Reblog – Happily Heathen: Offerings For The Gods – Part One – The Vanir

I am one of those people that Cara Freyasdaughter refers to in her article as those who are ‘uncertain what to offer to the Gods’. With Christos and Sophia it’s easy, as while a Christian can offer time and energy by volunteering to help with the running of their local church or for a charity, for those of us who lack enough free time or energy to do so our physical offerings, as opposed to things like prayer or intent (I have a friend who offers the effort she puts into her day job to God), generally take the form of money donated to the work of the church (for things like mission, building upkeep, soup kitchens etc.). But when I realised Freyja wanted my attention I didn’t have a clue how to deal with offerings. My first thought was incense, which seems to have worked well so far, but my devotions don’t always happen at the same time of day and I don’t wish, for example, to fumigate the house just before my lodger wants to go to sleep. The lovely Ember gave me some good pointers, but I wanted to do something more than just burn appropreately-scented incense and light candles, as I do the same for Christos and Sophia and also make other offerings.

Now I could have just improvised with libations and suchlike and probably been fine, but I was flailing enough as it was without having to worry that I was offering the wrong thing as well. So finding Cara’s article on offerings to the Vanir posted on the Agora in Patheos Pagan was a godsend (pun possibly intended?). So far I’ve offered Freyja pieces of chocolate and cake, and shots of mead and the first batch of apple rumtopf, and while I probably won’t find out how She feels until I do another divination I’m feeling happy about how things are progressing with my devotional relationship.

As a practicing Heathen, a key cornerstone of my spiritual practice is the offering of gifts. The Havamal has a lot to say about gift giving and fostering reciprocal relationships. Though in the Havamal Odin focuses more on building relationships between humans, I think the same advice can be applied equally well to our relationships with the Gods.

Source: Happily Heathen: Offerings For The Gods – Part One – The Vanir

My take on the Yule log

The Yule log is a tradition in both the Christian and Pagan faiths, although these days the actual burning of the log seems to happen more in Pagan circles than Christian ones. As with most holiday traditions there are variations, often regional, but generally the log is brought into the house and lit at either Midwinter – the Solstice – or on Christmas Day, often having garlanded it with greenery and annointed it with seasonally appropreate liquor, then left to burn out. When selecting one’s log it was considered best to look for one that would burn for many days, ideally twelve, corresponding to the Twelve Days of Christmas, lasting from the 25th to the 6th of January, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi visited the infant Christ. In today’s Pagan traditions the log is left to burn out to welcome and guide the newborn Sun, and in Heathenry it may be left to burn for the Twelve Days of Yule, lasting from the Solstice to the civil New Year on January 1st. For both Christians and Pagans is it considered good luck to save a piece of the log and/or some of the ashes to lght the next year’s log with.

Whatever may have been done with the Yule log historically, not everyone today lives somewhere with a fireplace, and even if you’re lucky enough to have a working one in your house they’re not always big enough to fit a lump of wood capable of burning for several days, especially considering modern fire safety guidelines. Ways around this are many and ingenious. They range from the chocolate Yule log with candles (which is not only delicious but also a popular secular version of the tradition), to decorated logs with holes bored for candles, mini Yule logs that can be burned on a table top, and artificial log-shaped candle holders.

Considering my flat doesn’t have a fireplace coupled with the fact that I like burning things, mini-logs were something I strongly considered doing, but as I also like the continuity of using part of the old log to light the new there was no way I’d be able to make that idea work in practice. The biggest log/twig length I’d be able to burn comfortably here would be about three inches, and if I kept a sliver of it for next year I’d only mislay it or forget to use it, no matter where I put it and how many notes I left for myself. So what am I doing instead? Using my Advent candle!

 

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My Advent candle earlier this month, next to a Christmassy smelling candle I’ve had for a couple of years and the Advent calendar I got given by a friend at church. My usual Advent calendar is reusable and a lot less religious, but still at the parents’.

I’ve used an Advent candle for the last two-three years, and until now I’ve just let the remainder burn out on Christmas Eve. This year however, I snuffed it once it had burned down past the 24, and I’m planning on putting it in the box with the rest of my religious candles and using it to light next year’s Advent candle on the 1st of December. That way I have the continuity of flame from one Yule to the next, I have something that can burn for several days during the winter festive season, I won’t lose it, and it’ll be safer to burn on my altar, considering the mess I managed to make on the Solstice this year with my charcoal disc…

 

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The stump of my Advent candle, all ready for next year.

