Saturday, May 26, 2012

K is for Karma

aka "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Today I am going to talk about karma, and then I am going to talk about what the Western world thinks karma is.
Karma is a Dharmic concept. It is very much tied into Hindu and Buddhist religions and the cultures from which they sprang, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense when removed from its contexts and transplanted into Western New-Ageism. Essentially, the term has been appropriated to apply to some sort of "what you give out comes back to you" concept, which is different from what karma actually is - or at least is a massive simplification that destroys the essence of the concept.

I was going to write all this shit about what karma is and isn't, but you know what? I actually know bugger all about karma. And I know bugger all about karma because I am not massively interested in Dharmic religions and as such, I am pretty uninformed about them. And because I am uninformed about them, I find it somewhat difficult to process all the information about karma. Because karma is fundamentally related to Dharma. So you should go read this and this and this and read the Vedas and books by scholars and understand what karma means in context, and to how all the different sects of Hinduism and Buddhism and so on relate to the term, before you nick off with it to mean just "what goes around comes around". OK? OK. Karma as a concept is rich and deep and involved and reducing it down and removing it from context in such a way that is done in some branches of Neo-Paganism is bad form. It is embarrassing. It reflects poorly on the religious umbrella that is Neo-Paganism. Everyone will think we are dicks. There's that term "the Law of Return"; use that instead.

Now, moving on, let's talk more about the new-age, Western idea of what karma is. I think it is bollocks.

I don't believe in "what you give out comes back to you". I can't look at the world, and see multi-millionaires exploiting thousands of people and lying in order to maintain an income most of us couldn't spend in a lifetime, and think "hey, the world is fair, people do Bad Things and Bad Things Happen to them". I can't look at FOX news, who gets the highest ratings for a 24-hour news channel in the US and bundles of cash, and think "the world is fair". The world is not fair. The entire basis of how everything works - how we got here via evolution etc - depends on the world not being fair. The young are killed because they're vulnerable. The weak bow to the strong. Success depends on out-competing others of your species for resources and for mates. It depends on crushing the less fortunate beneath your boot. Of course, we are social animals. We have affection for one another. As a young genus we helped and protected our weaker friends. On the other hand, put us in a situation with weaker enemies and we will destroy them and take their stuff. That's not fair. It's dickish and unfortunate. But that's how we functioned. Now we realised that it is dickish and unfortunate, and we try to mitigate these things in ourselves (at least, many of us do. Turns out a lot of people are quite happy being dickish). But not-being-a-dick - trying to make society fair and just - doesn't make the world fair or just. We want it to, because we want to assure ourselves that our actions will keep terrible things from happening. But they don't. Sometimes, terrible things happen. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.

Innocent people are convicted of horrible crimes and then executed. Not fair. The Pope covered up the rape of children, and he sits, adored by millions, on a throne of gold. Not fair. Dick Cheney got a new heart, meaning not only that some other poor bastard didn't, but that someone died in order for the organ to be donated. Not fair. Chevron polluted the Amazon rainforest for years (among other terrible things), yet they continue to operate quite happily as a company and to make good profits. Not fair. Dan Harmon was fired from Community. Not fair. I look at the world and I don't see much that is fair. And overall I am OK with that; I don't expect the universe to sort that shit out for me. The world doesn't operate according to my own beliefs on what is "good" and what is "bad".

For us as humans the important thing is more how we are perceived by others, and that's related to whether we are honourable and trustworthy. You act like a jerk, and people will perceive you as a jerk, and respond accordingly. In a sense this is "what you give out you get back", but not governed by some universal system, just by others responding to you favourably or unfavourably depending on your actions. Unfortunately, how people perceive and respond to us is also related to whether we are black or white, straight or gay, male or female, short, well-dressed, well-endowed, goth, hipster, Muslim, Pagan, tattooed, mentally ill. And often people will respond in a way that is unfair. Sometimes to the point of genocide. As humans (well, OK, not all humans, turns out some people want to preserve their privilege) we want it to be fair, and we work towards making it more fair, or as fair as we can. But the universe doesn't give a shit about whether things are fair. There is no system of cosmic justice making sure Steve Jobs got cancer because his products are made by Chinese sweat shops. And honestly (as much as I can't stand Apple as a company) the whole concept of any bad thing happening to you being just and deserved is sort of twisted. Those of us who think that way only do so because they don't want these bad things to happen to them, and they're hanging their hope on the victim actually deserving blame.... because if this could happen to anyone, then it could happen to you.

