I think I shall leave something out for the local nymphai….

This last week, the birds haven’t been as greedy at the feeders as they usually are.

And I woke up earlier (technically yesterday) to the sight of the large bottle of apple cider vinegar I keep by the door to neutralise cat urine from the various strays, and it had somehow been moved to the middle of the floor.

Outside, there was a mysterious female garden gnome statue in front of the condemned place next door.

Now, logically, the statue might have showed up cos there are various bums and such who like to break drink behind that house, and *maybe* one of the cats just had the urge to attack the vinegar, and that’s where it laid after, but with the birds mysteriously reluctant to the wonderful buffet I set out for them combined with the other noted weirdness, I’m certainly leaning to the notion that Someone might be trying to get my attention.

And really, female garden gnomes are pretty rare. Especially this one –more a Phrygian cap than a tall cone commonly assoviated with gnomes, and designed kind of on the “young” side. If it’s still there, I should get a picture (at the very least).

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[review] The Urban Primitive by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein

urban-primitive-kaldera-schwartzsteinTitle: The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle

Authorship: Raven Kaldera & Tanin Schwartzstein
Publisher: Llewellyn International
Year Published: 2002, First Edition
ISBN: 0738702595

I first want to say that I scrapped my first draft of this review because, as odd as this may sound, I thought it was unintentionally mean, well beyond anything this book, which is full of problems, deserves. I also got really self-conscious that some might interpret it as a personal attack against one of its authors, Raven Kaldera, who I honestly want to like (he’s one of the few people amongst the FTM spectrum on FetLife who is seriously realistic about TS/TG issues, even if some of the things he’s written for the public about the TS/TG community and his own transition may seem problematic, especially out of context or if one is making a habit of projecting), and so I really wanted to like one of the few books published (only three, ever, that I’m aware of) about urban pagan and polytheist spirituality —as odd as I find it that some-one who proudly runs a rural homestead would get involved in a book about urban spirituality, I was optimistic, at first, and still believe that even the most awful parts were included with the best intentions.

Tanin Schwartzstein’s introduction is wonderful and very welcoming to those whose spirituality is urban-centred —dare I say, I even saw bits of my own experiences in the recollection and lamentation of a pagan community that dismisses the city as “cold” and spiritually “dead”, especially as one whose experiences are of anything but. I’m also convinced that she’s responsible for some of the best parts of the book that follows (though I assign equal blame for the worst parts, cos if either of them knew better, one of them should have caught it and revised).

I love that this book is written for those with limited income in mind, and offers detailed suggestions on the arts of dumpster diving, thrift store combing, and frugal resources that are not only kind to one’s wallet, but also the environment. There are several helpful lists in this book for herbs, incenses, stones, even colours, and their uses in different purposes. One of the best parts is even an entire chapter dedicated to common plants found in most cities in North America, and their purposes and meanings. Another list is even specifically for suggestions on budget-minded substitutions for scented oils, and suggestions on budget-conscious or scavenged items to use in rituals, like a piece of broken glass for rituals that need a blade and you don’t have a blade, or using stumps of candles rather than tea lights in travel kits for altars or shrines. Let me tell you, after years of looking through “pagan 101” books in the mid-1990s that made it seem like one needs a middle-class income to even start out as a Pop Wicca nub, it’s refreshing to see that, barely more than a year into the Twenty-First Century, there was finally a book that made it indisputably clear that ritual tools could be scavenged or otherwise obtained with little or no expense, and one needn’t be financially comfortable to practise pagan religions —sure, nothing beats what the ritual recommends, nobody is arguing that, but if you think burning herbs is “too expensive”, it’s really only cos you don’t know enough about where you live, and this book offers an adequate primer for that knowledge.

It’s also nice that this book is written for not just those who thrive in cities, but for those who live in the city out of necessity. I may not personally understand the appeal of rural life, but I understand the necessity on a fundamental level, and I at least understand that, for some reason barbaros to myself, there are those who prefer a pastoral lifestyle and may only be living in the city’s walls for the work, or school, or family obligations, so adequate coping mechanisms seem like a fair inclusion.

On the other hand, most of the lists are too similar to other lists I’ve seen in “Pop Wicca 101” sorts of books. While it’s nice that Kaldera has added bits to this book to make it seem useful to those whose spirituality is rural-centred but who live in urban lands due to necessity, a lot of this really does come off as a bias, making urban spirituality seem dangerous to the soul, and the city an inferior place to live; it’s really hard to get through a chapter without somehow getting a potentially subtle or downright blatant guilt-trip for living in the city, or some kind of nonsense “warning” about dangers only vaguely alluded to, with practically nothing to back up most claims about the alleged physical risks (aside from crime rates, which is easily searchable on-line) and some of the more obvious pollution risks, and let me tell you, not even the developed countryside is without its pollution and risks to the environment —do a search on The Dust Bowl, kids, it wasn’t a gridiron game, and over eighty years later, it’s still affecting the central United States. While the introduction is wonderful, even describing experiences similar to my own, the book that follows it flip-flops between celebrating the Urban Divine and blaming all cities everywhere for everything wrong with the world.

