Conventions and Dialogue

ConVocation and Michigan Paganfest are two events I have attended yearly for the 4 or so years. I have been part of my local Pagan communities in some way for ten years now. In that time I have been part of two Wiccan covens and an eclectic Pagan group I helped found. I am an active member of a local Wiccan Church, as their Youth Minister and a member of House Sankofa and Urdabrunnr Kindred, both based in New York. I was adopted into The Thunderbird People, a local Native American group, in June of last year. I lead a Northern Tradition Study Group that has, over the course of time, slowly made its way from a Study Group to a Kindred and is looking at naming itself. I am involved in many local religious communities, as are many of my colleagues, friends, and tribe each in their own places, in these communities. I am tied to the Pagan and polytheist communities even if at times the way things go exasperate me. I do not let go easy. I have a lot of people who I have come to place deep respect, loyalty, and care for in these communities.

I think there are a lot of times where, even from the outside looking in, a lot of what people see is infighting. I want to say that my experiences at these events are quite the contrary. There is respect, warmth, and care, even for completely new people to these paths, or those visiting from other religions. There is acceptance that some people will be coming to deepen connection with their Gods, and others are here for the Masquerade Ball or concerts, and other fun things. I think that this is an important aspect of networking and sharing in space with one another. Some of the best times I have at conventions are after or between workshops, or, especially with this year in mind, breaking bread together.

Being willing to come together in these spaces is important. I do my best to show, not only say, that I value courtesy, hospitality, civil dialogue, and good company. In doing so I affirm that, while our religions and traditions may be different we can still come together and worship, learn from one another, work magic together, develop better dialogue, and enjoy one another’s company. Our differences do not disappear, but are respected in light of each others’ traditions, workshop formats, and rituals. This builds frith (good social order and peace) and hamingja (group luck and power)in one’s community, and between communities.

A large part of where the many Pagan, Wiccan, Heathen, Kemetic, and other associated communities meet and overlap is at conventions like ConVocation and Michigan Paganfest. As I attended this year that Sannion’s assertion that conventions are interfaith dialogues kept coming to mind. I found that very true, especially given my experiences this year.

To start with I had a lovely dinner with Kenn Day and Eli Sheva. I like to get to know people before I work with them, so I asked them out for dinner on Thursday before the Ancestor Worker panel Friday morning. Unfortunately Kenn could not get his schedule switched around so he could be present. Still, it was good to meet over food. Much like the efforts going on now to meet over tea or coffee, I find this way of working with people far superior than written correspondence. There is nothing like being able to look into the eyes, and see the posture of the person who is sharing your company. I had a delightful time talking with both of these fine people about our paths.

Sharing in food is a sacred thing, and was especially powerful since we were speaking across religious lines. Both of these people were warm and sincere in their answers, and answered me with a directness I found in my own family. Even their speaking together reminded me of my own family. That, I think, is the power of a tribe. We are family, in the end. When we speak across lines of tribe there are respects made, one to the other, such as respect for our ways of doing things, one another’s forms of prayer, traditions, and so on.

Does AMHA explain this differ from the Northern Tradition and Heathen life I live? In talking with Eli Sheva and attending her workshop Neo-Tribal Ethics, I would say we are actually quite similar. She found that AMHA’s virtues lined up with the Nine Noble Virtues so well during her own talks with Diana Paxson that she developed her handout of the 12 virtues from it. What I took away from our conversations and the workshop was that our differences are cultural and in the particulars of our religion. We share a great deal across the board, such as the notion that we are our deeds, that each member needs to be a productive member according to their abilities and circumstances, and so on. We define Ancestors differently, but we venerate Them. We worship different Gods and may relate to each different from one another, but all of us approach Them with piety and respect. We acknowledge the world as living, a Goddess Herself, and the beings upon it as having Being or souls of their own. There are so many similarities I could fill a book with it. While our differences are marked and important, there was beauty in how the similarities touched in the same ways and means by which we engaged in our lives. That, I think, was the most striking to me: these are not just religions, but lives within a worldview and relationship with the Worlds, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, that we are living.

