A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, by Gunlog Fur (Review)

November 8, 2013

I think this book adds some needed information about the intersection of gender, women’s status, and religious/spiritual perspectives.

Gunlog Fur says in her preface, “I did not set out to write a book about gender. In fact, I was not particularly interested in the topic at all. What did interest me was trying to understand as much as I possibly could about how Lenape Indians lived their lives around the time that they first encountered people from across the great sea and how that encounter altered their society and the world they knew….Thus, I stumbled on my subject by chance, or so I thought, caught by the nagging notion that I was observing a picture where one object stood out of place. The problem I had with the picture I was beholding was that it contained only men.” As Fur began collecting scraps of information referring to women, a new picture of Delaware/Lenape history and society emerged, one with a complex understanding and expression of gender which the Eurocentric mind has difficulty comprehending.

Researching colonial history of the Delaware peoples is a challenging proposition, because these nations were among the first to encounter European explorers and traders, and the location of Delaware territories, which were highly strategic from the point of view of seafaring Europeans, meant that the Delaware peoples came in contact with many nationalities. Early accounts were written in Swedish, Dutch, French, and German, as well as English, so a facility with all of these languages is necessary to examine first-hand sources. Many European traders spoke one or more of the principal native languages, making the language in which discussions occurred and the degree of comfort of the observer with that language an important piece of information. Fur’s knowledge of the languages of early written sources lends credibility to her analysis.

A question I had when I first ran across this book was whether the author had enough understanding of the structure of the Delaware languages to make any inferences about gender. Although it is axiomatic that concepts do not necessarily translate easily between languages, where gender is concerned these conceptual difficulties are magnified. My concern was probably unjustified. Although Fur does not claim to be fluent in any Delaware language, she appears to be aware of the structure of this language group, enough to question the primary observer’s account in places. Fur emphasizes throughout the book that her sources are unreliable. They are thoroughly patriarchal and view interactions with American Indians from the prism of their own agenda – usually commerce, land acquisition, or religious fervor. She compensates for this by examining the wide range of written data for congruencies and anomalies.

I will present a summary of Fur’s analysis in my next three blog posts. I will write about the status of Delaware women within the tribes, the changes and challenges created by Christian contact, and the Delaware/Lenape conception of gender.

Virtual Pagan

November 1, 2013

There are two things that interest me greatly as a Pagan priestess/teacher/thinker. The first is those things that are unremarked upon which nonetheless appear in passing again and again. Usually these are treasure troves of knowledge. An example of this would be the comb as a religious symbol. It is found in Neolithic art, ancient gravesites, and religious texts all over Europe and the Mediterranean, and persists long after Christianity has been established, yet it is not commonly thought of as one of our “magical tools.” It is scarcely ever remarked upon. It has also been an important symbol in Africa and Asia, and a great deal of research remains to be done about the significance of this very personal implement. I wrote an article about the comb for Return to Mago last year and barely scratched the surface. It’s a topic for an entire book.

Deer_in_Snow The second area of interest to me is those things that are remarked upon so often that they become rote. Usually there are unexamined assumptions and beliefs about ourselves that are hidden in these sayings, as well as unexamined meanings in the phrases themselves. An example of this would be the statement that “Paganism is a nature religion.” Is this something we say to distinguish ourselves from Judeo-Christian religions? Is it something we say to give ourselves legitimacy? Is it something we say in nostalgia for a lost relationship? Is it something we say because we learned somewhere that this is so? Is it something we say? Is it something we believe, is it something we wish, is it something we think about, is it something we do?Flight_of_the_Great_Blue_Heron

The answer to these questions will vary not just among the individuals, but for the same person in different settings and at different stages of personal development. The most important thing is that these questions be asked, and asked again, and asked again. To me, following a “nature religion” means an ongoing commitment to a deepening experience within nature. It is active, dynamic, and ever changing. It is a mystery.

