Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Lost World of Old Europe

by Deirdre Pulgram Arthen

Last week while I was in New York I visited this wonderful exhibition at the NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The gallery, which is very near the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the upper east side, contains two full rooms of stunning female figurines and beautifully painted pots from between 5000 and 4000 BC in Central Europe. This collection has never been in the US before and is really worth a visit. Even if you can't get there, the web site, which has lots of information and photos, is worth visiting and the book that accompanies the exhibit is wonderful. Just wanted to pass along the recommendation!

From the exhibition website: "The Lost World of Old Europe brings to the United States for the first time more than 160 objects recovered by archaeologists from the graves, towns, and villages of Old Europe, a cycle of related cultures that achieved a precocious peak of sophistication and creativity in what is now southeastern Europe between 5000 and 4000 BC, and then mysteriously collapsed by 3500 BC. Long before Egypt or Mesopotamia rose to an equivalent level of achievement, Old Europe was among the most sophisticated places that humans inhabited. Some of its towns grew to city-like sizes. Potters developed striking designs, and the ubiquitous goddess figurines found in houses and shrines have triggered intense debates about women’s roles in Old European society. Old European copper-smiths were, in their day, the most advanced metal artisans in the world. Their intense interest in acquiring copper, gold, Aegean shells, and other rare valuables created networks of negotiation that reached surprisingly far, permitting some of their chiefs to be buried with pounds of gold and copper in funerals without parallel in the Near East or Egypt at the time. The exhibition, arranged through loan agreements with 20 museums in three countries (Romania, The Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Moldova), brings the exuberant art, enigmatic goddess cults, and precocious metal ornaments and weapons of Old Europe to American audiences."

For more information about the exhibit location and hours: http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions.htm

For detailed information about the contents of the exhibit: http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/oldeurope/

(photo of the Thinker from the introduction to the exhibit)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spirituality into Action: Finding My Pagan Values

by Sarah Twichell

Values are a bridge. They connect our spiritual practice to our actions in the world, helping us to discern what to do in big and small ways. While they are often called upon in political debates and named in the kinds of issues that polarize our society, they're also active in our lives. When we live in accordance with our values, we feel we are acting with integrity; when we are confused about what to do, they're a compass that can help us figure it out.

Because paganism is so firmly rooted in individual experiences of the sacred, it can be hard to identify anything we might have in common. But I think there may be a few things, and in that spirit, I offer up a few of my pagan values, as a starting point for a discussion.

Walking lightly on the Earth
My first devotional relationship was not with a god or spirit, but with the Earth itself, whose body literally supports me every moment of every day. I honor the cycles of the Earth through ritual, through my garden and cooking, and with my magic. I honor the body of the Earth by striving to live sustainably: by eating food from the area where I live, by recycling and reusing to reduce trash, by trying to avoid plastic and reduce energy consumption. Of course, there are a thousand ways to do this, and it's often difficult to know how to even start, but for me, the important thing is to keep moving in the right direction.

Celebrating interdependence
One of the things I am most awed by in the natural world is the complex relationships between its parts. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of everything around us, from the microbes in our dirt to the animals in our neighborhoods to the air flowing in the jet stream. When I distance myself from these things or reduce my understanding of them to the mechnical, the world no longer calls on my compassion. When I nurture and celebrate those connections, on the other hand, I build the kind of network of relationships that sustains all of its members.

Honoring each other
If the sacred is in the world, as most pagans believe, it is in each of us. If that is so, there is no place in the world for racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, or discrimination based on physical ability, body type, gender, religion, choice of clothing... we could go on and on. Of course, it is also true that all of us harbor the seeds of discrimination, not because we are bad people, but because these seeds are ingrained in the culture we live in. It is my job, I believe, to search for those seeds in myself, to apologize when they cause me to treat someone badly or to speak offensively, and to be as much of an ally as I can to people who suffer more directly than I do from these forms of discrimination.

Honoring our passions
If we carry the spark of the sacred within us, the way it gets from us into the world is through our passion. It's so easy to write these passions off as impractical or unworthy -- or to write ourselves off as selfish, undeserving, or doomed to starve on the street. To me, understanding my passion as a manifestation of the sacredness of the world lets me trust myself and my desires more deeply, and helps me see the beauty in other people's passion as well.

I could go on and on with this list, but I'm curious to hear from you! How does your spiritual practice lead to your values? How do those values show up in your life?

(photo by fetopher, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

As we play together

by Morwen Two Feathers
As we play together, locked in and riding the energy wave created by years of practice, I feel the familiar surge of joy and I know. This is my purpose in this lifetime, my cells sing. My body continues in the well-worn groove shaped by repeated rambles through polyrhythm together with the faces, hands and bodies of my companions. My consciousness zooms up for a bird’s eye view of the circle. Swirling movement surges around the bright glowing center of fire; reflected light glitters from shining costumes and instruments, and sparkles in the eyes of the multitude. The Fire Circle is in full swing. Soon the exuberant rhythm wave will peak, and slow, and a delicious silence will open, welcoming the entry of a chant or personal testimony that will weave us together into another rhythm, another ramp-up to ecstasy. And so it continues through the night, until the rising of the sun.

In the early 1990s, EarthSpirit’s Rites of Spring was the birthplace of a particular form of Fire Circle ritual that has become the inspiration for events and rituals across the U.S. and around the world. As a drummer and one of the midwives of this tradition, I have witnessed both the original formation of its basic elements and many of the reiterations of these in new settings where, like all living cultural traditions, it has changed and taken a myriad of forms. It has been a fascinating journey, observing how different communities and different event organizers interpret what I take as the “basic elements” of the Fire Circle, and how the flavors and purposes of the ritual change from place to place and time to time.

