Column: “But They’re There…”

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Faun, einer Amsel zupfeifend (Arnold Boecklin, 1863)

Faun, einer Amsel zupfeifend (Arnold Boecklin, 1863)

“The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves the existence of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness disproves the existence of love. If you choose to say, “I will believe that Miss Brown called her fiancé a periwinkle or any other endearing term, if she will repeat the word before seventeen psychologists,” then I shall reply, “Very well, if those are your conditions, you will never get the truth, for she certainly will not say it.”
–G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

Can I tell you about someone? He’s awesome, and I love him. And I’ve other reasons to tell you, too, but yeah—let me describe him to you?

He is a man, though sometimes I’m unsure if he’s satyr or prince. Brilliant, a sharp mind honed by fierce care for the world. He’s charming, too. His art with words, his wry smile and the play of his mind conspire together to conquer even the most stoic of hearts.

He’s younger than I, possessing startling wisdom but with all the reckless courage of youth to employ it. And he’s beautiful; a dark shock of hair upon a pretty-yet-rugged face – the sort of looks which might adorn grey-scaled ad-copy selling rain-soaked cobbled-streets. Lithe and muscular, virile like the solidity of ancient forests, soft like endless expanses of hills shaded with color of late-spring wildflowers, and late-summer golds and greens.

He writes fiercely, yet with thoughts more considered than mine. On the edges of words, in their pauses, a startling soul emerges and dances.

I smile each time I see an image of him. Photographs of him unfold his existence like ancient icons; in mere two-dimensions an entire being soaks into my world, and he seems to inhabit the air enveloping me. Thoughts of him quake my heart into fierce joy. And when I sleep, we slip into each others’ dreams, and I wake breathless and haunted.

What’s he look like in your mind? He’s there now, certainly, if you’ve been reading my words. I’ve conjured him into your world (with your help, of course), though you don’t even know his name. He exists there, inside your world, at least for a little bit, despite the fact you’ve never met him, and maybe never will.

This man…what does he look like in your head? He might be taller than he is to me, or shorter. His hair’s probably different. If you imagine him speaking, the accent and timbre with which he talks might be higher or lower than how I hear him. You might see him older, or younger.

But you see him, yeah? Or see someone, anyway, if you’ve any sort of imagination.

If you were to meet the man I’m describing, you’d probably have to do some adjustments to your image of him. I’ve sketched him for you, but no sketch can fully detail the thing being represented. If it’s a good sketch, the image comes alive to you, becomes a character in a story. If it’s a poor sketch, then the difference between what you’ve imagined and what actually is might be jolting, and you probably wouldn’t trust me as a narrator.

But the most nonsensical question I could ask you right now is whether you believe he exists. It would be just as absurd to ask me if I believe he exists.

By describing this man I love to you in a way where he seems to exist in your mind, I’ve done what post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty calls ‘worlding.’ It’s precisely the same thing we do with gods.

‘Worlding’ is the way we populate the world with the gods and spirits and ancestors and magic. It’s also the way we make things ‘real’ to others. But it’s important to know that, just because we ‘world’ something into the earth doesn’t mean it is made-up. Consider the man I was talking about. He exists in your world now even though you haven’t met him. Maybe not quite the way he exists to me, and definitely not the way he exists to himself, but still – he exists.

More so, he exists regardless of whether or not you made a conscious choice to let him exist. In fact, you (likely) accepted my account of him without questioning whether or not he actually exists. The idea that he might not exist probably didn’t occur to you at all. That is, you didn’t have to believe in him for him to appear in your mind.

Belief and Conquest

I mentioned ‘post-colonialism.’ It’s probably one of the most important fields of study for Paganism, but it’s generally ignored. In essence, it’s the study of how Modern, Secular, Capitalist societies see themselves as different from the people they colonized, and how ‘de-colonization’ must apply to the oppressors as much as the oppressed.

Another way of putting it? European peoples who lost their gods and cultures can’t stop destroying the gods and cultures of others until they recognize that they are not more enlightened or ‘Modern’ than the people conquered. In essence, we’ve disenchanted ourselves.

