So the other day there was this little twitter storm-in-a-teacup. It went like this: Politician’s intern noticed her boss had left himself logged into twitter, posted a tongue-in-cheek comment “I shouldn’t leave myself logged into twitter or my intern will twit-rape me”. OUTRAGE! How disrespectful! How insensitive to all the rape victims! How stupid/unaware/naive/etc etc was she… Apology was issued almost immediately, twitter had a mini-obsession with #savetheintern, MP sighed heavily and wrote a sensible little blog post about human error and no he wasn’t going to sack her, and would everyone please get a life now, thank you very much, they were all very sorry and didn’t mean any offense. Storm in a tea-cup over, time to move on to the next one…
But, here’s this thing that bothered me about this. Normal people – ie those not in the public eye – use words like frapage or twit-rape all the time. It doesn’t really have much sexual connotations at all. This use of the word is just to imply the taking of something without consent, with the intention of despoiling or disrespecting it. That is a perfectly valid use of the word, it doesn’t harm anyone and expresses meaning perfectly clearly. But it’s socially not acceptable (especially if you’re the focus of any punitive vocal opinion groups). This seems to me to be purely down to a leftover, moralistic, victorian-puritan attitude to the issue of sex. Sex is wrong, dirty, and not to be discussed in polite company. The association of sex makes everything into an outrage and shows lack of respect.
Well, hang on a minute. I don’t see how it does. A case of rape is horrible, undoubtedly, and leaves physical and/or mental scars. I have no doubt of that. So does any other kind of attack or aggressive invasion of privacy. People who have had their homes burgled also feel violated, people who are physically attacked in a non-sexual manner are also bearing physical and mental scars. The obsession over sexual crime is not actually helping anyone. Avoiding the use of the word rape doesn’t stop it happening. In fact, I would argue that this hypersensitivity and making special cases for sex crimes does more harm than good, because it feeds back into this question over morality and the dirtiness of sex. It makes victims of sex crimes feel even worse, because society is so obsessed with what has happened to them, with the smutty details, but not particularly with the practicalities of victim support or crime deterrence. To deal with problems, one needs to be open and able to speak about them without hysteria.
It’s not just rape that gets this treatment. Think of those in the sex industry – from prostitute to lap dancer. There are undoubtedly many exploited and vulnerable women (and men) working in the sex industry. But the assumption that they all are, that the career choice is always wrong and harmful, is totally based on outdated christian morality from centuries ago. There are many people in demeaning and harmful employment. The woman who gets up at 5am while her children and partner sleep and goes and does a cleaning job scrubbing out toilets for minimum wage? And then looks after her children all day, another full-time unpaid job… she could be being exploited and demeaned by what she does, but this doesn’t bother society because there is no sexual element. It is healthy and virtuous to work hard at menial jobs and family matters. Whether the lap dancer, prostitute or cleaner are being exploited and demeaned is dependent upon their individual circumstances, mental health, appreciation or oppression from those they are working for or with. It is not simply a case of whether or not sex is involved.
The man in an office job who goes to work every day in his suit and tie can be being humiliated, emotionally and mentally harmed, and exploited. He can feel that there is no way out, that his responsibilities are more important than his own comfort or wellbeing. He tells himself that he’s lucky, that he can put food on the table. His insecurities are used against him to keep him in a position that is disadvantageous to him, through the power-trip of his boss or the company desire to achieve certain goals and financial rewards. Is that ok because there isn’t a sexual element?
Exploitation is where a person is used by another or multiple others, for their own gain and to the exploited person’s detriment. Sex doesn’t make this better or worse, it just makes it a different kind of exploitation. And like many other crimes and offenses, it has different stages of nastiness. Someone who is kept prisoner, beaten and forced to labour all day without rest is obviously suffering more than someone who is belittled and undermined at work and has ideas stolen. But they are both exploited. A woman who pays her uni costs by stripping one night a week, in no more exploited than the woman who pays her uni costs by working in Macdonald’s 5 evenings a week. Lumping all sex workers in together as exploited and emotionally damaged by what they do is doing a gross disservice to the genuinely exploited and trafficked people (male and female) who desperately need help and protection. They are obscured by the crass generalisations.