The one workshop I did this year at ConVocation was An Ancestor Worker Panel. We got to explore these similarities and cross-culture points together with a responsive audience. I had a great time sitting between the wonderful women who co-hosted the panel: Joy Wedmedyk and Eli Sheva. My nervousness at leading the panel when these two had about 20 years on me in their traditions evaporated quickly. We had honest, respectful dialogue between us that flowed well regardless of the questions before us. Thank you both for co-hosting this panel.

I have to thank the audience members, too. When we opened up to questions, both during our initial talks and later during the Q&A session, there were really good questions that opened up deeper dialogue. I have hit and miss auditory memory, and I am kicking myself for not having my computer or a voice recorder present. We had an engaged audience, one that was full of active listeners and participants. I felt lucky to have had each one present.

We started simple with questions like “What is an Ancestor?” and “What is an Ancestor Worker?” As with my experience at dinner, the conversation flowed well, and except for differences between our religions and culture, with myself in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, Joy in Lucumi Orisha worship, and Eli Sheva in Am Ha Aretz, the three of us seemed to be coming from the same place. We came from a common understanding that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are real and have a living impact and relationship with us, and that each person, regardless of where they stand, can worship the Gods well. That the world is sacred, and many of our sacred places reside in natural settings, such as groves, near rivers and/or at lakes. Another commonality? It seems coffee is one of the damned-near universal offerings. I have yet to come across a tradition that reveres and makes offerings to the Ancestors that turns down coffee even if the person offering is not fond of it. I found the same with tobacco, whether smoked, free-leaved burned, or simply left at the picture, altar, shrine, grave, mound, or another holy place.

One of the key differences we went over in detail was that our understanding of what constitutes an Ancestor are quite different. In the Northern Tradition we include blood Ancestors, the Gods, the Elements, Mitochondrial Eve, the people who are part of our lineages, and our Elders. Northern Tradition folks may venerate or actively worship our Ancestors. We may use a wide array of ways to represent our Ancestors, from statuary to photographs, handmade items to rocks or crystals, depending on the Ancestors. In my own case I have a candle dedicated to Fire Itself, and a bowl I refill now and again with ice to represent Ice Itself.

According to Eli Sheva, AMHA’s Ancestors are restricted to blood Ancestors only, and they do not worship Them, but do venerate Them. Their Elders include not only Elders of AMHA, but those who inspire and are heavy influences upon them, such as artists, philosophers, and good friends. Those whose names are forgotten are said to go back to the Earth Mother, Rachmay. Both known and unknown Ancestors are represented by objects called Teraphim. Teraphim “are placed on altars or shrines as photos, sculptures, rocks, and other objects. Teraphim representing who have gone back to the Earth are sometimes presented as part human, part animal, part plant, or as having abstract mask-like faces.” AMHA’s Warrior Dead are also sometimes call Rephaim. All of these Ancestors and Elders are not worshiped, per se, but revered. There are certain festivals and celebrations, as well as to each participants private observances, for when this reverence takes place. The festivals and celebrations are done in a sacred place, such as in a grove, or at one’s home altar or shrine, with offerings of food and drink being offered to Them.

In Lucumi Ancestors are, as with AMHA, blood Ancestors. Elders in Lucumi include just those of one’s lineage of initiation into Lucumi. However, there is another group of Ancestors: the Egun. As Joy puts it: “The Egun are the ancestral dead back to the beginning of our existence. Those that we do not remember by name. All the knowledge of our lineage.” According to Joy, “the Ancestors are given an alter inside the home. A small table, a white tablecloth, a white candle and a glass of water is a basic set up. Pictures of deceased relatives are usually displayed on the wall. The Egun are usually kept outside. The shrine and place of offering for them consists of a staff. The staff is tapped on the ground when speaking with them. Speaking from the heart to Ancestors and Egun is always encouraged.