I’m hoping to begin offering online classes soon on topics related to Pagan nature worship. My goal is to bring these topics to a more accessible virtual world, while at the same time inspiring the student to directly experience more in the natural world. The classes will be stand-alone and you will be able to take one or many. Here is a survey designed to help me identify potential topics.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Unfriend? Unfollow? Social Media and Spiritual Blogging

October 18, 2013

Social media has become both a constant irritant and an indispensable part of my life. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I joined Facebook – I may have read somewhere that I had to join social media to “develop a platform.” I now consider Facebook indispensable to networking and keeping abreast of opportunities, while I question its value as a platform. At times the whole Internet, but social media in particular, feels like a bottomless drain on my energy. There’s so much information, so much of it laced with fear, so little of it containing any real substance. It’s the journalistic equivalent of fast food: cheap but unsatisfying, fattening but lacking core nutrients.

Sometimes, I just have to stay home and virtually not go anywhere.

But surprisingly, when the specter of having to leave Facebook arose about six months ago, I was panicked. How would I function professionally? How could I get information that can’t be classified as news because it pertains to a relatively small group of people, spread over wide geography? How could I get information that can’t be classified as news because the story develops collaboratively, over the space of a day or two?

I don’t know if the reason for my speculating such a drastic move is, ultimately, important. The large social media outlets like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are going to eventually implode as they become huge unwieldy conglomerates. The result will not be an exchange of Reddit for Yahoo or Facebook for Google+, but loosely connected independent sites catering to various specialized, alternative, or marginalized communities. Facebook tried to develop a series of small networks through its “groups,” Google+ has tried to do this in a different way through its “circles,” and Reddit has its “subreddits,” but ultiminately these are starting to collapse through the limits of size and centralized administration.

This graphic was removed on Facebook and its account holder suspended.
This graphic was removed on Facebook and its account holder suspended.

Which does bring me to the particulars of why I think it is likely that I will, eventually, need to leave Facebook. There has been a great deal of glorified sexualized violence toward women on Facebook, and attempts to address this have brought only short-term solutions. About a year ago, feminists began collectively trying to bring the worst of this violence to the attention of administrators, asking that it be banned. Almost always this went nowhere. Eventually, feminists began contacting Facebook advertisers, letting them know that their advertisements were appearing on group sites dedicated to graphic sexualized portrayals of violence against women. This got a reaction. Facebook began losing revenue and some of these sites were removed. Ultimately Facebook decided to make its advertising streams more sophisticated, so family-friendly advertising would not appear on a page titled something like “Chokes the Bitch.”

Which completely neutralized this organizing/activist tool.

On the other side of the equation, prominent feminist activists are routinely targeted on Facebook and reported to administrators for their pictures and speech. One woman had her account suspended because she posted a textbook-style illustration of female reproductive anatomy, with ovaries, Fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, etc. Another woman was suspended because she posted a picture of an ancient Greek statue. It’s not clear that Facebook is deliberately targeting feminists; when large groups of tech savvy males and their sock puppets submit complaints certain algorithms kick in, and even individuals moderating complaints may rely on the numbers of reporters rather than wading through the stream. The same thing happens in the comments section of online newspapers – a lot of feminist viewpoints do not get posted because so many males object. Twitter is even worse, veering into the realm of sexual harassment and threats of violence. Men get their back up when women call for a ban on this type of behavior, saying this is an impingement on “free speech,” but the whole purpose of sexualized threats and graphic violence is to silence the speech of women.

So if a significant number of feminists began calling for a boycott of Facebook or Twitter, there’s a good chance that I will feel compelled to go along with it. So far, women have been biding their time until better alternatives arise. I do believe that eventually this will happen. If social media has “been woven into the fabric of our lives” as everyone likes to say everywhere, there are some glitched stitches quite a few rows back, and the whole thing will have to be unraveled.

To keep abreast of updates on this blog, those of you who friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter can add this blog to your RSS feed (Google it). There is also a place on the right hand column of the main page for you to sign up for email updates of new posts. I will not sell your email or use it for any other purpose; in fact I will not have access to it.

Understanding Halloween

October 11, 2013

At the risk of preaching to the choir this week, I want to talk about the meaning of Halloween. Over the past few years I have been getting more and more calls-to-action over two issues associated with Halloween as it is commonly celebrated: the adoption of stereotypic American Indian trick-or-treat costumes and the borrowing of sugar skulls from Mexican American Dia de los Muertos ceremonies. While I agree with objections raised to these two practices, I nonetheless find the slant of this activism troubling. By objecting only to offensive elements within the sacrilegious perversion of this holy day, this activism ends up reinforcing the perverted narrative. Conversely, by bringing Halloween back in harmony with its roots, these and other offensive elements are banished.