We as a nation are obsessed with sex, disgusted and horrified and voyeuristically enthralled by it. Really, it’s no big thing. A little growing up and getting on with things would be better than screaming blue murder about a word here or there.
Sex is an integral part of nature, an integral part of what motivates and forms our views of the world around us. It’s not just a method of continuing our genes and family names. It’s not just something young people do too much of. It’s not even a good method of social control any longer, in this country, although it has been, and continues to be elsewhere. It’s not even right or wrong. It just is. What we make with it, is up to us, but it deserves no special treatment. It should have no morals attached to it that we wouldn’t attach to the rest of our behaviour. It should have no judgement automatically attached to it.
Think about it. You wouldn’t harass or take advantage of someone in a sexual manner. Well, good. But hopefully you wouldn’t harass or take advantage of someone in any manner. How is it different?
If someone wants to have no sex whatsoever, they are not a better or worse person than someone who wants it three times a week, ta very much, and gets grumpy without. They are not even necessarily suffering from emotional problems or issues, at either end of the scale. Different people have differing sex drives at different times in their lives. Some people like to be private about their personal lives, sexual and non-sexual. Some people like to share. Neither of those are intrinsically wrong or right, or indications of damage or moral deficiency. It’s just people, being, you know, people. Different. Our sexual morality is and should be personal to us, and should be governed by the same rules that cover the rest of our morality. It shouldn’t be subject to a whole different set of rules, deficient of humour and requiring delicate tiptoeing around in public.
I’ve been pondering for a while why I am uncomfortable with some of the viewpoints that I technically share, on the equal importance of all forms of life. Watching the rather wonderful and slightly gory “Walking with Dinosaurs” (on repeat all over the holidays, current favourite of the boys), and I had a bit of an epiphany. They boys are prone to describe them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ dinosaurs, depending on if they’re the herbivores or carnivores. Trying to explain to them that some creatures are designed to hunt and kill and that it doesn’t make them ‘bad’, crystallised for me what I felt uncomfortable with.
I do believe that all life is of equal value and importance. I can see no reason to lift humans or mammals or any other type of life up above the others and say “this is the peak, this is the pinnacle of creation, and this life form is therefore of greater value and has automatic rights over all other forms of life”.
That intangible life force, however you want to describe it – name it a soul and connection with the divine, or chi, or mother nature’s breath – it is present in a tree, a blade of grass, an ant, a human. All of us share it. Some of us believe it extends further, and that you can feel life throughout the planet, in the rocks and stones of the earth, in the ice and the rain and the heat of the sun. It’s indescribable, intangible, unmeasurable; a matter of faith and belief. It cannot be measured, to say that one species has more or a higher grade of life-force.
Paganism of many different flavours and belief types respects the life-force in all different creatures, in their right to exist, and often places emphasis on us to act as guardians and protectors of the life around us.
And yet, we go against nature itself when we deny our desire to rise to the top of the food chain. Nature has dominant species in all areas. We are a dominant species, with all the ambition and aggression that is a part of that prominence. To deny that aggression and place at the top of our specific food chain is not helpful. To be filled with some false and moralising piety, to disdain and dismiss our nature as predators and aggressive hunters, is to deny a part of ourselves, and at that the deep, primal part that is most connected to the earth and nature around us. It is the part of ourselves that we often need to be connected to, in order to communicate with the spirits and deities of nature.
All life has equal value. We should value it when we take it, treat it with respect where ever we find and interact with it, and not raise ourselves up on some imagined pedestal of superiority. But the intrinsic value of life has nothing to do with the hierarchy that exists as part of nature, within nature, everywhere around us. Some creatures take life, some give it up, some shape it around them and make it adapt and flourish or decline and die off, according to their needs. This is not in itself against nature, it is part of nature.
