Monday, 28 May 2012

Do we want a Goddess Religion?

There has been quite a flurry of postings on other blogs in response to a Catholic blogger's assertion of the notion that monotheism, and particularly Catholicism, represent the pinnacle of an evolutionary process.  In the course of his argument he invokes what he sees as ancient paganism to attack in order to attack "post-christians (whoever and whatever they may be). There are a couple of well-considered responses to the nonsense he writes here and here. I urge anyone interested to read them. My own major issue with the post in question is not the ignorance and arrogance that is displayed but the sheer misogyny therein.  He is certainly well in line with mainstream theology in that regard.

The post and the rebuttals, however, chimed in a way with something that I have been trying to write for a few days.  What are religions?  How do they emerge?  Is religion a "good thing"?  And following this, is what might be loosely called the Goddess Movement developing into a religion?

As a starting point for this, I would like to turn to Blake.

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
(William Blake: Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 4)

Here Blake seems to see a sort of evolutionary process going on - from poetry to priestcraft.  He does not, however, see this as a good thing but rather as something that appropriates for its own ends humanity's innate direct connection with the divine.  In so doing it eradicates the human individual's own ability to connect with the deity within her or himself.

I am not going to offer an exact definition of what constitutes a religion.  There does not seem to be a scholarly consensus on this, as can be seen, from an anthropological viewpoint here or a legal one here. Religion is, as it were, a broad church and can encompass everything from animism in New Guinea to Zen to the Quakers to the Catholics, from the Vatican through Mecca to Salt Lake City and every station in between.  Many aspects of religion appear also in nominally atheistic regimes such as the Soviet Union or today's North Korea.  A religion seems to need a shared communal vision and that vision is often, but by no means always,  guided or controlled by some central authority.  Very often, in literate societies, there is a set of sacred texts which are referenced in which the transcendental is somehow codified and the means of access to it are laid out.  In those religions with sacred texts there has developed a class of people whose task it is to communicate the meanings of the texts to those who cannot spare the time or have no ability or have no interest in doing so for themselves.

As a species we need social interaction.  We need  spaces in which we can congregate together with those we consider to hold certain values in common, whether they be the gospels or a certain football club.   Religious ceremony meets such needs.  My father once described his ultimate spiritual experience to me as standing in Cardiff Arms Park watching Wales thrash England at Rugby.  He was not being ironic.  He meant it.  I must confess to having experienced a very faint echo of this in the last Six Nations contest as the Grand Slam was achieved.  (For non-UK readers, the Six Nations are Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, France and Italy and the Grand Slam is a victory against all).  This is despite an aversion to all other team sports.  Religion, particularly in the home, is infectious.

For all practical purposes sport is not a religion, however. It does not claim for itself any sort of authority or control over the day to day life of its adherents.   The off-side rule, for example, applies only on the pitch and has no relevance elsewhere.  Once the match is over, the beer is drunk and both the players and spectators go home, either elated or chastened. Once home, their life is guided by whatever they hold to be their religious, or secular, values.

For the sake of argument, then, I would suggest that religions as we know them in  the West share certain characteristics: they are expressed communally,  they promote a set of values and behaviours, they have sacred texts, they have a revered founder and they have a belief in a reality different from the current one.  There is also a liturgical element: a set of activities designed to bring the participant into the fight frame of mind to experience .  Under this set of criteria we can include Marxism and Buddhism, which do not have as their basis a belief in any deity beyond History in the former and Dharma in the latter. 

If the above is accepted as a working definition then it is clear that the Goddess movement as it stands today is not a religion.  Yet.  I fear, however, that it could become so.

My journey to Goddess was one of individual exploration and some revelation.  Dreams and synchronicities guided some of it and some was a deliberate search for meaning based in those individual, unmediated, experiences.  The experiences came first and the reading and the explorations were undertaken in order to give some sort of context and coherence to them.  It seemed to me that the books did not give me new information but served as a reminder of what I already  I knew but had forgotten.  Gradually, I have built a sort of system that meets my needs and understanding.  I have, in effect, told stories to myself.  This is what human beings do - we need narratives in order to give our lives context and coherence.  The story, moreover, changes over time. For as long as my life continues, I expect and hope the story to be edited and re-edited in order to fit each new situation I meet.

For this reason, I have always been reluctant to write.  For, once written, words take on a life of their own.  They persist long after the author has moved on.  They are, for me, a snapshot - albeit often blurred - of a particular moment in my thought.  Thoughts are temporary, but the written word has a permanence determined only by the length of time that there are readers reading it. Elsewhere on this blog, there are words that today do not hold true for me, even though they did then.  I am, in that sense, inconsistent and I hope that I will always remain so.  Whatever I may write it is nothing other than a story -contingent on time and space.  Whatever it may contain, it contains no eternal and universal Truth.

Not that my words have any great currency.  My stats show that my readership is very small.  There was a time when this would have discouraged me.  But it does so  no longer.  The blog serves the purpose of allowing me to formulate my thoughts and you, dear reader, are a means towards that end.  I am striving to a greater understanding and this is one aspect of this.  My book, when it is written, is likewise probable to have a very limited readership.  This again, apart from the lack of the boost I would get to my ego, is no real problem and will not stop me from continuing.

For the book will be one among many.  Just as this blog is.  When I first started to search for Goddess, books that I could read were rare and I pounced upon them as I would the finest jewels.  Now there are many, some excellent, many good, many indifferent and some downright bad.  Where my own offerings stand in that spectrum I have no idea.  It is, anyway, a mere matter of taste.

What I fear is that one or two books among the excellent and good may, for future generations, come to be seen as scripture.  This is not the intent of any of the writers who would be horrified, were they alive, to see that this had happened.  Nevertheless, our culture's reverence for the written word may bring it about and things within them repeated as articles of faith, to be defended against all criticism.  An example of this is the figure of nine million women dead in the Burning Times. This figure is clearly highly inflated - such a death toll of women in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, given the populations of the time, would have left an obvious trace in the record and yet there is absolutely no evidence for it.  The anger with which I  have sometimes been met when I ventured to question the figure is evidence of the beginning of an orthodoxy,  Furthermore, the Inquisition was concerned with heresy and the eradication of Islam and Judaism, not witchcraft - which was usually dealt with by the civil authority, albeit with input from the clergy. 

