would suggest that one needed to see a shrink. The level of trust we need to have to talk about the most impersonal supernatural experiences is greater than that required to talk about the most personal physical experiences.
    Other, less modernized societies, are somewhat more willing to accept the existence of supernatural experiences, though they don't seem to necessarily be any saner about their reactions to them.

  68. @Emmanuel, it's good to meet a fellow porteño on this blog. I've started working on the same magical path last December and I'm currently on the Fourth Gate of the Sphere of Protection.

    Concerning the SoP, I got last Thursday external confirmation that I'm doing it right. During one team meeting at work one of my coworkers was friendly teasing the only lady here, who also happens to be a practising Witch. So I told him it's not a good idea to anger a Witch. In response to that she faked anger and began to move the energies around my coworker and I, “cursing” us in jest (not really doing it actually). As I expected, when she did that to my coworker she didn't found any problems. But when she attempted the same on me her face changed and she said “You did something”. It was then that I told her for the first time about the Sphere of Protection Ritual.

  69. Archdruid,

    I'm with omerori on this. I would like to add the Abrahamic god to my pantheon. I've had good experiences with that god on occasion and don't want to reject him off-hand. I'm worried that it'll cause conflict in my Pantheon because of that whole “I'm the only true god, all these other gods just be imitating” thing.

    Onething,

    That comment about crazy and monotheism was actually from me, not Indrajala. 🙂

    I get why it happened. That region has had more armies march through it that we can probably count, but it still makes me deeply uncomfortable.

    Regards,

    Varun

  70. For a while now I've assumed that gods exist in something like what I understand to be the classical polytheistic sense, but haven't had much urge to interact with them in any way.

    This post has gotten me curious, and has made me ponder in what ways I would like to interact with deities, assuming I were to.

    What I've come up with is this: devotion to gods of a certain category, such as psychopomps, or deities of liminal spaces. Not devotion to the category, mind you, but to a group of specific individuals in the category, crossing pantheon divisions (so one Greek psychopomp, one Chinese psychopomp, etcetera).

    Understanding that my experience will be my own, and that I won't really know until I try, I would like to hear if anyone knows of a precedent for this sort of devotion, and of how it worked out (or didn't).

    Thanks.

  71. JMG,
    I think it could be possibly to make that testable predictions, but at this point my theory lacks a good deal of the explanations that are necessary to make those predictions you mention. For instance, I see a gap in the interaction between mind and spirit, that I don't have much idea how to solve.
    What I can say now, is that, even as a child, I have been prone to thought that the miracles attributed to God were better explained as magical phenomena. To pray resembles pretty much magical practice, as I see it. And if God is too big as to notice us, and we are too little as to grasp Him, then probably the consequences of praying to Him would be better explained as a magical practice. Or maybe there also are some more parroquian gods or goddesses answering that prayers, even if they were not asked to them; could it be?
    In any case, in a more general order, I think it would be necessary to not fall into a kind of spiritual reductionism, and to take into account all the relevant materialist explanations, in order to grasp the reality of spiritual phenomena, if that's what one wants to do. What's for the brain and what's for the spirit, would be a must to know, to say it simply.
    Nevertheless, and more importantly, don't you think it would be terribly dangerous if someday there is something like “scientific magic”? I think it would be too much power, a lot more than that humans can handle without making disasters. Industrial system is the paradigmatic example of too much power in the hands of humans, and here we have the results: environmental destruction, loss of personal freedom, alienation, etc. I seriously think its better to preserve at least some of the “magic” of magic, you know.
    Greetings!

    Nicolas Costa,
    Hey, nice to know here is a neighbour! Really, the same magical path? That's great; and it's exciting to know that the SoP can begin to work so fast! Greetings!

  72. Ozark and JMG — reading the discussion between you two, I feel like I gotta chime in again. Magic is neither like cooking nor like electrical engineering. It is a much broader and deeper field than either of those, encompassing as it does the entirety of time and space and beyond.

    I have seen people achieve mastery through a structured tradition. And I have seen people build highly successful and highly eclectic magical practices by the seat of their pants. And I have seen people bogged down in the complex webs of minutia of a structured tradition. And I have seen people dabble in the puddles and flit like bnutterflies, never achieving any depth. And I have also seen people who have never studied a word in a magical text who can outconjure most of the self-proclaimed mages and wizards out there.

    People's minds are very different from each others. There is no approach that is generally best. Magic strikes at the root of your subconscious and intuition. These are realms where people are extremely diverse.

    An illustration of different minds can be seen on these two blogs between me and JMG. On the Archdruid Report, we are usually very closely aligned in our ideas and thinking. Over here, we are often very different, even diametrically opposed, in our approaches.

    Maybe it's more like playing music. Some people study in the conservatory. Others learn it on the back porch. The results are different for everyone. But which is “The Best?” That question, one could argue, does not even mean anything.

  73. Omerori, that's an interesting hypothesis — the invention of money as a synchronous phenomenon with the emergence of prophetic religion. I see the two as being very much akin — in both cases, a complex, time- and space-bound sense (of value or holiness) being replaced by an abstract universal that claims to be separate from specific circumstances.

    Phil, makes perfect sense to me: the gods laid down the pathway at Stonehenge, and human being recognized it and built accordingly!

    Patricia, now there's a blast from the past! I used to attend SF cons back in the day, and got to hear Leslie Fish in person a couple of times.

    Scotlyn, again, to each their own. I was asked on a podcast the other day to talk about how a normal person might begin to explore magic, and my immediate response is that I've never met this mythical being, the “normal person” — and I hope I never do, as I can't imagine anything half so dreary. Everyone I've ever met was either a strange being who was desperately pretending to be normal, or a strange being who had given up pretending and was a lot happier as a result.

    Ozark, it's possible to do interesting things outside of a training system, but the results tend to be very uneven. In my experience, even if you decide you want to reinvent the wheel, learning about how other people have made wheels is a really good idea, as it can get you past the common sources of failure a lot more quickly.

    Agent Provocateur, oh, granted. Thing is, there was a time when people in the Druid Revival used to claim an unbroken lineage they didn't have, and those of us who would rather be honest about the origins of our traditions have had to live that down for quite a while now — there are still people who drag out those old claims and use them as a club to belabor us. Thus my reaction…

    Steve, a thorough discussion of the points you raise would require a post of its own, or more than one, and since those are subjects I have in mind for future posts, I'll leave the thorough discussion until then. Very briefly, though: every malign spell has a lie at the heart of it, and if you can expose the lie in a way that the person under the spell can see and understand, the lie dissolves and takes the spell with it. It's like the old claim that a demon can never change itself wholly out of demonic form: there's always a hoof or a claw or something, and if you can train yourself to notice that, the illusion fails. More on this in another post.

    Brother N., yes, I'm familiar with Carroll's theory, and disagree with it — it's considerably too linear and rigid for my taste. Polytheism doesn't always turn into monotheism — monotheism is a culturally and ecologically specific phenomenon that happens to have been in the ascendant for the last few centuries for complex and historically specific reasons. Atheism, in turn, routinely gives way not to nihilism but to whatever religion the atheism came out of — in this case, I expect a lot of today's atheists to find their way back to Christianity and Judaism as the current fashion for evangelical atheism finishes its life cycle. But we'll see.

    Dadaharm, first, how can you “top off” a cycle? Second, all we can be sure of in terms of divine influence on the emergence of monotheism is that one or more gods supported it — doesn't mean all the rest did. A Gnostic might argue that the one god of monotheism was the Demiurge, a fallen spiritual power puffed up with pride, who was trying to cement his claim to power over the world by forbidding the worship of the Aeons! While I wouldn't necessarily go that far, I do wonder just what kind of spiritual power it was that urged so many people to slaughter those who failed to worship him…

  74. Pedro, remember that I live in the US and write from my own experience, which like everyone else's is necessarily local. I've read that folk Christianity in large parts of Europe and some parts of Latin America has taken on many of the features of a natural religion, but that's not something we see much of here. I suppose it would be helpful to stop talking about Christianity and start talking about Christianities, the very diverse group of religions that more or less unfold from the common historical source of the apostolic church, or were inspired by some aspect of the tradition in other ways!

    BoysMom, exactly. For many people in America today, spiritual experience is the last great taboo, the thing you do not talk about. I hope to help people get past that; it's one of the themes of this blog.

    Varun, by all means pursue that. I've been working with the Christ since I was consecrated an independent Gnostic bishop in 2004 — it's one of the things that came with becoming Grand Archdruid, for complicated historical reasons — and it hasn't actually been that hard to establish a working relationship.

    Alexander, I don't know of a precedent; in past Pagan societies, different psychopomps, and other deities of a single category, were generally identified with one another — Thoth with Hermes, for example.

    Emmanuel, people have been trying to come up with a scientific magic for a very long time. There are sharp limits to how far you can take it, for the simple reason that it's impossible to control all the variables in a mode of action that has to take the entire universe into account! That said, where it's possible to make testable predictions and test them, that's proven to be a useful thing, and has gotten rid of a lot of nonsense while helping to focus attention on things that work.

    Bill, if somebody asks me for my advice, I'm going to give them the answer that's worked best in my experience — for me, but also for my students and the people I know who've accomplished things of value in magical work. Of course that experience won't be the same as everyone else's! I tend to stress structure and systematic training, though, because our culture — and even more so, the Pagan and occult subculture from which so many people approach these things — so often rejects these things, and has created a culture of learned incompetence in which roleplaying and dress-up games substitute for the realities of magic and spirituality. Of course, as I noted to Ozark, your mileage may vary!

  75. Excellent as always!

    Some decades ago on an episode of “Saturday Night Live” one of the regulars, I think it was Bill Murray, portrayed an author being interviewed about his new book “The Myth of The Female Orgasm.”. The author played by Murray noted that he had had sex with over six hundred women and not one of them had really enjoyed it. He concluded from his data that women did not and probably could not enjoy sex.

    The problem here is that the sample size was one, and only one.

    Statistics is a very new game to humans–much of it post dates WWII, and colleges are barely catching up to Bayesian tests, which offer a very different set of tools than the “T” test- initially designed to test beer for taste and consistency without breaking the budget or holding up production too much. (Remember that much statistical validation is ultimately about applying standards for tasting beer to other things.)

    The point of Lovecraftian beasties was that they could not be meaningfully defined in human language or comprehended with human neurology. They kept changing in aspect, like Proteus, and I'm sure Lovecraft was thinking of the Cosmos as something that changes in appearance depending on the viewer. That is also a nice definition of madness, at least in much Victorian literature. Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story about a broken window that addressed this notion.

    There's at least one journal of Outsider Art–“Raw Vision” that features artists outside the mainstream art community. After reading quite a few issues, it seems that many many people use ritualized art as a means of expressing something important, powerful, and wordless that has happened to them. Manly Hall's drinking buddy William Mortensen wrote an essay on this titled “The Command To Look!” where he insists that real art is confrontational and has a visceral impact on the viewer. I would view Richard Shaver (of Hollow Earth and Deros fame) as a mythic 20th century artist, tapping the same zeitgeist as L.R.Hubbard, George Adamski and even Heinlein.

    An earlier poster (apologies for forgetting your name) asked about finding a spirituality on the pampas or similar biome in South America. May I humbly suggest my essay “Wild-Crafting Your Own Druidry” as a point of departure?

    Most religious movements in history seem to me to strive to be brand new and simultaneously revealing an old, forgotten group of truths. This may be why the deepest conflicts are with the denominations closest to them in origin or philosophy.

    Part and parcel of the mythos of scientism is that the recorder can/should/must be removed from the data they are reviewing. Since Galileo the West has demanded a perfect, unbiased researcher. Such a creature does not exist, and would not be of much value if they did. A corollary is that nothing prior to this decade's paradigms matter or ever existed. Current thoughts around a young,chaotic, free-wheeling solar system with at least 30 additional planetary bodies colliding, changing orbits etc. was so offensive in the late 1950's that leading astronomers had the publication of such a book yanked. Granted, Velikovsky had his time frame wrong by 3.9 plus billion years, but the existence of the “static solar system” paradigm that dominated astrophysics for several centuries has been quietly ret-conned out of existence in the current texts. This recapitulates the struggle between uniformitarianism and catastrophism, an odd binary that oscillates in our culture from time to time in and out of fashion.

  76. The contemporary leader of a major Tibetan buddhist tradition, the 17th Karmapa, has become a strong proponent of environmental protection and ecological awareness. This is how he began his address to the 23rd Mind & Life Conference. (Link to full address at bottom of post)

    I was born into a Drokpa (Tibetan nomad) family and spent the first years of my life in the wild eastern part of Tibet. We traveled with our animals from summer to winter grounds, setting up our yak-hair tents at each site. It was a simple existence and my daily joy consisted of exploring the nearby mountains with my pet goat. If I was lucky, I would see wild animals such as nawa (Tibetan argali, Ovis ammon hodgsoni) and shaba (white-lipped deer, Przewalskium albirostris) at close range. Sometimes, I would watch herds of kiang (Tibetan wild ass, Equus kiang) running across the grasslands.

    When I was 4 or 5 years old, there was a severe drought and the local spring in our camp began to dry up. Because I was considered an unusual child (although at that time, nobody knew I would later be recognized as the 17th Karmapa), our community requested my father ask me to plant a sapling at the source of the spring. I remember leading prayers with the aspiration that this tree would help provide water for all living beings nearby. Although I had no idea that what I was doing was an “environmental” act, or what watershed meant, my love for nature and dedication to protect the environment sprouted from this seed.

    http://www.ecobuddhism.org/wisdom/interviews/hhk2011

  77. It appears this first much longer comment never made it…

    JMG — I'm a little late to the party this week, wrapped up in dealing with those forces of nature…

    About your advocacy of picking a course of study and completing it..

    Of course I'd agree that this is where most people should start. However, one of the things that comes with acknowledgement of all these discarnate beings and intelligences is the possibility of acquisition of learning through non-ordinary means, sometimes rather extraordinary. This extraordinary learning cannot be scheduled and curriculumated, of course. If you are progressing well in an ordinary school of magical learning, you may be increasing the opportunities to encounter and recognize non-ordinary knowledge when it comes to you. But it also comes to people who are making no conscious effort to actively pursue it.

    I know in my case that in many ways I have learned as much, and perhaps more profoundly, in a few extraordinary events than it years of reading. These events tend to structure my book learning, in fact, and my studies become more of an exploration of how this extraordinarily encountered knowledge connects to existing conceptual structures.

    I remember well in the aftermath of one of the most intense and extraordinary of these events (which came upon me most unexpectedly), I turned to my companion (who was no sort of trained magical practitioner) and said, “I think I just completed my shamanic training…”

    I'm sure you, JMG, know exactly the type of happenings I am describing; others listening in, sorry to be a bit coy but these sorts of things are intensely personal and very hard (and often dangerous) to describe to people you don't know well. If it happens.

    Again, these things can sometimes be facilitated, but they can't be planned, organized, or commanded into being. And what you tend to get from them is a massive non-verbal, non-rational, emotionally-charged barrel full of wordless comprehension. Your conscious mind will only be able to organize it metaphorically, and you will only be able to speak about it metaphorically if at all. Because, well, it's not really from a human conscious mind.

    Sorry, I rambled. But I guess the point is that much knowledge does come from structured traditions. But some of it comes in thunderbolts. And to make sense of your own personal thunderbolt you indeed might find yourself dabbling in some pretty serious eclecticism.

  78. JMG, I realize this is a very minor point in comparison to your essay overall, still I'm curious enough to ask your opinion. Doesn't defining an entity as a demon or angel depend entirely on how the entity (or it's actions) is perceived by the practitioner?

  79. JMG — remember of course that the pupils you attract are heavily influenced by the persona you project. You're an Archdruid with a Dumbledore beard, ferkrissakes! Of course people looking for structure and tradition will come to you. And likely do well under your tutelage.

  80. @Emmanuel: if you like, you can reach me to: alediran at gmail dot com.

    I've taken that Path because my instinct tells me it's a good place to start. I all the things I've mastered I first started in the well-walked path, only after knowing it well I start experimenting with it. In the future, once I've mastered the teachings in the book I'll start adding my own. Which is the same path I followed when I started cooking.

  81. Maybe an important motivation for prophetic religions revering some utopia is rooted in the circumstances of their birth. Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism are all what Spengler called “second religiosity”. In other words, product of the late phase of an already decaying and dying culture. In that phase, things tend to go downhill, and if the world gets worse with every year passing, clinging to a utopia can be a meaningful reaction – especially if that utopia is located in some place where it can never be disproven, and the afterlife fully qualifies as such.

