Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review: The Other Side of Virtue

Followers of the major monotheistic religions occasionally trot out the idea that only their traditions offer true ethical systems, while presumably everyone else is devoted to thievery, murder, incest, cannibalism, and failure to pay parking tickets.

Such an attitude is unhistorical, of course. Socrates, Confucius, Epictetus . . any pre- or non-Abrahamic figure might as well have never lived, you would think.

Hence I have been reading and enjoying Brendan Myers' The Other Side of Virtue, which while admitting that "some values really are 'out there,' beyond the self and are not a matter of personal opinions and preferences," approaches the topic in a "poly" way, not relying on one man's claimed revelation but on a wide variety of ancestral teaching, poetry, philosophy, and tradition.

In an easy-going historical exposition, Myers lays out how for Heroic societies (which still live in our own) "the chief virtue was Honour, the quality for which you earn the respect of your peers." He continues, "To writers in the classical age, and the Renaissance, the chief virtue was Reason. For Romantic writers, it seems to be the sincerity of one's passion and the beauty of one's creative work."

Although it covers ideas and thinkers both ancient and modern, what places Myers' work firmly in the Western Pagan tradition comes at the end, when he reminds us of the importance of free choice in living the good or virtuous life:

The creation of eudaimonia, the good and beautiful destiny, begins when you declare that your life shall be meaningful and worthwhile. It begins in the pursuit of a life that could stand as a model for others, and perhaps ought to be remembered by future generations.

It is hard to do justice to The Other Side of Virtue in a blog post. Perhaps my one quibble is with Myers' creation of what I think is a false dichotomy between "cold duty" and "beauty." In that dichotomy his writing resembles Emma Restall Orr's, which is unfortunate. He rather slights the (later Roman) Stoic school of philosophy with its emphasis on civic life, although not as thoroughly as she does.

If I say, "Honor the gods and do your duty," I can interpret "duty" broadly and flexibly, not militaristically. There is the duty of a student (to study), the duty of a parent, the duty of a citizen, and so on.

But that is a minor quibble, for I see much to admire in The Other Side of Virtue and urge you to buy and read it. It is a pity that the book lacks an index, however.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Priestess Honored by Cherry Hill Seminary

Judy Harrow, Wiccan priestess and teacher, has been honored by having Cherry Hill Seminary's online library named for her.

Don't go looking for the libary yet--it is under construction. And it will be entirely digital, since Cherry Hill offers primarily online classes.

CHS blurbs thusly:

A Wiccan priestess since 1977, Harrow founded Proteus Coven in 1981, and held several leadership offices for Covenant of the Goddess, on both national and regional levels, including National First Officer in 1984. She founded the Pagan Pastoral Counseling Network in 1982, and served as the first editor of the Network's publication. Harrow co-created a successful workshop series, "Basic Counseling Skills for Coven Leaders," which grew into a series of intensive workshops for Pagan elders on a range of topics. She also founded the New York Area Coven Leaders' Peer Support Group, and served as Program Coordinator for the first Mid-Atlantic Pan-Pagan Conference and Festival, as well as several other Pagan gatherings.

I would add that Judy has been preaching about the need for professional counseling education for coven leaders as long as I have known her, and she followed her own advice.

She is also the author or editrix of Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide, Devoted To You: Honoring Deity in Wiccan Practice, and Wicca Covens: How to Start and Organize Your Own.

One bit of bibilographic essay writing missing from that list is her contributions to the 50th anniversary edition of Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today. Since we are still waiting for a scholarly biography of Gardner, her two essays included in that edition, "Looking Backward: Gardner's Sources" and "Looking Forward: Gardner's Hunches," should be read by everyone studying Wiccan history.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

The Mists of Avalon and Its Antithesis

I recently re-read Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon for the first time in years, in order to cite it in a paper.

Now I am reading its antithesis, Simon Young's A.D. 500: A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland.

Based on the fiction of a geographer in Constantinople writing a guide to the "Dark Isles" based on contemporary reports and present-day archaeology, Young's sixth century agrees very little with Bradley's except, perhaps, on the importance of Tintagel.

If Tintagel is a work of Nature's art, then man has, however, botched its decorations. The British Celts who live there are not great builders....The king's court is a timber shack, something approximating in size and finish to one of our royal stables.

You want all-wise Druids at the close of Pagan Ireland?