Thus the Burning Times are like the Exodus or the Davidic and Solomonic Kingdom.  There may be some historical basis for them but the details are exagerrated.   Many, possibly hundreds of thousands of,  witches were tortured and executed - some by burning.  But not 9,000,000.  I am not sure where and when this figure first appeared but I suspect that its currency has much to do with the figure of 6,000,000 Jews killed in the holocaust.  And it has made for a very good song.

All of which is not to say that the old pagan religions of Europe did not suffer persecution.  They did. But so did the Cathars and the Templars, Jews, Muslims and Gypsies, and Protestants by Catholics and vice-versa.  The war was not focused on pagan practitioners but on all who were perceived as a threat by Authority, be it temporal or spiritual.  Plus, they were a useful scapegoat in times of public distress.

Likewise, there is no independent evidence of an organised continuity of belief from pre-Christian times.  There was, rather, an accommodation in most instances between the Church and indigenous beliefs and practices - with the old goddesses and gods being canonised as Christian saints and local customs being honoured as Christian celebration.  Some indeed may have been aware of the co-option but the veneer of Christianity was intact.  Intact, that is, until the Reformation when the new book-based theology took precedence.  It was during the tumult that followed Luther that the witch hunts reached their peak, with Protestants being more alert to a perceived pagan threat and, if anything, more  zealous in applying the text "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live".

It is very useful for a religion to have some sort of founding myth.  Islam has Mohammed being visited by an angel.  Similarly with Joseph Smith and Mormonism.  Jesus was born of a virgin and rose again from the dead.  Siddhartha Gotama, having been shielded from birth from the sight of anyone suffering, left his royal palace and after many years became Buddha.  The Burning Times serve many in this fashion.

What I believe is happening today, with the new awareness of Goddess, is not a reawakening of an old repressed religion, but the birth of something entirely new.  It is, of course, informed by the past.  We can, without necessarily claiming them as co-religionists, honour all those who refused to compromise their integrity by bowing the knee to authority, even if they were Jesuit priests in Early Modern Britain.  We can look back at the beliefs and practices of Classical Greece or further, as I do, ancient Mesopotamia.  We can look to the insights of such as Gimbutas and Mellart as to the prehistoric eras, without denying that they could have been in error in many places.  For they are human.

What we gain from our ancestors and modern scholarship is, for me, the distinct probability that things have not always been as they are today.  That there is another way of relating to the divine and to each other.  They give us hints as to how we can relate remote experience to our present situation and build on firmer foundations.

What we must not do, I feel, is to cease from questioning Authority, even if it is our own.  Each individual will, and must, have a different relationship with Goddess and no-one should can prescribe how this must be.  For a long time, I practiced as priest and teacher but have now ceased to do so. I am uncertain that such a position is necessary.  I may take it up again or I may not.  That is open.  But I cannot do so in the way I did before.

However, whatever we may call it, it is essential to avoid appropriating what Blake termed the poetic stories.  They must remain just that, stories.  What each individual takes from the stories is up to them.  I read them one way, and you read them another, whereas a third sees things within them that neither of us has seen.  What I love about Goddess is diversity.  However, we are already seeing temples being opened,  including the one I was very closely associated with for several years, and the inevitable result has been a development of liturgical form.  This may be necessary as the movement grows but it presents a danger.  Once a ceremony has been written down, it may begin to be repeated even when the original ceremony was devised in response to a very particular set of circumstances that no longer apply.

Likewise a book may present a particular individual's way of relating to Goddess, but those who read may well try to emulate the exact devotional forms of the author.  Thus priestesshood becomes entrenched in people's minds and we may well begin to believe that the goddess ordered such things.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Garden of Love

Just to follow on from the last few posts:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

William Blake (1757-1827)

No comment from me is necessary

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A tale of two vulvas

In the piece from Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great) that I posted yesterday this curious sentence stands out:
Woman is strictly speaking not cleverer but slyer (more cunning) than man. Cleverness sounds like something good, slyness sounds like something evil.  thus in evil and perverse things woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man.
Just what is lying underneath this statement?  The only thing that could have prompted it is a desire to refute the suggestion that women are cleverer than men.  He would not have bothered to do so unless there were  contention over the matter and that there were some people who asserted female intellectual superiority.  Such apparent superiority is, however, he explains due to a confusion in categories.  Women's intelligence is of a different nature to men's due to a superfluity of water. Albert was of the strong, Aristotelian, position women were the result of a failure in intrauterine development and therefore imperfect men.  They were, as he says, "misbegotten". As they are imperfect it is very difficult if not impossible for them to acquire true intelligence.  Whereas they might appear to be intelligent, this appearance is deceptive. It is a diabolical imitation of the true glory of the intellect, driven by emotion rather than reason.  It is cunning.  Like a fox.  A foxy lady.  The connection between cunning and women still pertains to this day

Although there may be no basis for claim made by Barbara G Walker and many others that there is an etymological connection between "cunning" and "cunt" the similarity in sound has led to many puns such as this from Antony and Cleopatra:
ENOBARBUS: ...There's mettle in death which commits some loving act upon her, she [Cleopatra] has such celerity in dying.ANTONY: She is cunning past man's thought.
Here the pun is double, depending on the secondary meaning of "dying" as "having an orgasm".  In other words, Cleopatra's orgasms surpass all male imagining.  (There remains, however, the initial meaning; that Cleopatra possessed a mental ability that was way beyond man's use of reason).  Albert was, of course, writing in Latin, where to the best of my knowledge the pun does not apply.  However, we still speak of the fox as being cunning and still speak of women as "foxes".  Cunning, be it linguistically connected with the cunt or not, is still associated with the human being who owns it.

