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News from America.

Our regular readers will know that I spent the autumn of 1988 in the USA. I was spending a term at the Mathematical Institute in Berkeley, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. It is a delightful place to play and work. Not very surprisingly, it is one of the places where pagan groups and activities are prominent. There are so many events happening that on several weekends I had difficulty choosing what to go to. There is also, though, quite a lot of rubbish happening, and it is not always easy to tell the difference between a worthwhile event and one that is not from the publicity beforehand. Also quite a few people, though serious about what they do, haven’t bothered to get their information accurate.

It was good to find that Monica Sjoo was visiting the States, and giving workshops. Her work, both the book and her paintings, are at last getting the recognition they deserve. Meeting an old friend was a nice way for me to settle in.

The autumn equinox was celebrated with a public ritual, held in the Unitarian church! A hundred or more people were present, some of whom were active in the pagan community, but many were not. About three‑quarters were women. It seems that interest in ritual celebrations has been common among women’s groups for some time, but men are only just beginning to become interested. There was a certain amount of group meditation and guided imagery, together with singing and pre‑arranged performances. But, enjoyable as it was, I also felt that people often were not serious about what they were doing. One man was wearing a cape of green leaves, and looked every inch a Green Man. But he was introduced as a troll! I wonder what would have happened to him if he had been in England or Scandinavia. Again, we were asked in one meditation to find an animal helper. This is a valuable exercise, and we can all gain something from it. But if we think we have a permanent animal helper, how seriously are we prepared to relate to it? Do we know how long it (or they) lives, how many offspring there are at a birth, and what its tracks look like? Is our understanding of that animal based on its mythology and the popular beliefs about it, or on the actualities of its life, which can be very different from what we tend to believe about it?

The other big ritual was the Reclaiming Collective’s Samhain gathering, the Spiral Dance (Reclaiming is Starhawk’s group). This time several hundred people — amazing to think of so many working together; it must be a tremendous job both to organise the logistics and to start and guide the energy flow. Part of this was a ceremony by a small group of people which the rest of us watched, part was a group meditation. There was also group chanting, and the group spiral dance at the end. Again I wished that people would see the full implications of what they were doing. I found it very painful to take part in the chant of “The earth, the water, the fire, the air, Return ...”. I was remembering what had been happening recently, and the aspect that was coming through to me was “Honour the earthquake, honour the flood, honour the hurricane”. The aspects of the Goddess that we do not like are still part of Her, and we cannot accept only some parts. All too often, for instance, I hear the Crone aspect being treated as the Initiator, the Giver of Wisdom — She is these, but it is easy to forget that not all of us survive the initiation.

One weekend I was at a workshop with Otter and Morning Glory Zell, who are among the originators of American neo‑paganism. The workshop was called “Encounter with the Goddess”, and there were about a dozen people in all. Morning Glory showed her images of the Goddess from many countries and times (on a previous occasion the most recent Goddess statue she showed was of Miss Piggy!). Her collection is of sculptures, and it was a delight to be able to handle these. On the last morning we finished by making our own ‘palaeolithic goddess’ using a quick‑hardening clay. One of the events, to which some outsiders came, was a mystery play, which was one of the best I have taken part in. It was a journey to meet once more our long‑lost mother, both as Mother of Life and as Mother of Death, the guides being Pan and John Barleycorn. In each part there was a sequence of riddles, the questions being the same each time. But in the journey to the Mother of Life one single word was the answer to all the questions, in the journey to the Mother of Death they were all answered by one word which was not the same as before, and the same happening again in the return journey. This device came from a book (which may be in your library) called Stag Boy, which, like many of the best pagan books, is supposedly written for young people.

Our readers will probably know of Joseph Campbell’s important books on mythology. A couple of years ago he gave a six‑hour series of interviews for public television. These have been very popular, and have been re‑broadcast several times; I hope they will be shown here some day. They have produced a great interest in mythology. Many bookshops now have a special section on myth. The second volume of his Historical Atlas of World Mythology is now out, and the first volume has now been issued in paperback. I was in one bookshop where they were just ordering another hundred copies, having sold the first hundred. In celebration of Campbell, the Jung Institute in San Francisco held a series of lectures, seminars, and conferences under the general title of The Year of Myth. I went to a big conference (all formal lectures) called “Women when Time Began”. One speaker was Marija Gimbutas, the archaeologist who wrote Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe — her new book, entitled The Language of the Goddess will be out this year — it is her major work explaining the symbolism of ancient sculptures and artefacts. Another was Sylvia Pereira, author of Descent to the Goddess, talking about the Mare Goddess. There were many other exciting talks, including one on Enheduanna, the priestess of Inanna who is the first poet known to us by name.

One weekend I went to a workshop on Jewish spirituality. The leader was trained as an ultra‑orthodox rabbi, but has now become influenced by the better aspects of the New Age, which made for a most interesting mixture. It confirmed for me that my spirituality expresses itself in pagan ways, not Jewish ones. Nonetheless, there are aspects of Judaism that feed my paganism; for instance, the idea that every aspect of life, from what we eat to what we excrete, is holy and has an appropriate blessing to be said. It was also good to be reminded that the conventional religions all have their mystical traditions which are not widely known, but which present an attitude towards creation and creator which are much closer to the pagan way than the forms the religions usually take.

One example of this is the Creation‑Centred Spirituality of Matthew Fox. He is a Dominican whose Institute for Creation Spirituality has among its faculty Susan Griffin and Starhawk. He has just been silenced by the Vatican because of this — they accused him of being a feminist and consorting with witches! As his institute is near Berkeley this was producing a real stir locally. The English contact for his approach is at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, London. His books include Original Blessing and The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. His views, though not necessarily the details of their expression, are likely to appeal to pagans, and if you have Christian friends (are any of our readers Christian?) who like some aspects of paganism but feel that they want to remain Christian despite what is wrong with the churches then his books may well inspire them. As one example, he counters the distaste for the material world commonly found in Christianity by pointing out what the first statement made in the Bible about the world is. (Repeatedly we are told in Genesis about the creation that “God saw that it was good”).

All in all, a very good experience. I hope to visit Berkeley again soon.

Wood and Water
27, Spring 1989

© Daniel Cohen

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