Where we have gone so horribly wrong is down to the selfishness and instant greed that comes from dislocation from nature, where we break and destroy for conveniences sake and with no respect for the world around us. Where we see ourselves as apart from the natural cycle, having escaped from it and gained dominance over it, or having a superiority through a link with the divine that the rest of nature is not believed to have.
If we see ourselves truthfully within the natural world, connected to it and with equal value to all other life forms, then we are far more inclined to care and consideration for the world around us. We are more likely to consider the impact of our actions and look at the best way to progress our goals and ambitions within our environment, doing the least damage to the world around us. But it doesn’t mean that we abandon our place at the top of the food chain or deliberately disadvantage ourselves in order to redress some ill-defined ‘karmic debt’ built up by the hungry destructive behaviour of the species as a whole.
It is the nature of our species to be hungry and destructive and to influence the course of life around us. The challenge is to maintain our respect for the life around us, the environment that we are part of, while we shape and influence it in our place at the top of the food chain. Not because we have been placed here by some higher power, to watch over and protect it or to make use of it as best suits us. Because we have evolved, naturally, to this place.
We should act as guardians and protectors of the life around us, out of pure respect and love for the wonderfulness that is life, and out of the realisation that we are an intrinsic part of it and that it directly benefits us when life around is varied and complex.
It’s a funny thing about what inspires you, it can be so deep and meaningful, or so shallow and transient. I’m rather fonder of the later, if truth be told, because I find it encourages me to live in the moment and enjoy everything that flows around me, rather than getting bogged down with ‘important’ things.
What is ‘important’ anyway? Ok, so I know that things like jobs and putting food on the table and paying bills and things are important in one sense, and it would be pretty inconvenient if they didn’t happen. And probably not killing everyone who disagrees with you is an important viewpoint to hold and therefore tolerance and acceptance and holding temper in check are all important. But… on a simpler level, why do we decide something inspiring or beautiful is ‘more important’ than something else that is inspiring and beautiful?
There’s a certain amount of intellectual or political inspired snobbery that goes on, or art snobbery, however you want to describe it… in any event – the viewpoint that to be meaningful and valid, the source of inspiration must be deep, rooted in some sound political concept or referencing some universal truth. That when we view the world through the prism of this particular experience or art form, we experience something greater, gain insight and clarity. And, there are certainly times when this is true and relevent. But why is beauty for the sake of beauty – fleeting, meaningless, pure beauty – not relevent?
Nature isn’t about complicated ideals. It doesn’t bend and change shape to accommodate your political affiliation. You won’t find validation for a feminist viewpoint in the wild, any more than you will find validation for a patriarchal viewpoint there. (Although I am very aware that many people have tried to, and many more will try to in the future, I find those arguments to be very self-serving and wilfully blind). Nature is simple, violent, ruthless, and beautiful. It doesn’t have to justify its beauty, any more than it justifies its violence. It simply is. And the things that inspire us should be the same. Simply there, inspirational, for whatever the reason, and not graded according to their worthiness.
The worth of inspiration is what it inspires you to do, not what opinion or viewpoint it validates.
This is my favorite time of year. A time for remembering the dead, celebrating everything that they achieved and the good times that we shared with them. A time for contemplating our own mortality, and what we will leave when we pass on. I find the Havamal particularly poignant:
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead
Autumn is a time for taking stock, celebrating what has passed and lives on in our memory. It’s a time for making preparation for the dark nights, drawing close to those we love and celebrating what we have, knowing that it’s fleeting and that what we do with our time now is what matters. Those close to us need to be treasured and time needs to be spent with them, or there will be no meaningful memories of us left when we are gone, nothing to fasten us in the hearts of those dear to us.
Happy Samhain to you all.
Children and religion. The simplest desire in the world maybe, to bring your offspring up to believe the same things that you do, to value the same things, to share the little habits and rituals of your community. Only, it doesn’t sit very well with me, and it never has.
Think of it this way – you can’t marry your children off when they’re underage, and you can’t marry them at all against their will. You can’t choose their career for them, or make them take employment while they’re underage. And yet, you can sign them up to a religion long before they are capable of knowing what one is, let alone making an unbiased choice.