Women, according to Albert, are like, Cleopatra, sexually curious and demanding. They fantasize of threesomes. They are inconstant. Perhaps the most famous formulation of this idea comes in the Malleus Maleficarum which states that "all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable". Kramer was certainly not the first to say this; all the weight of Catholic tradition agreed with him. Women embody lust and must therefore be shunned.

It is clear from the existence of this passage, however, that there was a counter-discourse. Some among his intended readership must be of the opinion that women are cleverer than men. He is not, after all, writing for women but for men. He is, above all, addressing a church in the middle of a struggle to impose universal priestly celibacy. Although such celibacy had been the ideal proclaimed by popes for a long time, many of the clergy were still resistant to it, although "wives" had now been degraded to the status of "concubines". (It is worth noting here that whenever the drive towards clerical celibacy was successful, the erstwhile partners of the priests - be they regarded wives or concubines - often became the property of the Bishop and were many times sold on into further slavery - a really good incentive for a Bishop to be zealous!)  Instiling the belief that a woman's seeming intelligence is nothing other than diabolical cunning was maybe, in part a propaganda attempt to persuade reluctant clerics that they must surely shun them for fear of being led into perdition. 

There is also the danger that some, like Peter Abelard a century before, may enter a relationship that is both sexual and intellectual. All his readers undoubtedly would have been all too aware of the results of Abelard's love of Heloise, his castration. A salutory warning from history is thus reinforced with the reminder that women have no intellectual pretensions worthy of the name. Where Hildegard of Bingen stood in Albert's estimation I do not know but assume she had the status of honorary man. For she was, like Mary, untainted by the sins of the flesh.

The same cannot be said for Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Her Prologue in The Canterbury Tales depicts her as one who was both sexually immoral and one who challenged the validity of the clerical notion of morality. How can, she asks, a celibate clergy speak about marriage? Her experience is a far better qualification:
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve,

A very rough and ready prose translation is :
Experience, even if there were no Authority in the world, gives me the right to speak about the woes of marriage. For, sirs, since I was twelve-years-old, I have, thanks to God who lives in eternity, had five husbands at the church door.

She then, however, with typical Chaucerian irony, cites biblical precedence for her apparent immorality. The wedding at Cana is referenced; as is the Samaritan woman at the well. She asks questions about them and their relevance to her own particular situation as a sexually active woman.
I do not want to go too much into Chaucer here. There is simply too much to write and will need to be the subject of another post. I include it here to show that the attitude to women articulated by Albert was a still being challenged actively enough for the challenge to be satirised by Chaucer nearly two centuries after Albert's death.

The conflict articulated by the Wife of Bath is very much the conflict between theory and practice. Male celibates can, by definition, only speak in theoretical terms whereas, for her, it is a living reality. From very early in Christian history a theory of sexuality was developed that had its base in a neurotic rejection of the body and its pleasures, and thus of women, that is totally at odds with the Jesus described in the gospels No matter how they have thundered in the pulpits, their body-hating, woman-hating, rhetoric has failed to succeed. Human beings are simply not built that way. 

And what is most ironic is that, in orthodox theology, a central matter of faith is the condition of a woman's genitals. Inanna's vulva was celebrated as a source of pleasure and wonder. Mary's is celebrated as unsullied by either.

Monday, 21 May 2012

A disease without a cure?

There are 33 people honoured by the Roman Catholic Church as Doctors. These include Gregory, Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Albert the Great.  They are considered pre-eminent in their exposition of the word of their god and as such have been hugely influential in the formulation of Christianity in the West.  Fundamental to their thought, and indivisible from their perceived sanctity is their fundamental misogyny.  I could fill many posts with quotations from them but will content myself with a passage from just one, the great Albert, who is highly praised to this day for his contributions to the development of scientific thought. His open and enquiring mind, however, did not lead him to challenge the prevailing opinion with regard to women.  On the contrary, he eloquently restated it:

Woman is less qualified [than man] for moral behaviour.  For the woman contains more liquid than the man, and it is a property of liquid to take things up easily and to hold on to them poorly.  liquids are easily moved, hence women are inconstant and curious.  When a woman has relations with a man, she would like, as much as possible, to be lying with another man at the same time.  Woman knows nothing of fidelity.  Believe me, if you give her your trust, you will be disappointed.  Trust an experienced teacher.  For this reason prudent men share their plans and actions least of all with their wives.  Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison with his.  Therefore she is unsure in herself.  What she herself cannot get, she seeks ot obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions.  And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.  If I could say what I know about women, the world would be astonished... Woman is strictly speaking not cleverer but slyer (more cunning) than man. Cleverness sounds like something good, slyness sounds like something evil.  thus in evil and perverse things woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man.  Her feelings drive woman towards every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good. (Quaestiones super de animalibus XV q 11)
 He does not quite state in this passage his qualifications for saying all this.  I assume he derived it from his predecessors in the Church and also from his studies of Aristotle.  He speaks of his vast knowledge of women, such that it would astonish the world (by which I suppose  he means men) but, as a celibate enclosed in a homosocial universe, his claim to expertise cannot be through observation or close contact.  Hardly scientific method or anything approaching it.

The man/god he claims to follow, however, did not seem to share his views.  He consorted freely and, for his time, scandalously with women.  It was to the sinful Samaritan woman that he is alleged to have proclaimed himself the Messiah and it was a woman who first witnessed the resurrection and became the Apostle to the Apostles.  It was a woman who anointed him.  It was women who funded his mission.

Yet the church that is led by a man who is claimed to be the Vicar of Christ and has, as such, declared as infallible his refusal to countenance the ordination of women.  And it is really impossible for him do so without a complete break from the writings of the warped minds of the woman-hating celibates who composed the texts that define intellectual tradition. The Vatican's war against the very notion of such ordination includes the threat, and in some cases, the use, of the nuclear option - excommunication.  And yet  the church has sheltered and enabled child-molesters within its ranks for untold generations.  No threat of excommunication there, just a quiet move to another parish.  Until, of course, they got found out by the secular society that they now so condemn.