  82. With this essay, Mr. Greer, you've quite touched on a particular interest of mine. Even before I'd read your essays, I'd noticed the weird fact that around 600 BC, this whole wave of unworldliness-as-virtue began sweeping the Eurasian intellectual world, and how *weird* this was. That Plato & the Buddha should be almost exact contemporaries struck me as a particularly salient fact.

    So, I have a number of observations/questions:

    * Could the Ancient Greek focus on the gods as being embodied in a *human* form be seen as a bridge between the older religious sensibility and the more recent “worship of dead humans” one?
    * You mentioned that this religious sensibility appeared in the Americas (presumably in pre-Columbian times) as well – could you give an example of this? If true, it would make the whole thing even weirder, especially from an atheistic or spiritless point of view.
    * Does all this have anything to do with the Silence of the Oracles? And have you read Jaynes' “Breadown of the Bicameral Mind”? Jaynes' theory seems more at odds with what we know of biology or evolutionary theory than does explicitly saying “The Gods did it,” but he's at least asking interesting questions, and proposing interesting answers.
    * I wonder if all this worship of dead men mightn't have had something to do with the way that the literal hands of dead men had come to increasingly control the both physical and intellectual environments people lived in; from the massive irrigation works, roads, aqueducts, and cities built by generations past that increasingly took on the role of home, and were increasingly contrasted with a “threatening” “wilderness” of forest, desert, thorn and mountain; to the way that writing massively increased the institutional memories of kingdoms and bureaucracies, and let the whims of dead men more specifically dictate the lives and thoughts of the living.
    * Carnegie – one thing that always struck me about Milton's “Paradise Lost” was how it portrayed all of human history as a sort of side story to the chief drama of the War in Heaven; an insignificant side theater, like East Africa in the first World War. That said, I'm also charmed by your Discordian take on the Abrahamic tradition…
    * Kutamun – when I got to that part of Spengler, I kept finding myself “rooting” for Being over Waking-Being. The symbolism of blood, plant, soil, heartbeat, rhythm has always had a particular appeal to me. I guess more evidence as to which side of our host's proposed religious divide I am on.
    * Angelus & onething – all I can say is that, for me, all of my most powerful religious experiences have involved being placed in what felt like deep and intimate contact with *this world* and not another. And that while my life in between these moments has featured some periods of intense despair, those relatively few moments of full contact with this world have seemed to me to be fully worth all the misery experienced between them.
    * Omerori & JMG – that's a very, very interesting hypothesis. It reminds me of Havelock's “Preface to Plato,” in which he proposes that the abstraction central to Plato's philosophy was inspired by the increased use of writing for tasks more elaborate than basic accounting or memorial inscriptions; that he was responding to this increase in the abstractability of discourse by going full-abstraction. The similarity with your theory being the new sensibility as a response to an increased abstraction. (I'm also interested in the project of incorporating the Christian Trinity into a broader pantheon, and might point you all to the example of the various syncretic practices of Latin America for one case of it being done more-or-less successfully.)

  83. “you can also find people who see the first chapter of the Gospel of John as a ringing proclamation of the presence of Christ throughout living nature…”

    Oh yes. And some do not think of Christ as a dead man or creed-bound god, but as a living presence and teacher. And some think of the entire universe as god's body, and can simultaneously think of other gods as beings in their own right.

    And further, some can see that old stories of the gods, as Socrates pointed out, are only taken literally by the uninformed. Thus Artemis the virgin huntress, goddess of the moon, Apollo's twin, associated with bears, and deer, goddess of wild nature, protectress of women in childbirth: those stories about men getting destroyed for attacking her virginity? If we think about her not as a sort of “superhuman” surprised in the bath but as a locus for and expression of, or as the power of wild nature which can't be contained, or tamed, then I, at least, begin to understand that foolish humans who attack nature's inviolable systems–well, what might happen? If we lust after power over nature, what might happen?

    I've been rather overcome with meditating on this in my discursive sessions the past week or so. Sphere of Protection is going pretty well and seems helpful for everyday life.

  84. @nwlorax – statistics as a means of testing beer! That's lovely. A little rogue bit of pleasure buried in the heart of an often dry and joyless business.

    @Alexander what I've encountered a few times have been people who were specifically, primarily devoted to one god of a particular sphere, but who find it relatively easy or comfortable to relate to gods in other pantheons who have similar focus. That might be a fruitful way to start, at least: acquaint yourself thoroughly with one psychopomp, and then see whether you need to reach out to others once that relationship is established?

  85. Thanks JMG, Bill and Onething for the advice. I think I may consider joining a structured tradition at some point, but for now just be open to more experiences and keep on reading more on the subject. I'm at a point right now where a lot has been changing in my inner life recently anyway and not making that decision at this particular time is what I feel is best.

  86. Hi JMG,

    Topping off of a cycle was clearly not the correct way to state what I meant. I just meant following after the sequence of nature religion and prophetic religion. Even if there is a cycle in types of religion that occur in history, humanity may not yet have experienced a full cycle. So we do not know what a full cycle looks like. It could include more types of religions than just those two.

    However, in the meantime I have changed my mind about this historical sequence of different types of religion. I now think it is just a random sequence and not necessary cyclical or linear by nature. Any religion of whatever type, no matter how deeply spiritual it is felt at its beginning, will eventually become an empty and meaningless collection of doctrines and rituals. That means that by necessity new religions will occur and sometimes succeed in converting a lot of people, because the old religion is felt to be useless and meaningless.

    I still think that some form of pantheism where the god is experieced as being in nature is a good candidate for the next religion.

    The gnostic explanation of the rise of prophetic religion does have its merits. The only problem I have with it is the implicit assumption of clear communication between humans and gods. It seems to me, that communication between gods and humans is very difficult. This is not only because of human projections and prejudices, but also because the divinities only seem to express themselves in riddles and symbols. So there is also the possibility of a misunderstanding between divinity and prophet.

  87. Hi JMG,

    Your quote: “this is the way the gods made the world, and they’re pretty much happy with it, so you might want to consider being happy with it, too.”

    So true and so delightful to read it!

    Thank you for that thought. It was another tea spitting insight from you.

    Acceptance is a wonderful and empowering thing.

    PS: I read this entry way back on the 21st (or 22nd here) but haven't replied because I've been a bit out of sorts because not only has the local gardening group begun making death rattle sounds ('ere he says he's not dead yet), but the local meditation group which I really enjoy has also slid into the dustbin.

    It is telling that such things are happening on a local level as the economy here is also ever so slowly tipping into the dustbin. Each month things are a little bit worse.

    Your story months ago about Radagast the Brown affected me because to step up to the plate too early and get some of these local processes going properly is as bad as stepping up too late. I'm in a bit of a quandry as my gut feel says that people aren't yet hungry enough, but it takes years to build up good skills.

    Dunno really but am meditating on it.

    PPS: Radagast is more my type of wizard too.

    Cheers

    Chris

  88. Dear JMG,
    Thanks as always for you thought provoking posts.
    A few counterpoints to your musings on Buddhism:
    It's my understanding that the Buddha was cremated as a teaching on impermanence; of not clinging on to even him as a savior figure.
    I've also heard that he instructed his followers to not make images of him, but rather allowed symbols such as a chariot wheel, his foot prints, or the bodhi tree.
    It was under that tree that he awoke, and one of the most prevalent images of him now is of that moment, when he gently touched the living earth as witness to his awakening.
    I believe that also despite the fact that written sanskrit had been around for quite some time, he instructed that his teachings remain as a living oral tradition (often in vernacular language) instead of being committed to writing; to be memorized and passed down with the living breath from person to person.
    This theme of living lineage is very important in Buddhism, and likened to a candle flame that ignites many others, without being extinguished itself.
    My teacher likens the buddhadharma to pure water. For water to be conveyed, it needs a container. It doesn't matter what shape, size, or color of the container; the essence of the water itself remains the same.
    Similarly, the teachings of the Buddha are transmitted from culture to culture, language to language, and generation to generation.
    In one of his last teachings, the Buddha said that the rule of his monastic orders can and should adapt to the culture and time, so as to remain relevant and meaningful.
    While different ingredients, like tea or coffee or fermented barley may be added to the water, so does adapting to indigenous language, religion, and culture augment Buddhism; but the essence does not change. Poison too may be added to the water, and this is where the Buddha encouraged people to use their own common sense, logic and reasoning to test the teachings they hear, and not blindly swallow dogma just because they heard it from a religious authority with such and such credentials and so on.
    Spiritual materialism has an insidious way of infiltrating our journeys of awakening, and the specter of fundamentalism comes when we begin to allow our curiosity and compassion to be replaced with dead language and rote ritual that is bereft of life and power.
    I really hope that the words of British historian Arnold Toynbee, “The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century,”
    will carry truth and benefit for all beings.

  89. I laughed out loud – truly – at your college story; and, I love your flipping of the mountain (that all seekers climb to the same objective, spiritual Truth) into a valley (of objective human Experience leading up to many mountains of truth.)

    I was watching a video by Bruce Lipton recently and had a parallel train of thought to your “why not look at the evidence as valid data and go from there” comparative religion experience. Bruce Lipton is a biologist and one of the pioneers of epigenetics theory. He offers an alternative to the timeline view of evolution, that single cells led to multi cells led to fish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals and onward to humans. He tells the story that bacteria developed until maximally-complex neurologically and physically, then gathered together under a membrane to become amoebas which is a society of bacteria that then developed it's own systems and neurology. Eventually amoebas were maximally-complex and then gathered to become the cells in beings like us – humans being a membrane holding a society of amoebas and bacteria. As with most philosophers I was on board while he was perceiving but lost him while he was extrapolating. He posits that the next stage of evolution is hinted at by the spreading of the feeling and knowledge that “we humans are all one” – we are on the verge of creating a new being called humanity – quite possibly with the internet as our neurology. After a moment of entertaining this dreamily, I had a good laugh, desperate to run up to him like a student to his professor after class. I wanted to ask, “Why did you stop observing and start inferring/deducing/making-things-up?” If we are groupings of amoebas then so are the other flora and fauna. I laugh again at the thought of a bunch of humans wrapped in a membrane holding meetings over which way to turn the good ship humanity. What sort of thinking imagines this and misses the beautiful membrane we live under along with the other flora and fauna amoeba-bags – the atmosphere of the Earth. I like how he starts, but my conclusion is that the process he describes happened long ago (if not popped into being whole hog;) as the bacteria and cells make up our body, so do we and all beings make up the Earth, and even a cursory study of ecology exposes the myriad systems, supports, and workings of this being Earth.

    I laughed and dismissed much of his conclusion (a conclusion meant to assuage the uncertainty and fear of people who feel the pains of the Earth and are desperate for a vector and conclusion that lets them continue to believe in “progress.”) I also took this train of thought and followed it a while longer, searching for what it might suggest. I ended with a thought of pertinence to this post. We (in contemporary society) like to think of ourselves as the brains and consciousness, but what if we are just other cells. In my experience, much of the beauty in humanity comes from those listening to and interacting with “intangibles,” and perhaps these beings are the neurological system of the Earth.

    This also supports another long term theory of mine, people who dislike what we're doing to the Earth sometimes think of us a cancer. This seems to ignore our great ability to perceive and work toward balance. I posit that we are actually the immune system. We've just stopped monitoring the changes we're making and stopped listening to the neurological system… maybe the Earth has an autoimmune disorder.

  90. @CherokeeOrganics

    Hi Chris, very sorry to hear about the impending demise of two groups at once. Gardening and meditation–that is hard. But maybe not permanent?

    I know what you mean about timing.

    regards,
    Adrian

  91. I'm wondering if you have nay thoughts about the connection between religious sensibilities and aesthetic sensibilities. I was thinking of how many people with the new religious sensibility don't like to use the word religion because of the mental association of that term with a form of religion they grew up with that didn't work or make much sense to them. I didn't grow up in a strict religious family so never got the deep seated dislike of the term that many have, but it made me think of a possible parallel with aesthetics.

    For a long time, I didn't like to think of aesthetics consciously. I associated it with the aesthetic sensibility I was exposed to most often in the mainstream society, which seems equally focused on keeping anything wild about nature out of most of people's lives. Yes, aspects of nature are often considered beautiful but they are so often put in a box and kept out of most of life which is supposed to be tidy, artificial and free of any wildness.

    In the garden, I don't keep it “nice and tidy”, although I know which weeds need to be kept out because of their aggressiveness, and which can be useful at least at certain times as a natural cover crop, wild edibles and other useful aspects. I also like to just leave pulled weeds on the beds to add to the mulch unless the weather is such that they may re-root. A lot of people consider things like that to be messy and un-aesthetic. For a long time, I just thought aesthetics were not very important to me and just interfered with doing things the best way for the land.

    I have realized over time, through thinking about how different places and situations affect me, that aesthetics are important to me and have always been, it's just that I have a different sensibility from most people in our culture. I'd rather look at what's growing in an abandoned quarry and how nature is slowly repairing damage to the land than be in a formal garden that many others consider beautiful but doesn't feel attractive to me at all. A healthy ecosystem is at the top of my aesthetic list, and nothing human-made can equal that, although some things come much closer than others.

    I'm wondering what your thoughts on the link between religious sensibilities and aesthetic ones are?

  92. Hello JMG,

    I've been following this magical (heh) blog since its beginning and it has been fascinating, either confirming some of my own beliefs or presenting a new and intriguing viewpoint on familiar things. As long as I can remember I've been able to feel and converse with gods, so it has always been surprising that nobody mentions them, or magic in general. For a while it appeared similar to masturbation or sex, in that everyone does it but nobody talks about it, but over time it became clear that some people simply see a vastly different and far emptier world than others. Those with the wider perspective have been almost impossible to find until you started this, so what I'm saying is thank you for the opportunity to talk so freely. It's an article of faith for me that conversation (done right) always improves every situation.

    Now to my reason for writing. As mentioned above, my reactions so far have been either “Yes! That's what I've been saying.” or “Huh. Never looked at it that way.” so they didn't seem to warrant a comment, but this last post (and partly the previous one) caused what can only be described as a revelation, seeing as I spent two consecutive nights until about 4 A.M. turning over ideas and thinking about the implications. Please bear with me, this could get long.

    It starts with the descriptions of gods as disembodied and part of the astral light, combined with some of my own ideas about reality. I've believed for a while now that human souls are localized concentrations of the soul of God (rather referred as Eternity from now on, since I feel it better fits the description of the impersonal force that holds the Universe together and gives it meaning), with bodies formed as a response to this accumulation and minds establishing the connection by describing the ways in which the soul can move or otherwise influence the body. Now if the Supreme Being has the same design (the soul the totality of astral light, the body the Universe and the mind its laws), it seems reasonable to assume that everything from Eternity to us and below follows the same model. Gods' souls are, as established, patterns of varying size and concentration in the astral light, so the question becomes where, or rather what, are the bodies and minds?

    The key, I think, is to define the body of a being as a portion of the physical realm that can be described as separate from the rest of reality and which has the capacity to influence the world around it. If this definition seems to include absolutely everything, then yeah, that's my point. Spirits seem non-existent because they are ubiquitous and the gods seem immaterial because their bodies are difficult to perceive as such from our limited viewpoint, while entities that have a clear and defined presence are considered strictly material because most don’t appear interested in communicating with us.

    Part 1 of 3

  93. (cont.) Part 2 of 3

    At this point I think examples are necessary to make my ideas clearer, so I’ll start with a low spirit, namely a random rock on a random mountainside, and make my way higher. In regard to the two characteristics implied by the definition, that rock has a very concentrated body, being a singular unit of homogenous matter situated in a very specific and unique place, but a very small sphere of influence, since it literally just sits there and does nothing but bend the wind blowing around it. This restricted capacity would reflect in an also limited worldview, whatever perception it has ending at its surface. It even lacks the capacity to alter its own body, so any change that affects it inevitably comes from outside, the greater gods it is itself a part of (in soul, mind and body), like the mountain, the continent and the Earth.

