On Virginity

I’ve been sick this past week, so I’ve spent a lot of time sitting on the couch watching videos. I watched the BBC 4 part documentary on Pagans, which I was quite impressed by. The BBC really does produce much higher quality content than American made-for-tv documentaries, which always feel so redundant and basic.

Anyway, in the first section, “Sexy Beasts,” they talk about the Egtved girl, who I have talked about before. (Hilariously, when I just googled the Egtved girl to get the wikipedia link for you guys, there was that picture of me sitting like the bronze statue wearing that string skirt I made in the image suggestions. The internet is a weird thing, where I can google an obscure archeological find and see a picture of myself.) Anyway, while talking about the Egtved girl, they talked about virginity and how it meant something different in Pagan Europe than it does in Christianity. Since sexuality wasn’t seen as bad, virgins weren’t necessarily seen as more “pure” than non-virgins, they were seen as “ticking time bombs of sexual energy.” They think the Egtved girl was a virgin because she was 15 when she died, but dancing in that skirt could have been nothing but sexual. The idea being that a virgin is more sexually potent than a non-virgin because she can arouse and be aroused, but that energy is never released, it only builds.

Which got me thinking about Mary and Jesus in a very heretical way. What if Mary was capable of carrying the child of God not because her virginity made her more pure than other mothers, but because her virginity meant that she had more life source force in her?

And then I got to thinking about sex, and me, and my history with the Christian guilt and just how deeply damaging that idea was for me, that virginity was a pure state of being and sex was bad and women should be pure and so once I lost my virginity I wasn’t pure anymore, I was a whore. But no categories are stable, and as we see in the Egtved girl, sometimes the virgin IS the whore. The Norse gods are always missing that which they rule over because, as they say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Freyja loves Odh more when he isn’t there, Sif loves her hair more once it’s gone, and sex is better when you can’t have any (Sort of. sometimes.)

By the way, can we talk about how annoying the phrase “lose your virginity” is? How much it takes the agency out of the choice to begin a sexually active life? “Oh, whoops, my boyfriend came over and I lost my virginity. I can’t find it anywhere!”

But, in America, with all it’s problems, could this idea be a good thing? Could this idea be a healthier and more successful way of helping our daughters lead healthy sex lives and wait until they are ready? I think it could. We teach our daughters that they are helpless to men’s desire (because men are the only ones with desire and only want one thing out of women), and they have to be pure. So then once they’re rebellious or a man wants them or they find out that they want it to, which is scary because they weren’t supposed to, those ticking time bombs of sexual energy explode and it isn’t always healthy and they aren’t always prepared. I think it would have been easier for me if I had been taught that virginity gives a girl power and agency over her choices, that she can arouse a man or herself and know the power in that without giving in to it. That her virginity is hers to own and to give to a partner when she chooses to.

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On the “handmaidens,” my distate for the term, and Sif

In order to go into more detail about my relationship with Sif, which is blossoming and which I intend to do on this blog, I first have to share something about Frigga’s “Handmaidens.”

First of all, I believe there is no foundation in the lore to call them handmaidens whatsoever. They are simply listed as goddesses in a list that includes Freyja right in the middle, but doesn’t include other notable goddesses such as Idunna and Sif. If the twelve lesser-known goddesses were considered some kind of group of Frigga’s handmaidens, it seems to me that they would have been listed as such in the Gylfaginning. Why stick Freyja right in the middle? I happen to believe that this grouping is just a modern way of dismissing the individuality of these goddesses. How many places online are they only mentioned as “Frigga’s Handmaidens,” their individuality forgotten? Conversely, how many places are they talked about as if going through each one and meeting her in trance (sometimes one per month for a year) is some way to explore femininity in heathenry as some kind of exercise in getting in touch with your femininity? In any case, they are treated as a group, always, for no reason that I can ascertain. As Lofnbard says, “This is in fact purely a modern convention of Norse Paganism and Heathenry, framing them as minor Goddesses because they are almost ignored in the lore.”