Let’s look at the true meaning of the holiday. Halloween is a shortened version of All Hollows Eve, an ancient Celtic holiday of reverence for ancestors. It is still celebrated as such by Druids and Witches throughout the world. The day is usually celebrated between October 30 and November 2, depending on the religious tradition and the country. (Some Druids mark the full moon closest to November 1.) Many centuries ago the Catholic Church, in order to discourage the Pagan rites, co-opted the holiday as All Souls Day, and within the Catholic Church it retained much of its former purpose of remembering departed souls. All Souls Day has been an important holiday wherever there has been a strong Celtic influence, not only in the “Celtic countries” of the British Isles, but in France, Spain, and even parts of Germany. Because of the Aztec influence, the Mexican holiday retained even more of its original significance while incorporating elements of indigenous Mesoamerican belief.

This old postcard reflects what the Halloween is about. The evening marks the old Celtic New Year, and the words to Auld Lang Syne fit with the spirit.
This old postcard reflects what the holiday is about. Halloween marks the old Celtic New Year, and the words to Auld Lang Syne fit the spirit.
The ancient Celts believed that during the period marked by Halloween the separation between the worlds of the living and the dead became more porous. Thus this was an ideal time to contact and make obeisance to departed relatives. This was also a time when troubled spirits too wretched to find their way to the Celtic paradise might cause some mischief for the living. To help these troubled spirits, children would enact their plight by going from house to house in beggars’ garb asking for a small token of pity. The phrase “trick-or-treat” reminded the householder that unmollified spirits might become mischievous. The enactment of this ritual was believed to bring some solace to the wretched souls. Some witches even say the drama helped spirits to pass through.

Because all kinds of spirits were wandering on Halloween, houses needed special protection on this night. Talismans were put out to discourage unwelcome intrusions. This is the source of today’s jack-o’-lantern. While children were believed to have some innate protection from ghostly mischief, adults who wandered out on this night sometimes wore masks to scare away the ghouls.

Let’s take a look now at today’s Halloween celebrations in light of the original religious focus. The trick-or-treat “beggars night” activities are closest to the original meaning, but they have become somewhat perverted. The only appropriate Halloween costume for a beggar on beggars’ night would be that of a beggar ghost. Houses can have jack-o’-lanterns or other talismans about them, but decorations should not be doing anything to create a “creepy” ambience. The idea is to keep the house warm and cheerful and the more mischievous ghosts outside. The welcoming atmosphere indoors also sets the tone for interactions with the ancestors. The haunted house is the antithesis of this. Although Halloween is an important time for Witches, who often use the night to perform psychic work, demeaning stereotypic portrayals of Witches, in costume or in picture, are especially offensive on this core Witches’ holiday.

The Halloween party as it is commonly practiced does have some elements of old pagan belief. Bobbing for apples, the dumb supper, and spells to catch a glimpse of a future love interest are examples of activities that have deep roots. The main objection to the Halloween party is the parlor game atmosphere which trivializes the activities. Also, this is not a time for scary ghost stories. The object of the warm cheery gathering is to keep the scariness outside.

halloweengirl Scary stories have a universal appeal and probably serve some purpose, but in light of what has already been explained the sacrilege of Halloween slasher movies should be obvious. Imagine for a moment the most sacred Christian or Jewish holidays being given an exploitative, sacrilegious theme. What if Easter produced a slew of apocalyptic flesh eating zombie movies, seeing as Jesus rose from the dead? What if Yom Kippur produced stories on the theme of sadomasochism, seeing as it’s the day of atonement? If the very suggestion of such a takeoff offends you, think about the commercial exploitation of Halloween in light of what the night is really about.