Over the last couple of years I have read much of the Bible and come to a greater understanding of it.  It is impossible, even in the rantings of such as Jeremiah or the letters of Paul to find anything approaching the loathing and disgust  that is evidenced in the long history of Christianity.  Sometime in the first couple of centuries of its existence a deep sickness entered and it still rages.  When such as Albert are still held to be doctors, there is little hope of any cure.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

That's the way the money goes. Pop goes the weasel

I am not an economist.  I do not really understand in what ways the financial system differs from a gigantic casino.  Hedge funds, credit swaps etc are all beyond my ability to comprehend.  I do, however, understand one thing.  It is that, although individual players can win fortunes, the casino itself exists for the profit of its owners.  As do banks and other financial institutions.

For a long time, banks have portrayed themselves as public services which exist in order to help individuals and companies to manage their resources.  This is how they advertise.  They project an image of probity, sobriety and social responsibility.  Pillars of the community, they are lampooned as such in popular culture.  Captain Mainwaring in "Dad's Army" springs immediately into mind.  They have been portrayed as similar to the clergy, often comic but always reliable and honest. In fact, many if not most of the staff seen by the general public are, if not comic, reliable and honest.  They honestly want to help.  They provide the banks with the mask of respectability

The events of 2008, however, destroyed such illusions and revealed these institutions as the self-serving predators they are.  The benevolent public mask slipped to reveal the face of naked greed.  For a brief historical moment the curtain was lifted and the illusion broken.  After aggressively extending credit to all and sundry, their chickens had come to roost when to their feigned surprise it turned out that many could not pay them back.  I say "feigned" because this fact was known to them as it had to be known to any intelligent human being.  In fact, they had calculated that it did not really matter as they knew that, in the main, they would be rescued.  Lehmann Brothers and others fell, it is true, but Goldman Sachs and J P Morgan Chase and others survived despite the blatant illegality of many of their practices.  They were all "too big to fail".

So they didn't.  Using taxpayers' money, governments bailed them out.  In order to recoup the funds lost from the public treasury, austerity measures were introduced with the intent of reducing the funds available to the general public.  Under the euphemisms of rationalisation and reform, public services are cut, many public sector workers dismissed and benefits to the vulnerable and needy cut.  With unemployment rising, those who were previously receiving those benefits are exhorted to go out and find jobs which do not exist.  For it is, we are told, our fault that this has happened.  Our Welfare State is unsustainable and must be trimmed.  All the main parties agree with this. This agreement is not, in fact, surprising since all the main parties are drawn, at the high levels, from the same socio-economic class.  Some may be more critical of the free market capitalist system than others but they are all wedded to it.  They all profit from it. They can all, on leaving office, expect to be looked after by it.

Meanwhile Goldman Sachs, Morgan Chase et al have moved in force into the global commodity market, buying up the basic stuff we need to survive.  Having done that, prices start to soar.  Thus, while incomes fall prices rise.  People go hungry.  In Greece this is most acute, but the crisis will spread.  It is difficult to see how it could not as long as the rules of the game, which are heavily rigged in the casino owners' favour, are obeyed.

So what has happened to all the money paid in taxes by working people?  Where has it gone?  I do not know exactly but the figures produced by the Sunday Times Rich List give a clue.  In 2008 the thousand richest people in the UK owned £412.85 billion.  In 2009 this fell drastically to £258.235 billion.  In 2010, however it rose to £335.5 billion, in 2011 to £395.8 billion and this year has reached £414.26 billion - higher than before the recession started.  In September 2011, according to the Guardian, the total cost of the bail-out had reached £123.93 billion.  If this figure is added to the 2009 Rich List figure we reach a total of £382.165 billion, not much short of the 2011 figure.  Thus, these 1000 people have got collectively richer by an amount very close to that by which the rest of the nation has got progressively poorer.

Here we can see who the casino owners are.  And I will predict that, as the cuts deepen, so will their wealth increase.  Pointing this out is not the politics of envy it is simply the politics of reality.  Without positing some sinister conspiracy, whether hatched by lizard people, Masons or the Illuminati, it is clear that the system is designed by the owners to profit the owners.  This is what the science of economics, if science it be, as practised on a global scale by the disciples of Hayek and Friedman has led us to.  An impoverishment of the many in order to enrich a very, very few.

This system has its roots deep in the past.  Exploitation is the essence of patriarchy.  Without succumbing to the ever-present temptation of a dream to the return to the Golden Age of pre-civilisation, it is essential to refigure the way society is run.  The change will need to be be radical.  An economic system must be built in which co-operation rather than competition is the guiding principle.

The word "economy" is itself derived from the Greek word meaning "household management".  For too long it has mirrored the hierarchical patriarchal vision of the home, with power residing in the paterfamilias.  His role is now taken by the likes of Goldman Sachs, who instructs that the mess they make is cleaned up by the rest of the household. A new vision is needed and this must begin with a new vision of the relationship between women and men. And it is here that a look at our prehistory, at anthropology and evolutionary biology can give us insight.  Human beings have not always arranged their lives according the dominant values of our time.  In fact, human beings are not built that way.  We are social animals who happen to predate, not predators who happen to be social.

I do not know the way forward beyond the need to change minds.  I believe that the change is already underway.  Hampered as we may be at times by the patriarchal thinking we inherited, there is within the Goddess movement a desire and a will to challenge that thinking and move beyond, above and below it.  I will not see this change manifest on a global scale.  But I believe it will.  And this, despite the despair I see around, gives me hope.

PS:  Since posting the above, I have seen that Cameron's outgoing strategic adviser is calling for another £25 billion to be cut from the welfare budget.  If this is added to the sum of 2009 wealth plus the bail-out money it reaches around £407 billion.  This is even closer to the total wealth on the Rich List.  Another yacht or three, anyone?