    Now, for a proper contrast, I’m going to pick the demon of the jolt of fear you feel when you can’t find your keys before an important appointment and, since that’s ridiculously long and not really a name, I’m going to call him the key-hiding elf. This annoying creature is much more influential than any rock, seeing as everyone with a residence and an urgent place to be has felt him at one point or another. However, the elf’s body is very diffuse and evanescent, consisting of an ever changing array of humans and their misplaced keys, both with very brief presences. Thus, to continue its existence, the key-hiding elf needs to enter the awareness of as many people as possible and the way it does this is by perpetuating a story. Usually, the first thing you say after arriving late is “Sorry, I couldn't find my keys.”. The result is that everyone becomes aware of your feelings at the time and understands this is something that happens to people, even themselves. This (and the fact that it’s silly) is why I chose this particular demon. There are way nastier such parasites in the world.

    This next example, concerning typical gods, better illustrates the threefold nature of spirits and their similarities to us (or ours to them). A god of nature has a body consisting of the aspect they represent, the temples built in their name and the mass of people performing their rituals, while the rituals themselves and their stories in general make up the mind. A prophetic god, on the other hand, loses the connection to any one place, but becomes much more attached to the worshipers. This actually has advantages for both sides: the god becomes very mobile, able to relocate or spread as far as the missionaries can reach, while the people gain a much closer connection, since a being made entirely of humans and the things they create has a great interest in their state, if not necessarily their happiness. I suppose this desire for closer gods could partly explain the first change in religious sensibility, though it’s simplistic and leads to the question I've eluded so far: do humans create these gods based on their needs, or do they create religions as a response to gods being born? I’m leaning towards the second explanation, even though the question sounds like that old enigma: Who came first, the priest or the god?

    The gods we've had so far pale in comparison to beings with a larger presence than even 7 billion people. Progress is by far the largest of the lot, with most of humanity as an unthinking part of it, the largest volume of stories ever told, whole cities built as temples to it and it barely left a dent in the side of Gaia. Thinking as I've done so far, it should be obvious that no god made of humans, not even all of us, could “conquer” the greater being that all humans (and implicitly, the god) are already a part of. Furthermore, the mind of Nature has thoughts that we cannot change through stories and must accept as laws.

    Part 2 of 3

  94. (cont.) Part 3 of 3

    As for the motivations and intentions of the gods in general, some can be assumed as similar ours based on our shared characteristics, others can be guessed from what actions they take and what changes they enact upon the world. Continued existence is probably a big one, if not the biggest and most common. Improving themselves, whether by gaining power, wisdom or knowledge is another. Struggles to transfer influence between gods have been common, as have been successions when one dies or diminishes and another is born. It could even be possible that the gods also yearn to be part of a greater power. Why these movements seem hidden or incomprehensible is, again, because of a vast difference in perspective in both space and time and a difference in the scale of goals. Imagine if you could speak to one of your cells. What could you possibly say to it? How could you describe your world when it isn't even aware of anything outside your skin? What could it say about its needs and desires, and how would you go about fulfilling those prayers? You only become aware something is wrong when it visibly affects your body (by analogy I think it’s safe to say we have Gaia's attention at this point). As for goals, what is good for the god and what they want may not always be what is best for us. When you exercise, your fat cells probably don’t feel terribly loved, nor do the bacteria living on your skin when you wash.

    Now, I realize this may not be really as clear as possible or all that impressive to you or your other readers, since you've implied if not outright stated some of these concepts in your blogs, but it really struck a chord with me and I felt the need to write it down, especially where it could be read by others. Also, most of the ideas above were formulated in those two nights after the 21st, but I've read the comments since then and noticed that a few other people are pretty much saying the same thing. I could be very, very premature in saying this, but it's my prediction that we are getting a glimpse of the face of the new religious sensibility, one that sees everything as connected, the gods present everywhere and humans having the same essential nature as everything else. This sort of thinking could even lead to us gaining a much stronger connection with Nature and each other, but I’m not really holding my breath for that one.

    Still, hoping for Unity,
    Mirasal

  95. JMG,
    Good point. I was thinking of something like (sci-fi?) magical artificial intelligences. If my theory about the nature of spiritual phenomena is right, then an A.I. with magical skills would be theoretically possible. And a magical A.I. would be a horribly nasty thing. But first there must be a powerful enough A.I. At this rate of industrial society’s decline, that’s unlikely to happen… thank God.

    What do you think about natural selection operating on the “meatless”? If there is natural selection in the spiritual realm, then a lot of good hypothesis could be worked and put to the test! You know, “nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (Theodosius Dobzhansky)… could it be the same case in Spirituality?

    Nicolas Costa,
    That seems to be a good learning method! My case is more like the contrary; I have always learned things in a non-structured way, akin to that Ozark tells above. But for a long time I have been searching for something to provide discipline into my life. Indeed, the most important magical thing I think I need to do right now is just to discipline myself. So taking on the Path sounds like the right thing to do to start working in that direction; and certainly, putting aside ideological differences, druid magic appeals to me, mostly JMG approach to it! 😉

    We’ll be in contact! My mail is bravopampero at gmail dot com

    Adrian Ayres Fisher,
    I have a perspective on Wild Nature that maybe could be interesting for you: I think that the opposite of wildness is not precisely tameness, but mismatching among the natures of the components of the biological ecosystem in question. Within this perspective, then wilderness doesn’t loss its wildness if there are humans living on it, as long as those humans and their interaction with the ecosystem matches with the evolved nature of the ecosystem components. But if there is mismatch and it is big enough, the consequence will be like that of trying to put a square peg into a round hole… lots of pain for both. And here we have the social and ecological consequences of 10000 years of mismatching (civilization) plus 200 years of increasingly-accelerated ultra-mismatching (industrial civilization).

  96. Hi Adrian,

    Many thanks. Who knows whether it is permanent or not, but it isn't a good sign and I struggle to believe that the timing is a coincedence. My thinking is that people aren't quite hungry enough yet, but I don't really know?

    How are you going with your forest and early spring?

    I've sorted out the meditation side of things, but the gardening group is much harder and may involve stepping up to the plate. Again, I don't really know what to do.

    Cheers

    Chris

  97. JMG– Thank you for your responses to my comments. I'll look forward to future posts in this series, then!

    To return to some of the topics of this post–

    Regarding the fusion of Christianity and Natural Religion. I reread the Lord of the Rings last December (which is, I think, the correct month to read Lord of the Rings), and I think that Tolkien's vision is the clearest expression of how this would look. A world created and governed by a unitary source, but administered by a multitude of lesser-than-ultimate-but-still-much-bigger-than-you powers. A mythic cycle that weaves together the cycle of the seasons and the liturgical year. A vision of good that is at once universal (“Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear”) and radically local and particular (the good guys are fighting for the ability of hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents and men to live AS hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents, and men; the ents are good precisely because, as Gandalf says to Treebeard, “you have not plotted to cover all the world in your trees and choke all other living things.”)

    I've also been reading C.S. Lewis for the first time since childhood. Many of the same themes occur in his work, though I dislike some of it. Actually, rediscovering Lewis is like reuniting with an uncle or grandfather who you loved as a child, turned on during your self-righteous teens and twenties for his unapologetic conservatism, and then realized in your 30s actually had quite a bit of wisdom that you had overlooked in your arrogance.

    The thing that I find troubling in both men, and in the Christian churches generally, is the hostility and ignorance directed toward magic. Neither Lewis nor Tolkien's worldviews are, ultimately, very different from Agrippa's. And yet both condemn occultism.

    I honestly don't understand it. I listened to a talk by a Catholic priest recently in which he claimed that the occultist “desires power.” Maybe that's true to an extent– but politicians also have power, and so do scientists, advertisers, CEOs, musicians… What is it about magical power, which is rooted in self knowledge, which is nothing like omnipotence, and which is in any case usually far less influential than the power of a really successful CEO, politician, or rock star that churchmen hate so much?

    To put it another way: I can change the way a room “feels” by turning on an air conditioning unit. I can change it in a different way by practicing the lesser pentagram ritual. One act involves participating in a fairly destructive technological system. The other involves, ultimately, imagination, belief, and song. Why on Earth should the first be morally neutral and the second mortal sin?

    Anyway, I really am rambling at this point. But I would appreciate anyone's thoughts on the topic.

  98. @ Steve Thomas

    I have also been reconnecting to C S Lewis over the past months, as the Chronicles of Narnia were very formative for me growing up. As JMG noted in a comment from a previous post, Lewis was drawing from the same source material as many late 19th, early 20th century occultists. I have had similar mixed feelings towards him as those you describe, as I have come to terms with removing myself from the dogmatic christian religion of my youth (which also quoted, or mis-quoted, him extensively). I am currently reading Gareth Knight's “The Magical World of the Inklings” – a great read – and it has illustrated that Lewis' attitude towards the occult changed over the course of his life: from dabbler, to vigorous opponent, to just cautious. However, Gareth Knight makes the case that for the Inklings, the act of writing their epic stories can itself be seen as an act of magic (or in literery circles 'mythopoeia').

    So despite both Lewis and Tolkien having perhaps portrayed magic/ occultism in a negative light at times, is it safe to safe to say that they condemn it when in fact they were practicing magic (of a sort, if not of the 'occultist' variety)? This is from the opening of Gareth Knight's book:

    “In a deeper sense I also refer to a more technical interpretation of magic. It is close to what some of the Inklings themselves referred to as 'mythopoeia', and is a particular way of using the imagination. Magic, in this sense of the word, comes at various levels and in different forms, which is no doubt why some may prefer the more restricted term 'mythopoeia'. However, I prefer to reject this in favour of the perfectly good and indeed noble word, 'magic'.

    Its long history brings with it many associations which the newer word does not, as Lucy found in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when she leafed through the pages of the great book of spells of the magician Coriakin. It contained many things from the trivial and the mischievous to the cosmic and the profound. So also was Coriakin himself a character hard to define. The Duffiepuds thought him half-sinister, half-beneficent, as a result of their own preconceptions, and in the end he turned out to be a retired star – a Stellar Logos no less!

    The Inklings and their work have a similar diversity and range of interpretation, and also a very real transformative power. And in these pages I have tried to emphasise these elements from the particular vantage point of one who has worked with matters magical and mystical for a considerable number of years, and found much instruction and inspiration from the works that are described in these pages.”

  99. I’m a bit late to the conversation this month from dealing with two almost simultaneous deaths in the family but I still wanted to jump in to participate before the month was completely over. Your description of atheists and rationalists as “people who [haven’t] had the experience in which they so loudly disbelieve” brought me into some reflection on topics we’ve been discussing these past few months. It’s an attitude I often find myself having, but actually listening to atheists talk about their own relationship to spiritual experience, that doesn’t seem to be quite the case: (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2015/02/01/my-god-may-be-blind-but-im-not-why-theists-dont-have-a-corner-on-religious-experience/, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2015/02/09/mistakes-ive-made-on-both-sides-atheists-and-theists-under-the-big-tent-of-paganism/, http://humanisticpaganism.com/2015/02/25/the-idea-behind-postpaganry-part-2-reason-and-spirituality-by-glen-gordon/, http://www.latimes.com/news/la-op-harris24dec24-story.html#page=1.) It seems from that that atheists and rationalists are every bit as prone to having spiritual experiences than anyone else, they just take a different shape, get filtered through a different set of interpretations, and reflect a different aspect of reality. I don’t think atheists necessarily lack a relationship with spirit or their conscious selves, or even that they fear such things. It’s more that they are fully at home on this side of the veil, not feeling a pull to actively reach across it. I’m sure there are exceptions, people who do actively cut themselves off from those parts of themselves or are hiding deeper imbalances, but the same can be said of some Christians (and this blog has done a very good job of repairing bridges with that faith) or any other worldview.

    Re: serious mages even in revealed religions “rejecting such claims and displaying openness to the reality of other religions” I’ve noticed just within this past year as OBOD’s Ovate grade has taken me deeper into a level of practice I didn’t quite hit with the Bardic grade (and this blog has opened my eyes to things like the importance of regular practice for mastery), a shift in the direction of being a little more fluid with my ability to slip between different worldviews and experiencing different shapes of realities without resistance without abandoning my own core beliefs in the process. I especially noticed that over the last 5 months as I supported my father through the experience of dying. I found it unexpectedly easy to step out of my polytheistic, nature-centered Druid practice and step comfortably into the world of Pentecostal dispensationalist Christianity without discomfort. As I sat with my dying father, that process took place completely within his world. I don’t personally believe in the God of monotheism, and my brand of polytheism tends to approach gods as emergent properties of an evolving universe rather than cosmic creators. However, during my time with my father, it was that cosmic creator we called, it was the creator of the cosmos who came, and that was the presence of Jesus and the holy spirit as aspects of a tripartite God of the cosmos that filled the room as I held his hand and whispered softly in tongues and singing old worship songs. It was like, by stepping into that room and embracing the beliefs that pervaded it, the cosmos took on a different shape around that specific moment. By doing so, I also didn’t feel like I was being dishonest, compromising my integrity, or converting. When I got home, my old, familiar world fell right back into place. There was a power to taking a worldview I personally didn’t believe in, and treating it, for the sake of the ritual, as though it were factually true. Of working with magic at face value as though every aspect, no matter how obviously symbolic, no matter how deeply steeped in myth, as though it existed in a completely real, completely objective way, and leaving concepts like “symbolism, myth, and metaphor” for another time.

  100. JMG wrote: “Phil, makes perfect sense to me: the gods laid down the pathway at Stonehenge, and human being recognized it and built accordingly! “

    Thanks for that JMG. There does seem to be interesting stuff already written in the landscape which chimes or even rhymes exactly with human recognition of cosmic events and patterns as we test them for significance. It then does feel like communication when we get around to taking note of where we live.

    Somewhere I have a photocopy of the original letter referred to below. I think I have always worried about ‘co-incidences’ because they are so tantalising and test my credulity. This letter to the science journal Nature published years ago, however, appealed to my sense of humour. I found this copy online.

    In a recent issue, Arthur C. Clarke described as “truly incredible – one might almost say eerie” the fact that the impacts of the largest fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The fact that the impact of the largest fragment coincided, almost to the minute, with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landing is actually only the centrepiece of a wider and more incredible set of coincidences: the first fragments of the comet hit Jupiter on 16 July (twenty-fifth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11), and the final fragments hit on 22 July (twenty-fifth anniversary of Apollo 11’s departure from Moon orbit). So the start, climax and end of the series of impacts coincided exactly with the start, climax and end (in the sense of departure from the Moon) of the Apollo 11 mission. A recent television documentary informed me that the first SL9A impact, on 16 July, hit Jupiter at 4.18 p.m. US time (I am not sure what time standard that was). Today, I looked up the timings of the Apollo 11 mission in an encyclopaedia, and found the time of the Moon landing quoted as 4.18 p.m. US Eastern time. I am a lifelong sceptic but these coincidences interest me… – Andrew Scott

    best
    Phil

  101. The tale of the academic with multiple reasons to dismiss religion and religious experience (traditional, psychological, sociological, etc.) leaves me with this thought: who is HE to claim that he lives outside the same psychological and sociological conditions within which religious practice is beneficial?

    He seems likely to say “Those ancient people of 2000, or 200, or 20 years ago (e.g., his parents) were not actually blessed by the deity they worshiped, but merely benefited from a shared moral code within their social community. Since the deity is not necessary for the moral code nor the community, I can discard the deity, morality, and community with impunity. … I think I'll go see what's on TV.”

    It's as if he were to say “I have a theory that hydrocarbon fuels are infinite and the products of combustion benign, therefore I need not concern myself with the rate of their consumption.” oops. Wrong blog. 😉

  102. It seems to me that a resurgence of nature-oriented religious sensibility at this point in history would be a highly positive development.

    As to liking the world the way the gods made it: I've long been bitterly disenchanted with the character of human life on earth – thinking it to fall far short of the desirable possibilities – sometimes to the extent of hating the world. But now I perceive that it makes little sense to blame on earth the flaws of the man-old, which are surely human-made, not so much earth-made. I further suspect that the conditions which sometimes elicit in me such gnostic world-rejecting sentiments are in great part a consequence of the dominance of prophetic faiths that often encourage us to reject the world the way the gods made it. They do not seem to me to generate an optimal quality of life. So I suppose the hypothesis toward which I am groping is that a religious sensibility which is friendly to the Earth is more likely to make Earth an agreeable place in which to live than is some contrary sensibility.