You can still celebrate Halloween in a respectful way, even if you are not a Witch or a Druid. Explain to children that Halloween is a time of ghosts, and give them the option of dressing as a sad ghost or a wretched ghost or a whimsical ghost. Save the ballerina and astronaut costumes for a different occasion. If you want to have a Halloween gathering, just keep it cheerful and leave the slasher movies and related themes out of the evening. Tarot cards, harmless spells, and other witchy activities are fine, as long as they are not trivialized. If you simply ask your guests to bring a picture of a departed loved one and come prepared to talk a little about this person, you have right there an nonreligious expression of the true meaning of Halloween.

Re-Training Vision: The Three Principles

October 4, 2013

William H. Bates, the ophthamologist who developed the principles of natural vision.
William H. Bates, the ophthamologist who developed the principles of natural vision.

The three principles of natural vision are movement, centralization, and relaxation.

Relaxation is meant in a very broad sense. The more relaxed the mind, the more clear the vision. The student who develops nearsightedness or astigmatism under a heavy courseload is tired and stressed, not “reading too much.” It is fine to read or do close work like needlepoint for long periods of time, even in low light, as long as this does not produce eyestrain. Straining to see worsens the vision, both immediately and in the long term. Relaxation improves vision, and eyestrain is reduced over time by trusting that good eyesight is natural over a wide range of conditions.

We are not parakeets, who see only in daylight
We are not parakeets, who see only in daylight. Photo Dick Daniels.
Centralization is a very interesting principle. The human eye is developed to see sharply in color and to see in very low light, two activities that are non-congruent. In order to function well in both areas, the central portion of the iris is adapted to sharp color vision, while the peripheral portion is activated in low light. Peripheral vision can detect motion quite well at all times, but it is not the portion of the eye that sees most clearly in normal light. In order to see clearly, it is important to see with the part of the eye that sees clearly. Instead of utilizing the entire visual field to “see everything at once,” the person with good vision moves her eyes constantly, mapping the area in front of her by looking at one thing at a time. This principle really goes back to the idea of relaxation, since it is a type of hypervigilance that creates the compulsion to try to see too much at once.

The principle of centralization is obviously related to the principle of movement, but there are some implications to this principle that are not so obvious. Movement here is a broad term, related not only to eye movement but to blinking, moving the head, and changing the posture. It is unnatural for humans to sit stiffly or to stare without blinking, and this creates eyestrain and eventually fatigue. A relaxed posture contains movement.

We are not cats, who stay motionless for long periods
We are not cats, who stay motionless for long periods. Photo Horatiotorquez.
But proper eye movement also creates a condition that is anxiety provoking for some people: it creates the perception that objects known to be stationary are actually moving. Nearly everyone is unaware of this. People with normal vision need to have this demonstrated to them with special eye exercises. Interestingly, people with poor vision will usually compensate in order to not see the movement when doing the exercises. For these people, beginning to see “stationary” objects move while doing the exercises is a sign that they are relaxing into normal eye movement.

What are the implications for inner vision? I have found that these principles carry over into other areas. It is important to be relaxed in order to see on the inner plane. It is no accident that people tend to have more visions before drifting off to sleep or while doing ordinary activities such as taking a shower. It is important to let go of the compulsion to understand everything at once and allow the vision to naturally unfold. Trying to see everything at once inhibits the inner vision as well as the outer. It is most important to develop a frame of mind which allows perceptions to occur even when a part of the brain disagrees. The mind can draw its own conclusions, but it does not need to protect itself from the information it gathers.

(Review) Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks & Sign by Paul Rezendes

September 27, 2013

Related to the issue of how to see, which is the subject of natural vision, is the idea of what to see or what to look for. Since our visual field is so crowded, we must necessarily be selective in what we take notice of. Yet modern humans have developed an insouciance about the natural environment which reflects a belief that there is nothing important to take notice of.

A coyote on his daily trot through highly familiar territory gleans a great deal of information about what has transpired since he last made the rounds. He knows not only what types of animals have passed through, but how long ago they were there, where they came from, where they went, and what they did in that particular spot. True, a lot of the coyote’s information comes from his superior sense of smell, which we cannot hope to emulate, but with our primary tool of perception, our vision, we can also discern these stories. Seeing an animal is a gift, yet recognizing the signs of an animal traversing the vicinity is also valuable information that can lead to future sightings. And identifying the name of the animal is only part of the equation; the signs also point to a story about that animal.