PPS: The title of this post refers to a popular song.  "Popping the weasel" was the practice of pawning the tools of one's trade on a regular basis.  Anyone who lives in one of our cities cannot help but notice the recent increase in pawn shops and short-term loan money shops which charge the poor extortionate rates of interest.  At least one sector of the economy, the most nakedly predatory at that, is experiencing growth!  As it says so eloquently, albeit in another context, in the Bible:   

Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath 
(Matthew 25, 29) 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Of Inanna, sex and poetry

My posts since returning have been very much concerned with my own journey.  They have also been, as is clear from their titles, very much concerned with sex.  I cannot really speak for anyone else but there is, for me, a clear connection between my own condition of spiritual and emotional health and the way that my sexuality is integrated into the rest of my life.  And it is clear that, for most of my life, it has not been so.

I chose the quotation from the stories of Inanna that appears to the left of this post deliberately.  When I first read it, I experienced a sense of shock.  There was also awe.  What really struck was the matter-of-factness of the statement.  There is no echo of prurience or shame within it.  Only celebration.  It implies a state of being in which sex is a cause of pleasure and joy.  Of wonder.  That wonder is something that I have experienced often.   What has seemed to be the inevitable consequence, however, is that this wonder has later been eclipsed by a sense of regret and shame.  Somewhere deep within me arose the conviction that I had surrendered my spirituality in favour of the indulgence of my animal nature.  I felt that I had betrayed my rational impulses towards purity and clarity and succumbed to the primal urge to rut.  I had descended from the search for enlightenment or salvation and become as the beasts of the field.

This is the narrative that I had heard throughout my life, from the earliest remembering. It is the narrative that underpins our civilisation.  Propagated by priests and teachers and echoed in the more secular fields by news commentators and talk show hosts, it says that sexual desire must and should be hedged around by taboo and restriction.  Above all, it tells us that our only natural and healthy option is to embrace exclusive monogamy, preferably for life, all other sexual arrangements being contrary to our very being.  In living by this code we will maintain our position as human and not animal.

But we are, of course, animal.  We are apes.  No amount of theological and moral wrangling can alter that fact.  All of our cathedrals, concert halls and art galleries must and do provide facilities that enable us, like all other apes, to shit and piss. Indeed, we are born, as, I think Augustine said, between those two excretions.   No amount of fine clothes can shield us from our basic needs.  No amount of money can buy us freedom from the fatal end that comes with being animals. Neither can fame nor status.  Since Gilgamesh tried, and ultimately failed, to achieve immortality his quest has provided the template for myriad stories but still we die

It is perhaps our tragedy as a species that we try to deny these facts.  It is also, however, the source of much of our glory.  The quest for immortality, if only in the memory of those surviving, lies, I believe, beneath the creation of much beauty.   In our imaginings, we can grasp at the ineffable and deliver an approximation that lives on when we are gone. Or we can strive for worldly power and  ensure a name lives on.  Thus Augustus was deified and Hitler has become a cliche of evil.. Most, however, achieve only the fate of Ozymandias, and become simply a name surrounded by a desolation of forgetting.  For rulers rarely create - their forte is so often the attempted co-option of that human spirit which yearns for love, beauty and freedom so that it can be used to further their own desire for immortality.  Thus, only a statue remains and the man is forgotten.

Religion, at its most extreme in Christendom, has prospered through  the harnessing of that will for immortality and claiming it as its exclusive domain.  St Peter holds the keys to the kingdom and will determine who enters and who is cast into the outer darkness.  And the prime qualification is to deny and strive to overcome our animal nature.  Coupled with this and seemingly indivisible from it is the denigration of women.  For these men, and they are almost exclusively men, it is women who provide the constant reminder of who and what we really are.   The human  body, with its needs and drives, becomes the battleground on which salvation is decided.  The world, the flesh and the devil are always there awaiting the unwary soul and are always ready to bring it back into corporeality.  Religion thrives on opposition.  Its model is military discipline, always alert for attack and ready to defend.  And, as the sole vehicle of salvation, religion itself must be defended just as the individual soul must be.  Crusade and jihad are both divinely ordained. And, incidentally, those twentieth century children of Christianity, Nazism and Soviet Communism, have aped and in many ways surpassed their parent in this regard.

No church has been able to eradicate our human need to excrete.  It would be very difficult if not impossible for them, however, to imagine the perfect human, Jesus, straining to expel a turd.  But he must have done so, for he is certainly depicted as eating and drinking.  It is simply not thought about.  But it is conceivable that he could have fucked and a whole literary genre has been created around this notion.  The reaction of the churches to what was a bad book and an even worse film, "The Da Vinci Code", is testimony to the desperate need they feel to deny that sexuality is compatible with sanctity.  And yet, if he was perfectly human and sharing all facets of our lives, he must have at least experienced desire and nocturnal erections.  Religion demands that such unpleasant facts must remain unthinkable.  Augustine's tortured speculation, derived from Stoic philosophy, about sexual congress without the inconvenient element of desire was in part an attempt to solve the dilemma posed by his belief in Jesus being both perfectly man and perfectly god.

In its desire to regulate sexuality to the greatest degree possible, religion has inflicted incalculable harm on the human spirit.  The first victims of this were women and later, by extension, homosexuals and others who did not and could not conform to the rigid model of the moralisers.  It has also ever failed in its mission, for the human desire for sex, and we are particularly hyper-sexualiseded apes, cannot be contained but ever breaks out into transgression, no matter how severely such transgressions are punished.

Inanna, however, comes from a time before this sick charade began.  She is among the earliest goddesses of whom we have written record and She revels in her sexuality.  Her vulva is the boat of heaven from which all the gifts of civilisation have been born.  The wild man, Enkidu, is brought into the civilised world through congress with Her priestess.  But She is also the memory of what was before civilisation: those many statues with wondrous vulvas that have been unearthed by archaelogy.  She is the muse, for the love of whom the poets write and the painters paint.  It is She, by whatever name, who has inspired the immortal works that enrich and strengthen our lives.  Plato knew of her power and banned poetry from his Republic, for the poet, like sexuality, cannot in the end be tamed.                      