This book also suffers from its constant use of vague claims, and almost never giving much, if anything, in the way of specifics to make for ease of fact-checking. The index is present, but not quite as comprehensive as I usually hope for a book of this length, and a proper bibliography of sources is practically nonexistent, so aside from the rare mention of other books and references in the text, there’s no real way to check whatever sources may have been utilised. Sorry, kids, but a “Recommended Reading” list (largely of books from the same publisher —curious, non?) is not the same as a Bibliography. Some quotes also seem like they might have been taken from an e-mail list or Usenet group or something, something I’ve discerned from the fact that the quoted person is unsearchable in a pagan context, and there’s a mention of an Internet group in the book acknowledgements, so confirming the backgrounds of the people quoted isn’t easy, sometimes even impossible —sometimes, that’s important, but to be fair, gven the context of many quotes in the book that fall in this potential category, it’s really not necessary. When it is necessary, on the other hand it’s something that really bothers me, and appears to be a trait of Llewellyn books that seems far too common, contributing to the negative reputation of the publisher amongst religious reconstructionists and academic pagans. And speaking of, I had hoped, knowing Kaldera’s background and that he’s also collaborated with Kenaz Filan, who I completely respect, that this wouldn’t be much of a problem, but I guess that’s what I get for hoping. That said, one of the best and most quoted people in the book is credited as “Beth Harper, Nashville witch”; I was incredibly disappointed to find her practically impossible to find on the Internet.

And this book makes a lot of really dumb factual errors that could have been avoided with a modicum of research. The one that really stands out for me, to the point that it just seems like a prime example of “making shit up in hopes of sounding smart” is conflating the Horai (Goddesses of time and seasons) and the Khorea (or “Hora”; a group of traditional circular dances from the Mediterranean and Near East) and attempting to link both to “sacred [prostitution]” (they use the word “harlots”), and explaining that it’s an etymology of “whore” and thus strip tease and erotic dance, as a profession, is directly descended from goddess worship (Chapter 5, page 50). Trying to decide where to begin on how much is wrong with that little “etymology lesson” kind of gives me a headache, because there is just so much wrong with it. Just to give you a taste of how wrong that claim is, there is no clear or even muddy etymological link between the Horai, or even Khorea, and “whore” —the word “whore” is descended from the Old Norse hora, meaning “adulteress”; considering that Kaldera is best known amongst pagan circles for his “Northern tradition”, I’m just floored at the fact that his understanding of his traditions’ languages is so sparse that he either didn’t catch that preposterous fallacy or, may the gods forbid, he desired to include it.

Of course, whether some Hellenists utilising religious reconstruction care to admit it or not, not only was there magic practised in ancient Hellas, but a lot of the “spells” and other rituals mentioned in this book bare a similarity to ancient Hellenic practises that are somehow “not magic” by the circular logic employed by some Hellenic circles, and can be easily adjusted to fit the standard ritual script of Hellenic practise. In the chapter on Protection Spells, the recommendation of drawing eyes, with oil, on windows and over the threshold of doors, even on the stairs, is not a far cry from the ancient Greeks putting apotropaic eyes on drinking vessels and heads of Gorgons at the threshold, this is just a modern, and argueably stealth adaptation of an ancient practise. Granted, you really need a good background in Hellenic practises to catch that sort of thing, but if this is your first time hearing of such a thing, don’t take my word for it, go check out apotropaic eyes in ancient Greece, and it’s clear that this simple little protection ritual is adaptable to Hellenic practises.

One of the complaints about this book that I see a lot from people on Amazon is the “Urban Triple Deities”. Now, obviously, I don’t acknowledge these “deities” in my practise, and I am sort of sceptical that something so basic as what’s described here is even a whole deity, and honestly, I really hate the illustrations for these six epithets, but who’s to say that these aspects don’t exist in existing deities? Knowing that Kaldera is a polytheist, I’m sure there’s intention that these simplistic figures can be aspects of existing deities, and knowing that Schwartzstein describes her religion on Teh FarceBorg as simply “pagan spiritualist”, there’s room to regard these as complete deities, if one so chooses. I can easily see traits of Hestia in Squat, “goddess of Parking Spaces”, whether it be your car or your bed, Skor, the scavenger goddess, strikes me as an epithet of Demetre or possible Tykhe, and Skram, Who warns you away from potential dangers, is a clear face of Hekate; Slick, the silver-tongued, works as an aspect of Hermes (something the book even suggests), Screw seems a simplistic, Neizchean aspect of Dionysos, and Sarge seems a sort of superficial Zeus or perhaps Ares. I also don’t see how most of these aspects of deity are specifically urban; having gone to high school in a rural area, I can assure you, rural people are no stranger to needing spaces, needing motivation, an anonymous lay, being in danger (I’m sure “Skram” might’ve been just as useful in Laramie, Wyoming, which has a smaller population than Adrian, MI, the latter being indisputably rural), or even scavenging (hello? gleaning, anybody?), but if this is a device that can open some-one’s eyes to these aspects and relevance to the city, then awesome.