‘I may have just bought a pentacle’ and other updates

I may have just bought a pentacle with the birthday money my godparents gave me. Somewhat of an ironic statement I know, but still true.

The pentacle is often viewed as one of the quintissential tools used by witches and Pagans, especially Wiccans. It’s used to symbolise the element Earth, is one of the names for a suit in tarot decks, and occasionally appears along with the wand, cup, and blade on the Magician card in the tarot. Because my first exposure to the details of following and practicing a Pagan path were from the Wiccan perspective, when I began incorporating parts of Pagan ritual into my private devotions I started looking around for items to use as my chalice, athame, wand, and pentacle.

Even though I ended up finding suitable implements for the other three, I determined early on that I didn’t want an actual pentacle for my Earth tool. Because I wasn’t abandoning my Christian faith, the idea of owning a pentacle felt too unbalanced towards the Pagan side of things as it is a well-known symbol for Wicca and other neo-pagan faiths. I’d also wanted a finger labyrinth for ages, and as full-size labyrinths can be found marked out in stone and are made to be walked on I felt using a finger labyrinth for an altar pentacle fit nicely with Earth, as well as being found in both pagan antiquity and on the floors of churches and cathedrals.

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My baby Chartres labyrinth.

I was lucky enough on one of my trips to the shop attached to Southwark cathedral to find a resin-cast Chartres finger labyrinth for £20, as all the other finger labyrinths I’d found online were either well out of my budget, or would cost too much to ship to the UK. For the last couple of years my diminutive Chartres labyrinth has sat on my altar, but as it was usually covered with stuff I ended up using it mostly as decoration and hardly ever as a labyrinth, which began to bother me. And then one day I found myself browsing Paul Borda’s website Dryad Designs and saw his small version of the Tree Pentacle, which I fell in love with and ended up using as my WordPress profile picture. To start with, the small size appealed as most of my religious tools are around 10cm long, but the imagery appealed even more.

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And this is why I ultimately decided to purchase an alternative symbol of Earth for my altar – my labyrinth became a glorified religious trinket-holder.

Although the pentacle overlays the tree, both are equally visible and noticeable, and in my mind combine both Christian and Pagan aspects. While the pentacle is generally considered a pagan symbol these days, it has in the past been used as a Christian symbol, notably carried on his shield by  Sir Gawain, often representing the Five Wounds that Jesus recieved while on the cross. The tree ‘represents the cosmic world tree known throughout many cultures & spiritual paths’, probably most well-known of which is the Norse ash tree Yggdrasil. However, the Tree of Life also appears in the Bible in the books of Genesis and Revelation, and in mediaeval popular theology has a lovely link with the ”seed, root, stem, bud, flower, leaf, fruit’ representing the endless cycle of rebirth’ that adorns the edge of Mr. Borda’s plaque. As a mediaeval historian I’ve been exposed to a lot of the mediaeval church’s iconography and orthopraxy, and while I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theology, I love the stories, attitudes, beliefs and myths that came out of the first thousand-odd years of Christianity in Europe. One of my favourites is the story that grew up that the wood used for the cross in the Crucifixion was taken from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of in Eden – thus causing the Fall of Man, leading to sin, suffering, and mankind’s presence on this mortal coil, that we will all eventually shuffle off of. So the tree that mediaeval Christians believed all humankind had been condemned to death for eventually provided wood that gave them the promise of new life and immortality. As the song Adam Lay Ibounden says – in an interesting reversal of the usual attitude – if the apple hadn’t been taken by Adam then Christians would have had no need of the redemption offered by the coming of Jesus, one of the few examples of the Fall being seen in a positive ‘if we hadn’t had to endure suffering as a result of Adam’s actions then we wouldn’t be able to rejoice as much as we do now’ way rather than the negative ‘humans screwed up so Jesus had to fix it’ attitude that is still a large part of Christian, especially Catholic, doctrine. Seed, bud, flower, fruit – if the fruit doesn’t ripen, fall from the tree and rot, the seeds don’t get released into the earth and can’t germinate into new life.