Deer browse.
Deer browse.

Paul Rezendes’s Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign is an excellent book for learning what to look in the natural environment. Individual tracks in mud, sand, or snow are obviously important and can sometimes lead to identification, yet the track pattern provides better information for identification and tells a fuller story: how many animals, their size, where they were going, how fast they were going, where they stopped, possibly where they died as a large bird swooped down from above.
Goshawk pellets
Goshawk pellets.

Some of the other things to look for on a nature walk are signs of feeding (such as twigs or net casings), scat, and scent markers (which usually have visual as well as olfactory clues). Becoming aware of these signs can give you a better idea of the animals that live in your neighborhood. Even if you live in a city, there may be more coyotes, foxes and possums nearby than you realize. Organizations that monitor wildlife populations have begun utilizing tracking information as a more reliable gauge for numeric estimations than visual sightings and trapping of live animals.

Gray fox tracks.
Gray fox tracks.
Even if you have no desire or opportunity to engage in serious tracking on your own, you will learn a great deal about animal behavior by reading a tracking book. My only quibble with the Rezendes book is that he discusses mainly land animals and says very little about birds. There is, however, another excellent book about bird tracking, Bird Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks. Another book about what to notice when studying birds is What the Robin Knows by Jon Young.

Seeing More Clearly

September 20, 2013

Photo by Vtornet.
Photo by Vtornet.

Many people compare the eyesight of humans unfavorably to that of other animals, but actually we are quite visual animals with the excellent eyesight that reflects this. True, we cannot see small objects from great distances like the Peregrine Falcon, we do not have the huge visual field of the owl, we do not have the hair trigger motion detection of the cat, we cannot see in two directions like the deer, we do not have the excellent low light vision of the fox, and we cannot discern the wide color spectrum of the parrot. What we do have is highly acute adaptable vision suitable for a variety of purposes. We can see well at night in low levels of light, yet our diurnal vision can detect a variety of color. We excel at tasks requiring close vision, yet we can focus on objects miles away. Our ability to detect motion, while not rivaling that of the cat, is something we rely upon. It is instinctive and natural for us to have a clear visual mapping of our surroundings at all times. In short, though we can take no prizes in any particular aspect of vision, we are competent in a variety of areas, which is in itself remarkable.

The core belief of natural vision is that it is natural for humans to have good vision, and poor vision occurs not through the passage of time or any particular activity, but through disease and, especially, poor vision habits. Poor vision is usually an acquired trait that requires practice. Improving eyesight occurs through understanding and utilizing good vision habits – not, as commonly believed, by practicing “eye exercises” a certain number of minutes per day. As one vision teacher explained to me, “I expect my students to practice no more and no less than twenty-four hours a day.”

When I first began exploring natural vision, I was advised that “The most important thing you can do is to throw away your glasses.” I was horrified. The Department of Motor Vehicles had decreed that I needed glasses in order to drive legally, and I wondered how I could negotiate a long list of situations without sharp vision. “Throw away your glasses in order to throw away your glasses” – like so much of natural vision it seemed counterintuitive. I had expected my eyesight to gradually improve, and in the course of this improvement to gradually dispose of my lenses or gradually lower the strength of the prescription.

I was unable to stop wearing glasses entirely right away, but I did begin driving less and using my lenses only in situations where they were essential (which turned out to be less frequently than I expected). I did nothing else at first to correct my vision, and I would estimate that it improved 80% over the course of a year or two through this step alone. In hindsight I understand that this was not entirely due to my eyes readjusting to focusing on their own. There were deeper psychological changes occurring that were also changing my perception. We see with our mind as well as our eyes. For one thing, I let go of the idea that my glasses were an essential part of me. I also became comfortable with the fact that vision is not static: it is clearer some days and foggier others. I let go of the idea that I must have sharp vision at all times, and paradoxically letting go of that need sharpened my vision. Most importantly, I stopped expecting my vision to naturally deteriorate with time and began trusting my eyes to continue serving me.

In future posts on this topic I will describe some key insights of good visual habits and how they apply to divination and inner vision. In the meantime, consider the implications of the idea that letting go of the need to see sharpens the vision.