For Pagans, especially those of European descent, Post-Colonialism can actually help us bring back our gods and re-enchant ourselves. Here’s a quote from an early section of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe that will help explain this:

..”Disenchantment” is not the only principle by which we world the earth. The supernatural can inhabit the world in these other modes of worlding, and not always as a problem of result of conscious belief or ideas. The point is made in an anecdote about the poet W.B. Yeats

One day, in the period of his extensive researches on Irish folklore in rural Connemara, William Butler Yeats discovered a treasure. The treasure was a certain Mrs. Connolly who had the most magnificent repertoire of fairy storys that WB had ever come across. He sat with her in her little cottage from morning to dusk, listeningand recording her stories, her proverbs, and her lore. As twilight drew on, he had to leave and he stood up, still dazed by all that he had heard. Mrs. Connolly stood at the door as he left, and just as he reached the gate he turned back to her and said quietly, “One more question Mrs. Connolly, if I may. Do you believe in the fairies?” Mrs. Connolly threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, not at all Mr. Yeats, not at all.” W.B. paused, turned away and slouched off down the lane. Then he heard Mrs. Connolly’s voice coming after him down the land: “But they’re there, Mr. Yeats, they’re there.”

As old Mrs. Connolly knew, and as we social scientists often forget, gods and spirits are not dependent on human beliefs for their own existence; what bring them to presence are our practices.

Many non-Western religious writers have noted that industrialized, Capitalist peoples are obsessed with the matter of ‘belief.’ Other cultures don’t define their experience of gods or spirits or ancestors as ‘beliefs,’ or if they do, they don’t mean it the same way we do.

To ask a Shinto priest if they believe in the Kami or an African animist if they believe in the ancestors is a strange question, just as it would be weird for you to ask me if I believe in the man I love. It’s a bit like that Terry Pratchett quote (from Witches Abroad):

Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

Part of our trouble with belief comes from Christianity, but it extends a little further than that. Also, it is not a theological problem—it’s a political one, coming from the legacies of European empires.

Consider the first European empire, Rome. As Rome conquered foreign peoples, it encountered other gods. Those gods gave gifts and strength to their people, and it’s politically difficult to rule over people who have different gods. In fact, gods have often been invoked in rebellion against empires. Rome needed a way to neutralize this threat.

Before Rome became officially Christian, its method of neutralizing the gods of conquered peoples were through two methods: Evocatio and the Interpratio Romana. Evocatio was a magical ritual by which Roman generals bribed the gods of towns they were about to conquer to come over to the side of Rome. Interpetatio Romana was the process by which Romans renamed the gods of others as their own based on similarities. Both methods made the people they conquered easier to rule, since the threat of rebellious gods (and their followers) were neutralized when it seemed the gods were on the side of Rome.

The Christians did something quite similar, in the form of saints. Countless local gods and spirits were renamed as saints, with backstories written for them. The cult of Mary, particularly, became a way to neutralize the countless local goddesses of springs and hills, and this meant that local devotion was channeled into the Church, not just spiritually, but politically.

We’re not used to thinking of religious practices as being political, but that’s not because of history. Rather it’s a myth of Moderns which makes us insist there’s a difference between the religious and the political, despite the fact that religions have always either been part of the justification for rulers (Divine Right of Kings, remember…) or antagonistic to Authority (St. Francis, for instance, or the many rebellious Christian cults like the Cathars in Europe).

Imperial Rome and the Catholic Church, we must remember, were European systems of control, and Capitalism is yet another version of this constant legacy of empire. Though Capitalism makes no statements about the gods, it exerts of form of control through favoring the ‘material’ over everything else. It also relies on a belief that we modern (mostly white) peoples are more advanced than all others.

The language used to describe the religions and cultures of others within Capitalist societies betrays the other aspect of religious-political control. We are told we are more-advanced or more-evolved than ‘primitive’ societies like those of First Nations, African, or other non-European peoples. Thus, a person who believes there are no gods and is a successful lawyer is therefore more enlightened than an indigenous person in South America making offering to her ancestors, even is she is also a successful lawyer.

In other words, the societies most of us live in consider themselves more advanced than the rest of the world. And unless we constantly question everything our society stands for, we are likely to believe the same things it does.

There’s something we should remember here. Most of you reading my words live in the United States, Canada or Australia—former British Colonies where darker-skinned, ‘superstitious’ people were displaced or slaughtered. Or you live in Europe, in a country that once (and still does) held colonies once full of darker-skinned people.