Considering what I’ve just written, one might ask why I didn’t just buy a Tree of Life plaque to use instead of my labyrinth, rather than buy one with a superimposed pentacle. After all, a Google image search for ‘tree of life plaque’ reveals some utterly gorgeous items, some of which I’d love to have hanging on my walls. Hovever, having spent eight years reading tarot cards I find the pentacle has slowly cemented itself in my mind as a symbol for the earthy suit in the deck, meaning I now see it as both an Earth symbol as well as a Pagan one, and I personally also view it as a symbol for the Web of Wyrd, with every part connected to every other. In addition, Paul Borda’s work, when cast in resin, has the feel and weight of stone but the look of wood as the grain from the original sculptures is still very visible. Stone and wood, mineral and organic, both products of the earth, and both used in prehistoric henges – stone for the dead and wood for the living. So partly symbolic reasons, partly aesthetic.

As for the other updates, I now have a permanent contract (for the first time in my career), have applied for a specialist role at work, hosted the first social event in my flat for my birthday, spent my actual birthday watching the sun rise at Avebury on the Solstice, and finally got around to setting up the bookshelves and my altar in my flat. I’ve also got plans to try and get myself to post here regularly and more often. Progress!

The basics of Christo-Paganism and me

I could write an awful lot about what I believe, how I practice my faith, my definition of Christo-Paganism, and my attitude/s toward the concept of deity. However, for the moment I’m going to stick to the (hopefully) fairly easy-to-explain stuff.

I’ve defined my religious affiliation as ‘panentheistic eclectic Christo-Pagan’, and in my first post I stated that:

I was brought up Methodist … I still go to church, sing hymns, say prayers, and listen to sermons. I also light candles, use prayer beads, cross myself, and enjoy being in decorated churches with statues and stained glass – definitely not Methodist. I also cast circles, use crystals, herbs, and coloured spell candles, celebrate the eight Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year, and use divination methods such as Tarot cards – definitely not Christian.

There is some debate (and some heated argument) over whether Christo-Paganism is a syncretic religion in its own right, a synthesis of Christianity and Paganism, or even whether it’s a valid spiritual path at all. This is something I’m planning to address at a later date, so let’s ignore the theological implications for now and look at the basic definitions.

Christianity – one of the world’s major religions, with the largest number of followers across the globe. It dates back nearly 2,000 years, and contains a vast number of denominations and sects with differing beliefs and practices, but on the whole adhering to the same theology. This can be summed up in what is known as the Apostles’ Creed (given below) which is used by the three main branches of the Church – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

 I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
Who was concieved by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again,
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father,
From there he will come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic* Church,
The communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

* In this sense catholic (small c) means ‘universal’ or ‘whole’, whereas Catholic (capital C) refers to the Roman Catholic Church. In the same way that we have Conservative (political party) and conservative (traditional or conventional).

Paganism – a word that defines both the oldest of the world’s religions, and some of its youngest. Traditionally a word that described any faith that wasn’t Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), but now used for historic and prehistoric religions around the world as well as an umbrella term for contemporary religious and spiritual movements either inspired by or based on the historical pagan faiths, sometimes referred to as neo-Paganism.

Like Christianity, there are many different paths and sects in modern Paganism, but with vastly different beliefs, practices, and theology. The most well-known path is probably Wicca, but even that can be devided into Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and Seax-Wicca, among others; and the line between modern and historical Paganism becomes blurred with Reconstructionist paths, whose followers try to accutately re-create the religions of past cultures such as Ancient Greece or Egypt.

Panentheism – the belief that the Divine, however one concieves of Deity, is part of everything in the universe, but also extends beyond the physical. Pantheists believe that the Divine and the universe are identical – All-is-God, whereas panenthiests hold that All-is-in-God, that Deity both animates the universe and transcends the universe.

Christo-Paganism – defined by Joyce and River Higginbotham as ‘a spirituality that combines beliefs and practices of Christianity with beliefs and practices of Paganism, or that observes them in parallel’. I use the hyphenated version, as Christopaganism is already used in academic terms to describe the blends of Christianity and various forms of historical paganism that occurred as the Church expanded.

So, how do these definitions fit into my faith? Well my theology is predominantly Christian – I believe in an omni-etc. God, and that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are part of this overarching God. However, in common with certain Gnostic branches of Christianity, I also believe the Holy Spook to be female and the Daughter of God, in the same way that Jesus is considered the Son. So I have the Christian Trinity, but with an equal male-female balance, as I believe God is neither male nor female but both, otherwise Genesis 1:27 makes no sense to me – ‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’

So already we have something that looks very much like the Lord and Lady balance that is the focus of belief in several pagan traditions, especially Wicca. Because I believe in panentheism, everything contains a part of the divine, from myself to a rock – so if I light a prayer candle at home I’ll use corresponding crystals and herbs to lend that spark of divine energy to help the prayer along, in the same way that I’d ask someone to pray for me/my friend/etc. As for my other pagan practices such as circle-casting and the tools I use, a lot of it comes from one of the reasons why I was drawn to Paganism in the first place (the subject of a future post) – I didn’t feel I could be very active in my private worship as a Christian, whereas my Pagan friends, who are all solitaries, could create their own sacred space and administer their own sacraments.