In the previous chapter, though, ancient deities are addressed. Again, I have mixed feelings about this. I understand the space constraints the authors were working with, and to their credit, they acknowledged that the deities mentioned were described in overly simplistic manners and further research is best. On the other hand, there is no shortage of statements made that even a casual, but genuine relationship with a deity could easily prove false. I’m sick of people assuming Apollon only digs classical music, and saying “[He’s] not interested in rock or rap or hip hop … [play] classical music, or He’ll frown” just after suggesting propitiating Him in a record store (Chapter 5, page 49), is more than a bit contradictory —seriously, people, if He’s the God of music, why limit music for Him to a single genre? In my experiences, Apollon really loves Nick Cave. I doubt that Thoth is simply “the Egyptian god of writing” (in fact, Wikipedia suggests I’m right about that). Zeus and Odin? Not the same deity. I really have to argue against the notion that Athene is the primary Hellenic goddess associated with science museums —not only is the name of the Moisai in the word “museum”, Ourania is specifically associated with astronomy, and Kleio’s domain of “history” can logically extend to natural history and evolutionary sciences. Saturn has nothing to do with “karma”, and I had to raise an eyebrow at the suggested association with the IRS —at the very least, an explanation of the logic employed would have been nifty.

One of the other problems with this book is the regular language that seems awfully Americentric, as if the whole world of Llewellyn Worldwide begins and ends with the United States. Not only is this book available at regionally domestic pricing in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, my own copy came from a UK seller via eBay (but it’s also a US copy), and Schwartzstein’s FaceBook profile states that it’s been translated into Russian. I wonder how well the suggestion that those who live along “the West Coast” fault line should worship Poseidon as a bringer of earthquakes translates to readers from Moscow? Or in Australia, where it’s the North Coast that gets more earthquakes?

Why can't we see his hands?  Gods above, why can't we see Morrissey's hands??

Why can’t we see his hands? Gods above, why can’t we see Morrissey’s hands??

What’s so wrong with simply saying “anyone in a city near a fault line should supplicate Poseidon”, especially considering that those along the North American West Coast tend to get a higher ratio of reminders of their fault line than most other people? Why force the rest of the Worldwide readers to have to mentally adjust what they’re reading? In the immortal words of a Double-Double fucker named Steve1, “America is not the world”.

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About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Aloma Shamanatrix & Matthew Miracle


(be warned: Site has embedded muic player that defaults to “On”; you can turn it off, if you like)

Thanks to the magic of television, I have just learned about this amazing couple based in San Francisco. They’re fruitarian, freegan, artists, and urban nomads and just amazing.

At least 80% of their possessions are scavenged, and according to their own website, most of what they do buy is purchased second-hand. Even the episode of National Geographic’s Taboo I first learned about them in, one of the academic panel brought in for a professional analysis of the behaviour, just commended them for their scavenger lifestyle, verbally applauding even the tiniest dent that they can make in reducing waste in this society.

I had to see if they had a website before the episode even ended, and I’m glad I found it. Everything they eat is scavenged. Most of their clothing is scavenged. They’re into ritual music and dance, and also energy and herbal healing, but will accept that modern medicine is an acceptable avenue if and when ritual and herbal medicines have failed. Their musical instruments are most, if not all scavenged —either as-is or scavenged and repaired or created.

The fruitarian thing was not a new concept to me. In fact, I’ve said that if it weren’t for the fact that I’m anaemic, and I physically cannot eat that much in one sitting without getting ill, I’d be not just veg*n, but fruitarian. I don’t see a huge difference when evaluating the life of a spinach alongside the life of a cow — and considering how many more spinach need to die to get the same amount of nutrients from a cow, it’s argueably more ethical to eat the cow, if one wants to bring up that whole “least harm principle”. And don’t try and lecture me about central nervous systems and sentience, either; animism is not only an historically valid aspect of Hellenismos, what with nymphai literally connected to every plant imaginable, thus meaning is a cow has a sentient spirit, so do the flowering plants, like broccoli, but recent studies published in peer-reviewed journals suggest that there is a scientifically measurable sentience in plant life. Thus, even if one is to remove spirituality from the equation, the only truly ethical diet is fruitarianism, eating that which a plant gives freely, as it’s designed to be eaten —and not just from centuries of genetic modification by human hands, but because that’s just how it is —shitting out seeds from eaten fruit is a far better fertiliser than simply letting the fruit rot where it falls. But, like I said, I have a lot of medical issues, and as of now, I’d rather take fewer pills and supplements than I’d need to to maintain myself on a strict fruitarian diet, even though I clearly believe it’s the most morally sound choice of diet.