Furthermore, I cannot figure out where anyone has found evidence that all of these goddesses are necessarily tied to Frigga. Sure, Fulla and Gefjion have cases to be made, but what about the rest? I would love to be proved wrong on this if anyone can find me a lore reference that shows that most of these goddesses have a closer relationship with Frigga than with anyone else in particular. Where does this come from?

Alright, so back to Sif. What does Sif have to do with the “handmaidens”?

Once upon a time, after reading the list of goddesses in Gylfaginning, or perhaps after reading Alice Karlsdottir’s book on the “handmaidens”, I decided to dedicate an altar to Sjofn, who seemed like a goddess I would get along with very well, given that she is the goddess who turns the mind to love. Her name means affection. So, I made her an altar. For whatever reason, I had the sense that she liked tea, so I put a pretty teacup on her altar where I made offerings of tea. I also had this strange notion that she liked Baroque things more than the older, simpler Germanic ones. She seemed to like how golden they were, and how beautifully made. One night, while trying to learn more about her, it came into my head that I should learn about her through her husband. “Husband? You have a husband?” “Of course I do, silly,” was the sort of answer, and then my mind fell immediately on Thor.

Of course the idea that Thor and Sjofn had any kind of marriage was ridiculous, so I put it out of my mind a bit. Then a few people I talked to also mentioned that they have found Sif likes tea and baroque things and polite society and everything, and it seemed perhaps a bit less far-fetched. So I went back to the primary sources and dug and dug, and found that Sif is not included in the list of goddesses where Sjofn’s name is found. So couldn’t Sjofn could be another name for Sif? It’s very common to say that all of the lesser-known goddesses are by-names of Frigga, but why not Sif? Sif’s name means relation, Sjofn’s means affection. Could these not be the same goddess? Sif is a peace-keeper among the family, which seems to me to be just one method of turning the mind to love.

And so I consider Sif and Sjofn to be one and the same and treat them as such. My altar to Sif includes hearts and tea and my worship of Sjofn references Thor. I honor her by keeping the peace in my family, by looking for the positives in the loss of my long hair, and by turning my mind to love.

First Wedding Anniversary

This weekend my husband and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. It was a lovely day. We went mini golfing and rode a carousel downtown. We made a delicious dinner and drank the last bottle of the wine we bought for our wedding and ate our year-old cake. It was nice.

One of the things we talked about was what has changed in this past year. And a lot of things have. We have concrete plans to move away that we didn’t before. My name is different. I feel very at peace with where we are in our relationship instead of worrying that the labels available were insufficient. We started going to a druid grove, which has been nice. In that respect, it seems as if everything has changed in this year. For the first time in my life, we are regularly spending time around people who share my interest in nature religion, and even though I’m not quite a Druid (I am unfortunately clueless about the grove gods, for instance) and my husband is definitely not a druid (being as how he’s a Lutheran), I think it’s been really good for our marriage for us to go to these weekend events every six weeks or so. We haven’t gone to all of them because of scheduling, but I think he understands paganism now in a way that he didn’t before. Even I understand it in a way I didn’t before. I never had worship partners beyond my sister and my husband humoring me and joining me for the Dumb Supper and the bonfire for Yule and berry picking on the summer solstice. It’s beginning to feel to me as if paganism is a real religion instead of this silly thing I do by myself in my head.

I do hope we can find a group we like once we move. It’s so nice to have that fellowship.

The Convergent Diverging Path

*This week’s epic post title courtesy of my friendly gentleman.*

This past weekend my husband and I were out drinking cocktails with a friend of his and her boyfriend.  This friend of his and I have a lot in common–we both have very long hair that we’re attached to, we both love dancing (though in different styles), we’re both pagans. We keep finding more and more things we hare in common. Apparently my gent has a pretty specific type in the women he chooses to spend his time with!