Overall then I follow the basic Christian beliefs, tempered by Gnostic and animist ideas, my physical practices are a mix of Catholic/High Church Anglican and Pagan, and my preferred style of worship is relatively simple, whether I’m celebrating at home, attending a regular church service, or reading the Tarot – I enjoy ritual, but my attitude is far more practical than mystical.

Confusion over carols

As I mentioned before, my church had its Candlelit Carol service on the night of the Winter Solstice, as it was the last Sunday before Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed going, partly because of the candles, partly because we usually get a lot of good carols (i.e. ones that I like), partly because my birthday falls around then, and partly because it means Christmas happens soon.

It went well, although there were a couple of slip-ups on the part of our organist, who forgot to start playing for the last verse of one hymn, so you had the entire congregation going ‘Sss…’ as we started to sing the first word and realised there was no music, which always makes us smile.
The other oops moment, which prompted this post, was more… theologically interesting, at least from my point of view. One of the carols we sang was ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, which has a different number of verses depending on the date. The last verse, which begins ‘Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning…’ is only sung on Christmas Day, for obvious reasons, and always has a note printed next to it in hymnbooks stating this. So when the organist slipped up and kept playing after the previous verse, there were quite a few looks exchanged among the congregation. Most people just carried on singing, but I was one of the few who didn’t.

Amused, I remarked to my parents afterwards (both definitely Methodist, one of whom sang the verse and one who didn’t) that I didn’t realise our church was going Pagan, and explained why singing that verse on the Solstice referred more to the Sun-God than the Son of God. It was only the next day that I began to wonder why I didn’t sing that verse. After all, I define myself as Christo-Pagan, I celebrate the eight Sabbats as well as the Church festivals, and a chance mistake like that should surely have had me belting out the words with gusto. So why didn’t I?

It’s taken a while, but after mulling it over I think I’ve worked out why. In my private devotions I don’t really separate Christianity and Paganism, there’s a mix of practices from both religions that I perform, a bit of Gnostic belief thrown in, as well as a couple of religious gestures I’ve borrowed from other faiths. But when I’m worshipping publicly, at a church service or in a circle with more than just me in it (which admittedly has only happened twice), I compartmentalise my physical actions, whatever I may be thinking or saying in my head. So I don’t sing for the re-birth of the Sun at a carol service, and when I went to stay with a friend for Litha I put the Orthodox icon I use when travelling on the altar we set up, but I kept the doors of the triptych closed.

So, Christo-Pagan?

Yeah, I’ll explain that bit in more depth later.

Basically I was brought up Methodist, but my spirituality has been evolving since at least the third year of my undergrad, if not before, and now has a definite pagan slant. I still go to church, sing hymns, say prayers, and listen to sermons. I also light candles, use prayer beads, cross myself, and enjoy being in decorated churches with statues and stained glass – definitely not Methodist. I also cast circles, use crystals, herbs, and coloured spell candles, celebrate the eight Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year, and use divination methods such as Tarot cards – definitely not Christian.

I’m not out to convert anyone – I don’t believe my way is the best, only, or right way and that everyone else should do the same. If you have a spiritual path that works for you, shiny. If you are an atheist, also shiny. But this is the path that I have found works for me so far, and I’m planning to follow it until it stops working, if it ever does.

So why this blog? Well, I’ve been reading a few pagan blogs for the last couple of months and I like the way the authors have used them to record their life, attitudes, and practices when it comes to religion, as well as various events in their lives, and they have inspired me to do the same. Not that I believe the world needs to hear what I have to say, but hopefully some of you reading this will find it interesting, maybe helpful, or even just entertaining.

So why now? There are many New Years, and they all start in different places in the calendar – there’s the civil new year, the financial new year, the Christian liturgical year, various historical new years, a multitude of cultural new years, and new years celebrated by different religions. While for a lot of pagans, especially Wiccans, the New Year starts at Samhain, my ritual new year starts at Yule. The Solstice has passed, the sun is new and reborn, the days are getting longer (apparently), and tonight is a new moon – a time for new beginnings. What better point to start a new spiritual venture?