Relearning to See

September 6, 2013

This isn’t so much a review of Thomas R. Quakenbush’s book Relearning to See, considered one of the best books explaining what is called the “Bates Method,” as it is an exploration of how the principles of natural vision have changed my thinking and my life. Although most people will elect to go the route of glasses and surgery to correct vision problems, and a few lucky people have perfect vision without considering the issue, I think these insights have implications beyond correcting eyesight, implications especially for the magical practitioner.

I first decided to use natural vision methods over twenty-five years ago, when I was at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I was camping out at the festival with several thousand women, and I rolled over my glasses in the tent while I was asleep, breaking them beyond repair. I was a day’s drive away from home, and my girlfriend did not know how to drive, so I had no idea how we would be able to get home. I was in a bit of a panic. In the end, some women scrounged up materials and pieced the glasses together so that they could stay on my nose long enough for the drive – but that was the turning point. I saw that my life was hanging by a thread, depending on these implements to interface with the world, and I vowed that I would find a way to emancipate myself from the tyranny of eyeglasses. I had never heard of “natural vision,” and I didn’t know anyone who had successfully thrown away their glasses, but I was determined to be free.

Looking back, I can see that it was no coincidence that my commitment to better vision began here, just as it was no coincidence that my vision problems started in my first year of college. That year I began complaining of headaches, and my mother made an appointment for me at the “Vision Clinic,” as it was misnamed. It should have been called the “Adjusts to Poor Vision Clinic.” Sure enough, my eyesight had deteriorated. The explanation given was that I was spending long hours hunched over books, often under the glaring light of the library, and this was putting a strain on my eyes. I don’t dispute this explanation, and William H. Bates himself says that eyestrain is a big culprit in poor vision, but this is a surface explanation, like saying your car got dented because something hit it. What happened?

College is a period of indoctrination as much as a period of learning. The biases, prejudices and imperatives of Western civilization bombard the young mind, as the institution struggles against itself to teach that mind how to think while dictating to it what to think. Especially for a woman, the incongruities are fierce. I took what amounted to a minor in English literature, and in all those classes read exactly one book written by a woman. The thing that bothers me most about that is that I didn’t “see” it. I majored in economics, and it was never mentioned that most wealth is in the hands of men and poverty disproportionately affects women. What bothers me now is that I didn’t “see” it. For a woman higher education is a period of great strain, one she survives by turning a blind eye, or at least a myopic one, to what is going on.

Since I had not been inured to wearing glasses at a young age, of course I hated them, and I only wore them when reading a textbook – something that should have been instructive. When I graduated from college and began working for a large corporation, I began needing higher prescription lenses to read it all, and eventually needed glasses even to drive.

Michigan provoked the turn around. This was in the earlier days of the festival, before the rise of organized attacks that changed the timbre of the music. I had to never been in a crowd of so many women. I had to never been in a large public gathering where men were completely absent. I realized with a shock that for many years, perhaps most of my life, I had lived in heightened alert against the threat of rape, both in and outside of my house. I had never reflected on this, never even noticed it, but the absence was startling. My body was conditioned to tighten at the sound of a low voice or a rustle of leaves – but then I would remember, “I am safe here.” This is what the early days of Michigan were like.

It was also at Michigan that I met my first witch, or at least the first witch who would talk to me. I had imposed myself once on a woman who was pointed out to me at a local coffee house, who admitted to being a witch. I asked her where I could learn how to fly on a broom, and she brushed me off. But at Michigan there were lots of witches. I took a tarot class taught by Daughters of the Moon designer Fiona Morgan. I remember nothing about the class except that I felt excited to catch a glimpse of some thing totally new. Something was shifting in me. Looking back I see that my fuzzy eyesight was the distortions of patriarchy and my eyeglasses were the coping mechanism that allowed me to function. I left Michigan determined not to throw away my coping mechanism, but to dispense with the need for it altogether. The clearer vision that ensued allowed me to penetrate the occult realms.

As often happens when I write a blog post, I have discovered that I have more to say than I thought I did. I will continue the topic of acquiring clear vision in another post.