At each point of discussion we collectively kept coming back to reminding the audience that most of the activities of the traditions and religions we are part of, such as Ancestor veneration and worship, are not things carried on by a priest, shaman, or other spiritual specialist alone. These are to be done by every member individually and by the people that make up these religions and traditions as a whole. Every member, spiritual specialist or not, is an important member of our people that makes up the group. Every person can and should do the work of prayer, offerings, and other rituals to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits as is appropriate to their traditions, relationships with the Holy Powers, and circumstances.

I felt that we could have gone on for another hour and a half, easily, talking about just the Ancestor work we had all engaged in. I was happy we got through all of our basic questions, and answered a good deal of the audience’s too. I feel there should be more dialogue like this in the various communities I am part of. Perhaps I should do another post here, or even put together a podcast where I ask these questions, first of Joy and Eli Sheva, and then of other people so we can explore each others’ traditions and religions. Perhaps, in a year or two, we could put another panel on at ConVocation and bring even more people in, and explore our religions and traditions together.

One of the major privileges of attending ConVocation is that you can attend workshops that go into the history and particulars of the religion that people live. I attended Eli Sheva’s Thursday class: Yahwe and the other Hebrew Gods on Thursday, and learned a bit about who El and Yahwe were, how ancient peoples understood these two Gods, and how Yahwists came to take over El’s iconography. It was a powerful exploration of these two Gods, and just from listening I think she could easily have taught far longer than that, and still had history to go through. I hope that there are more workshops like these offered. Knowing where we come from, how our understanding and relationships with the Gods developed, are all to the good for our communities.

I attended a good number of workshops. Each offered unique insights from their own religion and tradition. There are people whose workshops I found useful, while my own religious views do not agree with theirs. For instance, I found Kerr Cuhulain’s Full-Contact Magick workshop imminently useful in teaching me about direction of energy, posing and techniques for manipulating qi or, in my tradition, önd. I did not agree with his position on the Gods. I do not see that as a requirement for engagement, though. He, in my view, was not discussing religion per se, but spiritual techniques of working with energy every human has within them regardless of religion or lack thereof. The assumption these techniques descend from assumes energies and an understanding of the human self that is, in and of itself a spiritual one, but as taught in the workshop there was no theology attached to the techniques themselves.

This is important to note because I could not teach galdr (magical singing) with the Runes in the same way as he has taught magick. In my tradition galdr is a technique that, for instance when galdring Runes, works with Them as spirits. To try to teach Runic galdring without having an active relationship with the Runes is disrespectful to the Runes, and hazardous because Gebo is a prime element of any relationship in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. In cases where I include galdr in a ritual or a workshop I have already made the offerings that ensure good Gebo; I cannot assume anyone in such a setting will go home and make the offerings on their own.

Because I am the teacher or leader of a ritual it is on me to extend that first step of Gebo on behalf of those I serve, whether they are a new student in a study group or an attendee at a ritual, rather than make the assumption they can or will fill the obligation to the Runevaettir. This is also why it is important for me, in turn, to ask for something upfront or know there is Gebo coming my way. I have an oath to Odin not to take on a reading without some kind of Gebo to me, even if it is not upfront, when I am doing a Rune reading or spiritual work. The flow of Gebo is as such that what flows to me flows to Them, so that when people hand me money, give me an offering, or somehow give reciprocity that in turn goes to Odin and the Runevaettir. When I have taken a shot or food for the Gebo of a reading I am often sharing that shot or that food with Runátýr (Odin) and the Runevaettir. If it is a shot I am usually sharing with both Odin and Loki, remembering what is given to one is given to the other.