Their scavenger lifestyle, I gotta admit, is something I both greatly admire, but am reluctant to. I’m in admiration for what should be obvious reasons, at this point, but my reluctance is very much tied to my own history. As I’ve said before, my father was a rag-n-bone man by trade, and this involved a lot of dumpster-diving —that’s right, hipsters, my father was doing that long before you decided it was “cool”. At some point, he decided that, while diving for scrap he could sell, might as well get anything else that was good. This is how my family had a microwave in 1987, on my mother’s RN salary, while my father was between construction gigs; he looked it over, realised it needed a bolt to keep the door on, tested it out in the garage, and then brought it into the house. A fair amount of the household’s furniture was salvage, either intact, or repaired, or built from salvaged bits. During any given week, between 20% and 70% of the groceries were dumpster-dived; we made a lot of preserves and had two huge chest freezers to accommodate any surplus. As much as I admire the salvage now, for ethical reasons, as a kid who’d already been branded “weird” on personality alone, this was just one more weird thing about me and my home life. Now, at first, I didn’t realise it was something that was so weird, I think I realised that most people didn’t scavenge (cos really, if everybody did, what would be left to scavenge?), but I was under the impression that it was generally accepted practise; I remember mentioning something about it at school, and in addition to unintentionally grossing out some classmates, my teacher that year decided it was something to be concerned over, and called social services to investigate the household, and after that, I got a pretty good talking-to about why I should never, ever, ever talk about the family’s dumpster diving again, or my sister and I would get taken away and put in foster homes or something. So yeah, it was pretty embarrassing, and I’m still trying to get over it. I think I’m at a point where, if I tried it myself or with a friend, I would finally be over it, but the nearest dumpster is behind a liquor store at the corner, and the cops are regulars at that corner due to prostitution, and most days, I’m in too much pain to mosey on over the the good spots all by myself.

The Taboo eppie stressed their matching outfits a little more than I can see on their website, but if memory serves me, Aloma did regard it as an important aspect of their relationship, as it gives visual aide to their connected spirits.

Just watching them, you can see so much love, like one soul in two bodies.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Polytheism and Retrofuturism

Retrofuturism is, in essence, a philosophy that has been highly influential in late 20th and early 21st Century art, music, design, and (typically underground) fashion. I’d says its beginnings can be traced to the 1960s, when the first conscious revival of a once-popular movement —Art Deco— took place, though the movement really started to take off in the 1970s. While Isadora Duncan was certainly a prototypical and extreme retrofuturist, her influence, during her time, was limited to dance, so clearly while she can be argued to have scattered some seeds for retrofuturism, the movement did not take root with her. Streamline Moderne design, popular in the 1940s, is sometimes erroneously described as an Art Deco revival, but it is, in actuality, merely a continuation of the movement; where Art Nouveau of the 1890s and 1900s can be described as “organic”, Art Deco can be described as “mineral” in its look and feel, especially its penchant for symmetric geometry — Streamline, on the other hand, is organic lines with an Art Deco sensibility, thus it is not a true revival. But I digress.

In simplest terms, Retrofuturism is taking the best of the past and the best of the present and moulding it with a progressive-mindedness that looks toward the future. Steampunk is retrofuturist. By extension, Diesel- and decopunk are retrofuturist, and Atompunk is retrofuturist. While the Mod subculture was initially a very modern-minded subculture, its deep connections to the Phil Spector/Tamla-Motown sound and a 1960s-influenced aesthetic have assured its evolution into a retrofuturist subculture, albeit not the most conscious retrofuturist subculture, when compared to most others. Roxy Music is a retrofuturist group. As is DEVO. As is Joe Jackson. Jim Henson’s life-long love of puppetry and apparent knowledge of its history, and not to mention showing off that knowledge in his abilities to create quality entertainment intended for an adult audience (yet silly enough that children didn’t need to understand The Muppet Show, for example, in order to enjoy it) is inherently retrofuturist. Guy Maddin is retrofuturist, though he prefers “ultra-conformist”, which, to be honest, is actually best at describing his techniques, which are seldom more evolved than the industry standard of 1933. The work of McDermott & McGough is absolutely retrofuturist with an emphasis on the retro. Electroswing is retrofuturist with an emphasis on the future. Neofolk is a genre that is, at its heart, retrofuturist but in practise, some bands identify more closely with certain flavours of Fascism, which is, at its heart, Traditionalist —but in all honesty (and more knowledge of music than most other people who can wear the “Goth DJ” hat), Leonard Cohen and Nico were among the first musicians to be described as “neofolk” or even “dark folk”, and Johnny Indovina of Human Drama considers much of his music to be some form of “neo-folk”, and it would be hard (at the absolute least) to consider any of those musos to be Fascists or Traditionalists.

The modern pagan and polytheist movements are, too, typically retrofuturist with a few exceptions. Chaos magic seems decidedly modernist with some hints of straight-up futurism. There is also a segment of reconstructionist polytheists that are more concerned with an anti-progressive notion of “the ancients” to the point that it’s easy to call them Traditionalist or even Anti-modernist; retrofuturists, by their nature, tend to avoid such types as we find their non-interest in a living society in favour of an arbitrary point in the ancient past (often long pre-dating even a century or two prior Christianity’s birth, much less its rise to prominence) to be rather silly.

If there’s anything that a vast majority of pagans and polytheists have in common, it’s an interest in re-shaping the present and future with knowledge about the past influencing this form. This is a variant on the two major themes of retrofuturist creativity: The first is the “retrofuture purist” form, which is celebrating the past’s idea of the future. The second is to re-imagine the past as seen with eyes of the present that are, at the very least, mindful of the future (though retrofuturist art tends to emphasise the future). The tendencies of pagans and polytheists to take what is known of the ancient past polytheistic religions and adapt them to not only modern life but a future-mindedness makes this the ultimate retrofuturist religious movement; Gnostics probably come in at a close second place.