It was my first time meeting her boyfriend. I liked him a lot. He revealed that he also considers himself pagan when we were out for some cocktails. That left my husband as the odd man out for once! The conversation from there turned very interesting about all of our pasts and what brought us to paganism and how we are pagan. None of us had a good time with the Christianity of our childhoods, but the way the three of us came to paganism and how we treat it has given me a lot of room for thought the past few days.

I’ve discussed quite a bit about me on this blog, but the short story is that I read a whole lot on the internet and consider myself very religious. My husband’s friend came to paganism through Australia, where she went on a long journey years ago and was introduced to the rituals of the aborigines there. Her paganism now manifests mostly through talking to the moon and, occasionally, going on meditation retreats. Her boyfriend just sort of vaguely considers himself pagan, but doesn’t really know what it means to him.

Our conversations were quite fascinating, but I won’t go into it too much out of respect for their privacy. But I think it’s interesting in a way how the three of us almost show three different veins or impulses of modern paganism.

Traditions and People

Her’s is so much more directly related to other people than mine, and comes out of a respect and experience with mesopagans who grew up with their traditions. Her experience with paganism is so closely tied to the experience of other pagans in the world and what they have personally taught her and shown her.

Academic and Solitary

Mine is so academic, comparatively, and solitary. Even though I go to the druid grove rituals (and am going this weekend), my faith is more or less rooted in my brain, my desire to integrate my academic interests with my dancing and my belief in the importance of the body and the beauty of nature. My faith has never been fundamentally related to other people, though I do hope I can someday establish a sort of religious community where I can place roots with other people and learn rituals from them. But we are all converts and none of us have been raised with traditions.

Not Christian

Her boyfriend was very eloquent about his non-Christianness, but less clear on his paganness. But the point is that he had a lot of reasons he didn’t like Christianity, why he thought it was, in its current forms, dangerous to society, and it reminded me in how many ways the resurgence of paganism is, ultimately, a reject and reaction against the society we were raised in. All three of us (and my husband, in many ways even though he chooses to remain Christian) have found Christianity lacking and looked for fulfilment elsewhere.

There was an excellent post up on The Archdruid Report this week about how there seems to be a new religious sensibility reaching critical mass–that what doctrines you actually believe are less important than reveling in the beauty of nature. I had such a wonderful time having dinner with other pagans even though we don’t ultimately believe the same things. It was so nice to spend time with people who are articulately engaging with the flow of ideas toward this new sensibility, and who reflect some of its benefits. We do not believe in the same deities or theologies, but we can come together and discuss how we think our sensibility is a better reflection of the world before us. And, since we all consider ourselves pagan, we can do so without the discomfort that often comes from using the name of our religion, that makes us feel less able to articulately describe our viewpoints with other non-pagans.

On the Uniqueness of Place

Granite mine S Last weekend was my 10th anniversary with my husband.

That’s confusing. Let me rephrase. We started dating ten years ago, when I was sixteen. We celebrated by going to Vermont to relax and enjoy nature. We had a great time. But we didn’t really take any photos. In fact, the only photos we did take were on a tour of a granite mine we went on.

But we went canoeing in the river and woke up to a view of a mountain. We climbed trees and went ziplining. We drove on the back roads in the forest and looked out for moose. We saw a deer. It was so relaxing.

And yet, at the same time, it wasn’t what I expected. I thought we would go off into the mountains and the forest I would feel the way I felt when I was in college living in the Hudson Valley, where the land spoke to me any time I looked around. Where every view of a mountaintop or valley took my breath away.

Vermont was beautiful, with forests so thick you couldn’t see into them from the roads. With steep mountains that were close together and the land looked folded. Where the towns were so small and beautiful and the food was local and delicious. So delicious and wholesome that one of our meals literally left me feeling prayerful at the end.

But it wasn’t what I expected, and this land was not my own. On the way home, we ended up crossing the Hudson River and seeing the Catskills in the distance, and my heart skipped a beat. This was my home, not Vermont. But it surprised me that even though they are pretty close, geographically, these places are not the same. The mountains in the Catskills are taller and wider and piney-er. There, the land rushes out to greet me, as if it’s catching a glimpse of a long lost friend just as I am.