Friday, 11 May 2012

Down, down, down, where the iguanas play...

In February this year, Dory Previn died.  I cannot overstate how important her music has been to me.  Here is a taste of it:

This song, the title track of her second solo album, sums up exactly what I have come to realise is the problem that awaits many who embark, willingly or no, on a "spiritual" path.  It certainly awaited me.  Conditioned as I was by the anti-body bias of the Abrahamic worldview, I was looking for a reality that transcended the physical.  I feared the irrational demands and drives of the reptile brain.  I strove for something better.  More spiritual.  I did not want to go into the dark of my own psyche and embrace the reality that lay within and below.

But this was a fool's errand.  For the iguanas were there all the time and my desire to transcend them only served to warp me.  I thought that I could control them, tame them.  In my arrogant reliance on my own intellect, I started to believe that I had done this.  I kidded myself that the quest was finally over and the holy grail nearly won.  I was now able to harness these forces to my will and thereby seize enlightenment.

The reality was that it was at this point that the forces I thought I could control had seized control of me.  And I acted on them.  I fell prey to hubris.  I thought that I was something special and acted on that thought without regard to any other person.  I used and abused another person whilst telling myself that I was acting nobly.  I was not.  I had simply been responding unconsciously to the call of the iguana, whose needs are primal.

This happened several years ago and the results were catastrophic both to my life and those who loved me. I  spun out of all control whilst at the same time trying to convince myself that I had not.  Before long, I returned to the heavy drinking  that had characterised my earlier life and found that the downward spiral simply accelerated and the damage was compounded.  I descended into the underworld and remained there for a long time.  I retreated from the world, from contact with anyone beyond my partner, who for some reason has stuck with me, and focused, inasmuch as I could, on the intellectual search for Inanna within texts.  This done, however, I found myself stuck.  She was there indeed within the pages of the bible but where was She in my life?  Nowhere to be seen.  I wasn't really looking.  All I could see were the iguanas.

And then, out of the blue, someone asked me to become her teacher.  I agreed and we met a couple of times.  It was then that I realised where I was.  In the underworld still hanging on the hook of my addiction.  I could not teach and I could not lead.  I had first to get out.  I had to put the bottle down again.  I had to embrace and cease to fear the iguanas.  To learn to play with them.

It has been a while now and it is only in the last few weeks that I have come to realise that I am no longer in the underworld but have now emerged.  I no longer fear my libido or wish to conquer or channel it.  I no longer want to submit it to my will even though there are aspects of it that are not pretty.  In so doing I have found new energy and drive.  However, like Inanna, I do not yet know where to direct this.  But my descent has not been like Hers.  She went in response to some inner prompting but I seem to have gone willy-nilly, without a real sense of purpose.  I am more Dumuzzi.  For, in the story, Inanna points to Dumuzzi and he has to replace Her in the Underworld whose ways are perfect and cannot be questioned or evaded.   One of my last acts before leaving the UK to go to Hungary was to take the part of Dumuzzi in a sacred drama.  Like him, I fled, seeking to escape, but in the end could not.  Kicking, screaming and lashing out at all and sundry, I was dragged into the palace of the iguanas.  For it was only there that the healing could take place.  And I feel it has.

I am debating whether to contact the woman who approached me again.  I am ready now to do as she asked.  She, however, may well have moved on.  Nothing stays as it was. I will meditate on this for a while. My life feels new again.  My life feels good. The future is open.

Savage Sex

(The title of this post is a little misleading - it should read "Savage Love".  I wanted, however, to keep a theme going)

When I was growing up, sex was not a subject of informed discussion.  At least not in my home.  I never had "that talk".  And I missed the single two hour session of sex education that was provided in my school for fifteen-year-olds.  Through the changes in my own body, and what I managed to glean from the few books available, particularly Lady Chatterley's Lover, I came to get some sort of knowledge of the mechanics of heterosexual intercourse. Sometimes another boy would manage to obtain a copy of the Naturist magazine, Health and Beauty, and from this I was able to gain some knowledge of the adult female anatomy, although this was limited to breasts and buttocks.  I became, however, fascinated and remain so to this day.  It was all a mystery.  Women were somehow exotic.  They were almost another species with strange motivations and actions.  And, as I later discovered, they bled.  Mystery upon mystery!

If I knew little about women, I knew even less about homosexuality.  Which was strange and confusing to me since my stepfather, with whom I did not get on, was always calling me a queer.  I knew that I was not primarily attracted to men and a few sexual encounters confirmed that, but there remained the fear that he was right.

I entered adulthood, therefore, confused and uncertain.  There seemed to be nowhere to turn for objective and factual information on sexuality.  Those books that I had read spoke of perversions such as cunnilingus which I discovered that I enjoyed immensely.  I also knew that the idea of sex with men was, at times, attractive.  And, even worse, I had occasional fantasies of domination and bondage.  Did this mean that I was perverted?  I did not want to be.  It sounded so negative and disempowering. I felt that I was at the mercy of some unclean desires. It took me a long time to accept that this was not so.  It took me that long to realise that I was simply somewhere in the spectrum of normal.

It would perhaps not have taken me so long if I had had access to advice such as that given by Dan Savage. I came across his advice column and podcast very recently as a result of his contribution to the book "Sex at Dawn".  I spent a couple of weeks catching up on his archives and found a voice of clarity and sanity.  I do not agree with all he says but respect the honesty and directness in which he expresses his opinions.

That is all I really want to say here.  Just visit him and see for yourself.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Sex addiction?

Following on from yesterday's post, I decided to look a little further in search of evidence for the claim that vibrators can change the brain.  As I suspected, there does not appear to be any that specifically links the two. Research into obesity has, however, linked over-eating with a change in the activity of dopamine receptors.  In this article in Psychology Today, a similar change is suggested may occur with the over-use of sexual stimuli.  The evidence produced for this, however, appears to be purely anecdotal.  I have no problem with the idea that such a link may be correct but would hesitate to assert it as fact until it is demonstrated to be so.