Personally, I just find it difficult to believe in a Just World of any kind, given the number of rich, happy people who continue to get richer by actively exploiting others. And if there was a cosmic system of justice, we wouldn't need to come up with our own. I'm fine with other people believing in it; that's up to you. I am not going to assume you are a victim-blamer if you believe in it, or that you're not socially conscious. The "law of return" does contain elements of that for me, when I look at it, but that's not why I don't believe in it. I just don't see any evidence for it in the world around me. My credo is "Shit Happens". The thing that matters is how you deal with it when it does.

However, I loathe this tendency for some people to look at someone's actions and say "Don't worry, karma will get them" as if karma was their personal private police service, or their pitbull. Hey, you lovely and caring person, even if there is a system of cosmic justice, maybe this person you don't like isn't actually doing anything "wrong". Your personal concepts of "right" and "wrong" aren't necessarily in line with those of the cosmic justice system, and you could be the one lined up for some punishment. Telling people that their actions will result in bad karma - "Karma will get you" - is so fucking passive-aggressive. You get to threaten someone without actually taking any personal responsibility for doing so, so you feel like you retain the moral high-ground. Wipe that fucking smirk off your face because no one is swallowing that crap. If some sort of "law of return" (which is what you think karma is) actually exists, it isn't your servant, and surprise! you may get a spiritual whallop over the back of the head if it turned out being a passive-aggressive cuntrag is "bad karma". I know if I was in charge it fucking would be. In fact that would be the cardinal sin and the only thing actually punishable via Cosmic Justice.

(Actually maybe I will get a pitbull and name it Karma. Then I can hang up signs that say "If you trespass, Karma will bite your ass".* God I'm so witty.)

As for the Threefold Law, that's something else entirely. It seems to be something of a ritual contrivance, used in a Wiccan ritual for whatever reason; my belief is that, as with much of Wicca, you would need to be an initiate and to experience the ritual in question in order to make proper heads or tails of it. As such, I can't really make comment one way or the other. For what it's worth, the Wiccans I've come across don't seem to take it literally. So in a sense, I can't reject it as a concept... but as I'm not a Wiccan, nor does it have any relevance to me. It doesn't affect me so I ignore it. Doreen Valiente mentioned in an interview once that she didn't really understand the idea of there being one rule for witches and one rule for everyone else. It does seem a bit weird... is it meant to be just for energy work, or for anything a witch does? I'm not too familiar with it; I don't really bother because as I say I generally assume I won't understand it without the grounding of Wiccan initiation.

*Note: I have an American Staffy / Rottweiler cross and he is the biggest sook in the world. He is an absolute gem and I love him to bits. I think pitbulls are wonderful, loving dogs, some of whom have unfortunately been poorly cared-for - even specifically trained to be aggressive - resulting in violent animals and injuries to both humans and to other dogs. My comment was not meant to imply that I think pitbulls and their relatives are naturally violent animals. Blame the deed, not the breed. I oppose movements to eradicate pitbulls as a breed. Adopt a rescued pitbull or staffordshire terrier from your local shelter or SPCA today. This has been a public service announcement.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hey guys! Thanks for bearing with me. I am easing back into the blog and there should be a PBP post up come Friday. K this week, right? That's.... a little tricky.

So, I have two J posts that I'll get to at some point over the next month or so. I'll probably go with "Jotun" for one. Not really sure about the other.

