D'harawal, Dancing the Sacred Wheel, Environment, Festivals, Frances Billinghurst, Frances Bodkin, Indigenous Weather Knowledge, Pagan Blog Project, Pagan Festivals, Seasons, Southern Hemisphere, Wiccan Wheel, Witchcraft
I’m a little behind again on the Pagan Blog Project. And I’m going to be indulgent and write something of a journal entry post.
I have been doing things, and really they are the same things I’ve been doing for most of this year. If it has had a theme it has been a struggle with Tradition. Specifically, the Tradition of Observing the Sabbats. A struggle that has culminated in my reading of Frances Billinghurst’s Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats.
At Candlemas (Imbolc) 2013 I broke from my erstwhile coven and went out on my own. In the December I cut off entirely for personal reasons. Even prior to that though I had begun a sort of struggle to engage with the Sabbats, the eight festivals prescribed by many, many traditions of British genesis. And the Tradition I studied and practised for three and a half years was certainly a British one. Though specifically a non-Wiccan Tradition, no less inclined to observe particularly the four major Sabbats, Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh. In the last month or so particularly I’ve taken to writing of lists of things I liked and didn’t about the experience of being part of a small coven observing the Sabbats with meals, celebrations, rituals etc., and what I did not. It only occurred to me recently to compare and contrast these pros and cons lists to a similar one for other festivals; Christmas, Easter, and even other things I have participated with several times over many years, like Chinese New Year, and Eid al-Fitr.
To many a pagan reader that might seem an entirely odd choice. But I am not a religious pagan. There’s no dogma in my practice. I am not Wiccan, there is no over-arching mythos in my year. Nor was I taught one. Whilst I have been known to work for, with, and to increase fecundity in many spheres of life, my practice is not what I would call “fertility religion”. This is not to say that this is all the major Sabbats are. Of course not, in the contemporary age many, many myths have been attached and added to the Wiccan Wheel. Indeed, in Billinghurst’s Dancing the Sacred Wheel in chapter 9 “Lughnasadh” she lists in the Sabbat’s correspondences no less than 12 Gods and Goddess from no less than 3 continents.
Now, this is not a critique or bad thing. If you want to invoke Aztec Gods at Lughnasadh, then you should. Soft polytheism is valid, as is pantheism, and monotheism, and even the concept that all Gods are simply psychological archetypal forms. Nor is it at all a problem for me to engage in things other than what I am. In fact, I’ve always loved it. Hence Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, and Eid al-Fitr. I am a hard polytheist. I don’t discount gods and spirits I do not actually participate with on a personal practice level. But I am not inclined myself to shove square pegs in a round hole because they are the same colour. The deep meanings and mythos of various gods, their associations and seasons, their festivals, can only really be expressed, in my view, in the wholeness of that tradition. The “same colour”, for most pagans, from my reading and experience, seems to be the same agricultural role. Thus the lists of “Sun Gods” and “Love Goddesses” and “Triple Lunar Goddesses” and “Gods of Smithing” etc.
Again, this is not invalid. Much of the Old World (and much of the New) had that in common, and their myths and pantheons reflect a universal truth of pre-Christian life. We grew stuff. And we engaged the Unseen for help with that. An Unseen manifest in the cycles of the Seen World. And simply because I no longer grow stuff does not mean these cycles no longer exists. Because we have altered these cycles (yes, obviously, I am a “believer”) does not mean that is a good thing, or that we have conquered nature and the Unseen. But I am also a city liver, and I like it, and I do not see innate good or bad in one way or the other. I can argue for balance and and augmentation of living, and try myself, but I’m far from giving it all up to live like the Amish. Really, really far.
And the thing that makes this really, really tricky, of course, is Land.