In those early years of the Rites of Spring Fire Circle, the magic was wrought by a small group of individuals who came together around the drum. The insight that rhythm itself is a vehicle to altered consciousness and transformation provided the ritual impetus. This group of drummers became a “well-oiled self-facilitated rhythm machine” around the fire (in the words of Arthur Hull, who witnessed a Fire Circle run by this group in 2000), and over the years took many people on many ecstatic journeys to the heights of the Universe and the depths of themselves.

The passion and joy of these rituals engendered a desire to replicate them, with changes. Individual members of the original group developed idiosyncratic visions of new and different ways to structure the basic ritual, and “hived off” new Fire Circle events. People who participated in Fire Circles took their experiences home and reproduced what they understood as the basic elements, adding and subtracting and creating their own home-grown rituals. Some chose to de-emphasize the drumming and focus on chanting, instrumental music, or art. Some chose to elaborate on the symbolic and ceremonial elements of the ritual, while others stripped the fire circle of structured ritual in favor of “go with the flow” sensibilities and/or invocations to Chaos. Some specialized in bringing together groups of previously unrelated individuals from the “general public” to experience the Fire Circle – a strategy that relies upon either extensive orientation and training, or a small group of performance-oriented ritual leaders, or both.

And over the past ten years as these diverse forms of the Fire Circle proliferated across the U.S. and abroad, some say that the Fire Circle at Rites of Spring has lost some of its magic. In recent years it is not unusual to walk to the Bear Rock fire circle late at night and find a struggling rhythm, a few people working hard to fill the night with song, and a ring of spectators chatting. There have been attempts to address this, with physical changes to the space (and the space is beautiful and lovingly tended), publishing written guidelines, appeals to individuals to show up at the circle early, workshops and discussion groups on drumming or the fire circle itself. But what has been missing is a core group of people drumming and working and playing together all year round, and coming together at Rites of Spring to lead the community on a rhythm journey through the night.

For drummers at the fire circle, it is regular practice that enables a group to read each other’s energy without overt facilitation, to know when (and how) to make space for songs, chants, or spoken word, to know when (and how) to speed up together, to carry the dancers to heights of ecstasy, and when (and how) to slow down, to bring the dancers down gently, and even down to silence. A group of practiced drummers with good communication skills can easily integrate newcomers and beginners, giving them a foundational rhythm to hang their hands on. And when people with a commitment to each other come together to practice this form of community ritual on a regular basis, not only the drummers but the dancers, chanters, healers, and witnesses form a team, working together to bring the entire community along when the Mothership takes off for the ecstatic realm.

I believe that a Fire Circle container strong enough to hold people’s truth, their joy, their pain and anger and rage, their hope, their willingness to walk through the gates of their own growth in witness of each other… is best created and sustained by stable groups of people working the magic together. At Rites of Spring there is a strong and stable community, a solid foundation upon which to build such a container. The nurturing of a drummers’ affinity group at the gathering and all year round would help bring a transformational focus back to the RoS fire circle.

Over the years, traditions that developed around the Rites of Spring fire circle have become codified, a set of tools that can be applied to bring any group of people together around a fire and create a fabulous experience. All over the world, gatherings and festivals are doing just that, in an endless variety of forms elaborating on the basic structure, entertaining and engaging people and inspiring them to create even more fire circle events. Having been to many such events, and in my primary role as a drummer, I can say this: It is possible to create conditions where a random group of drummers can play together well enough to carry a ritual and have a good time. But when groups of drummers work together regularly, learn rhythms together, jam together, and council often to reflect on what works and where they want to go – then real magic happens at the Fire Circle.

(photo by Jimi Two Feathers)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pagan Coalition Calls for Religious Freedom in California Case

The EarthSpirit Community is part of a coalition of national Pagan and Nature-centered religious organizations which has released a letter calling for religious freedom in a California court case. The case, which has attracted national attention, is being waged over whether California should hire prison chaplains from outside five “state approved” faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American.

In an amicus brief, the conservative Christian group WallBuilders, Inc. called on the courts to reject the case of Rev. Patrick McCollum, a Pagan chaplain and long-time EarthSpirit friend, arguing that Paganism is a “second tier” religion and therefore not subject to the protections of the First Amendment.

Our Freedom: A National Pagan Civil Rights Organization rejects the state’s claims in general and the WallBuilders, Inc. amicus in particular. Our Freedom states that Pagan inmates have requirements and needs comparable to those of the five faiths currently being served. Our Freedom stands in the promise of our nation’s Constitution and its guarantee of religious freedom.

Included in Pagan inmates’ needs are: access to paid Pagan chaplains to facilitate regularly scheduled religious services; provision of spiritual guidance and counseling support; facilitation of Pagan rites of passage and liturgical needs; and service as intermediaries between Pagan inmates and correctional administrators and staff to educate about Pagan religious needs or requirements of Pagans.
[For further information and links, see the bottom of this post.]

The following letter was sent to the Office of the Governor of California; WallBuilders, Inc.; Clerk of Court, United States District Court, Northern District of California; and Attorney Caroline Mitchell of Jones Day, Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

To Whom It May Concern:

We, the undersigned, are a widely divergent group of American citizens. We hail from varied economic strata, educational backgrounds, ethnic groups, and cultural experiences. We are taxpaying citizens of this country, and some of us have served in uniform. Members of our religious community have died in that uniform, protecting this nation, its constitution, and all that it stands for.