Most of us who were raised in this Western, rationalist culture - even if we aren't members of an organized religion - hear the word "pagan" and have visions of Bacchanalian orgies of drink, sex, and the obligatory human sacrifice (after all, the notion of blood running across an altar is what makes the whole scenario so exotically sensational - it's not as if contemporary culture lacks for the drink and sex!)
Well, as the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said - MAYBE. There's no reliable written history of the rites and practices of paganism, and precious little evidence that speaks decisively about what our pre-Christian, earth-connected ancestors did or didn't do. What they almost certainly DIDN'T do is worship Satan - Satan as the familiar biblical character we know didn't show up until about 950 B.C.E., the foundations for the concept of a "satan" didn't arise until about a thousand years earlier, in the Middle East, and the earth-based spirituality I'm talking about is thousands of years older still. What the early pagans almost certainly DID do is become deeply entwined with the seasons of the earth and the cycles of the stars. They had to - these early agrarian societies couldn't have survived, much less thrived, without an intimate knowledge of the Turn of the Wheel, the march of the seasons. They had to know not only that spring followed winter, but when it was likely to happen. When the snow melts, when the soil warms, when the berries ripen, when the fish run, when the goat-kids are born - all that was critical knowledge if they wanted to make it through the next year without starving.
And so their celebrations of making it through another season were as intimately connected with the earth as they were: the seasonal rituals marked the balance points, summer and winter solstice, and the vernal and autumnal equinox. Then there were the "cross-quarter days," what modern written history calls St. Brigid's Day/Candlemas on February 1 or 2, celebrating the waning of winter and the waxing of the light; Beltane/Mayday, invoking "the force that through the green fuse that drives the flower" (thank you, Dylan Thomas), with its fertile and, yes, sexual energy (flowers are ALL about sex); Lughnasa on the first of August, the celebration of summer's bounty coming to ripeness; and, finally, Samhain at the end of October, honoring the fields that lie fallow, the year that is flickering out, the ancestors who walked the path before us, and the necessary thinness of the veil between life and death.
Christianity came along and strategically (brilliantly!) adopted and adapted these earth-based rituals to suit the new religion's story and gain converts who could relate to the old-new narrative: winter solstice became Christmas, spring equinox became Easter, Samhain became All Hallow's Eve (and, in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration). Later, a secular, consumer-based society emerged and put many more layers of abstraction on those old religious rituals, finally settling on marketing-based "holidays" - an Easter and a Halloween all about candy, a Christmas all about gifts; Groundhog Day and Mother's Day and the first day of baseball season in spring or football season in fall. But notice how, despite modern marketing, we hold onto the use of ancient pagan symbols of nature worship: eggs and bunnies for fertility, flowers for sexuality/sensuality, trees and sheaves of grain and fire/candles and ritualized games. Maybe there's something far older than marketing that plays in our psyches, more powerful even than the slick images technology and advertising spoon-feed us.
Because modern holidays are driven by people who want to sell things - be it candy, advertising time to sponsors, or religious dogma - we've come to regard those formerly sacred festival days as a product, manufactured for us to "have fun" - which usually boils down to getting an additional day off work, MAYBE plugging in a church service, then sitting in front of the TV and/or eating and drinking until we're half-comatose. There's nothing wrong with having a good time, but I wonder what price we're paying for moving further and further away from the real source of those celebrations and the source of our lives: the earth that bears us upon its surface and which we take for granted so completely. Our children play outside less and less; they (and we) barely know where our food comes from; few people, young or old, experience the cycle of seasons in the most concrete way, by planting something that grows, produces food, and goes dormant in the winter; we don't see animals give birth, give milk, get slaughtered for our meat, or die; we don't see PEOPLE die when it's their time. All the dance of life and death is hidden from us. We live in a sort of sanitized, comic-book world that bears little relation to the magnificent, violent, beautiful, heartbreaking, sustaining mother Earth whose rich gifts brought us forth.
Am I telling you that the antidote to this epidemic of disconnection is to blow up your TV, sell your boat, grow all your own food, wear Druid robes and dance around the Maypole on 5/1? Nope - though some of those ideas are good and the Maypole dance is really a hoot to do - but no. Am I asking you to give up your Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or anything else? Nope - if you believe your God made the earth, I'm pretty sure your God would be happy to see you celebrate his/her creation with reverence and awe. Just...I'm just asking this, or something like it:
- To connect with an aspect of nature we usually run from: Put on old clothes and walk in the rain without an umbrella. Don't bend your head - lift it to the rain.
- A meditation to honor the dead in your family tree: Save your candle stubs and burn them on Halloween or sometime in the following 2 days, keeping vigil until they are all burned out. You can put out photos of your ancestors if you like. They made it possible for you to be here.
- Plant something - in a pot or in the ground - that will produce food. Commit to tending it for a season. If it bears food, eat the food and THANK THE PLANT. Best of all: share the food with others to celebrate your harvest.
- Every day that you drive to work or walk to the bus stop, wait a moment before you start out and: Take a deep breath. Use your senses. Sniff the air. Look at the sky. Listen for birdsong. Feel the life rising in you.
- When the weather gets more often clear than not, go outside every night at the same time for a whole month, and watch the progress of the moon across the sky.
- Take a child outside. Often. Take no toys. Take no cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone. Make up games. Play horsies.
- Get up early enough on winter solstice to go to the top of a hill or mountain and greet the dawn. Hold up a lit candle or a prism to the rising sun.
Everything ritual that you do to reconnect with the earth makes you a part of Earth's story, makes life feel more REAL. Will these little things save the planet? Not likely. But they might just restore some sanity, some peace, to your life and to the lives of the people around you. In the end, perhaps that's what we most need to do.