  103. Hi John,
    I have been reflecting on your post for quite a while and only found the time to comment just now.

    There is one dimension you seem to ignore in the gap between the two sorts of religious sensibilities you have exposed.
    That is, escapism :
    recently I stumbled upon some Lovecraft-themed movies after reading your seafood post 🙂
    One of the movies is Daniel Gildark's take on the Cthulu mythos. It depicts the story of a gay guy who returns to his seaside hometown, bringing back memories of stark social exclusion and darker monstrous things that were intuited during childhood but only shed light upon after coming back as a grown-up man.
    The movie hit a chord with me, and after a while I realized that, aside from dealing with some of the sexual issues we learn to repress here, it is its escapist flavour which captured my imagination : ultimately the closing of the plot revolves around the choice of stances the hero takes in the face of the monstrosities he had discover. The ending actually leaves open the possibility of a twisted version of the new religious sensibility you describe… and I believe this is how escapist fantasies work, and do embody quite well in that movie.
    Basically you leave open the possibility of an escape from your daily life, but that escape makes sense only because that same daily life exists as a defined order. The notion that you are slowly changing your daily life in actual, concrete steps, in the direction you seek to reach, kind of comes to break the spell of escapism.

    This might be one of the unspoken (occult ?) reason why Lovecraft's work has enjoyed such a popularity : people want to be given at the same time both the possibility of jumping straight into a different reality, while at the same time having their reassuring daily reality reaffirmed by the sense of horror pervasive the master's work.

    Escapism rests on an ambiguity and a duality which ultimately leaves out any possibility of actual change in the physical plane. I compare it to the place of Satanism and anti-religions in general : the Cthulu's mythos is to the religion of biophobic monotheism what Satanism is to Christianity. Not very useful, right ?

    You have to be careful not to let your proposal of a new religious sensibility turn into another twisted way of talking about sex without really meaning it, or worse, turn into an escapist fantasy.
    And yet, just like I can thoroughly enjoy the audiobook version of Algernon Blackwood's excellent camper horror stories, humans do need that sense of escape sometimes, like some kind of pressure valve.
    How are you going to propose that we preserve the ambiguity, that is, keep that sense of mystery about nature, while at the same time taking actual daily steps to walk away from the escapist fantasies' curse ?

  104. Hi All,

    Really enjoying this discussion, and the discussion every month. I find it a great source of inspiration in my own practices, which while seeming a bit barren at the moment, I feel encouraged to continue with.

    Anthony Romero, I completely get what you are saying, I am a recovering materialist myself. I also loved Doug Manners' reply to you, which I agree with wholeheartedly. I can see that JMG's reply that it requires you to make the choice yourself is true, and with humility I'll suggest something that might make the choice less of a problem for your materialist sensibility (which I share). I've done my best to explain my take on the mechanics of how reality and perception relate, in a way that's entirely compatible with gods and magic. My own view now is that this actually requires fewer unlikely assumptions than the view that the world is meaningless and everything is just down to “dumb luck”. Of course, your mileage may vary 🙂

    Mirasal, I really appreciate your extended comment, I found it both clear and impressive. That also matches up nicely with how I make sense of things. Which I think I'm using as a technique to stop my quite deeply ingrained materialist sensibility from objecting to my magical training.

    Cheers,
    Graeme

  105. @CherokeeOrganics

    Sometimes I've found that if I wait patiently with appropriate worshipful attitude, “way opens,” and the knowing of what to do comes to me. Sometimes it takes longer than I think it should, but usually the answer given is a good one, though sometimes not what I expected. That sounds very general, I know. I liked your onion story in the other blog, and it will be interesting to see what comes of that.

    And regarding early spring, oh, ha ha! It was -2 F (-19 C) at 8:00am this morning. Lake Michigan remains 80% frozen and there's a foot of snow on the ground. Technically, my forest is an oak woodland savannah and last week a friend and I started some work to clear a path where an ash tree was downed and figured out where a brushpile burn will be.

    regards,
    Adrian

  106. @Emmanuel,

    Mismatch is an interesting concept. I will have to consider that for awhile. It is a bit different from the way I often think about the matter of where humans fit in. Makes sense, though.

  107. Urban Harvester–

    I thought there had been a discussion of the Inklings either here or at TADR, though I couldn't remember. But I was unaware of the Gareth Knight book, which I'm probably going to order this week. I was going to try to make the point that what Tolkien, Lewis, et al accomplish and the way that it's achieved in fantasy fiction– the deliberate use of symbol and imagination– literally is magic, but I couldn't figure out how to phrase it. So thank you for that!

    It didn't occur to me that Lewis would have been familiar with the medieval/Renaissance grimoires, but now I'm thinking about The Discarded Image and its clear that he must have been familiar with them. Actually I sat down with Agrippa tonight and this–

    “It contained many things from the trivial and the mischievous to the cosmic and the profound.”

    Is kind of a perfect summary of the First Book of Occult Philosophy! In one chapter, you read about ideas in the mind of God becoming manifest in the soul of the world; in the next, Agrippa calmly informs you that “of a duck dried into powder, and put into water, are generated frogs; but if it be baked in a pie, and cut into pieces, and put into amoist place under the ground, toads are generated of it.”

  108. Steve Thomas,

    The Magical World of the Inklings has been a profound read so far. I am excited to get into Tolkien… as a child I didn't get too far past the Hobbit and the Fellowship, but poured over the Chronicles over and over. I returned to them later when I was in art school and found something ineffable and visionary hiding within them. My brothers and my friends for the most part couldn't understand my obsession – but they have worked on me very fruitfully on the soul level.

    I am really excited to unravel the roots of environmental vision, the Fields of Arbol, of Tolkien and Lewis, and its connection to the magical view(s) of the man-old.

    There is a definite pagan/pantheistic spirit that was awakened in my brothers and their friends right around the time that the Lord of the Rings movies came out. It started with dressing in costume for the movies and most halloweens, and progressed with really delving into the myths, the books, and a bunch of them started going up into the mountains here in Utah and started building cairns and erecting stones to solar and astronomical alignments, and inventing seasonal ceremonies/celebrations. Today they are taking up farming, natural medicine, and studying archaeoastronomy. There is something there…

  109. Gordon (Nwlorax), good heavens. I hadn't known that about the origins of statistics — somehow that didn't get into the two quarters of experimental design and statistics I took back in college. I suspect at this point that drinking the beer would probably give better results than running T tests on it… 😉

    SeaMari, it's good to see the heads of the established religions getting into this, even if it's very late in the day. Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, has also become quite the environmental leader.

    Bill, no argument at all! The point of the structured tradition is partly to prepare for the lightning flash, and partly to give you productive work to do at times when the lightning doesn't strike and it's just you, trying to figure out how to take the next step on the path.

    Druiddisciple, obviously spiritual beings don't come with such labels tattooed on them. Still, it's not just a matter of personal preference. I'll be discussing in a future post the nature of magical ethics and the discernment of spirits.

    Bill, of course — and so I assume that when someone asks me for advice, that's the kind of advice they know to expect!

    Daelach, Spengler would certainly agree with you.

    Mark, let's see. I'll be talking about Greek religion down the road a bit — it's worth noting that they're far from the first people to experience gods in human form. The New World example I had in mind was Quetzalcoatl aka Kukulcan, who was a historical person — a king of the Toltecs — as well as a creator god. Yes, I've read Jaynes; yes, I'll be talking about the silence of the oracles, and several other themes out of Plutarch; and I tend to see the worship of dead men as having a lot to do with the fact, and of course it is a fact, that a lot of people in every age and culture experience direct contact with the spirits of dead people — more on this as we proceed.

    Adrian, exactly. Exactly.

    Ozark, and that's also a perfectly valid choice, of course.

    Dadaharm, if you feel called to pantheism, go ye forth and do that thing. I suspect, for what it's worth, that there won't be one religion embodying the new sensibility, but many of them, in the midst of a far more diverse world.

    Cherokee, thank you. “Tea spitting insight” is a keeper!

    Nick, thanks for this. It's a source of wry reflection for me, at least, that after the Buddha had himself cremated, the bits of bone that were left over were scooped up and placed in lavish pagodas all over south Asia. A testimony to the enduring nature of religious forms, maybe.

  110. Ember, excellent! Yes, it's always when believers in progress start daydreaming about the future that things run right off the rails. That humanity might already be an individual organism; that the organism that is humanity might then also be one not that important element in the organism of the Earth; that the Earth might participate similarly in whole systems and higher-order organisms about which we can have no more notion than a gut bacteria in Mozart's bowels understood about his music — all of that is unthinkable to the worshippers of Man the Conqueror of Nature. Congratulations for seeing past that.

    Ozark, that's a huge topic, and one I'm going to have to brood over for a while. Many thanks for raising it.

    Mirasal, that's one possible interpretation for the way that the spiritual realm appears to us, certainly. I'm not going to get into a detailed critique or discussion, as I think it's probably more useful to let everyone reflect on it who wishes to do so.

    Emmanuel, the geekoisie has been predicting the imminent arrival of artificial intelligences for decades now — almost as long as physics geeks have been predicting the arrival of commercially viable fusion power. I think both of 'em are talking out of their backsides. The critiques of AI theory raised in Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, to my way of thinking, remain unanswered. As for supernatural selection, well, it's an interesting hypothesis!

    Steve, both Tolkien and Lewis were writing from within a specific philosophical and spiritual stance — the movement called Christian Neoplatonism. The basic Christian Neoplatonist worldview is precisely what you've described, and it was the way Christianity was normally understood in the West until the Reformation, and it's still more or less standard in the Orthodox churches.

    As for the Catholic priest — well, let's just say that if I chose to talk about his beliefs the way he talked about mine, I'd be accused, and rightfully so, of promulgating hate speech. It's just that people like him know they can get away with it when they direct their denunciations at people like me.

    Eric, I can't speak to the whole “Pagan atheism” business that's generating so much heat and so little light in the Pagan scene these days, as I stopped following it a while back. One of the common difficulties here, though, is that the phrase “religious experience” has been stretched until it includes almost anything. What I'm talking about, by contrast, are personal contacts with gods and other superhuman, apparently disembodied intelligences; that's not the only kind of mystical experience there is, of course, but it's an important kind and the evidence it offers has very often been swept under the rug by people who, when the subject comes up, will very often admit that the existence of a god would horrify them.

    Phil, that's fascinating. Jung would have had a field day with that sort of synchronicity.

    LatheChuck, good! And of course the fact that religious belief has social benefits does nothing to prove the nonexistence of the objects of the belief; you could as well argue that the god who is worshipped deliberately arranges the social benefits.

    Val, seems like a sensible hypothesis to me.

    Jean-Vivien, good. It's probably a safe bet that any religious sensibility will be abused by believers in the usual human ways, so I don't know that I can offer any solace there. As for Cthulhu, though, exactly — he allows people to indulge in the fear of (a tentacled) god without actually going to the trouble of believing in one.

  111. This post actually links into your earlier discussion of the “X factor” that remains outside the reach of materialistic science. It's not just present-day New Agers who say that God is light and energy. The Neo-Confucian theory, developed from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD, was that the gods and demons people interact with are the result of a lot of qi gathered together in one spot, similar to the qi we carry around as our life-force, but without any physical body tied to it. Unlike the Taoists, the Confucians abstained from working directly with the qi of gods, because it overpowered their study. Instead their goal was for us to sense our own qi and use it to read the patterns of the universe and align ourselves with it.

    This is basically off-topic, except that you suggested to the religious scholar TA that comparative religion might look different if scholars assumed that a spiritual experience was an interaction with something real; indeed, I think it might look like Confucianism. Which would probably be a good way to save religious studies from being a vestigial appendage of an increasingly irrelevant academy.

  112. “What I'm talking about, by contrast, are personal contacts with gods and other superhuman, apparently disembodied intelligences; that's not the only kind of mystical experience there is, of course, but it's an important kind and the evidence it offers has very often been swept under the rug.”

    I definitely understand that, and I find the people who belittle that type of religious experience frustrating at best. Moreover, when I invest myself too deeply in a wholly materialist worldview for too long, I find I don’t much care for the fruit it bears in my life. At the same time, I do have friends who draw fulfillment from that model of the cosmos, and there are certainly many who do so without stepping completely into the biophobic, progress-minded, anthropocentric approach to the world many today seem to. I guess I’m wondering what exactly we’re saying about people with a materialist outlook. Are you saying that without a dualist or idealist approach to reality, one is essentially living a half-life cut off from essential aspects of the human experience? If so, that does feel a bit unfair. Is it possible to approach materialism as yet another mountain within the range of human experience, to draw on earlier metaphors? And, if in magic and spirituality, practice and receptivity to experience are more important than belief, does it ultimately matter if someone interprets an experience of a god, ancestor, or spirit in literal or symbolic terms as long as they give the experience itself the respect it deserves?

  113. Asking your indulgence for a moment…this talk of humans being “cells” of Gaia and no more aware of her purposes than Mozart's cells were of his music plus the scattered comments about humans as cancer made me think…
    So what if the analogy holds? A cancer is a perfectly good cell that decides it doesn't have to die. It keeps multiplying and starts causing problems because there's too much e.g. kidney tissue. Things get really bad when it metastasizes (read: colonizing Mars). And along the way it de-differentiates. BUT a woman (Gaia) can't get along without kidneys. So…what is our proper role in the body of Gaia and how do we return there?

  114. “I suspect… that there won't be one religion embodying the new sensibility, but many of them, in the midst of a far more diverse world.”

    This sounds like a much improved situation over that which has developed during the past 16 centuries or so, and one to whose realization I'll gladly contribute whatever I can.

    One thing I like about the Hermetic philosophy is that, as I understand it, one has some options about what goes at the top of the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being. It might be Iluvatar, Oyarsa, Jehovah or some other personal god; or it may be the ineffable One, a non-personal fount of being or a paradoxical void similar to the Tao, from which the gods and all creation emanate. There seems no need to be doctrinaire about the dramatis personae who populate the universe.

    Over the last decade or more I've found myself gradually wandering from an empirical materialist worldview to some kind of pantheism to polytheism and animism. I suppose this may be wishy-washy, but when you look at the lives of Torquemada and like-minded persons, maybe unshakable clarity of conviction isn't always so great after all.

    @ Bill –

    “…what you tend to get from them [viz., extraordinary spiritual experiences] is a massive non-verbal, non-rational, emotionally-charged barrel full of wordless comprehension. Your conscious mind will only be able to organize it metaphorically, and you will only be able to speak about it metaphorically if at all…”

    This sounds to me ideally suited for treatment in art. Can't wait to get on the job!

  115. Default Options, very interesting. I would have been a bit more humble with the metaphor though. I think I'd put it the other way around though, and say that a simulation is a universe, rather than the universe is a simulation.

  116. druiddisciple said…

    “JMG, I realize this is a very minor point in comparison to your essay overall, still I'm curious enough to ask your opinion. Doesn't defining an entity as a demon or angel depend entirely on how the entity (or it's actions) is perceived by the practitioner?”

    Hmmm, if that is so, I wonder if it is then merely a reflection of the quality of the interior of said practitioner. In general, there are very consistent patterns to what is regarded as good or bad. Causing damage to another or helping another is pretty much it. But I suppose that if you enjoyed ripping heads off, and someone was able to bring you victims, you might regard that person as very good. But does that mean he is good? Or does that mean that some have skewed judgment? Someone might judge it as good to sell someone their final dose of heroin that kills them, but is their opinion worth taking seriously?

    Is it possible to say, with some objectivity, that since life is all any of us really has, that to diminish the life of another is wrong or bad?

    Who would call an entity angelic who had failed to internalize the abstract notion that someone else's inner experience is similar to one's own and has similar value?

    Perhaps it is merely whim or opinion when everyone who deals with an entity who regularly deceives and tricks them, causing them loss and suffering, wasted time and effort, regards it as demonic.
    But there are some consistent patterns.

  117. @ JMG–

    “As for the Catholic priest — well, let's just say that if I chose to talk about his beliefs the way he talked about mine, I'd be accused, and rightfully so, of promulgating hate speech.”

    Thank you for this. I have a tendency to automatically identify with things I read or listen to, and when what I read or hear conflicts with my own beliefs I sometimes have a hard time thinking my way back out of it. Sometimes a simple dose of moral clarity is extremely helpful.

    The thing that made it particularly frustrating was that the priest himself was an exorcist, which is why I was listening to the talk. In other words, his life is not different from that of many practicing occultists! But somehow all the spirits that we interact with are actually demons, and magical energy (he specifically referred to kundalini) is some kind of devil juice, et cetera.