It didn’t help that it may be the last time I see those mountains. I’ll be moving even farther away from them soon, to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I will have to learn the land anew. Philadelphia and I have not become close in my years here, especially compared with the longing I feel for Duchess County. Here I am religious in spite of the land and my connection to it rather than because of it. That land, the land that introduced me to the gods, is no other land in the world, and I fear that I will never again live anywhere I love as deeply as that land. I feel a loss for it, for my distance from it.

Any time I come back to Philadelphia from time away, I feel sad when I get back to the city limits. This city is so dirty and decaying and sad and natureless that I just don’t feel a connection here. I truly hope that my new home makes me feel more like the Catskills than this.

It is odd to me, that a twenty minute drive through that region had more impact on me than the entire vacation. But that’s what love does, isn’t it? It meets us when we least expect it, wraps us up in that feeling of connection, and leaves us feeling rather transformed.

Bittersweet

My sister moved out this weekend.

Now it’s just me and my husband.

She moved south to Charlotte, and we’ll be following her come the end of November.

SAM_2167 I miss her, as I expected to. In some ways, it’s nice getting to have three months alone with my husband. Like a vacation of sorts. But I love her so much, and I so enjoy her company, and the house seems so lonely without her. I won’t see her again until after Thanksgiving.

She’s moved to be with her boyfriend, and we will move to be with her. To keep our family whole.

Still, I miss her, and the house is full of her memories. There’s less furniture, and it feels so empty. I only have to cook for two now.

Husband and I are choosing to take this time to work on our new marriage, as stodgy as it sounds to say that out loud. Thus far in our brief marriage, we’ve been spending so much time taking care of her and worrying about her in the stress of her finishing school and wondering what the future holds. Now we know that in three months we’ll be moving into our apartment with them, to start a new life. So we can take this time to be together, to enjoy one another’s company fully.

Still, I miss her. And the house is full of memories.

It’s so bittersweet I’m not sure how to feel. I’m so sad that she’s not around that I keep bursting into tears at the most inopportune moments. And then I’ll think of how happy I am to be alone with him and me, and I feel happy. And then I feel confused.

The Long and the Short Views

I’ve been having a bit of a stressful time of it lately. It seems as if I’m suddenly always in trouble at work. My twin sister is moving away from me in only a couple of weeks (which is depressing even if I am going to follow in a few months). My mom keeps bringing up how upset she is that I’m a pagan.

“It is as though the world shifts around me and I find I once more face the burning.”

I was sort of obsessing about the work stress for a few days. And then I remembered my favorite coping mechanism. “Will I care about this in five years?” And the stress melted away instantly. No, I will not care in five years that my boss got mad at me over the price of a train ticket. Not even slightly. I won’t care in five years that I lived apart from my sister for three months because we will have been reunited.

But the other thing, I’ll care about that. Of course I care about my relationship with my mother and hope desperately that this will be repaired. But the way things are going, it’s not looking likely. It’s looking like this will always be a point of contention and stress with us. So far it’s been three and a half years since I told her, and it’s only gotten worse. But perhaps there is no solution. I am not willing to compromise my faith, and neither is she.

Still, I feel better being able to shake off the small things by remembering the long view. My philosophy in life is to take the long view on hardships and the short view on happiness. Both are intended in the question “will I care about this is five years?”

It’s great to be able to let go of stress by remembering that someday you won’t care. But it’s also great to be able to seize the day and find pleasure in happiness sitting on the couch or watching a flower bloom. And to focus on that. Pain and stress can come and go, but happiness is so fleeting. Those small moments of joy are the things you’ll remember in five years. Today the pain is so much easier to focus on. But looking backward reveals the happiness, and we feel nostalgia.

Not that I’m always good at it. But I try to look on my life with nostalgia for how it is right now. For these days in my beautiful apartment with my husband and my sister, when my nephew is not yet 16 and my other nephew is barely walking. When we have so few responsibilities. When we’re newlyweds. When I still have one of my grandmas and have never known true grief. When we are in the good times.