Why would Europe need to think of itself as more advanced, more enlightened, and with more access to the truth than other peoples? The answer is kind of obvious, if you remember the other systems of control Europe has seen. All three (the Roman Empire, The Catholic Church, and our Modern Capitalist democracies) are colonial powers. That is, each attempted to control people from other cultures and religious traditions in order to create Empires.

To justify ruling over others, the colonizers need some way to see themselves as better than the people they conquered. The practices, the culture, the gods, and the way of life of other people needed to be less true, primitive, and backward.

The Roman Empire stole and re-labeled gods as their own. The Church made gods into saints or demons. And Modern Capitalist societies? They make the gods into mere ‘beliefs’ so they can be neutralized.

All our Modern secular ideas about being enlightened and more evolved and having more access to Truth are a lie our rulers told to themselves (and us!) so we could help them conquer people.

Post-Colonialism, then, seeks to liberate Modern peoples from the lie that we are better than others in order to liberate those we conquer, be it through war or economic policy and consumption. That is, post-colonialism can liberate us from our own dis-enchantment.

Gods Like Love

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Hafiz, ‘Tired of Speaking Sweetly’

Faun, einer Amsel zupfeifend (Zweite Fassung des Motivs)

Faun, einer Amsel zupfeifend (Zweite Fassung des Motivs)

Mind if we go back to the man I was talking about at the beginning of this essay, the man I love? It’s important, and not just because I want to tell the world about him.

Love is a way of understanding the gods and magic that can help break us from the curse of dis-enchantment under which we’ve lived. In fact, love is the very stuff of the mystic, the colour with which every Mystic Poet has ever painted the Other, like in the Hafiz poem I quoted above.

That man I wrote about? You probably didn’t question whether or not he actually exists. My account of him was likely enough for you to accept his existence. You didn’t need scientific instruments to measure his height or record his breath to confirm the truth of my tale.

We accept other people’s accounts quite readily, and we’re able to tell when someone is ‘in love’ with someone else because of the way they talk, or the things they say, or sometimes just the expression on their face. And we can ‘know’ someone is in love without ever meeting the person who has their heart.

This is because the other person is worlded into the lover’s existence. They seem almost to inhabit them like a ghost or a spirit, despite having no supernatural powers. This man’s pretty magical, but I don’t think he’d cast a spell to make me look like I was in love. He didn’t need to.

Seeking ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ of magic or the gods is asking the wrong question.

The better question is whether or not that god inhabits the world through people. As Chakrabarty says, ‘what bring them to presence are our practices.’ That is, the ways we world the gods into the earth and each other is what makes them known to others, even if they never meet.

It is enough for most of us to hear another’s account and accept it, unless we know them to be liars or they say something that doesn’t fit into our understanding of the world. If one doesn’t accept the existence of gods, then anything I might say about the gods I know will seem false. Or one might think my accounts delusional, or confused.

In fact, we might even do what the Romans did, interpreting gods that others speak about into our own understanding. This is a kind of colonial-thinking, which is why believing all gods are one-god and all goddesses are one-goddess is rejected. Or we might do something similar to what the Christians did, calling those gods something else entirely, mythic figures or even demons. But most likely, we dis-enchant the whole matter, finding ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ ways to describe another persons’ experience.

We even do this with love. How do I know I’m really in love with the man I wrote about? What proof is there? What if it isn’t really love and just a delusion or wishful thinking? The more cynical might even suggest that love is just a collection of hormones and electro-chemical impulses in the brain connected to some primal need to procreate.

Again, though—these are the wrong questions. In fact, together they compose the very essence of Disenchantment, and the very thing we must get over if we are to liberate ourselves.

In the story Dipesh Chakrabarty retells about W.B. Yeats and Mrs. Connolly, Yeats asked the wrong question, which is why the old woman laughed. And perhaps we ask the wrong questions as well, about the gods, about magic, about the societies we live in. Perhaps we have forgotten to love.

Perhaps like old Mrs. Connolly, we should learn to laugh at those wrong questions, laugh at our dis-enchantment, and remember how we world the earth with gods, and magic, and love.

And perhaps by our love, we may re-enchant ourselves.

And perhaps by our love, we may re-enchant the world.

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.