    There is one thing he said that bears on the discussion of magical training, and specifically on the structured traditions. Apparently, back in 2004, Pope JPII ordered every bishop in the world to appoint an exorcist, and supposedly, the incentive was “the rise of occultism.” I don't know how true this is, but as I thought about it, I wouldn't be surprised…

    About two years ago, when I was first getting into this stuff, myself and a few other newbies attempted to form an online Golden Dawn group. Of course, it was a disaster, from the kid who was certain that after 1 month of working with that boring old LBRP he was ready to start summoning demons, to the guy that spent most of his “meditating” while high on pot and dextromethorphin. The group fell apart shortly after the latter let us all know that he had begun speaking with the shadows in his room and he couldn't wait to start teaching us all the wonderful new magical techniques they were showing him.

    Contrast that with the regular emails I know you receive from new (or less than new) members of the orders you head about confusing or frightening experiences with entities or energies that you or another experienced member are able to talk them through. The whole thing provides a very good argument for learning magic in an organized, systematic fashion, with an experienced teacher to rely on. And again, I wouldn't be surprised if the Catholic exorcists really are busy these days, but it's not for the reasons they think, and they don't seem to have any interest in hearing our perspective on it.

  118. That's Nice, Bacchus!

    A speech by Barry Marin

    Well, Yes. I became a polytheist because I have a scientific mind. I looked at the evidence: Teats on men. Nose hair. EAR hair! The Krebs cycle. This body has all the earmarks of something designed by a COMMITTEE! And I know women were involved. Because, let's face it: If a MAN had invented MEN, my balls would not be where they are. They'd be in my chest, or my skull, somewhere SAFE. My real problem is that they let the trickster gods into it. Like farting. You KNOW farting was Pan's idea. It's just exactly his style.
    I can just picture the animal design committee in my mind. There's Hermes in the corner, making insect after insect after insect. They're small, they fly, they're annoying. Perfect!

    So Artemis wanted something to hunt them: invented the Wren. Aphrodite didn't think that was pretty enough: invented the Bluebird. Ares thought that was too tame: made the Hawk. Zeus thought that was too small: invented the Falcon. Poseidon had to top that: created the Eagle. Athena put her twist on the idea: invented the Owl. Hera wanted something more practical: invented the Chicken. That was too ugly for Aphrodite: made the Peacock. Zeus wanted bigger chickens: created the Turkey. And Bacchus chimed in: “Ok, ok! It's a chicken. A BIG chicken! A REALLY big chicken! And it's got a looonnngg neck!” “Looks too big to fly, Bacchus.” “It don't fly, it runs really fast!” “That's nice, Bacchus.”

    So then, we know Poseidon created the Horse. Aphrodite didn't think that was pretty enough: made the Gazelle. Hera wanted something more practical again: created the Cow. Zeus made it bigger: invented the Ox. Poseidon had to top THAT: invented the Elephant. Cows weren't fierce enough for Ares: made the Leopard. Which Zeus wanted bigger: created the Lion. Which now Artemis had to top: invented the tiger. And Bacchus: “Right! So it's a horse, a BIG horse! And it's got a looonnngg neck; And ORANGE POLKA DOTS!” “That's nice, Bacchus.” And it went on.

    Athena made Fish for Poseidon. Zeus made them bigger: created Whales. Poseidon returned the favor: invented Rabbits for Athena's Owls. Aphrodite wanted them softer: made Chinchillas. And, of course, Bacchus: “Ok, So; it's a looonnngg neck!” “How many feet does it have, Bacchus?” “It's got no feet! It's just a loooonnng neck. Slithering on the ground!” “That's nice, Bacchus.” And so it went.

    If you listen carefully and observe the world around you, you begin to hear the music of creation. And it's not the monotone, monotonous march of a monotheistic deity. What single god would bother to invent 9000 different kinds of Frog? No, that music is Jazz! One idea bouncing off another, and taking off in a new direction. Riffs; and variations on themes, and variations of the variations. Obviously a group effort! Until finally, Bacchus, from deep in his cups: “Platypus!” “THAT'S NICE BACCHUS!!!”

  119. SIR –

    Perhaps I am an oddity within my faith. I was born a Jew, albeit to a family of non-observant Jews. In my teenage years, in my love of classical history, I somehow fell into Roman religion. I practiced this with varying degrees of enthusiasm for almost ten years, but at the end it almost seemed like I was praying to an empty house with nobody in it. This isn't to put down anyone who worships in such a way; like many things in this realm, this is just how I felt.

    I had a religious experience at a Benedictine Abbey in Oregon and was baptised several months later into the Anglican Church. Ultimately, I migrated to the Catholic Church through a program to receive Anglicans into an “ordinariate”, so officially I am a Catholic Anglican.

    To get to the point, then. Perhaps because of my religious background, perhaps because my experience or perhaps because I am simply atypical.

    Could it not be a point of theology that the Gods worshiped in pagan religions, instead of being devils or demons, were angels, saints and part of the “Host of Heaven” described many times in the Bible? This is personally the belief I have subscribed to. It also jives with my view of God as ever loving and unlikely to have most honest people worshiping demons.

    So, while I think that while adoration (latria) is due to God alone, people who offer a similar thing to his spirits (angels and saints) would not necessarily be doing something HORRIBLY EVIL. Just, you know, not what I believe to be totally right.

    Anyways, I'm not sure how widespread that kind of outlook is, but it is my outlook.

    Regards,
    Castus

  120. Avery, the Western equivalent of Neo-Confucianism is Neoplatonism. There's a great deal of common ground between the two, for that matter, and both of them provide a much more useful way of understanding religious experiences than what passes for religious studies in a mainstream American university these days.

    Default, welcome to the conversation! I wonder if Whitworth has the least idea that people were saying basically the same thing thousands of years ago, without the science fiction frame story…

    Eric, of course materialism is also an option. I think it's a flawed option, as it's generally used as a Procrustean bed into which experience is fitted by extremely dubious reasoning, but that's simply my viewpoint. To return to the metaphor I used in the post, I'm in no way denying that masturbators can have pleasant experiences; it's the insistence that all sex must be masturbation because lovers can't exist that I find limiting, as well as unconvincing.

    RPC, Gaia got along without us for around two billion years, so it may be a bit unsafe to assume that we're somehow necessary to her! That said, I think we can find a new balance within the pattern of the whole system of the biosphere, but it'll have to be one in which human beings recognize the hard planetary limits to which they're subject, and ditch the hubris.

    Val, Hermeticism — like most esoteric spiritual traditions — starts from the recognition that human beings basically aren't as bright as they like to think, and so can't actually know what's going on more than a few rungs up the Great Ladder of Being. That does allow for a fair amount of flexibility, which seems sensible to me.

    Steve, it's a source of wry amusement to me that most members of the Catholic hierarchy and radical atheists of the Richard Dawkins sort, who disagree savagely on so much else, unite in perfect harmony when they insist that occultists like me are just plain wrong — and it just adds piquance to the mix that neither side can be bothered to learn the first thing about the traditions they think they're rejecting.

    H, thank you! That's the one.

    Castus, it's a perfectly valid outlook, and one that's shared by a great many Christian occultists, as well as ordinary Christians of good will. I look forward to the day when such ideas become more generally accepted in Christian churches.

  121. Why did it take me so long to start reading this blog? Thank you for formulating things so beautifully. I have had the same ideas, some since age 15 when I stopped being a good little Christian girl and became an agnostic. I never had enough evidence to become an atheist. Your game and hunter analogy is just brilliant, and Occam would agree. These days I call myself an agnostic taoist pagan because Nature is my connection to All That Is and I want to celebrate being incarnated, rather than being in a hurry to escape. However I prefer to let sleeping gods lie. They seem to be a capricious bunch. Love the breadth of your scholarship. Thanks for all you do.

  122. JMG – I didn't know if you saw this article in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/27/robert-macfarlane-word-hoard-rewilding-landscape?CMP=share_btn_fb

    It's about the words we use to describe the natural world and how we are losing those words (and therefore the ability to connect with that outside of ourselves):
    “Yet it is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy. The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.”

    It's this disenchantment of everything around us – something so unsettling to the core. We distance ourselves by use of blasé language from not just nature, but the WHOLE of nature (gods, spirits, elements, rocks, trees, birds, and on and on).

    I think this is my long way of saying thank you for having this blog. I started doing the sphere of protection and elemental cross in mid-January and have now started my studies in the Bardic grade of OBOD. Last weekend I went out for a walk around Guildford. During the 13 mile walk, we climbed up a large hill. The soil was so sandy it seemed like a giant sand dune. At the top was an old church with an adjunct graveyard filled with Celtic crosses. We overlooked a breath-taking valley. When I turned to my left, the sun was blinding, yet it felt dark and shadowy. When I turned away, the sky was blue and the grass green. I had never had an experience where depending on my point of view, the quality and the feel of the light of the sun was so different. I started to understand the notion of Astral light from that. I never (NEVER) would have wanted to go on that walk even a year ago. It's because I've started my Bardic training that I could even have a minimal feel for what was around me.

    So, thanks again. I feel myself opening to the world and seeing the enchantment around me. You've helped me a lot with that.

  123. “it's the insistence that all sex must be masturbation because lovers can't exist that I find limiting, as well as unconvincing.”

    The more I think of it, the more appropriate of a metaphor that becomes. One can spill an awful lot of ink attempting to explain away human relationships, or attempting to discount experiences such as love and intimacy as expressions of wholly biological urges. But the experience of actually being in love or sharing in an intimate relationship is something else entirely. It's very easy to explain away a single vision as a hallucination, or an NDE as oxygen deprived brain cells, or a meaningful dream as a “fragment of underdone potato” in the same way that it's very easy to explain away a single orgasm with firing nerve cells and endorphins or the exhilaration of a first kiss with bonding hormones, but as those experiences build up and begin to form into a meaningful relationship with a person something else begins to happen that can't be put in language quite so mechanical…

    I'm reminded of some conversations I once had with an old friend of mine who was a Celtic Reconstructionist with a materialistic worldview. He'd been a southern baptist preacher before losing his faith due to an inability to reconcile reasoned arguments against his faith and turned to his heritage for meaning. He always spoke with a sense of loss about his old faith, saying that when he was a Christian, he had a personal relationship with Jesus. It was like having a friend who was always there for him, and then it was gone. He was confused by the knowledge that I hadn't experienced the same thing. As fascinated as I was with Druid philosophy before leaving Christianity, I would probably never have done so had Manannan not come into my life and swept me off my feet and into a relationship. It was a process that carried me through the same range of emotions I traversed the first time I fell in love, though with a much different type of relationship and a much different type of being, and over time that relationship has grown and changed in the same way as the ones I've had with human friends, lovers, and mentors.

    Another friend of mine, who has been an atheist as long as I knew him, and has about as rational and analytical of a mind as someone can have, recently admitted that he is beginning to self-identify as a Christian. He’d been drawn more and more to Christianity through the writings of Wendell Berry, and the realization that Christianity doesn’t have to take the shape it does in the hands of many of the people who misuse it in this world. Wendell Berry’s Christianity for him represents the Christianity of what you’d describe as the new emerging religious sensibility and expresses it in a form and language that appeals to him. But at the same time, it wasn’t merely the philosophy that drew him, it was the fact that when he began taking tentative steps and reaching out into that world, something reached back and a relationship began to form with something completely and wholly Other. He’s still processing that relationship, and what it means for his worldview, but ultimately it’s not something that matters too much to him, because it exists in a different realm of experience.

    It relates back to what you said in the essay:

    “The point of religious experience, like that of poetry, is communication: in this case, the kind of communication that sustains a relationship, a response from the invisible side of the relationship to overtures from the visible side.”

    There’s some line where interaction gives way to intimacy and discussions of whether it was “real” or not just don’t apply any longer. It’s the sort of line many rationalists who fervently deny the existence of love (since your metaphor does describe at least a few real people) cross when they actually find themselves stumbling into it.

  124. JMG, when you read the musings of cosmologists, a literal reading of Genesis starts to sound reasonable. Ok I'm joking. Maybe half joking.

    I read some stuff about how the universe and its mathematical properties look like those of a hologram. I'm not a scientist so cut me some slack, but the idea is that the information that gives rise to the multi-dimensional cosmos is actually encoded, like the information that gives rise to a hologram, on a two dimensional surface or plane. Imagine that.

    Now, there's an experiment being done at Fermilab to see if they can measure quantum jitters and, with the application of mathematical reasoning far beyond me, they think that they might assess the validity of this hologram idea.

    But now I take a dive into what sounds like speculative fiction: if it is true, is there a place (the way we normally understand “place”) where this holographic code resides? Is it right under our noses? And, if we can find it, can we read the code and understand it? Can we hack into it? Can we re-write the code to alter events? (I know, laughable.)

    I guess that speculative stuff sounded pretty crazy. But there's a lot of crazy sounding stuff out there. Have you ever heard of the “many worlds” interpretation coming out of quantum mechanics? What about this idea out of string theory about 10 to the power 500 possible universes out there? Dark matter anyone?

    In for a penny, in for a pound: given the mass of sightings of phenomena we think of as spirits or angels or ghosts, you have to wonder, are these things that appear and disappear also the product of this holographic coding? Or (and here I'm borrowing from that famous movie) are they the result of bugs or glitches?

    Given that they appear to us, I would guess that these “beings” are able to exist within the familiar confines of our multi-dimensional universe, at least for a while. Given that they disappear, I wonder, are there other places that they go, not visible to folks like us, other than within this space? Do these beings have access to this supposed two dimensional plane with its unimaginably dense and complex holographic code?

    So, if we ask nicely, that is, pray to these beings, maybe they'll grant us a wish. That is, they alter the code and thereby alter circumstances in the world around us. Hence, in answer to the prayer, the preposterously improbable sequence of events.

    Or, if we're talking about something really monumental, something we call “Jesus” going behind the scenes and, out of sight of people like us, doing a major re-write out of which comes something “impossible” like raising the dead, including himself.

    Too nutty? OTOH, how much is understood about the architecture of space-time? Do we know everything?

  125. Longtime reader and fan here. I think someone may have asked more or less what I'm about to ask in the past month or two, but I'm greatly interested in what you're writing about and I'm trying to get the categories straight — spirituality, vs. magic (which we've collectively agreed to define as creating intentional change in consciousness in accordance with will, which seems reasonable), vs. religion, vs. the occult scene, and so on. I appreciate and concur with the proposition that we all practice magic every day, knowingly or otherwise. (I ascribed to a naive kind of liberation Christianity in my younger years, and I'm trained in law, which I take to be a shallow, debased version of magical practice.) I'm wondering if all religious traditions offer the kinds of experience you describe; my religious experience is with Christianity, yet I find that I emotionally resonate with abstract representations like the Sri Yantra immediately, whereas the images I see invoked in Western occultism do pretty much nothing for me.

    I guess what I'm asking is where to start, or, more abstractly, how does one go about identifying what might constitute an entry point into whatever precisely it is that we're discussing?

  126. Ien, and that's certainly a valid approach! Revering nature on its own terms is one very popular option in the Druid scene, for whatever that's worth.

    MP, delighted to hear it. If Druidry is helping you wake up to the world around you, it's accomplishing something truly worthwhile.

    Adrian, no argument there! Too much seriousness is the bane of clear thought.

    Eric, exactly — I don't at all mean to suggest that there aren't worlds of spiritual experience open to nontheists. It's the personal relationship with a personal deity, as a common and profound human experience, that I'm talking about here specifically.

    Roger, I take the musings of today's cosmologists about as seriously as I take the musings of Ptolemaic astronomers — the gimmicks and fudge factors that have to be used to make reality more or less fit the latest Rube Goldberg assemblage of theories reminds me far too much of the epicycles they had to use to make the earth-at-the-center cosmology more or less work. My guess is that a thousand years from now, today's physics will be a source of amusement if it's remembered at all

    Man, I'd encourage you to start with what speaks to you. If the Sri Yantra works for you, find somebody who can teach you Vedanta or some other branch of Hindu spirituality. If Western occultism doesn't work for you, do something else. I have no idea if all the world's religious traditions offer the same experiences — I tend to suspect that each offers its own unique gifts, but since I haven't practiced all the world's religious traditions, that's just a guess — but that's beside the point; the issue is what road to meaning is best suited to your metaphoric pace and footgear. Do some reading, talk to people, visit churches/temples/shrines/whatever, and make your own call based on what you feel speaks most clearly to you. That's my advice, at least.

  127. Hi JMG,

    I've meditated long on this and perhaps I'm a bit dense, but given that there are a plethora of entities in existence, why would any given religion dare label some entities as good and others bad? It seems mildly weird to me?