 

On Gods as the Mascots of Religions

Any of my readers who have been reading my blog since the beginning, or who have read my page What I Believe will probably know that I originally started this blog at the beginning of 2010 after telling my mother about my conversion and then writing her an essay about my new faith, which to this day, she has never read. The only thing she knows about, or cares to know about, my religion is that it doesn’t involve believing in Jesus as my personal savior. 

For the past three years, we’ve pretty much just avoided the subject with one another. Every once in a while she’ll make a comment about how I’m not allowed to die before she does because she just won’t be able to live with herself knowing I’m in Hell.

She was here visiting recently, and we actually argued about it some. She called me “screwed up” and continued to tell me I’m going to Hell, and that the only thing that matters to get into Heaven is believing in Jesus and following the ten commandments. And I tried to explain to her some of the reasons I converted or give her any details about my faith, and she just wasn’t having it.

The point of this post is not to complain about my mother or wallow in self-pity about my relationship with her, though. I got to thinking about her comments, and her understanding of what religion is, and what it means to be religious, and I had a thought about the nature of divinity. My mother views religion as being primarily about Jesus. Jesus, of course, is the face of Christianity, but for her, religion doesn’t go farther than that.

Phillies_PhanaticJesus had so very little to do with my conversion, and I really feel like I parted on good terms with him. But I don’t see the face of a religion as its whole. I think of Jesus more like I do the Philly Phanatic–an intriguing mystery dancing around in the middle of a game he is not really central to. If you put his picture on your car, everyone knows which team you’re rooting for. But for my mother, it’s almost as if the mascot is the whole game.  As if the whole point of baseball in Philadelphia is that everyone has to love that silly dancing green dude.

But while Jesus is the mascot of Christianity, the real game is salvation. There is so much else playing behind the mascot of a team, and so much beyond a deity in religion–there are the hours of practice honing your skills (meditation, prayer, etc.), there is the excitement of the big event, the agony of loss, the comfort in solidarity with your peers. These are the things that really matter in religion. In a religion, there are shared values, shared views on what the important parts of history are, what is the shape of time, what is the point of death, how important information about the afterlife is, what the meaning of life is.

The gods a person chooses to worship will tell you a lot about them–hearing that someone believes in Jesus tells you more about them than just that they believe in Jesus. Knowing that my mom or my husband believes in Jesus will also tell you that they value the Bible, they believe in salvation, they believe God has a plan for their life, they believe in sin and redemption, they believe that there is such a thing as being “born again” in faith.  I’m sure there is as much to learn about me in the information that my mascots are Freyja, Holda, Sif, and Thor as there is that my mother worships Jesus. You can learn from these things that I value being a part of the mainstream less than my mother does. You can learn that I value the body, cycles, nature, healthy sexuality. And a relationship with one or more gods is usually central to a religion, but not everyone needs a mascot, and a mascot is not everything about a religion.

While my relationships with Freyja, Holda, Sif and Thor are very important to the expression of my faith, there are in no way the whole of it. I am a pagan because of the way I feel looking at the sunset, the ambivalence I feel about the fact that the afterlife is unknowable, the meaning in the rainfall and the knowledge that we depend on the Earth and its cycles, that we do not have dominion over the earth because we depend so heavily on it. I am a pagan because of my belief that the purpose of life is to live a good one in harmony with the land. Because I believe we should honor our ancestors and the trees and fields that shape our experience of place. I believe that embodiment and sexuality are central and important parts of experiencing humanity, not sins. Freyja, Holda, Sif, and Thor are all faces of these experiences and values. They are important to the experience of my faith, just as Jesus is important to the experience of Christianity but not the whole of the faith, and just as the Philly Phanatic makes baseball games more fun, but isn’t really the point of the game.

My high school did not have a mascot. And yet we had school spirit. My mother says (incorrectly) that my soul does not have a mascot because I don’t believe in Jesus. And yet I have religious spirit.