Think again on this – what if your soul was the prize amongst competing deities? What if all the versions of heaven and hell that you ever heard about existed?
Think again, of how many religions you know of where there is an op-out clause? A process to go through as an adult to say that you no longer wish to subscribe to this set of beliefs? Nope, not happening. Signed up for life, no matter how you lapse or take on another belief, you’ve still not formally been un-subscribed. And if you simply want to take no belief, you’re definately out of luck.
This comes down to how strongly you feel about freedom of choice – being in this case the freedom of those you love most of all, to choose other than you.
I take the view that children shouldn’t be able to choose a religion until they can understand what religion is. Even then, they should be initiate standing until they are 18, before they take the final step of committing to a belief system. And there should always be an opt out process. I’m sometimes a little peeved that I didn’t get signed up to any militant religion as a baby, just because someone ought to take one of them to court and force an ‘unsubscribe option’. (I think actually that I have read about someone who has tried doing this but I can’t find the details at the moment – if anyone knows about any cases, I would love to hear about them). In my case, there’s also the issue of respect for my partner, who is what you would maybe call a lapsed Christian. He defines himself as Christian in any event, and our children are the first in his side of the family not to be baptised. It is important then, for them to have the choice, freely given, to believe what they want to believe.
From the point of view of a parent, I do concern my children in festivals and celebrations – both pagan and not. I won’t deny them christmas and perform a psuedo-historical-madeup-yule instead… we just celebrate both. And Chinese New Year, etc. Generally I like to separate the cultural festival and the religious part and make sure that they are aware of both sides. Because all festivals do serve two purposes – religious and community. For the majority of people I suspect that the community part of a festival is more important than the religious part. For children, it should definitely be so.
My oldest is taking an interest and has chosen to define herself at school as a pagan. It’s caused maybe more bother than she realised that it would, but that in itself is a lesson worth learning. Without any form of ritual to definitely lay claim to her soul and bind her to a set of beliefs, I am happy for her to decide for herself, and if it’s something that she grows out of, there is no harm done. In the meantime, and while she is growing, I shall continue to answer her questions about belief, faith, proof, science, history – as I answer all of her questions. As honestly as I can, leaving as much information as I can available for her to make up her own mind on the subject.
More importantly, I am interested in teaching them respect and care for the world around them – not as a part of religious rules that they have been subscribed to, or for the fear of divine anger and retribution, but for it’s own sake and for theirs as people. I want to teach them the wonder of a sunrise is not more or less than the wonder of a wormcast, that there is a place for the blue-bottle and wasp alongside the bunny and horse. That a cat is no less beautiful or lovable for being a relentless sadistic killer, and that to see only the part of nature that is easy and fluffy is a form of deceit against yourself. I don’t think any of those lessons need to be steeped in religion, or have deities involved with them.
Having planned to spend a serious amount of time in quiet contemplation this Autumn Equinox, I then had a few small family dramas play themselves out. Deep breath, gritted teeth, and get on with it. I made time for 3 approximately 10 minute meditations during the day, but I didn’t feel that the time was misspent. Real life is more important, and children definitely so. A day is just a day, after all, and although I like to mark the important dates, and make use of times when there is so much more energy and focus in a specific area – family comes first and I have a great respect for the buddhist thinking on making your daily life a part of your belief and prayer. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to dedicate my life to any deity, I’m drawn to the idea of there being really no difference between ritual activities and daily life activities. Whether that goes as far as finding the divine in the midst of absent-parent angst and wanton bedroom destruction, I don’t know!
So, my Equinox was hectic, and my meditations brief. But a lot of changes of direction and beginnings of the end seemed to materialise in my life over this week, which seems fitting to the season, and I did feel a clearness of purpose and sense of direction coming through after my mediations, that I haven’t felt for quite a while. I do like autumn, it’s my favorite season and it always seems able to clear the fog away from brain and life, and the growing barrenness exposes the bare bones of nature around us, in the same way that I find this season strips away the fancies and pretences and shows me the bare bones of my life, with sometimes painful clarity.