Proper posts soon, I promise. Thanks for understanding!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sorry, I haven't written a thing this week. A PBP thing or whatever. I'll get on that at Some Stage. I don't know when. I'm working through some Stuff at the moment. Nothing bad really, just ... difficult. I'll be back with more Good Posts when I've sorted myself out a little more.

Monday, May 7, 2012

I is for Irminsul

OK, so. I was going to skip this week because I had no idea what to write about. I still sort of don't, so I'm going with Irminsul because it is quick and easy.

What is an Irminsul?

The Irminsul is a symbol of Germanic Paganism. It's a symbol of Germanic Paganism generally, and is used by many Heathens, but it's also specifically important to the Saxons and Continental Germanic Paganism. We know only so much about the Irminsul - we know it was tremendously sacred to the Saxons and a focal point of worship. They were erected in a few places, but there was one large one in particular destroyed by Charlemagne. We know it was a pillar, and may have been a tree trunk - although some may have been made of stone also. We strongly suspect it was a representation of Yggdrassil, and that it was probably related to Oðinn, or maybe Tyr. It's not as popular in jewellery as the Hammer, but you still find it here and there, and some people erect their own pillars in their places of worship. There are large ones erected as well, such as this magnificent one in Lower Saxony in Germany.

But it has a sort of secondary meaning, and that's of the destruction of our religion by Christian forces - and its rebirth.

I don't often go into that sort of thing, because for many Pagan cultures, the switch to Christianity was more of a slow process. It wasn't like Christianity sprang into existence and then went on a millennium-long, Europe-wide killing spree until everyone was Christian. It's not a simple thing. And early Christians were themselves persecuted. On top of this, there's a tendency to blame modern Christians for the actions of historical Christians, which I think is unfair and attempt to avoid. So in general, I don't go much into the conversions. Besides, many were not bloody. In Iceland, for example, the conversion of the country was largely bloodless and a matter of arbitration (though there was certainly pressure from Norway). Frith was preferable to civil war; a goði was elected to decide matters, he went off and spoke with the gods and the deal was made that the people could practice in private how they pleased, and records were in time made of the myths. Our faith was preserved as much as it was through this arbitration. Had it come to war, perhaps more would have been lost.

Anyway. Peaceful as it was in Iceland, at least to begin with, shit went down in Scandinavia (I'm looking at you, Olaf. And you, other Olaf. Not cool.), and further south in Germany. The Irminsul is a symbol of the bloodiness of some conversions, and the destruction of the old faith, because of its treatment by Charlemagne.

Charlemagne was a dick. He was very gung-ho about forcing everyone to convert. To him, his Christian mission was tied in with his military power; you either submitted to him and to baptism, by force if necessary, or he was determined to kill you all. All or nothing. And Charlemagne, in his efforts to destroy Heathen religion, cut down a huge and very sacred Irminsul. It was a religious spit in the face that the Vikings would remember when they dug up and destroyed altars in raids of churches and monasteries.* It was desecration. The tearing down of the Irminsul echoed the tearing down of many Heathen people, their deaths, their forced conversions, their suppression.

In thinking of the Irminsul as a symbol we cannot overlook the way this one was destroyed, or what that destruction itself symbolised. The Heathens did not build in stone; the sacred places do not stand as they do in Greece and Rome - not even in ruins. The closest we get are Stave churches, which, while undoubtedly beautiful and remarkable buildings, are not the sacred buildings of our faith. The Irminsul, at least for me, is like a reminder of all sacred places that were desecrated, destroyed, or lost. It's something I and many others wish we still had.