    So take for example the Christian religion that tends to explain other less than favoured entities away as demons (or saints?), who decides whether those entities are in fact good or evil? What if they are indifferent to humans? We are to other species. There is an acknowledgement in the bible of their existence, but the good guys did some pretty nasty stuff too.

    The more I think about the subject the weirder it seems. How can we even project human motivations and/or emotions onto entities we are barely even likely to understand but may have interactions with?

    It is sort of like me trying to interact with a wombat. I can guess her motivations based on her actions and activities and my perceptions of those, but truly I don't really have any idea. And she may be up to some secret wombat business I couldn't even begin to imagine.

    Dunno, but these seem like complex questions.

    Cheers

    Chris

  128. Cherokee, they are indeed complex questions! Among operative mages, though, things tend to be refocused on a somewhat simpler issue: are the entities in question beneficial to human existence, indifferent to it, or inimical to it? It's as though I were to put a glass of pure water and a glass of carbon tetrachloride on the table; whether one of those was good and the other was evil is a moot point, but it remains true that drinking one is a lot healthier than drinking the other…

  129. Way up at the top of this most interesting discussion, William McGillis asked people to share their experiences. It looks like there hasn't been a great deal of that, so I'm willing to talk if anyone's interested. I've seen a Hindu god peek out of the eyes of a classical Indian dancer; been challenged by the Dharma Protectors at a friend's jukai ceremony; communicated with Fire elementals at a seasonal ritual; had a lengthy vision of a goddess while sitting in the grass at the local Irish Fair (it took me an embarrassing number of years to figure out who She was, too–She finally had to tell me, “That was me, and that was me, and yes, that was me too”, in a kind but slightly exasperated fashion. She's my Matron, now). The most impressive experiences were when a Protestant minister called up a shinigami at my grandmother's hospital bed while ostensibly praying for an angel of healing–I've never been as scared in my life as when I realized it knew I could see it, it was like looking down the barrel of a gun–and when my adoptive mother departed her body with a burst of joy and relief so powerful I was zoned for days. I'm sure my experiences, while distinct, are far from unusual–though I've been Wiccan for 30 years, I've never been any great shakes at psychic/energetic stuff (sidenote to JMG: I've been working the Elemental Cross since Imbolc, and already I'm sensing improvement, so takk skal du ha for translating ritual magic to Neopagan sensibilities!).

  130. While we're on the subject of gods and spirits, have you been watching the recent explosion of devotional polytheism in the pagan community? I'm finding it both fascinating and challenging (in the best way), though the tension between some hard polytheists and some nontheistic/Jungian Wiccans is disappointing, if perhaps inevitable. Unfortunately, I don't see many of the polys citing your book, which I credit not only with transforming my thinking on the subject, but opening me to relationship with my Matron. Don't know why, but it's a much different thing to encounter a Power with a distinct personality, than to encounter “one aspect of the Great Goddess”…

    And while we're on THAT subject, Agent Provocateur was asking how to relate to nonphysical entities. “With respect” and “like neighbors” has been the general consensus among the polytheists I've been reading. Offerings, which featured little in the Wicca I was taught, are considered vital to creating relationship between humans and the spirits; “From the gods to the earth to us, from us to the earth to the gods, a gift for a gift” is how the Asatru put it. Certainly, since establishing a shrine practice with daily prayer and offerings, my Matron has been more tangible and effective in ritual (whether directly invoked or not!). Currently I'm keeping my eyes open for a suitable stone to make an offering-place for the landvaettir in my community garden plot this year, so I can start working with them in more appropriate surroundings.

  131. Blackwings, you're most welcome; I'm delighted that people are starting to pick up on the possibilities of the system I inherited — outside of AODA and a few other corners of the Druid Revival community, that is. As for A World Full of Gods, the reason so few people in the polytheist scene cite that these days is that I'm still persona non grata to a lot of Celtic Reconstructionists — kicking the Druid Revival used to be a common sport in CR circles, when they could spare the time from beating up on each other, and there are people in that scene who haven't yet forgiven me for kicking back.

  132. @blackwingsblackheart

    Would be amazing to have even half of that list of remarkable experiences. But while we're at it I have a little one to share, since I've incorporated the Invocation by the Fifth Gate while doing the SoP I've been experiencing an almost constant tingling on the palm of my hands. It is far more noticeable the first ten minutes after I finish the Ritual, and last time I could practically touch the sphere shaped during the Circulation of Light.

    @JMG: a practical question on the enchantment of a Cauldron, should I wait until I've enchanted the eight stones before proceeding to that ritual, or can it be done even if the stones are not enchanted?

    I'm three weeks until I start Invoking Spirit Within, so I calculate I'm going to be ready to open and close a Druid Grove right on time for Samhain (on the southern hemisphere).

  133. Roger, there's one physicist who has equations that show that, if you're standing at the center of the universe and counting time from that position's viewpoint, we are, in fact, in the eighth day of creation.
    I'm not enough of a mathematician to parse them, and I don't remember now where on the web I saw them, but from what I understand about time it does require a reference point to measure it, just as motion does.

  134. JMG–Okay, yeah, that makes all kinds of sense ;-). Well, with luck I won't be outside of AODA for long; a friend has promised to let me plant a tree in her yard, which was the one issue to solve before applying for membership. My Matron has, after all, been shoving books on Druidry, oghams, and related subjects (like Herself) into my hands for months now, and I can take a hint.

    Before I completely bore everyone with pagan-y chatter, I'll just mention that Paganicon is this weekend (I'm really sorry I missed seeing you there, but I didn't know it was happening until it had already been). Anyway, I attended last year, when Oberon Zell was GoH, and I made a point of being at his panel Gigadeath and the Shape of Time. The program description: No, this is not about a time-traveling heavy metal band. This is an examination of Paganicon's inaugural keynote speaker Archdruid John Michael Greer's religious, economic and political philosophy for our future survival. I don't think the “Easter Island Syndrome” is the best approach for the survival of civilization and I explain why.

    Actually, as I recall, he didn't; once he'd dismissed catabolic collapse, he spent most of the discussion talking about his more recent vision of humans as Gaia's gametes, destined to spread life to other planets. Pagan clergy in space were, of course, also mentioned. Uff da…

    Nicholas, that sounds awesome, and something I'll watch for. I get a breath of cool, fresh air when I finish the Circulation of Light, which wouldn't be noteworthy except for the fact that all the windows still have the winter plastic on!

  135. Nicholas, not at all — the stones are frankly lagniappe, and are there mostly so that people who don't have any experience with enchanting physical objects can work up to the cauldron, wand, etc. You can fit them in as your schedule permits.

    Blackwings, hah! Nobody mentioned to me that that's what Zell was speaking about last year; that's funny. Clearly I'm causing some discomfort in the orthodox neopagan mainstream, then.

  136. @Brother Nihil: “UFOs, because again it's a direct experience with alien intelligences. The UFO scene has a definite cultish aspect that could become the basis of a new religiosity, particularly if the right 'prophet' comes along. One could make the case that several recognized prophets were basically UFO contactees.”

    Several people have already beat you to that punch, as religious movements based on alien contact already exist. One of the largest and the most straight-forward is Raëlism or the Raelians, who have been around since 1974. They hold that aliens have been in contact with humans from the beginning, shaping their biological and cultural evolution, and that prophets of all major religions have benefited from being informed by the aliens, which the adherents call the Elohim. One could say that the Scientologists are a UFO cult once removed, as their founding myth has aliens visiting Earth millions of years ago and the aftereffects of that visit have been the cause of our troubles ever since. Even my friend Nebris (yes, THAT Nebris, who is notorious for his excoriation of our host on his LiveJournal years ago) is trying to get a fledgeling cult he calls the Temple of the Pentavalent off the ground and it has alien visitation at the core of its mythology, too.

    That written, there are some problems with these movements or others based on alien visitation becoming the source of a new religious sensibility. First, these are all prophetic religions, not nature religions, so they wouldn't fit with a return to a reverence of nature and acceptance of our Earthly lot. That's probably the least of their problems. As long as writing exists, the religious impulse may be expressed through the written word and the people who laid ink to paper, so any new religious sensibility may still be prophetic as well.

    Second, both the Raelians and Scientologists are expressly atheistic and fairly materialistic in their understanding of the cosmos. The Elohim of the Raelians are just sufficiently advanced aliens, not beings inhabiting the astral light. The Scientologists have alien souls (body thetans) plaguing people, but they still exist within MEST (matter, energy, space, and time), and the movement passes off their magic system as science. Nebris at least allows for deities and knows he's practicing magic, but he's something of a chaos magician. He believes in tulpas, divine beings created out of human devotion that then take on lives of their own.

    The third and largest problem is that UFO cults look like the next logical expression of the old sensibility, which our host described at his other blog when he wrote about the old religious sensibilities embracing “Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars.” Alien visitors are that endless future among the stars come home to Earth. That promise might just ring even more hollow as the secular religion of progress fails, although UFO religions might make good cargo cults.

  137. @JMG: good to know. Then I'll enchant my wand in Samhain, a very nice rod made of hard bamboo, with rocks decorating it and capped with a quartz crystal. I bought that wand in Brazil a few years ago, long before I even considered beginning a magic path. And a few protective talismans for my home, I'm crafting them from a log I got in the street, after the city did maintenance in the park in front of my office.

  138. Hi JMG,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, I think I get that. However, your reply is that of a path on a journey. ;-)!

    You once wrote – and honestly I forget where – that communication is only possible between equals and described that saying as a Law of some sort.

    Are we in some sort of hierarchy with entities or are they more like the wombat in that they just are there and we'd better get used to their existence with all of the various interactions that go along with that? From my perspective it is better to learn to adapt to the foibles of the wombat, than try and reason with her.

    Also, that then begs the question about communication which I was referring to earlier. I can only infer a wombat’s thoughts and preferences based on her actions – as I observe and interpret them. I assume the same thing is necessary with entities, because communication could only be described as difficult – if not impossible – at best?

    Then it occurs to me that I have heard that some farmers don't like wombats competing for forage with their cattle so they take actions to annoy wombats. Am I assuming that some people would be foolish enough to do such things with entities? It is sort of like the culture wars that go on in our society really. We're an unpleasantly warlike species, but that seems to be our lot. Some fights you just don't want to pick though. Sun Tzu wrote that it is unwise to start a war that you are not reasonably certain to win. Wise words.

    Speaking of which, I have discovered after much thought that the motivation behind the leader in the local gardening group is to run a stall at the farmers market. This seems innocent enough until you peer into the heart of the leader and see that they are on the committee for the market and that running the stall is leverage for them on that committee. Plus the money in the bank from the market sales is not being spent on group activities. Perhaps those funds too are also used as leverage for the committee? I have asked around and the general gist from members is that the groups meetings and farmers market stall is like unpaid work and people don't tend to see the point of that.

    Now as I view the group based on the facts on the ground, the reasons for its existence don't look as pretty as the stated objectives.

    Sun Tzu is a clever bloke and he wrote that if you are on enemy territory, then you seize that which the enemy covets and then your victory will be assured. There are plenty of other farmers markets in the area and the stall could easily be moved to anyone of them… In fact many members are in favour of doing just that.

    The problem that I have is that some things are just broken and not worth saving and in realising the actual purpose of the group, I'm mildly repulsed. I am uncertain about the amount of energy required to wrest control of the group versus, letting it die and starting a new group with less bad blood. Sometimes wounded organisations can come back stronger and better for the experience, but much depends on the healing process.

    Still it is better to know the hearts of men than live in the dark.

    Cheers

    Chris

  139. @JMG: “I've read that folk Christianity in large parts of Europe and some parts of Latin America has taken on many of the features of a natural religion, but that's not something we see much of here.”

    @Mark Hedden: “I'm also interested in the project of incorporating the Christian Trinity into a broader pantheon, and might point you all to the example of the various syncretic practices of Latin America for one case of it being done more-or-less successfully.”

    I've seen this syncretism first hand when I visited Oaxaca, Mexico, for Day of the Dead festivities. I described some of this in Vampires, zombies, and Day of the Dead. One incident in particular struck me. I watched a procession pass by. It was led by three young men in costume, a devil, a grim reaper, and a Mesoamerican death god. That image perfectly summed up the Mexican heritage of being a fusion of European and native elements. I wish Americans could be as comfortable with our hybrid origins.

  140. Cherokee,

    “So take for example the Christian religion that tends to explain other less than favoured entities away as demons (or saints?), who decides whether those entities are in fact good or evil? What if they are indifferent to humans? We are to other species. There is an acknowledgement in the bible of their existence, but the good guys did some pretty nasty stuff too.”

    How would you critique/criticize my idea that bad could be defined as doing deliberate harm to other beings? Taking advantage of them?

    If someone writes off all vaguely known entities as demons because they don't fit their ideology, we do not need to take that seriously. And if someone defines an entity as bad because it ignores them, that is an immature attitude.

    Because there are many immature attitudes, is no reason to think that there can be no standard or judgment on the matter.

    A gray area might be an entity that sees distress, could easily help, but does not. If done for a wise reason, that is wisdom, but if done out of laziness or true indifference, then while we might not consider that entity as bad, but surely not as good either. I have heard it said that the opposite of love is not hatred (which has love in it) but indifference.

    You mention projecting our “human motivations and/or emotions onto entities we are barely even likely to understand but may have interactions with?”

    Again, without much information, it is premature to make judgments. I believe a part of wisdom is refraining from just such premature judgments without knowledge.

    As far as the “good guys” in the Bible doing nasty stuff, again, this sort of thing is really a big part of the problem, that is, being gullible (to propaganda). Using an “us and them” mentality to judge good and evil? Which is what those Biblical so-called good guys were doing. Look, I once saw a little boy of 2 1/2 or 3 hit another kid on the head with a block to get a toy from his hand. Later, another little boy did something quite similar to him. At this point, the day was at an end and his mother was about. How he ran to her! How evocatively he cried! What a horrible cruel thing was done to him!

    I call this level “toddler in the sandbox morality.” It is prevalent enough in this world. But is the fact that this world is not full of wise people a reason to give up?

  141. In the Völuspá, Poetic Edda, the Aesir and Vanir are described as having a war. The Aesir represent spirit, thought, and will; while the Vanir represent nature, fertility and magic.

    The war I remember, | the first in the world,
    When the gods with spears | had smitten Gollveig (Goll=Gold and Veig=Alcoholic Drink in this case the Mead of Inspiration),
    And in the hall | of Hor (Odin) had burned her (spiritual initiation),

    Three times burned (sacred numbers are 3, 6, and 9), | and three times born,
    Oft and again, | yet ever she lives. Verse 21, Völuspá

    Once Gollveig was initiated her named changed to Heith (Heidi, Heid, which means Bright Clear or Shining One which is applied to a wise women or prophetess)

    On the host his spear | did Othin hurl (archeological evidence in tombs suggests that hurling a spear over a person in death or otherwise was to dedicate that host to Odin)

    Then in the world | did war first come (conflict between the passions and primal instincts of a person with rational thought;
    The wall that girdled | the gods was broken (the walls that separated the spiritual realm from the material realm were broken),

    And the field by the warlike | Wanes was trodden (the forces of nature and passion won over the forces of spirit thought and will). Verse 23, Völuspá

    It was after that a parliament was held of the Aesir and a truce was made along with an exchange of personnel of the Aesir and the Vanir. The Vanir gave Njörðr (god of the sea, wealth, fertile crops), Freyr (Lord Sovereign the god of sacral kingship, virility, and prosperity). The Aesir gave Hoenir, also called Vili (will), Mimir (the one that remembers or the wise one) and Kvasir which is a union of the saliva of the Aesir and the Vanir as they drank the precious mead of inspiration.
    The initiation caused a conflict that could only be settled with the exchange of the knowledge of the sea, and how to raise fertile crops which gives way to wealth. In addition a sacred kingship is established to govern between the realms of the spirit and the realms of nature. The outcome is the transference of knowledge through willing to remember that the union between spirit and nature is a sacred truce.

  142. This little essay concerns Zen Buddhist practice, in which I've been involved for a good number of years, in light of your discussions of occult matters. First, the Zen group of which I'm a member is not an exclusivist group – at least as concerns the mainstream religions. Members are not restricted with respect to their other faiths, if any, and our Jukai ceremony contained no exclusivist language. Second, we are not as “sanitized” as some Buddhist groups may be. At meals we still make offering to beings throughout the six worlds of unenlightened existence, including a physical hungry ghost offering, although few people I know take this very literally. I certainly did not.