While an degree of tradition is important in most pagan and polytheist religions, they are not typically defined by their traditions, but by the cultures they sprang from and the communities they are shared by, which essentially creates a vision of the future.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Sleep Sounds

I love that my emergency alarm clock has an option for “street” amongst “forest”, “rain”, “waves”, “fire”, and “crickets”. It really does seem to have a calming effect on myself —and apparently others.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Sacred City (the film)

“At night, the city is no more full of dreams than at any other —that’s where people go wrong. They think the daytime city —full of money, and work, and people who know where they’re going— is the real one; but I look all the time for the real city, and I know it’s not as simple as that. It’s not simple at all. You might think you might find it by digging holes, or staring at the pavement, but it’s not there in mortar and stone and brick. The real city is alive, and breathing. You can look for it in the buildings, and the way they’re built, and why, and how they look in the light. What some-one called ‘the spectacle’ organised by architecture. But how can that be the real city? The real city is not organised, by any-one; it just uses certain places to make itself seen, and the best architects know this and don’t over-reach themselves.

“…that which gives me a feeling I’ve never known before, but I’ll call it a religious feeling, cos I’ve no other word for it. When I see all of this, this city, full of light and sound, and there’s so much that you can’t even imagine knowing all of it. So beautiful and so hideous, all at once. It’s then I start to think there might be a new god, that only lives in cities. It’s not everyday you discover a new god, especially such a powerful and ambivalent one. Sometimes a drunken, stinking, dangerous god, certainly; but still, the correct response to a god, or goddess, of any kind is worship. I don’t care what any-one says, and that’s what I want to do. I feel like St. Joan must’ve felt when she heard the voices, like a blasphemer, but I think we could do with more gods, than less, and I’ll take that chance. And of course, the presence of a god makes the city a sacred place, which is what I’ve always thought, anyway. Look at it, just look at it. How could it not be?” –from the introduction to Sacred City, a film by Barry Andrews

Yes, I’ve reviewed the CD before, which is lovely in its own right, but the film it was originally intended to accompany is STUNNING (that is, if you like art films).

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

While I’m obsessing on urban spirituality for the mo’…

It’s a fan video, but the song is wonderful.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Facts & Fallacies About Urban Spirituality

FALLACY: Urban spirituality is about hating the wilderness and / or rural lands.

FACT: Urban spirituality is simply lacking a spiritual connection to the rustic lands. We acknowledge that the rural lands are necessary, and we acknowledge a dependency on them for survival, but the celebration of said is kept to a minimum, and is never a lifelong focus of the urban spiritualist.

FALLACY: Even people with a deep spiritual connection to cities must get out in the woods every so often for their physical and spiritual well-being!

FACT: That really depends on the person. Some do, others do not. People with allergies to pollens tend to avoid rural and wooded lands as a precautionary measure for their physical well-being — and sometimes, all the antihistamine in the world can’t prevent an allergic reaction, sometimes one even has an allergy to allergy meds. While one cannot deny the higher concentration of pollutants in urban areas, recent studies now suggest that the biggest contributor to both urban congestion and local pollution is actually people commuting from the suburbs. In large metropolitan cities, a proportionately very high percentage of people use public transportation as their primary mode of travel, when compared to that percentage in smaller towns (which seldom even have decent, if any public transportation), a majority of cars on the streets of Chicago at any one time are most likely to belong to people from the suburbs who’d rather ferry themselves in inside their little status-symbol-on-wheels rather than taking the Metra in from Aurora. If you want to reduce pollution, become a farmer who ventures out to the city a few times a month, or move to the city and get a transit pass.

As for spiritual well-being, a lot of urban spiritualists actually experience a spiritual unbalance in rural lands. Sometimes, this unbalance can be settled by merely entering a city.

FALLACY: Ancient cities were NOT “urban” by modern standards! Ancient cities were far more connected to the green lands around them!

FACT: The above statement could not be any more false. Ancient cities were typically loud, smelly, polluted, cramped, and hotbeds of criminal activity. Sound familiar? Heck, I just described 1960s Detroit. Sure, the technology wasn’t to the point it’s at today, so the ancient concept of industrialisation sure was different, but that’s the only real difference.

Furthermore, the idea that ancient cities were somehow so much more connected to the rural lands, if only for a source of food, might make sense in print at first, but if you really dig into the history, you’ll discover it’s also false. Food shortages in Rome were relatively common compared to food shortages in even major cities just prior the Industrial Revolution. It was a common tactic of war for one city to cut off trade routes to the city they were battling with, specifically to cause a food shortage for civilians and manipulate the politics to their favour. If there was even some deep physical connection between the cities and the farmlands back then, then how was it so relatively easy to cause famine in the cities? To say things like the above statement is simply nothing more than romantic notions about the relative spiritual “purity” of ancient people compared those of us in the modern age based on false ideas and pure ignorance of ancient realities.

Yes, there is a clear emotional disconnect between the average Amerikan city and its source of food —your typical Amerikan store-bought meats are faceless, limbless, and clothed in styrofoam and clingfilm, but the shelf life of meats being what they are, I can guarantee you that not a single major U$ city is more than a couple hours drive (tops) from a slaughterhouse, and even New York City still has an operable meat-packing district. The biggest physical disconnect that modern people have from their food source is basically all the cheap imported grains and produce, which have longer shelf-lives, especially if it’s things that can be packed in tins and airtight jars, dried, or otherwise preserved for longer shelf-life.