It’s a good time of year, for all that, and there’s lots of opportunity to ponder, reflect, and examine. That can be combined with so many things – taking the boys out collecting acorns and conkers, making patters with falling leaves, pulling out the dead or dying plants from the garden and making the soil ready for winter. So many of the things that I am doing now are connected to nature – collecting sloes for gin, wood to mend the fence and shore up the compost bin, endless gardening tasks, planting bulbs ready for the spring – the children love doing that, it’s a fantastic way to share with them the potential of winter, the energy storing of seeds and roots and plants before the burst back into life in the spring. It’s such a time of forethought and reflection naturally, to take it a step further comes naturally.
But I do feel that I need to put a little time aside for some longer meditations, some little rituals that clear the mind and provide focus. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘robes and circles and multiple paraphernalia’ type ritual – it always seems a little more about the form than the fact – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t find a need for the focus that a definite and dedicated time gives. I adapt my ritual to be suitable for inclusion in an early morning walk, seated beneath a tree and following a fluid mind clearing meditation. Before I had children, I would fast and spend hours lost in any wilderness that I could find… and I do miss that. But life is full of fleeting moments, if you don’t take hold of them and enjoy them at the time they occur, you end up regretting all the time you didn’t have – feeling cheated that there was never enough time for anything ‘special’ when in fact it’s the day to day fleeting moments that ARE special, if you can let go of rigid ideas and just follow the flow.
My focus for meditation will be changes, purpose, and journeys spiritual and physical. I am planning to spend some time with a particularly impressive yew in the local graveyard, and see where that takes me. I have a huge sense of impending something, of my life being at a tipping point, and I want to know which way to tip.
The question of publicly and loudly proclaiming faith isn’t really one that bothers me often. I don’t feel any particular need to do so, or that the people around me need to be aware of all the details of my beliefs. I did however, fairly early on, make a decision not to conceal my religious beliefs. It wasn’t a difficult decision, given my beliefs don’t require the conversion of anyone else, and I have a fairly tough skin.
The smaller and less well seen religious traditions tend to be misunderstood and misrepresented – even worse if the words are associated with fairy tale and mythology. (I recall having to clear up an issue when my daughter started primary school and was accused of lying and fantasising when she told people her granny was a witch. Amusing conversations with the Christian-right #23).
Working with a group of very active Christians once, and the subject of religion came up – from recollection, they were waxing lyrical about Mel Gibson’s Passion – then one lady asked if I was Jewish and likely to be offended by the film. Oddly, it seems that they could have coped with my being Jewish and having ancestors who murdered their god. What none of them were at all prepared for was Paganism.
The difference in attitudes was interesting – of the three ladies present, two were instantly embarrassed, confused, and eager to be out of my presence. One recovered with a few weeks of my being normal and not casting pentagrams in the office (or whatever she was expecting) – which is a fairly standard attitude. One never did, and made a very noticeable and conscious effort to avoid my presence. I do wonder what the consequences might have been had I been directly working for her. The third lady was quite relaxed, and we had a couple of discussions on the subject afterwards. If she was bothered by it, she had the good manners not to say so – but I suspect that she was comfortable enough in her own belief not to be threatened by mine. I don’t believe that I’ve ever suffered at work due to my belief, or received a lesser service from anyone that mattered. Stupidity is more likely than maliciousness, in my experience. And stupidity can be cured with a little light education, after all, and shouldn’t be held against anyone.
Things changed though, with children. Several of M’s friends from school were not allowed to come to her Halloween party. Apparently, they stay at home and turn all the lights off so that no trick or treater’s knock. And I have clashed with her teachers many times, on various subjects, and suspect that the situation has been made worse by religious tension. It’s noticeable that it’s the religious-right set of teachers that I clash with, and that matters got immediately worse when M decided to change her stated religion from ‘none’ to ‘pagan’.