Not everyone has these kinds of expectations or relationships, and it is important to not assume people operate the same way I do. So, I ask a lot of questions. Later in the evening I had the pleasure to talk with Mr. Cuhulain about his practice, warriorship, and things that have come from engaging in the world with that worldview. When he brought up learning Maori Haka I asked how he related to it and learned it. For my own piece of mind I needed to know well before I asked much about it how he learned it, from whom, and what their reaction was when asked to learn it. On his website, Mr. Cuhulain has pictures of the Maori who taught him the dance because to teach him that is what they asked in return. He teaches it with permission from them, and in respect to them. So, I was delighted when he offered to teach a Maori Warrior Haka as a workshop Friday evening. He values, as I value, good relationships built on reciprocity. We may not have the same view of the Gods, but the acknowledgment and expression of our relationships with one another, the people we serve, and the communities we are part of, are built on the idea.

When it comes down to it I view a lot of the conflict between our communities as Gebo (gift for a gift, aka reciprocity)not being served. When reciprocity in respect breaks down, people talk past each other, and begin to assume worse and worse characterizations of one another and their positions. When reciprocity in compassion breaks down, people assume the worst of each other, and forgiveness and resolution is hard to come by. When reciprocity breaks down in communication, whether it happens separately or in tandem with the previous two examples, it means that our words are twisted or poorly understood, and the decline of the ability to have any dialogue, let alone productive dialogue, deepens. We live in a time where we are awash in information, and yet, are being taught less and less how to effectively parse it. We live in a time where communication can occur on a massive scale, and yet, we are encouraged not to sit with a concept and digest it, but to chew quickly so we can consume more. If we are to have effective dialogue, community building, or any of the great things we hope to have individually as communities or between communities, we have to slow down and listen, ask questions, be willing to be wrong and admit to it, and to do better by each other. If we forever wait for the other person to somehow spontaneously develop respect no amount of talking will get us anywhere.

If we are to build frith (peace and good social order) and communication it must be done first with our own communities, and then with one another. I cannot approach you in hostility and expect to have effective dialogue and respect. I cannot assume you will not listen and try to talk to you. There must be the expectation of mutual respect, that good dialogue is able to be had, and the willingness to be patient with one another, as hard as that can be. I do not have to agree with what you say any more than you do me, but there needs to be a baseline respect there for one another, or there can be no foundation for effective dialogue. Reciprocity and its attendant respect must take root well before I sit down to dinner, make a pot of coffee, or teach a workshop. Without it we are watering a dead tree.

The reason I attend ConVocation and Michigan Paganfest is that the trees in these communities are healthy. There is room for improvement in these communities as there are in any other. Orchards need tending, so too communities. The roots are strong here. There is a sense of shared responsibility within these communities. What has been emphasized the last few years I have come to these events is that we are all coming together and need to watch out for one another. I am thankful to have heard the last few years, during these times, that the person’s permission and sovereignty must be respected as part of this. Our responsibility at these events for safety and well-being is both individual and communal, and that there is a flow to be respected. To take care with one another, and yet, accept responsibility in ourselves and with one another. We accept mistakes will be made and that problems will arise, but that we can meet the challenges in and between our communities. I view these conventions in the same light that I view many of the Tea Time meetings, the Polytheist Leadership Conference, and various other efforts to bring people together. They are necessary, providing us ways to understand ourselves and one another better. These spaces give us all opportunities to meet and see one another, to hear one another’s voices, and to speak with one another in a safe place. It is my hope this sacred work keeps up, and deepens as the years go on.

My thanks to Eli Sheva and Joy Wedmedyk for co-hosting the panel, and working with me on this post. My thanks to Robert Keefer for helping me with crafting this post and providing much-needed feedback!

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  1. March 26, 2014 at 1:19 am

    I’m so glad you were able to do things with Eli Sheva. She is my sworn tribal ally through the Communalia ritual, and one of very few people alive that I look to as an always-trusted-and-respected Elder. Our traditions, in many respects, could not be more different, and yet on so many matters we are on the exact same page. Plus, she’s just damned cool! 😉

    • March 26, 2014 at 9:24 am

      I was honored and very happy to be able to do the panel with her. We clicked on so many things, and she has a verve and way with words. I cannot wait till next year; she’s coming back to ConVocation!

  1. March 25, 2014 at 4:33 am

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