That said, the average middle class Greek or Roman had at least one slave doing their shopping —at ancient Rome’s peak, it’s said that there were more slaves than freepersons within the city limits— so there was still a clear physical disconnect between one and one’s food —if one was free, and even if not, there was a political disconnect. And even the ancient urban freeperson working-class still tended to pay some-one else to do the dirty work of slaughtering and feathering chickens, tilling and harvesting beans and barley, and so on.

If you break down the basics of ancient versus modern realities, is there really miles of disconnect between the city and the countryside now, in comparison to then, or is it more like only a few steps? And how important are those steps, really? I’d wager if the average rural pagan truly believed those steps were all that important, there would be far more pagan homesteaders than there currently are now —and even then I’d still wager that some would be (and are!) urban spiritual.

FALLACY: There is no historic or mythological basis for urban spirituality. Everybody knows that!

FACT: Wrong! Fortunately, I don’t see or hear this one all that much, because even the most cursory skimming of any relevant text will show that there are, indeed, deities and spirits that the ancients believed were connected to their cities, there were religious festivals that were connected to the cities, and even Pan, the most rustic of the rustic gods, was believed to inhabit the alleyways of ancient Athens.

FALLACY: There’s no such thing as urban paganism! LOL! Everybody knows that “pagan” means “nature religions”!

FACT: First off, I get this more often than some people are likely to believe —both explicitly and implicitly. The fact of the matter is, anthropologists tend to refer to any pre-Christian and / or polytheistic or animistic religion as “pagan” —including the religions practised in large, nay metropolitan ancient Mediterranean cities including Athens, Alexandria, and Rome, so clearly from an anthropological sense, there is such a thing as “urban paganism”. Furthermore, there is even “urban paganism” in a modern sense, though it is a very small niche market of pagan publishing. I only know of THREE “general neo-poagan” books ever published that relate specifically to urban spirituality and practise: The Urban Pagan: Magical Living in a 9-to-5 World by Patricia Telesco, City Magick: Spells, Rituals, and Symbols for the Urban Witch by Christopher Penczak, and The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle by Raven Kaldera & Tannin Schwartzstein; the first of these is out-of-print, the last of these is so heavily steeped with an unapolgetic bias toward rural spirituality that I cannot, in good consciousness, recommend it because it celebrates many of the false beliefs illustrated above (and not to mention many others unrelated specifically to urban spirituality). I haven’t yet read City Magick, now in its second edition, but I hope it’s at least slightly better than Urban Primitive, with regards to its portrayal of urban spirituality —even if the rest of it is, as the sole one-star reviewer on Amazon states, “New Age pot-pourri rubbish”. It’s also been so long since I’ve read Telesco’s book, and I lack my own copy for reference, that I simply cannot give it a fair assessment —though, for what it’s worth, I remember it being somewhat better than Kaldera and Schwartzstein’s implicitly impugning portrayal of urban spirituality. Compare this to the literally dozens and dozens of books about “pagan gardening” and “finding the divine in the woods” and how much even the most ostensibly generalised neo-pagan manuals will dedicate to hailing the rustic and woodland divine to the point of practically ignoring the divine urban.

FALLACY: There is no need for urban spiritualists to feel so left out —the pagan community is very open-minded and welcoming to ALL!

FACT: The reasons for the urban spiritual market being so small and still so biased toward rustic spirituality are clear to any pagan or polytheist with a sense of history and a well-rounded lived reality: The neo-pagan movement really hasn’t moved past its initial 19th Century Romanticism that disproportionately celebrates the countryside and “getting back to nature”. As such, there is very much a self-enforced standard in the modern neo-pagan community of “city = BAD!!!! >:-( country = Good! :-)” —and nearly every pagan / polytheist I’ve personally met, self included, who has dared to proudly declare their lived reality of completely lacking any spiritual connection to the rustic lands has voiced being blamed for all manner of societal ills that really have nothing to do with urban life (including things that even rural people are no strangers to, like racism or sexism and war), being told one’s spirituality realities are false, and sometimes simply being clearly actively ostracised from the local community (sometimes in kinder ways than in others). While many pagans insist that they’re open-minded when the reality is that there is really very little open-mindedness when it comes to urban spirituality. While many pagans may have a justifiable complaint that too many outside the pagan and polytheist community assume we’re all barefoot hippies dancing in the woods, there is precious little done to combat that self-perpetuating stereotype: Just go to pretty much any pagan Internet forum, and the header image is more likely to be some kind of wooded glen or “green and fertile valley” than it is to be some benign and unassuming symbol (though these are often-enough incorporated into the image). Go to any given pagan or polytheist blog, and you’re very likely to see something similar.