The differences between dealing with people’s attitudes to one’s self, and one’s children, were called to mind recently when M was asked by a complete stranger whether she went to church. I admit, it raised my hackles instantly – besides anything else it’s appallingly rude. M had been chatting away with this woman’s children during an activity at a museum, and I had been keeping half an ear on the conversation while amusing the boys. The question was quite bald and unwrapped (did she think I wasn’t listening, or did she assume because M was polite and well spoken that the answer was going to be yes? Church going, or at least rural white church going, seems to be a middle class pastime).
M has been taking quite an interest in religious matters recently, and proudly announced “No, I’m a Pagan, we don’t have churches.” You could have cut the silence with a knife before the youngest child asked what a Pagan was – and her mother hurriedly hushed her and tried to move the conversation elsewhere. For the sake of avoiding unpleasantness I helped move the conversation on, (after confirming that M was correct and we were Pagans, and didn’t need churches because the nature that we worshipped was all around us) – and I noticed she avoided us as much as possible throughout the rest of the time there, none to subtly dragging her children away whenever we came into the same room.
M was confused and now, having this conversation with her about why this other parent at the museum had reacted so badly, I was forced to put into words exactly why we shouldn’t hide our beliefs and why there is nothing wrong with stating our religion, and that it was this woman’s reaction that was unacceptable. And I do think the question needs to be turned around. Not “why should we be open about it?” but “why should we hide it?” And if the answer is “no one would understand” (which I have often heard from other Pagans) then the answer is surely to stand up and be counted and put out the correct information. To challenge prejudice and ensure that people are not able to promote nasty small-minded views. We’re as betrayed by the loony Pagans that relish public horror and act up to it like a spoilt 5 year old, as by the right wing Christians who think we’re unfit parents and Satanists.
Do you want to greet the dawn on a solstice, worried that someone might see you and put two and two together? Even if you’re fully clad and out supposedly walking the dog? As many other religious groups have found, secrecy is unhealthy. Living in fear of being discovered is unhealthy. And allowing society to believe that there is something wrong with what you hold dear, is a betrayal of yourself and that belief. We are mostly in the privileged position of living in countries where there are laws protecting freedom of belief and religion. Attitudes may be unfriendly sometimes, but the law is on our side and we should not be cowed into silence. We do ourselves and our children a great disservice by being so cowed.
If you are comfortable and secure in what you believe and what you do, in the way that you carry out your day to day life, in the values that you live by – then you should not allow anyone else to cast judgement on them or you. You should not accept their negativity or narrow fearful opinions. And by hiding, that is exactly what you are doing – you are accepting those opinions as being representative of the majority. They’re not. They’re representative of a vocal minority, and they won’t ever be challenged unless we stand up, not to shout “we’re Pagan and Proud!” but to say “Yes, I’m pagan. What’s the issue?”.
It does not appear that our pagan ancestors suffered much from prudishness, or a coy avoidance of physical humour and affection. By the shocked account of early Christians, the lack of restraint and the promiscuity apparent within pagan society was rampant and out of control. A little more careful study of the social structures of those societies suggests that this was not quite the case – but even so, it’s an accepted corner stone of modern paganism, that the shame and fear of our bodies is a Christian import, and that lifelong marriages were not the only socially accepted option within pagan societies, even at times when they were the most common one.
So, what does a modern Pagan’s sexual morality consist of? How important is the sanctity of a handfasting, or marriage, and what place does sex have within the religion?
Honesty, honour, and the importance of a personal oath or promise is a defining characteristic of early paganism, and one of the key attractions to many practicing modern paganism. The oath is not sacred out of fear of retribution from an afterlife. Traditionally an oathbreaker is a social outcast and unwelcome with civilised folk, and there is a remaining element of that disapproval within pagan social groups that I’ve seen, certainly. But more strongly – honour is a personal concept. Honour is how one lives one’s life and goes to sleep soundly, looks in the mirror without shame or guilt, and breathes deeply and deservingly of the air each morning.