Because my experience of Land here at a spiritual level has not revealed to me an “aspect” of fertility gods and goddeses. Hunter and Gather societies have natural cycles in common with agricultural ones, clearly, like, THE SEASONS. But their myths and spirits are not the same. Indeed, there is something I would describe as darker, wilder and more primordial in the dirt here. Which again, does not indicate that does not exist in the myths of agricultural pre-Christian European societies. But in such cases the “Hedge” has been more defined. Add to that the next obvious issue: The Land here doesn’t have the same seasons. As D’harawal storyteller, Frances Bodkin has said: “This is Australia – we cannot put a Northern Hemisphere regime onto Australia. It doesn’t fit, and never has fitted.”
Where this leaves me in terms of my personal participation with my British Pagan inheritance is not wholly unlike the place I find myself with my British Christian inheritance. Not withstanding the rampant consumerism. On the one hand there is a tradition which is no longer agricultural, dependant on the day itself and linked to the God, which I do not participate with; and on the other a tradition dependant upon the season which is linked to the God and Goddess where the season is at best a sort of “best fit” situation.
The choices for an animist who participates with British Traditional Witch-Deities, Ancestral Norse Deities, and Land is to simply adhere to festivals alike to Saints Days, for the Day and Deity relation itself, and if I did nought but prepare for festival rites every week, this might be an option; fuse together best fit Deity/festival/season, which is what I would describe as the most common practice, but seems to me to cause a drift and a lesser manifestation, or grounding of Deity in Land and Festival Tradition; or, —
Or is where most of my personal practice exists, it seems. And sharing it with two others that have themselves a variety of ancestral and familial traditions makes that “or” rather more diverse and unusual. And this is probably what I appreciated most about Billinghurst’s Dancing the Sacred Wheel; that is contextualised her Wiccan Tradition in terms of location. Billinghurst has managed to find the rhythm in her South Australian environment and weave it into her Tradition with respect to old Indigenous Lore and observations. Her insights in terms of the needs and struggles of such a foreign environment in terms of the providence of the God and Goddess are to be commended. Not only is it evident to me that Billinghurst has experienced the God and Goddess in her environment, but has entered into the mystery of the Wheel in terms of the Witch’s work: Not simply an observance of seasons, but the active participation with the Mystery to bring about fecundity and abundance. Billinghurst speaks to what is needed in her unique environment, not simply what the Tradition expects. If I had a criticism of the book it would be there was not enough of this. But, as a guide to young Wiccans in Australia, this be where it’s at. Of course, that’s criticism-lite, coming from a person who is not Wiccan.
For myself, this coming year is going to be an experiment in the “or” of the Traditional Festivals. And I was grateful for Billinghurst’s example. It also served to remind me how fascinating other people’s rites are, and how I’ve always enjoyed participating. It took me back to my lists, and reminded me not only how diverse our pagan community is, but how diverse our community is, writ large. It took me back to my lists, and the growing pros of engaging with other people and taking one’s self out of our own traditions and into the learning space of others.
More than that, it reminded me where I was. As I’ve considered my own practice and looked to the Great Spirits I honour, I can get lost in the tradition. Which, as I’ve said, feels like it removes both from Land, simply, because they are traditions that belong to another. And so it’s back to the Land I go, and the Ancient Wisdom of those who have lived on it for so long. We’re very used to taking our Trads and forcing them into the Land like those square pegs and round holes. But Land is vast and capable of manifesting the Unseen without our dictating to it. And the Unseen is vast and capable of manifesting in the Land without our dictating to it. If witches of any and all Traditions in Australia have a task, it is to be detectives, to go looking for the truth of the Spirit of our Lands. At least, that’s how I feel about it.
My erstwhile teacher used to talk of Traditions being like trees. And I have always appreciated the analogy. Because neither will grow unless their roots are buried deep within the soil. As sorcerers and witches, we’re in the unique position to do this work.
You can read more about Frances Billinghurst and find the 2nd edition of Dancing the Sacred Wheel here.
 Frances Bodkin speaking to Danny Kingsley, ‘The Lost Seasons’, August 14, 2003, http://www.abc.net.au/science/features/indigenous/ , retrieved 8.09.2014
P.S. ‘R’ is for “Reading, Riting, & a Rhythm Stick”. This post participates with The Pagan Blog Project 2014.