If those who most-easily fill a spiritual void in an urban place rather than in the countryside feel like there’s little to no place for them in the pagan community, then what reasoning is there to assume that this is a baseless assumption rather than an expression of one’s own lived reality? It’s not like there’s a shortage of good and excellent guides to pagan camping in favour of pages about “pagan couch-surfing” or “pagan squatting”. It’s not like the celebrated image of the pagan community is a priest at the immense library of the metropolitan ancient Alexandria, or Diogenes living on the streets of Athens rather than a kindly-eyed witch in a cottage in the woods, or a stag-horned God in repose in a shaded part of the forest. It’s not like the worldwide community of self-identified pagans has done much, if anything meaningful to broaden its image from “nature-worshipping neo-romanticists” to “all manner of pre-Christian polytheism from erudite urban spirituality to nature-sensitive rustic worshippers”.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Why “Queer”, but not “Pagan”?

I love etymology, and this leads me to often thinking of the words I use very carefully before using them. I don’t call heterosexual “straight” by default, because “straight” in this use does not simply mean heterosexual: It means “normal”, “not a criminal”, “sober”, and it evolved from criminal and drug subcultures. As homosexuality is no longer criminalised in the First World, to call heterosexuals “straight” is to reinforce homophobia, I dare say it is even an act of homophobia.

…but I digress.

First off, while I dislike the term “pagan” based on a loaded etymology, and I absolutely do not feel like it is the best word to describe my religion, I do occasionally resign to it out of convenience and knowing full well that even though it may be one of those instances where it’s simply easier than going on a long discussion I don’t want to be in (or I would have made that discussion happen and not said “I’m pagan”), I do so with the knowledge that I’m inviting in all of these assumptions people are going to make about me that are, by and large, not an accurate way to describe me or my religion at all.

While there is certainly a reinforcing etymology to these assumptions of others’, the major reason for these assumptions is the self-reinforcing stereotyping that runs rampant in the community of self-identified pagans. The fact of the matter is, the “mainstream” idea that pagans are nature-worshipping hippies dancing barefoot in the woods is because an overwhelming majority of self-identified pagans fit that description, and tend to be a bit less-than-accepting of anybody under the “pagan umbrella” who doesn’t fit that description. This is the primary reason for such a rift between the pagan community and polytheists of the recon method: A majority of “recons” are urban or at least non-rural in that they neither naturally feel nor feel any desire to need an especial spiritual connection with the rustic or even wild lands to properly practise their religion, whose who may identify as urban tend to have an especially spiritual connection to cities. A lot of “recons” are centrist, conservative, or are urban liberals who recognise that sustainable living is that of either the farm or the metropolis, the suburbs where many self-identified “pagans” actually live being an abomination.

I definitely see an emerging “post-reconstructionism” movement in the polytheist community, wherein people realise that the reconstructionist method, when applied strictly, can be limiting and allow for little (if anything) in the way of spirituality in tune with modern realities, but that does not necessarily mean that the community of self-identified “pagans” is necessarily going to be the best place for such people, especially those of us who neither have nor want nor need to have a deep spiritual void filled with the kind of minor (or major) woo that can only be found tilling the land of a homestead farm or deep in the woods and miles from civilisation.

Personally? I’ve had times where I’ve tried to get that, but I’m physically, emotionally, and spiritually allergic to the woods. One cannot make that connection happen if it’s not meant to, no matter how much one tries, no matter how much one has to fill oneself with antihistamine just to be clear-headed enough to not only be perceptive of that connection, if it’s to come, but make sure it’s meaningful. I mean, who knows? For all I know, maybe all that Zyrtec and Zatador drops and nasal sprays and various creams block that connection —but if being without all that antihistamine makes it hard to breathe in a rural place, then maybe I’m just not meant to have that sort of connection to nature? Maybe I really am better off without it, and the Theoi are just fine with that?

…but some-one recently asked me why I liberally self-aply the term “Queer”, but not pagan —after all, these two words both have virtually the same histories! Well, except that they don’t.

No, really. They don’t.

The word “queer” comes from German (versus “paganus” coming from Latin), meaning “oblique, off-centre” and has a possible relation to “quer”, meaning “odd”. The first recorded use of “queer” relating to homosexuality only dates to 1922 after the word “queer” was introduced to English around 1500, when “paganus” was first adopted as a slur against non-Christians during the Holy Roman empire!

Then there’s the fact that, based on etymology alone, I’m very Queer. Even amongst the subcultures I’ve found myself at home in, I’ve never epitomised any of them: Too dark for most Mods, too polished and classic for most Goths, too erudite for most punks, and too modern and urban for the overwhelming majority of pagans and polytheists. Even as a gay man, well, I’m of TS history, which makes me the sort of potential sexual partner many other gay men want nothing to do with. As a man of TS hostory, I’m enough of an effete that most of them will still call me “ma’am”, even after told that’s inappropriate. How any of this makes me unstrange, unqueer, seems rather, well, queer to me. If any-one has a right to re-claim “queer” from a status of slur (and a relatively new one —the term was rather benign prior to it’s GBLT associations), I think I can objectively say that I sure as hell do.