    Now, having concluded my preliminary comments, on to the meat of my discussion and the heart of my perplexity. A number of your books have spurred my interest in subjects I thought I had abandoned back in the 1970s. I just finished, for instance Dion Fortune's “Mystical Qabala.” Not wanting to abandon my Zen practice (or even thinking that would be a good idea), I've been trying to see if the two are at all compatible. I took especial notice each time Dion Fortune discussed the “way of the arrow” or “rising on the planes,” cross referencing them in the margins each time I came across one. Her book offered much that was interesting to me – probably very much more than I'd have understood or appreciated in the 1970s. In particular it gave me a better understanding of the importance of doing prostrations after group zazen and I've begun including prostrations at the conclusion of my private zazen as well. Her book also helped me understand why, when I sewed my rakasu (I'm assuming you know what that is), I also sewed a silk bag for storing it. It wasn't just to keep the dust off. As you probably know, it is the practice in Zen to sedulously disregard any visions, psychic powers, etc. that may come during or as a result of zazen. The Japanese Zen word for these things is “makyo.” I formerly associated them with the Qlippoth (from my 1970s reading), but that may be too narrow a way of regarding them. Also in Zen we never (that I can think of) make any sort of intercessionary prayer for any sort of results. I wonder what the karmic effect of exerting oneself in any way for or praying for any personal benefit might be, and I doubt that I want to find out the hard way. I've heard Zen characterized as “doing nothing in order to get nothing.” So naturally I'm suspicious of doing something to get something, in any way more than everyone does in the course of common everyday existence. I guess that puts me firmly in the quietism camp. Of course Zen practitioners soon learn that “doing nothing” in the correct way requires something more than the usual flabby attention. I remain perplexed and cautious over my current practice of doing one thing, while reading about another thing.

  143. Pentragruel, I'm involved with a Chinese/Taiwanese “Zen” group and while it's far from Pure Land, I'm pretty sure people in this lineage are praying to Guan Yin to get stuff. The founder of my lineage even claimed to have a life-changing increase in intellectual power due to performing hundreds of prostrations every day to a Guan Yin statue as was recommended by his Master at the time. It's only in Japanese Zen that exclusivism holds such powerful sway. While there is something to be said for purity such a spare practice and teaching can leave one wanting more.

  144. Hi onething,

    I reckon it may be more complex than that. Your choice in the use of the word “deliberate” is instructive. For example, a person may drive an SUV which pumps out a huge amount of CO2 and uses up a finite energy resource, but they may not see any downsides to this as being a deliberate harm to others. Yet, that vehicle may be contributing to the defrosting of ice sheets in Antartica and Greenland which may cause significant harm. Also it may be contributing to foreign powers pursuing wars in the Middle East.

    Just sayin. I reckon, deliberate harm is a relative concept and as such has no valid basis should a person not think in terms of an entire system. Dunno.

    I was wondering aloud as to how we could even know what the motivations of an entity could even possibly be. They may operate using a basis of ethics that is completely alien to our perceptions. For example, I have a code of ethics which I abide by, but will happily squash a bull ant. Does that make me immoral? I'm really not sure at all. Of course we could draw a line in the sand, but how would you communicate that concept across to an entity that may be driven by impulses that we couldn't even guess at? Again, dunno.

    I'm not judging anyone's attitude as immature because I'd actually favour a dissensus of attitudes. People by and large tend to step more carefully in such systems. It is only when they become dogmatic that they become genuinely insecure in their viewpoints.

    Anyway, I am mildly repulsed by dead things…

    No, no! I wasn't judging, but in fact asking the question about communication and understanding. If we are both humans and don't understand, then how much harder with an entity? Just sayin…

    Ha! You need to read a book called: “The slap” by and Aussie author Chris Tsoliakis…

    Yes, but what if being considered a wise person is also a relative concept? For example, I read somewhere that to be considered well adjusted to a dysfunctional system is not a good thing… Again, just sayin…

    Hi Adrian,

    Apologies, I missed your reply. Yes, I wait here too to see the place and potential unfold in front of me. Patience really is a virtue. Thanks, I really connected with people over onions in a way that would otherwise not have been possible. An interview was borne out of the process – more on that when I find out more!

    Sorry to hear how cold it is up your way. Frozen lakes are a bit beyond my imagination. Sorry to say, but it is very mild here.

    Cheers

    Chris

  145. Hi Chris,

    But my use of the word deliberate was quite deliberate. I think we do not need to overly complicate something which is simple. Context is everything. Of course people and other beings do harm without understanding what they are doing, and of course we cannot judge very well something that is out of our ken, such as an entity that we barely fathom.

    Bit it puzzles me, this way of thinking, to say that deliberate harm is a relative concept and therefore it is all just a morass of chaos. I'm talking about the golden rule here. I can't really imagine it not holding true everywhere in the galaxy.

    Between the unfathomable being and an insect, there is the very real problem of predatory behaviors among people, or wanton disregard for suffering of animals. Is it immoral to stuff thousands of chickens in a shed like so many pieces of wood, to extract the eggs as cheaply as possible, if that makes the chickens suffer?
    Of course, one might argue that even frank evil is a matter of ignorance, being cut off from compassion is a lack of full awareness. The Buddhists call such things ignorance, and I agree with that.

    I looked at the book The Slap – what do you think I might get out of it?

  146. @Cherokee

    Chris
    You wrote “Anyway, I am mildly repulsed by dead things…”

    Where I run on our rural roads and despite the fairly light traffic, there is a lot of kill. Many of these are pheasants – which are released from hatcheries into the woods to be fed on grain to be shot later by paying guests.

    In early days I used to say “sorry” as if I was guilty as human. Now, if it seems reasonable, I just show respect – for the stopped miracles of biochemistry if nothing else. I lift their brokenness to the grass to be eaten. Local arable farming and road kill round here supports a lot of carrion eaters as well as the large populations of herbivorous pigeons. So it goes.

    best
    Phil
    PS I regularly take remarks from neighbours who fear for my solitary running safety. Oh well, another reason to keep the protection rituals going! Smile.

  147. This may be tangential to this post, but quite pertinent to overall blog themes…
    A rather thoughtful essay on the use of statistics (in this case Pinker & others who've argued that humanity is progressively casting off the habit of violence) as “sorcery” in the service of a strong faith in “continuous improvement” (ie progress).

    Worth a read.

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/13/john-gray-steven-pinker-wrong-violence-war-declining?CMP=share_btn_t

  148. Phil, I've no idea where you are at, but in at least some of the United States you can get a salvage tag for road kill. You only want very fresh kills, of course, so there will still be plenty for the carrion eaters, but you can fill your pantry up free. We've had all the deer we can use the last two years: our neighborhood keeps an informal watch out for kills, one of the older gentlemen knows who needs meat and word gets passed along.

  149. Boysmom
    I am in England near the Scottish Border. There is no scheme formal or informal I know of for collecting road kill. Personally I don't need meat. That was originally an aesthetic choice faced with a cultural surfeit and my increasing dislike of industrial-type livestock farming and killing methods.

    Years ago I did a lot of what appeared to be obligatory motoring but cut back for health and ecological reasons. The cut-back was not enough. I became conscious that I was adding to road kill. This was mostly small song birds with an occasional pheasant. After this realisation I tried various 'magic' meditative methods to prevent this kill of mine. It was very interesting, and worked. Perhaps I should write the story. I became very grateful to the birds.

    sincerely
    Phil

  150. @Scotlyn
    Thanks for the link to John Gray's article. Gray is good at digging out the origins of contemporary thinking and I also like his link to a Nassim Taleb review of The Long Peace. Taleb’s comparison with 'the great moderation'[sic] (a term used by economists and politicos about world trade and finance that preceded the financial crash 2008), is well made.

    An extended but similar analysis to Gray's, of contemporary thought (and failure) in terms of antecedents in moral philosophy is in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, which I am half way through just now. Gray and MacIntyre differ in religious stance but both give the trajectory of Enlightenment thinking the careful critical attention it needs these days.

    best
    Phil

  151. I have just read my first post here. I had a week off so I had more free time. I just finished spengler. Of course you have other sources but I will try to rehash some of what I recall he said on this topic.

    Henotheism-there are lots of gods and mine is right, popular with abraham, moses, ancients of all sorts.

    Monotheism- there is only one God. This was a christian, roman times jewish stance, regarded by Rome as heretical, quasi'atheistic' as in Roman times every place had its own deity. Spengler emphasizes this apollonian worldview of place limited mindset to everything. Worship the local god while you are there. Refusal to do this saying you had a universal place independent god was weird, abstract.

    The roman local gods in human form was a transition from nature god of a local river, forest.

    Roman mindest gradually adapted, with massive middle eastern slave population, the new monotheistic concept, but using emperor as God. Given ten more years the church establishment in Rome would not have been christian but roman using exact same structure, beliefs based on pythagoras type 'god is love' ideas identical to jesus ideas. Essentially no change here. Constantine chose jesus cult however.

    Early Christian religion focused on Mary cult and saints against magic, witches. Sacraments were established eliminating Christian fear of unknown, sin and people settled down. As far as I understood old nature, druid religions were in a fight with catholic church from underground. Reformation eliminated sacraments for protestants, got them into bible worship, rational independent thinking, text analysis which led to self righteous behaviour like pharisees(everyone own priest). Furthrmore this led to rationalism as people read and wrote more, soo enlightenment followed along with atheism as people tired of bible, 'childish' fairy tales. Spengler compares this phase with buddha experiences. Also puritanism of confucius and Cromwell compared(paradise lost written under cromwell).

    I found it interesting that Spengler says that modern urban population are essentially atheists in attitude, religious or not, as they find rationalism primary in consideration in life.

    His discussion of 2nd religiosity is coincidental with decline of democracy, rationalism, rise of caesarism.

    Also notable is the critical concept that nature or ancient local religions were based on ritual, i.e. physical ritual at temple. There was no belief system or ideology. There was no proselytizing, expansion to other places, converts.

    Chritianity, judaism , islam made converts, expanded in space. People made new sects according to differing belief. This is similar in modern science, political, economic life.

    Early christianity, middle eastern religions believed not in free will but common soul from god in all. Beginnig and end of time parallel with creation of man and apocalypse, which was expected any day now.

    Middle ages christians free will oriented. Human history, physical earth not same as god's time plan, universe. Spacetime limitless. Each person alone in soul torture of conscience.

  152. After reading the long thread I am inteested in the wide range of thought, speculation, experience and hope to come back. I was raised catholic, did a fewyears as pentecostal and read my bible as youth, got into agnostic humanism in high school, college and took up yoga, meditation at about 30 and tai chi with 37. My yoga developed energy aspects alone and then I took a kriya/kundalni course which ex0panded that energy. I find supernatural experiences limited to coincident or predictive capabilities which are unstable/unpredictable. I have had no visions, etc. I try therefore to relate religious ideas to energy concepts like quantum mechanis, allowing of course that our consciousness exists so god or whatever can too only under a set of megarules for astral, buddhic, mental dimensions. I read seth books for example by jane roberts. We die and escape earth due to good karma. We move up to astral, emotional body. We evolve spiritally a million years(nonsensical ideas in these terms) then discard that body and move to mental body and then evolve to buddhic then are completely free.

    This nonsense is like unified field theory. Getting through everyday life is much more important. Politeness, human kindness, grace in movement due to yoga, tai chi training, etc. most essential. I disdain spirituality and theory, like what the hell is advaita vedanta? I probably adhere to that but don't realize it. My feellings, energies most important to me. Sivaistic Siddhanta ismy school but being a cynical western convert I don't stand on ritual but results. In indian astrology they have yantras, necklaces with mantras to ward off bad things so that islike magic. In tibetan system i have read of weird beings, demons and have practiced lucid dreaming. My chakras fellimgs grow and energy flows through body. I speculate that jesus healed by such energy as with reiki and perhaps walking on water is possible if some trick is used and a seriously advanced yogi were involved. This would be our next evolutionary stage as aurobindo speculates, becoming angels. Problem is now the environment, war. In every generation maybe a couple people are so advanced like st. Francis with his stigmata(modern stigmatists very interesting). If we don't destroy earth maybe we can become something else, less stupid, selfish, more godly. In a world of low resources, civilization reboot will definitely be nonmaterialistic, more cooperative, spiritual if at all. But then a die off of our lower selves like after toba 70,000 years ago would not be so bad only morally, mentally we were more rapacious. Before we were animals. Bottleneck, catton means a spiritual evolution as well. Kundalini awakening en masse is a hard thing. I read the posts here and too much speculation. Spengler said around jesus time and 'simultaneously' in reformation a blossoming of ideas took place. Few survived of course. Results are what counts. People seeing demons and experimenting with stuff probably got witch trials going. 1 million burnt at stake. Tibetan system allows and channels this knowledge for example for initiated few. Mass knowledge of occult is confusing. Most want simple devotion, ritual, comfort, routine, family life.

  153. @Ed Harris: “…road kill. This was mostly small song birds with an occasional pheasant. After this realisation I tried various 'magic' meditative methods to prevent this kill of mine. It was very interesting, and worked.”

    I was driving a country road, and wrestling -intensely- with the conundrum of abortion. Asked for help. Immediately a small bird flew down and was killed on my windshield. The bird did NOT act like he was a willing participant in my spiritual education!

    Leave aside chance. This is the Well.

    For me this was totally ambiguous. I cannot to this day have it add up to be either for or against abortion. I did indeed glean from it, in the general area of complexity (here quote Horatio), and maybe “careful, you may get what you ask for”.

    I have largely left Christianity in the years since, and now I see another angle: maybe a local entity stuck his finger in my world. Didn't have to be God Almightly answering.

    Could have been anyone (any thing?), with any level of intellectual grasp or moral viewpoint.

    And thank you JMG !
    Ol' Bab

  154. Beannactaí Lá Fhéile Pádraig Daoibh

    St Patrick's Day blessing to you all.

    Unlike Brid, I can't find any suggestion that Padraig was a God before he was a saint, and as a Saint, one of his claims to fame is said to be the winning of a magical battle with a Druid on the Hill of Tara.

    Interesting evidence from dendrochronology shows there was a series of dark, cold, bad years in Ireland around 430 AD, coinciding with a boom in monastery building. Climate stress may definitely lead to scepticism of the powers of the old gods, and usher in a new dispensation.

    Nowadays, St Patrick is the go to Saint for those wishing to banish snakes – or sobriety.

  155. Ol' Bab
    I agree – startling when it happens like that.
    (Err … its Phil here, but no problem.)

    I think anyway on general grounds we should look to JMG's advice on coping with 'cognitive dissonance'. Driving, as in 'motoring', seems to provide a special environment for 'synchronicities'. Driving rural roads sometimes crucially depends on 'foresight' of what is coming round the bend. On the other hand 'cognitive dissonance' can create very material problems? I am making my little lists!

    best
    Phil
    PS I decided I did not like the idea of birds sacrificing themselves willy-nilly 'because' of me.

  156. Ol' Bab &JMG
    Follow up … is the following relevant?

    I was much struck by JMG comment on the other blog re cognitive dissonance (see below). Any 'wrestling in spirit', if that is what it comes to, is best done it seems to me when not driving a motor car (or despite it being less crucial, in the middle of the night).

    I like the idea that when it has to be done, such 'wrestling' can be engaged when completely calm and using minimum energy.
    best
    Phil
    PS JMG recent comment on ADR:
    Montesano, very often the best way to deal with cognitive dissonance is to bring it fully into consciousness. It's when the dissonance is half-conscious or wholly suppressed that it's most uncomfortable. When you find your mind trying to turn away from some such issue, pick up a notebook and a pen, ask yourself what it is that makes you uncomfortable about it, and write the first thing that comes into your mind, without editing or censoring the output at all. You may be astonished with what comes out.

  157. Hi onething,

    I re-read your reply several times and am still no clearer on your words. I can't answer you and am seriously disinclined to play word games with you.

    Your extreme example of the chicken factory farms was provided for a reason, which I suspect deep down you know.

    I've noticed that in this day and age, many people drown themselves in drama. If you were to spend any time at all watching the programming on television you'll notice that many of the relationships between characters are basically dysfunctional. In addition to that the situations that the characters are immersed into – regularly – are so extreme that few people – other than perhaps sociopaths – could actually survive intact. People regularly immerse themselves in this sort of second hand emotion and drama and they seem to be largely OK with that.