Sexual liberation and lack of guilt over physical pleasure have for far too long been associated in our society with dishonest, lying and cheating behaviour, with those who are unable or unwilling to restrain their animal desires in the face of society displeasure – but in a modern world without the constraints of society’s displeasure, many more of us are free to express that sexual liberation and lack of guilt. The long fingers of hereditary guilt and preconceived ideas of morality linger, but they are far weaker and more easily broken down than any time since their appearance in our history. We need not confuse our lustful enjoyment of ourselves and our partners with moral weakness, or look on desire as a character flaw which leads inevitably to deceit and betrayal.
A promise is a sacred oath, and were I not to feel sure that I could keep it, I would not make it. My promise of fidelity is stronger for the fact that I have less social obligation to make it, and it is a carefully considered and sincerely meant promise. If it requires breaking it will be done formally and with notice, not secretly as a betrayal.
There is no research I am aware of that lists the success rate of a handfasting or can compare it against marriage. Not least because for many, a handfasting can be a promise of a year and a day, 3 years, 9 years – not always a lifetime promise accompanied by civil marriage. Does a promise of three years fidelity have less weight to it for being more achievable? If the promise is repeated for the length of the relationship, and no lies have been told when the relationship ends, is that healthier than a broken promise or is it a factor in the breakdown – that famous “you have to try harder if you’re married” line? I am of the opinion that the freedom of a short term promise can keep attention focused on the needs and care required of a relationship, and that the failure associated with a marriage breakdown is less without that betrayed promise of a lifetime of love. Which is not to say that lifelong handfastings don’t happen – they do, I am well aware – but that the options available and the sacredness of the oath make such lifelong handfastings more poignant and meaningful than if that was the only option, all or nothing.
Within pagan ritual there are few more uncomfortable and dividing subjects than the use of sex. For some, it’s an unecessarily crude re-enacting of ancient beliefs, unfitted to today and akin to creating a blood-eagle of your boss on the lawn. For others, sex is a natural part of the world we inhabit, and a powerful and spiritual act of communion that can bring us closer to the Gods and Goddesses on their festivals and during the acting out of their own sexual unions. Ultimately, surely one’s own personal comfort should dictate the path best suited – and if dancing around the maypole is suitably phallic and symbolic for some, and an assignation in the woods better for others – there is room for both.
Skyclad, or naked, ritual, is an only slightly less painful area, and my own early experience of when pagan ritual is practiced within a group indicated that there are often those more keen than others to cast off garments and commune with nature (or try to ogle the pretty girl who’s just turned up for her first Beltain). The fact that I now practice nearly all my rituals alone makes this one far easier for me, and as I have always enjoyed the feeling of being one with nature that comes with the earth and grass or dead leaves underfoot and the air or rain on skin, where ever possible at least part of my festivities are conducted with the freedom of my birthday suit. Nudity is for me, not a terribly big thing. Being stared at by odd men (especially the leering ones with huge beards and beer bellies) is another matter entirely. It’s all about context and comfort, (and not giving unsuspecting hikers an eyefull).
I wouldn’t consider my break of dawn lighting of bonfires to be a sexual act just because of a lack of clothes, or the enjoyment in closeness with nature to be at all related to sexual arousal. This is as different and related as the sense of touch is to sexual arousal – touch is often an integral part of arousal, but a person can and does experience touch without arousal. Nudity within ritual is so often looked on a the precursor to an orgy the like of which Nero would have been proud. In reality, it’s the way that we’re born. It’s our selves in all our beauty and uglyness without the deceit of clothing, and there are few better ways to communicate with a God or Goddess than without barriers physical or psychological. Whether we are ready or in the right company to do so as a group is anther matter entirely.
Sex within Paganism is much like any other pleasure – to be enjoyed, although not to the exclusion of other pleasures, or if doing so would be a weak and shameful betrayal of a promise. Lust is a positive force, a hunger and a pleasure in life and the energies of life and a celebration of the power and beauty of our self and our partner. Without desire and sex, there would be no life and no death for us, nothing worth celebrating or remembering. It is an integral part of the natural world and the root of much pagan myth and legend. Human desire, and morality or honour, are not mutually exclusive but are two sides of the same coin, found together and complimenting each other where they are allowed to.