Be that as it may, the article focuses on over-eating and the link is made with excessive use of sexual stimuli, whether that be porn or vibrators.  The effects of over-eating are plain for all to see, for the individual concerned will clearly be overweight.  Experimental subjects are therefore easy to identify.  Over-indulgence in sexual stimuli, however, gives no such external evidence and thus it would be hard to devise any trial.  Researchers would have to rely on their subjects to self-identify.  In the area of personal sexual habits, "excessive" is very often a matter of subjective judgement.  For a devout Christian one visit to a porn site in a month could be excessive, whereas for another person an hour or so a day would be considered unproblematic.  Furthermore, people lie.  No control group can be guaranteed to contain only occasional users or total abstainers.  These problems may be possible to overcome but, as far as I can see, no such study has been undertaken.

I do not deny that many people experience distress around their sexual behaviours. A gay friend of mine, in the years before Gay Lib, experienced such severe distress about his sexuality that he volunteered for the most brutal "treatments" from aversion therapy to hormone treatment.  None worked, of course, and his distress continued throughout the time I knew him.  He was, he assumed, sick both spiritually and mentally and the psychiatric establishment of his time fully accepted his self-diagnosis. He was, however, not sick.  He was simply gay.

For the father of sexology, Krafft-Ebbing, homosexuality was a perversion.  So were all other deviations from the missionary position.  Rape, however, was not.  Rape was merely an aberration since it did not preclude procreation.  On typing this, I am reminded of the Catholic moral theologian cited by Uta Ranke-Heineman in "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven" who decreed that it was morally preferable to rape one's mother than to masturbate.  Which is, of course, the prime purpose of both porn and vibrators.

When I was young, I would and could masturbate to climax several times a day.  Age has taken away both the desire and ability to do this.  I need time to recover.  That is a simple and inescapable fact. In some ways  I regret the demise of that horny youth.  But there are far more ways that I do not. I do not now think that the habits of my youth were excessive.  I did, however, then.  For masturbation was surrounded by taboo and guilt.  It was a cause of both pleasure and pain.  It was not a subject really fit to mention.  Even today, when things are more open, it is a handy term of abuse to call another a "wanker".  (Of course, he almost certainly is so the insult always fits its target!).  In those days, when sex was always on my mind (far more even than today), I would not consider myself addicted, however.  I was within the range of normal - although my guilt and shame may have been greater than some.

I recently came across a comment on another blog that referred to me - not by name, but it was clear who  was meant- as a self-confessed sex addict.  I cannot remember using that term, for I do not believe that such a condition exists.  I like the company of women, both sexually and socially, and am even more fascinated by them than I ever was, so I fully accept that I could be seen as a womaniser - another word the commenter used.  I have also behaved in the past less than honourably and that is a matter for regret. But this is not, and has not been, a regular feature of my life.  I have a relatively high libido and this in itself is not a problem either for me or anyone else.  I am glad of it.  It is part of who I am.  There were, granted, long periods of celibacy, while I was a single parent, which I did not enjoy so much.  For those years masturbation was the only option that seemed available, so that is what I did.  I am not, however, an addict.  I never have been.  At least, not to sex.  Alcohol and tobacco, certainly.  Other drugs, perhaps.

The whole extension of the addiction model into areas that do not involve the ingestion of substances seriously disturbs me.  For the word addiction implies that a chemical dependency is built up so that withdrawal from the substance involved causes acute and often dangerous physical symptoms.  That cannot be said of gambling, sex or any of the other behaviours which have now been given the label of addictions.  Compulsions they may well be but they are not addictions.

I am highly suspicious of the current trend to pathologise sexual behaviour as addiction.  While accepting that there are many people whose sexual habits cause them distress and for which they need help, it seems to me that many of the advocates are more concerned with maintaining the Judeo-Christian moral codes than they are with the needs of the individual.  When I  was in AA I remember people identifying themselves as alcoholic because they would have a couple of drinks when they got home from work.  They did not report the physical symptoms or the all-consuming cravings that come with addiction.  They were not addicts.  They merely used alcohol to relax.  But it troubled them that they did so.  It went against their moral code.

This is, what I believe,  what is happening to many of those who seek help from sex addiction counsellors.  Their desires and sometimes their subsequent behaviours conflict with what they believe is the divinely ordained model.  Rather than questioning the model they then pathologise their own sexuality.  It is somehow preferable that a desire, that for others may be normal, becomes for them an illness rather than accept that what they perceive as  their god may have got it wrong.  Further, without being overly cynical, I have to note that there are many people within the Conservative Christian Community earning a living offering treatment for this imaginary condition.

For me, as I travelled along the path of the Goddess, it became necessary to accept and love myself as a sexual being, with all that that entails- pleasant and unpleasant.  The journey has not been easy, with manympainful lessons to be learnt.  I am nowhere near the end, but I am closer than I was at the beginning.  On a larger scale, I think that the Goddess Movement as a whole must move towards a morality that is realistic, and non-judgemental with consent at its centre.  No behaviour between adults with consent should be any concern to those not involved, but equally, any behaviour without consent must be recognised as the concern of the larger community.  For we are all Her children and we all will make mistakes and none of us are damned.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Brutal sex?

In yesterdays Independent was an article by Yasmin Alibhaia Brown in which she expresses strong disquiet about what she perceives to be the state of sexual relations today.  It starts with an account of two overheard conversations in a restaurant which severely discomfited both her and her friend.  The first was between a group of young women who cheerfully discussed their use of sex toys and the second between a group of young men who then loudly discussed how they would like to treat those women.

I accept that both groups of people were guilty of inconsiderate behaviour.  People have the right to eat their meal without being disturbed by the raucus chatter of others.  I personally would get just as upset by the loud and raucous discussion of the latest football match while I am trying to focus on an intimate conversation with a friend.  However, the conclusions she draws from her experiences bear absolutely no relation to reality.  I would have expected a journalist of her standing to be better informed.