    Unfortunately, I see that sort of need for drama in your reply, why else would you dismiss the questions and points that I raised, admit that you used certain words to produce an emotional response and resorted to an extreme example. Dunno, but I seriously urge you to meditate and consider your response in that light.

    Personally, I would much rather swap ideas and stories as they are far more valuable.

    Cheers

    Chris

  158. JMG,

    One of my favorite posts on TADR is your de-industrial reading list. Would you be able to provide something similar here?

    I've always been interested in religion/spirituality (east, west, indigenous, the whole gamut), and I've been meditating daily for the past 10 years, but I still don't grok the whole “magick” thing.

    I've read some Dion Fortune, some Crowley, some of the academic works on western esotericism, but I still don't get what mages “do”.

    If you could recommend any practical books, especially for those of us who don't have access to a flesh-and-blood teacher, that would be greatly appreciated. Cheers!

  159. @Invisible Jungle

    When it comes to what magic is, and what mages actually “do”, it is by far more helpful to treat it as generic term, and not as a fixed concept, and as such it is one that can (and should) be applied to the many and extremely varied modes of perception and (inter)action that are made possible as a result of willfully surrendering the deeply ingrained and (very often) cherished belief of a barrier separating the self from rest of the universe. The tribal shaman performing a ritual for rain, the yogi working at awakening and directing certain forces within his/her body, and the diviner reading and interpreting another person's past and future through tarot or geomancy etc., are all forms of magic, and they are in themselves also very different activities, but they all neatly converge around that particular point. So too does the act of breaking down said “barrier” with meditation and philosophy, and more than one occultist has argued (and rightfully so) that this is the most important, as the above mentioned activities are somewhat derivative from that.

    I hope this answer isn't too vague or abstract to be of help. My own personal experience is that there is no greater source of confusion in these matters than the various attempts that have been made at defining magic as one particular activity or “thing”. The introductory chapters in JMG's “Circles of Power” are probably one of the better places to start reading, in my opinion. It's a well written and thorough introduction to magic that can be expanded upon.

    Best wishes

  160. Hi Chris
    I was so struck by this I entered it into my notebook, credited to you, of course:
    “I'm not judging anyone's attitude as immature because I'd actually favor a dissensus of attitudes. People by and large tend to step more carefully in such systems. It is only when they become dogmatic that they become genuinely insecure in their viewpoints.”
    This is a hopeful perspective, considering that we are likely to see more chaos and uncertainty in the future, spawning more dissensus of attitudes. If people step more carefully it implies they have to be aware of what they're thinking, and think before they speak.
    A less monocultural/monolithic view seems a lot more welcoming to me. Maybe it will slow things down enough so that everyone can act like thoughtful human beings.

  161. Hi JMG,

    The autumn equinox here is on 21st March, so I celebrated Alban Elued today instead due to future logistical issues on that day (in two days time). I hope this practicality is OK?

    Anyway, just wanted to say that my experience of Esus is completely different to Beli. Beli is a strong and serious force – very hard to ignore and reluctant to leave – and I'm still not sure it has left as there is a residual feeling, whereas Esus is – and I'm struggling to find the right words – more full of energy and playfulness. I felt positively refreshed after the ceremony like I'd just woken from a very good nights sleep, which was notably unexpected, but there you go.

    Hi Phil,

    Yeah, there is a bit of roadkill here too and it has the same cause but for maybe different reasons. The locals and council tends to cut the grass along the sides of the road. The grass falls to the ground where it is cut and this whole process of chopping and dropping organic matter tends to build up the soil. As the top soil along side the roads improves over the years, it then has the freshest grass and herbage plus it is much higher quality pick for the animals than elsewhere – like in the forest.

    The wombats and wallabies all hop, skip and jump down to the roadsides to eat this high quality grass and sometimes they toddle onto the road – usually crossing to get to the other side and some dolt comes along in an over sized vehicle and runs them over. They think don't worry about it as there are heaps of wombats out in the forest, but not so. There are a lot of wombats along side the roads eating the grass.

    I drive slowly at night if I have to go out – which mostly I try to avoid – which means no more than 40km/h which leaves plenty of time to stop and move wildlife off the road. I spotted a koala on the road a few weeks back – they're usually drunk because of their toxic diet so they're not particularly friendly about being ushered off the excellent path that we humans have made for them.

    Mind you, a huge number of animals descend on the compost fed plants here for much the same reasons and they all seem perfectly happy and content. I wish they kept off the French Sorrel though…

    Roadkill near the house, I put in the worm farm which ends up back in the soil.

    I respect the ritual that you do for the animals there. Top work.

    Hi Other Tom,

    Many thanks and I'm glad to be of value to you. Yes, I believe the future will be both grim and difficult, but it may also be a serious adventure and will open up all sorts of possibilities that get squashed today.

    Cheers

    Chris

  162. @JMG: You said that you were persona non grata among Celtic Reconstructionists. I respectfully disagree. I am one of the four credited authors – C. Lee Vermeers – of the CR FAQ, a website and book that was in some ways definitive of the Celtic Reconstructionist approach, and which has, I am told, been generally influential on polytheist reconstruction generally. I point people toward A World Full of Gods at nearly every opportunity (along with Jordan Paper's The Deities Are Many and the works of Edward Butler) related to theology.

  163. Chris,

    Wow, I am really surprised at what you have written. How have I managed to offend you? I am both stunned and perplexed.

    Word games? I thought I wrote very clearly. My points are simple.

    I absolutely did not ignore your points. Rather, I said I am talking about something much simpler. I agree that we cannot judge entities that were do not understand, and I agree that there is often harm done unknowingly as in your examples, but I do not call that bad or evil. Deliberate harm.

    You said deliberate is a relative term, so I gave an example that not only disturbs me but I thought would resonate with you, i.e., cruelty to animals for profit. That was my reason.

    The last thing I am is a drama queen. I have no dysfunctional relationships, almost never have a tiff of any sort, and I do not watch television nor own one.

    It seems to me that there is a difference between someone who loves violent and psychopathic programs to entertain them, and someone who is upset about actual, real things that are going on. In fact, most people I know at work do watch those things, and funnily enough, are not worried about the animals or the people that we bomb in other countries.

    I mean, it sounds to me like you just said that if I am concerned about some very sad situations, that I am wallowing in drama.

  164. A word about spirits and deities:

    I wonder if it's really necessary to refer to non-physical beings as disembodied: it presumes that physical bodies are fundamental to all life — a view which I find rather narrow. My own belief is that bodies of any kind are a manifestation of the living being. Some are ephemeral (as in a vision of light), some temporal (as in physical bodies), some permanent in terms of the physical universe (as in the life or consciousness bound up in a rock or star), and it wouldn't surprise me if there are those of the eternal variety, that outlast the time-bound gathering and dispersing of physical elements.

    A word about how assumptions and other constraints both help and hurt our experience:

    What Taoism (in particular) has taught me, is to recognize that my own assumptions are the only constraints that can limit my interaction with the wonder of existence. Without them the mind grows like the essence of a tree that pushes root and limb in all directions. But it's hard to communicate anything if there are no constraints (for example the constraints of language or a mortal body), so there are reasons we have learned to live by assumptions in the bodies we have.

    Still, constraints of all kinds (assumptions and all states of existence) are provisional. A Buddhist anecdote describes leaving the raft at the shore of the river after having crossed, and not dragging it up the mountain. It also uses the metaphor of golden chains to describe what even the Buddhist canon becomes to the one who becomes too comfortable with it. Provisional things exist to make first steps and growth of other kinds possible. What I find profoundly interesting is pondering what follows the shedding of said constraints… and the first step toward that is realizing they're there.

  165. Nicolas, sounds like a good plan.

    Cherokee, that's Hagbard's Law, from Shea and Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy. As for spiritual entities, it varies from entity to entity; some are right up there with wombats in their lack of interest in communication, others want to communicate and can do so quite readily, and there are any number of gradations in between. We'll get into the discernment of spirits as we proceed. As for the group, nicely done — very often the confusion in a group like that is caused by a gap between its ostensible purpose and its real agenda, and figuring that out is a crucial step to knowing your enemy — Sun Tsu had a few things to say about that!

    Pinku-Sensei, I don't think this country will heal until we do so — and there's likely to be a long and bitter road between here and there.

    Uvarik, yes, I know — I've read both Eddas. Would you like to relate that to the discussion?

    Carlos, he's certainly an option; I've been reading a good bit of Steiner recently, though it's been primarily his writings on Goethean science and The Philosophy of Freedom rather than his specifically occult works. It's going to take a lot more reading, and some work with his exercises, before I consider myself qualified to express a more detailed opinion.

    Pantagruel, I don't generally recommend mixing systems. The traditional prohibitions in any given system tend to be based, in my experience, on hard-earned lessons from the past, and those who disregard them quite often end up in one or another form of deep trouble! Buddhism in particular has a lot of flexibility; among Japanese Buddhist sects, there are some (such as Shingon) that are very much into magical practice, and others (such as Zen) that aren't — so when a Zen master says that Zen practice isn't compatible with magical work, I tend to think he probably knows what he's talking about.

    Scotlyn, thanks for this — Gray is always a worthwhile read. In Vodoun, by the way, St. Patrick is the standard “cover” for the lwa Damballah — you'll find a lot of St. Patrick novena candles for sale in botanicas, which are purchased by people who have no interest at all in getting rid of snakes…

    Phil, in my experience the calm and the low energy input are critical when dealing with cognitive dissonance, or any of the other tangles the mind gets into. It's precisely in silence and stillness that you can get enough perspective on these things to unravel them.

    Invisible, I'll take that into consideration.

    Cherokee, that's perfectly okay — in magical practice, it's a standard rule that you've got 48 hours to either side of the actual time of equinox or solstice, and if you're not doing magical work as such, you've got even more flexibility.

    Faoladh, hmm! That's interesting to hear. In the years right after I became head of AODA and started writing and speaking about the Druid Revival, the AODA office email and mailing list got drive-by trollings all the time from CRs denouncing me at the top of their lungs as a “fake Druid,” and things got so, ahem, interesting at Pagan events that I basically stopped attending them. My books got similar treatment in book reviews by CRs, even when I went out of my way to point out that I'm fully aware that modern Druidry is modern, not ancient, and repeatedly disavowed any claim of ancient lineage. If the furor has died down, that would be welcome; I have nothing against any kind of Reconstructionism, even though it's not my thing, and it would be pleasant to be able to interact with that end of the Druid scene without the yelling that used to come up so often.

    Elemdaoid, the benefit of the label “disembodied” is of course purely a matter of convenience for people in modern industrial society, who need to have that pointed out to them. Like so much of the language we use, it's a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself.

  166. Cherokee, Onething, it sounds to me as though you've gotten yourselves backed into a state of mutual incomprehension, and I'm not at all sure that further attempts are going to improve that. I'm going to ask you both to drop the discussion you're having — at least here; if you want to pursue it somewhere else, by all means. Many thanks.

  167. Fair enough, JMG. Cherokee, I apologize for any offense. None meant.

    “so when a Zen master says that Zen practice isn't compatible with magical work, I tend to think he probably knows what he's talking about.”

    I fully get that, but(just sayin') – another possibility is just the old religious chauvinism. The main western religions, for instance, would consider all this here a bunch of demon talk, and I don't just mean the fundies.

  168. Thanks John. Although I work as a software engineer among climate scientists, I haven't been in sufficient dialog to have had to struggle to establish terms that work for the modern industrial view. I admire your courage, and am very thankful for your work.

  169. JMG & All
    I feel much better informed by this month’s post. Thank you.
    A couple of thoughts popped up after your (and Indrajala ) linking theory and practice (consciousness) with historical transmission and transformation of ideas and methods.

    In the everyday world it is very difficult to do exactly the same thing more than once (I liked Shawn’s wonderful computer program example). That applies btw as just as much in scientific experiment, or did so in my experience. It was even more obvious when others needed to repeat what had become a reliable enough experience in my laboratory.

    In a roundabout way, I am reminded of the history of money.

    I rely on Zarlenga’s The Lost Science of Money, 2002; a treatise given some credibility back in 2012 by Benes & Kumhof, researchers at IMF. Actual tools were traded way back, and Zarlenga illustrates the change to tokenism, using for example the find of a non-functional copper ‘axe’ alongside the 5000 year old body of the Iceman. Trading involves often enough unexpected largesse – by invoking specialist skills or resources beyond any immediate cultural or individual competence or local experience. Zarlenga discusses a central role for Temples, for example in Greece, in the transition from a ‘cattle standard’ to a gold standard’, and thereby the monetisation of gold (creating token value). These Temples apparently accumulated gold – not originally as ‘money’, and there has long been a separation between bullion and coinage. But ‘monetisation’ can encourage and control trade. Zarlenga suggests that ”money is a question of power more than economics”. More than gold flowed along trade routes. Somebody invented coinage, perhaps it seems (again Zarlenga’s suggestion) as a compromise between token metal-by-weight in the orient and the more abstract ‘tool money’ forms of the West. Such coinage probably was invented under political authority of city states for high-value trading or inter-City deals crossing borders. The amount of such ‘legal’ money in circulation was controlled.

    For my interest in ‘consciousness’ I see the repetition of material form in coins, with emblems first stamped on one side and then on both sides. Then there is the matter of the attribution of value. Greek Temples it seems at times acted like banks, and their international cults during the Pelopenesian War united to call themselves the “Treasurers of the Gods”, but there is a potential for rivalry between religious and secular control of value, and between rival controlling actions/decisions in the present acting on the future, and perception of the (very real) abstractions lying in thought behind daily events. It does not seem odd to me that history records changes in the way ‘consciousness’ is accessed and controlled, both individually and socially.

    best
    Phil

  170. 1st time I've read 1 of your articles on this weblog. I plan to at least look at each 1 every month.

    Like many persons who grew up in a culture pervaded by Judao-Christian myths, beliefs and perspectives, I scoffed at pantheism as something quaint and amusing. Now I'll have to re-think this matter.

    Looking down on pantheism is just 1 more example of the view that what is modern is better than what existed in the past, which is related to the civic religion of progress.

    I have fairly recently come to the following conclusion :

    What a person actually believes is better determined by a close study of how they live their life than by what they claim to believe.

    An example of this is so-called “Christians” in the USA who shamelessly acquire wealth, hold onto their wealth in a miserly fashion, discriminate against others who are not like them and are comfortable with using violence to maintain their privileges.

    The fact that such persons call themselves Christians is little more than a convenient lie.

    On the other hand, a self-described atheist such as Bertrand Russell adhered closer to Christ's teachings than most so-called Christians.

    Many other similar examples exist.

  171. I hope I'm not too late to comment here. I am one of those Christian pagans. One reason I stick with Christ is that He, to me, represents very well the concept of the Self (think Jung), or the inner God that is not truly distinguishable from the outer God. I say the same of a pantheon of gods, in that each represents an indispensable part of the human being (although they have external manifestations as well). If you think of a pantheon within a human being, on the level of practical decision making and action there has to be an overall King or Self that guides the person as a whole. Whether that being is produced by a consensus among the poly-deities, or in some other way, SOMETHING decides which use to make of each part, and which road to take. Or so it seems to me. I would be interested in hearing another point of view in which polytheistic deities guide without recourse to a larger guiding being or force; it doesn't seem impossible to me, just harder to understand that way…I guess Buddha works just as well as a manifestation of the Self, and Odin of the Norse gods also comes close, I think. Or you could have many Chinese gods or demi-gods that all follow the Tao, or overall guiding force….One of the coolest days I've ever spent was at the Chicago Art Museum,where I savored for a good long time an exhibit of different Buddhist deities in form of sculpture. It reminds me of what JMG said about the re-incorporation of nature gods, especially in Japan (I think the exhibit was Japanese).

  172. Hello JMG, I'm currently reading your book, “A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism”; and I just began reading the seventh chapter.

    There should be more philosophical treatises on polytheist theology. I'm commenting on this post to ask if you have ever read any material pertaining to evolutionary theories of religion–most specifically, theories which posit an array of explanations for how religion developed, and why it persists.

    I'm a polytheist. I began worshiping the deities belonging to the pantheon of Chinese traditional religion (Shendao), as well certain deities belonging to Shinto; but I have also honored Thor and Heimdall, too.

    The aforementioned theories are cogently presented, but I feel as though when someone broaches the topic of religion (almost invariably within an atheistic or monotheistic context) the phenomenology of religious experience is either omitted or not discussed extensively.

    ALso, disregard my previous comment, I forgot to read that the comments were moderated, and I wanted to elaborate my thoughts more succinctly.

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