And in a way, it's like a representation of our tenacity. It says "you tried to destroy us, but we have come back", like a sapling growing from the stump of a great tree. It says "dare you to try it again". It says "we haven't forgotten". It's a reclaiming of the old faith, and it's a way of claiming that aspect of our history, as well. It was a symbol of Oðinn and Tyr, of Yggdrasil, of Heathen faith - and it still is, but it is now also a symbol of our ancestors, of our strength and pride, of the fall and rebirth of the Old Tradition.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Musings in the dark of the year

I observe a holiday around this time of year. On the... 5th of May, I believe it is this year, by the astronomical calendar. It is an important holiday for me (as perhaps you could guess from my posts on Crossroads and the Dead) and it was on this day many years ago that I first made a formal dedication. I have come to call it Old Year's Night, on the basis that really it has nothing to do with Samhain and it wouldn't be right for me to adopt the name. I feel very uncomfortable doing that, especially at the point I've reached now in my practice. It never felt entirely right, probably because I always had issues with the pronunciation. And that made me uncomfortable with it; it felt wrong to use a word I was so unfamiliar with as the name of my own holiday. And of course now I am older and wiser and more politically correct, ha, and look at it and think "my religion is not Celtic, that is not the right name for my holiday".

So, Old Year's Night, for a few interrelated reasons. It's the night of the year, in a sense, stretching from here until it begins to get lighter again at the end of June. For a lot of people, this is the time the new year begins, but for me it's the start of the old year ending. The new year won't start until the end of Yuletide.

Last year I stretched my observance over two nights: one for the dead, one for the Gods. It worked well, and I still have a candle left over from honouring the fallen on ANZAC day a week ago that I will burn again on Old Year's Night, and another for those I consider "family", in one way or another. Last year I honoured the dead first and the Gods second, but I might switch it around this year. I might honour the Gods first, and work in a sort of connect-with-death ritual as a part of that, and then honour the dead the next day. Honouring the dead never seems as sombre as it should do. There's a certain lack of skulliness. I'd like to get some dark in there somewhere at some point, and that may mean swapping the days around. At any rate I don't think it would hurt to experiment.

There's another holiday around this time, as well. Winternights. Last year I waited until the 20th, until I smelt Winter on the air, but perhaps I waited too long. I certainly felt that way at the time. I think this year I want to take a look at a possible Alfarblót along with my standard blót to Hel and to Oðinn. This will involve Research, so. We'll see what happens. I always tell Hel in rites that I want to know her better, and honour her more often, and then have some sort of mental lapse and forget about it.... until six months later when it's time to blót to her again. And then I feel guilty.

Here is an odd thing, readers. I have been looking around at images on Deviant Art with the themes that run through this holiday. In doing so, one thing that struck me was that there were a few people saying things like "happy Samhain". Banners reading "Merry Samhain", things like that. And it's so odd. This just isn't the sort of holiday where one is merry. It's like saying "happy ANZAC day". How can I be happy today, the luckless person thinks to herself. I pulled myself out of bed at sparrow's fart to stand in the cold weeping like a baby. I mean sure you get a day off but you spend it with a face covered in tears and a head full of snot after bawling like an idiot.

Anyway. I do not, as I said, observe Samhain. I observe a different holiday that falls at the same time. But it is still weird to me. Are there holidays called by their observers "Samhain" that are merry and happy? I had thought most were focused on death of some kind. Even the Celtic ones seem to be from the 11th century onwards; my understanding is that most Celtic Recons honour the dead particularly at this time. I have heard too that it is rather reserved within Wicca, not a time of "celebration" as such. Maybe there are merry holidays with the same name. It's still a strange thing for me to come across. The idea of a holiday of remembrance being a big joyful thing.

I mean... this is not a cheerful time. Even in our comfort, surrounded by the dead, warm and content, nevertheless it is a sombre time of year. That is why I like it, and enjoy it so much. But then I am odd; not everyone takes pleasure in the dark and sombre.

Oh well! This gets filed in the "how odd!" basket and on we move with our lives. I have more pretties to look at, and some exercise to do.

EDIT: I feel like I should add, in case I've offended anyone, that I don't think there's anything wrong with saying "happy Samhain" or whatever. I mean, it's an instinctive thing to do when a holiday comes around. I appreciate it when people say to me "happy Samhain" even though it's not my holiday's name and it's not particularly happy, because people mean me well when they say it. I find it a little peculiar, but other people celebrate different things to me and think about things in different ways, and there's nothing wrong with that. :)