On the other hand, what right do I have to “pagan”? If this is a term that evolved from the Latin equivalent of “redneck” or “hillbilly” and now possesses a baggage that includes a highly implict and (very easily argued) enforced community meaning of “nature-worshipping”, then no, it doesn’t fit me in the slightest. A Google Image search for “pagan” or a perusal of Wikipedia’s article on Neopaganism and its contemporary photos reveals how deeply “nature religion” is synonymous with the contemporary pagan community, to the point that “urban paganism” is such a tiny niche market that only three books have ever been published on the suvject —one currently out-of-print (Patricia Telesco’s The Urban Pagan), and one is so lousy with a strong and unapologetic rural bias that, as I know my own spiritual realities, it’s riddled with fallacious misinformation (pretty much the entire Introduction to R. Kaldera & T. Schwartzstein’s The Urban Primitive is a biased screed hailing the woodlands and damning the urban lands as a bringer of doom and ailments both physical and spiritual, though it gets a little better, it’s not by much). I don’t even think the pagan community thinks they’re being as unwelcoming and prejudiced as, in practise, they really are, but when the reality of this not merely ostensible, but blatant and celebrated bias is something that one must deal with at every venture into the “pagan community”, hoping to touch based with co-religionists, other devotees of one’s patron, and those walking an otherwise similar spiritual path, then not only is it apparent that one’s spirituality is regarded as “queer and perverse” in the pre1922 sense, but also one that’s regarded as lesser and hollow, false and silly, then yes, I think I can say that I don’t have any incentive to try and rationalise any claim to the term “pagan”, as it’s being made abundantly clear that I only barely qualify —like the cisgender gay man who likes to make it perfectly clear that he’s normal, and not one of those icky fem gays or trannies, that he was in a fraternity in uni and captain of the gridiron team, and his name is Cleancut McNormaldude and just happens to be somehow “queer”. R~i~g~h~t…..

In fact, I roll my eyes at Cleancut McNormaldude attempting to claim he’s “queer” rather than “gay“, if not “homosexual” or “bisexual” are words he feels suit him, because that’s not a word that gives any accurate nuances that describe him outside of only one of the implied meanings, at best, that he’s practically watered-down the meaning of “queer” to strip it of all nuance and render it nothing more than a meaningless synonym.

When one truly loves vocabulary, it becomes apparent that even words that seem synonymous have these nuances that make their meanings truly different, even if in seemingly minor ways. These numances are important, as any Paganism & Witchcraft 101 book worth the paper they’re printed on have said before me. To say “crone” when “hag” is best can render a ritual or spell useless or change it completely, so why call myself “pagan” when it carries with it not only an etymology but a common, every-day use that implies so many things that I am not and only one thing that I am (polytheist, practising a pre-Christian religion)? Why should I not use Queer when it can easily cover all sorts of nuances about my personality and character in addition to my sexual predilections?

If you’re going to say anything at all, say it the best way that you can.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

30 Day Paganism Meme: Day 24 ~ Personal aesthetics and Hellenismos

How do I answer this?

Personally, I can’t think of any sort of aesthetics that would be prohibited by any sort of traditional polytheism. Hell, one of my friends is a Hindu and has been gravitating toward the Horrorcore scene, and while I think most of the fans of that scene look like they just rolled out of bed, you know, I can’t think of anything from what I know of Hindu religions, much less Hellenic polytheistic religions, that would outright prohibit dressing like an evil clown and spraying your friends with soda.

Granted, that’s not to say that it’s all “anything goes”, especially when one is of especial cultus to gods whose domain includes aesthetic arts. I generally put time and effort into my own appearance — even my “wearing rags to do yard work” look isn’t complete until I’ve taken a light shower, washed my face (including toner and moisturiser), lip balm, sunblock, my hair tied back, and a handkerchief to dab (never wipe) sweat — and expect any-one practising a traditional Hellenic polytheism, and so generally understanding of ancient Hellenic ideals, to do so, as well. I don’t expect such others to dress in any of the same ways I do, but I do expect to notice at least some minimum amount of effort toward an intentional appearance, at least most of the time. That appearance can be “soccer mom” or “misanthropic quasi-goth” or anything outside or in-between.

I’ve always been an aesthete and quite a dandy. As a little kid, I delighted in getting “dressed up” and would think of any excuse to do so. When I switched to a state junior high and high school, I became one of those kids who went nuts now that I didn’t have to wear a school uniform, in spite of the efforts of nearly every adult in my life at the time begging with me to knock it off with the flamboyance — apparently, I’d have “plenty of time” to look like Marc Bolan after I became an adult.

While I’m hard pressed to instantaneously recognise any explicit relationship between my Mod dandyism and Hellenismos, if I think about it just a little, it really all makes perfect sense:

*Beau Brummel, often regarded as the archetypical dandy, caused a sensation when he abandoned the powdered wig (long before a tax on the powder caused it to fall out of fashion) and decided to wear his natural hair cut “à la Brutus” — calling to mind images of ancient Rome.
*Lord Byron fought for Greek independence
*Oscar Wilde praised the ancient Hellenes on all levels.
*Colin MacInnes’ novel Absolute Beginners, long-influential in the Mod subculture includes a supporting character referred to only as “The Fabulous Hoplite” and described as have a “Caesarian” haircut, which remains somewhat popular in Mod circles.

The Hellenic influence on Dandy subcultures has always existed, and though the clothing often associated is a far cry with the reality of ancient painted stoneworks, it’s easily reasoned that the “fabulous simplicity” of the now-white statuary and columned temples was an influence on the lines and daring use of solid colours from Beau Brummel to Oscar Wilde to Pete Meaden.

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About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.