The first point I would take issue with is her title, whether this be by a sub or not.  She asks, "When did sex become so brutalised?"  I would contend that it was ever thus but is in fact getting gradually less so .  The Soviet troops who raped their way into Berlin and other German cities at the end of the Second World War were not reacting to the free and frank, albeit ribald, exchange of views between consenting adult women. Their actions, condoned by Stalin with words to the effect of "Let the boys have their fun", were the result of a much longer tradition of male supremacy and active misogyny.  For to go back further, the Bible gives a clear account of the divine command to seize and rape the women of the conquered enemy.  Of course, "boys will be boys".  The young men in the restaurant were simply following this dishonourable tradition.  The women were discussing pleasure.  The men were discussing rape.  Yasmin appears not to notice the difference.

Nor is this use of sex toys by women anything new.  Jeremiah accused the women of his land of making love with idols.  By this, I assume, he was referring to carved phalloi or dildos.  In recent years, indeed, examples of what appear to be prehistoric dildos have been unearthed at many sites around the world - for just one see here.  In Restoration England there is a satire by the Earl of Rochester in which he writes of Englishmen being supplanted in their women's affections by a recent Italian immigrant, Signor Dildo.  In the nineteenth century the staple of many doctors' practices was the manual stimulation of women in order to cure "hysteria" by enabling an orgasm.  It was to save those men's overworked fingers that the vibrator was first invented. These soon spread into the home. The first five electrical items to be marketed were, in no particular order, sewing machines, fans, kettles, toasters and vibrators and by 1917 there were more vibrators around than toasters.  They were openly advertised in women's magazines.

YAB then segues into a condemnation of S and M.  This is again nothing new.  It has been around a long time.  There is a strong sado-masochistic eroticism in many of the accounts of the lives of saints and it is certainly there in much Christian iconography.  Victorian gentlemen who subscribed to magazines such as "The Pearl" were regaled with stories of bondage and whipping. There were also, it is certain, a plethora of child prostitutes who would provide them, unwillingly, with flogging fodder.  The modern BDSM scene, with its concern about consent even though this is at times breached, seems tame in comparison.

Sexuality is indeed problematic.  It has, however, been so for a very long time.  What seems to have offended Yasmin is not this problematic nature but the fact that it is now more in the open.  The young women were quite within their rights to discuss sex toys.  Sex is clearly an important part of their lives, as it is for most human beings. They were talking about something that gave them pleasure and harmed no one.  The same cannot, however, be said for the young men with their, only too traditional, talk of rape.  Yasmin, however, has doubts that vibrators are harmless, citing one anonymous Relate counsellor who talks of them changing womens' brains.  I know of no empirical studies that can support this claim. I assume Yasmin does not know either, or she would have cited them.  I am sorry, Yasmin, but an unnamed counsellor does not have any more authority than I or anyone else.

I am sorry that she and her friend, ethnicity (Asian) given but gender not, were embarrassed by the subject spoken about by those rather inconsiderate women.  I just question why it should offend them any more than any other overheard conversations.  I also question the conclusions she draws from the experience.

As it stands this article is as ill-informed and prejudiced as any in the Mail or other tabloid and I would have expected a journalist of Yasmin's calibre to have done better.

Sex at Dawn

A chance encounter while surfing lately led me to order a copy of this book.  On reading it, I found myself becoming what I can only describe as excited.  This, I must add, was not sexual but intellectual.  It was, in fact, akin to the feeling I had when I first read a book about the Goddess.   It was the excitement of recognition.  Nothing I read seemed new to me. Instead, I found within it a clear and cogent account of what I had inwardly believed for a long time.

Drawing on a variety of disciplines, from human biology through primatology to anthropology, the authors demonstrate that the dominant model of human sexual relationships is contrary to what may be termed the natural order of things.  Their thesis is presented in a clear and vernacular way that cuts through the dryness of academic discourse and reveals the faulty assumptions that have pre-determined  many of the conclusions drawn by researchers.  For example, we are told that marriage is a well-nigh universal feature of society.  When this claim is examined, however, it turns out that marriage is, in reality, a catch-all word that encompasses a wide variety of systems governing sexual relationships, from strictly enforced monogamy to plural and beyond.  Thus, the word marriage has no real meaning.

Within our own society, sexual exclusivity within heterosexual pairs has long been considered both the ideal and the natural order of things.   The current, acrimonious, debate about gay marriage is just one example of how this idea does not meet the needs of a significant proportion of the population. More telling, however, is the universal phenomenon, despite its dire and often fatal consequences, of adultery.  If monogamy is, as we are told, natural, then it would surely be unnecessary to enforce it.  And yet, all the dominant religions contain within their codes the penalty of death for unapproved sexual conduct.  Despite this, human beings within even the strictest of societies persist in fucking around and are often subject to the ultimate penalty for doing so.  The only conclusion that can be reached is, therefore, that monogamy is contrary to human nature.

Drawing on the observed behaviour of our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, the facts of human sexual anatomy and the findings of anthropology, the authors argue convincingly that we evolved as a species in which sex was vital to social bonding.  Their placing of the shift to sexual exclusivity at the point when we developed agriculture and thence civilisation is convincing.

We are where we are, however, and the book does not really go into any detail concerning how and if the immense damage within the human psyche caused by the model of exclusivity can be healed.  However, it presents a diagnosis and this is the first essential step towards a cure. And this cure must take the form of the development and adoption of a morality which takes account of human beings as they are and not how some   imaginary sky god, whom his devotees claim created human beings as they are, dictates they should be.

The criticisms I have read seem to focus on the colloquial style of their writing but this totally misses the point. Not only are they readable but they also reveal how the technical nature of much of the scholarly literature has hidden from view blatant absurdities and contradictions.

In short, for anyone interested in Goddess, sexual politics or social change, I would thoroughly recommend that they read this.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality.
Christopher Ryan  and Cacilda Jetha