A Dream

I’ve just woken up from one of the deeper, more memorable dreams I’ve had in quite some time. For background information, Husband and I have gone to a druid group lately (Yule and Imbolc. We skipped the Equinox), which  featured in this dream. Also my alopecia has been getting worse again.

We are at the Grove house, and redecorating. The house is surrounded by mossy trees, and one seems to be crossing the living room. I am crawling up and down it as I help decide on upholstery fabrics and wallpapers for the house. I go outside, and get on a rocket with my husband and my sister, and fly to outer space. I am looking out the window of the spacecraft, looking down at the Earth, and it doesn’t look like a blue marble like everyone says it does. It looks like an eye, the way when you look deep into someone’s eyes they no longer look glassy and smooth, but there are ridges and valleys in the irises, and the pupil really looks like a hole. I’m looking down at the Earth my home and am surprised by it’s depths. The way the land spikes up with tall trees, and the whole thing is capped in beautiful swirling clouds. The Earth is deeper than I had imagined. On the spacecraft is a gym, where a dance performance is going on. I go to watch. Toward the end of the piece, each member of the audience is asked to stand and face the wall, and dancers come to dance around us. But as the dancers get to me, I find another giant bald spot on my head, and so when the dancers dance around me, instead of dancing with them, I just curl in a ball on the floor and sob. When the piece is over, one of my old dance teachers from college, who is a witch, appears to critique the dancers. She tells me that I am too far inside myself.

It’s been a long time since I’ve awoken from a dream like that. One that begs to be understood. But I guess what it’s saying is that I can see the depth of the world through a religious community, and that focusing just on myself and dancing and crying about my alopecia isn’t helping. I’m going to keep going to the grove. I need a religious community to push me outside of myself, that can help me see the Earth for what it is.

On my wedding

I promised my readers a few months ago that I would post more thoroughly about my wedding and honeymoon eventually, and now here it is!

But, before I start going into everything, I have to tell you the most amazing thing that happened! During our marriage ceremony, right in the middle of my vows, a black walnut fell out of the sky, shattered the piece of slate our marriage license was sitting on, and left a stamp mark right on the witness line! My husband’s grandfather used to show him how to break open the black walnuts and make foods out of them, so we took that as a blessing from him, and from the forest. See, look:

All photos were taken by Meghan Hayes.

Husband and I had a first look, so we saw each other before the ceremony. I’m so glad we did–it made me so much less nervous just beforehand, and gave me the chance to get to see his reaction to what I looked like as his bride, and gave me a chance to sink in how good he looked as a groom before we got into the nitty gritty of it. There were tears all over the place.

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Then I did the same thing with my dad:

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Mom-Dad Cry

My sister and I acted like twins:

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And then the ceremony, which was the so emotionally intense:

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My nephew was the “ringing bearer.” He started everything by running around the circle where everyone was sitting ringing a bell. Everyone else had a tiny pair of bells in their seats they were welcome to ring.
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During the procession, everyone in attendance sang “Down in the River to Pray.”
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And then a friend of mine played Native American flute for my entrance:
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And then things proceeded to be very emotional:
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yarn universe

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And then, the most amazing thing happened! A black walnut fell out of the sky, shattered the piece of slate our marriage license was sitting on, and left a stamp mark right on the witness line! My husband’s grandfather used to show him how to break open the black walnuts and make foods out of them, so we took that as a blessing from him, and from the forest.

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And then we were married! And the first thing I did was turn around and run to my sister, who was crying her eyes out.
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During the receiving line, a hawk flew right overhead. That was amazing blessing/omen number two, courtesy of Lady Freyja, who often appears to me in the form of birds of prey.

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And then, everything else happens just like it does at weddings. And it was amazing.

My family:

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My sister made me this amazing shawl as a wedding gift. I am definitely going to keep it as an heirloom.:
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Our wedding cake was toadstools:
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There was a lot of cowboy hats and hat hair:

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And we danced the night away:

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Next time: The Honeymoon; Or Maybe We’re Both Druids Now?