But even in their reduced state, these old men--the young with spiritual gifts turn to the Church--have a certain notoriety. Instantly recognizable for their curious cloaks and their shaved heads--each has a short tuft over the forehead--they walk from place to place officiating over oaths and sacrifices (it is better not to ask of which sort).

Young admits that the story of the last Temple of Bacchus in Britain is "necessarily speculative," but does offer sources for it, as for all his information.

Young's book is a useful corrective to the "matter of Britain's" multiple re-tellings--the last time I checked, library databases listed more than 900 works under the category of "King Arthur-Fiction."

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ave Smokey

We encountered an American demigod up in Salida, Colorado, during FIBARk today. The woman in the black T-shirt would appear to be an attending priestess, since her shirt has a Forest Service emblem on it.

Apparently he blesses dogs as well as preventing forest fires.


A Sikh at the Solstice

Via Jason, a funny account of a British Sikh at a Pagan solstice celebration:

There, surrounded by the verdant, wild beauty of the heath I felt connected with Nature herself. I lay on my back and stared at the sky that was preparing a slow welcome for twilight. I became acutely aware that I was sitting on a planet that spun on an axis and was orbited by a moon in a solar system that was part of a galaxy that itself was but a slither [sic. "sliver"?] of a wider universe. I felt small, I became insignificant. I knew my place in the cosmos and the cosmos knew its space around me. It was a deeply profound moment, broken only by a shrieking child running to his mother, frightened by the apparently dead, pink turbaned man in the Lincoln green dress.

It is actually one of the best meditations on the festival that I have ever read, perhaps because it looks at our world as it is.

Me, I'll be watching the dogs and kayaks at FIBArk. Happy Litha, everyone.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009


Yes, I did take the tour of the Cathedral of the Madeline. After a day of listening to talks on Mormon violence--and violence against Mormons--the cathedral felt like Goddess religion. (The Lady Chapel, after all.)

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Blogging CESNUR, 2

Yesterday's CESNUR plenary session focused on Western esotericism, which is getting more respect as a "player" in history.

Gordon Melton passed out a fancy diagram of the Western esoteric tradition, including everyone from Swedenborgians to flying saucer religions to Wiccans.

Wicca was placed under ritual magic, although at some distance. Fair enough: ritual magic is an important root. But I think there needs to be a long dashed line connecting to classical Paganism (which was not on the chart), indicating a connection that was literary rather than person-to-person.

For those of you familiar with new religious movements sessions, yes, "Ragged Brian" is here.

Trying to decide whether to take the tour of the (warning, Flash) Cathedral of the Madeline tomorrow to renew my acquaintance with ecclesiastical architecture. ("I think the woods are more impressive," says M., the dedicated animist.)

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009


After the better part of two days on the road, M. and I arrived this afternoon at a Homestead Suites hotel in Salt Lake City, where I will be attending the CESNUR conference.

The trip started off on a sour note, because my previously trusty-if-aging G4 PowerBook laptop developed a series disk-access problem on Monday night, taking the last version of my paper with it.

So, fellow professors, if your students say that the computer crashed the night before their papers were due, sometimes they might be telling the truth. (On the other hand, "grandmother's funeral" is probably made up.)

I will be reading partly from handwritten notes on Friday, I suspect.

We began with a long detour to Colorado Springs to drop the PowerBook off at Voelker Research, where the service techs considered it gravely and offered a 50/50 chance of data recovery in five or six days.

Ah, Colorado Springs, where there is no east-west through highway and never has been. Eventually by a series of zigs and zags known to locals we cleared town about 2 p.m. Then Ute Pass, Wilkerson Pass, Hoosier Pass, Vail Pass and westward into the desert until we finally called it a day in the motel oasis of Green River, Utah.

Every time I go through Green River I more and more get the feeling that it is picking up the people who cannot afford to live in trendier Moab.

Weirdly, it was raining in Green River today. That must be an event. It turned the land a darker shade of tan.

In fact, it's raining all over Utah, as witness the photo of the hotel's back garden, which looks semi-tropical. I was happy to drop the bags, pop the top off a bottle of Polygamy Porter (which ought to be the official beer of CESNUR), and relax.

M. has discovered that Whole Foods, Nordstrom's, Barnes & Noble, a public library, and a large park are all within about two blocks, so she has everything she needs, she says.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

On the Road

I leave today for the annual CESNUR conference on new religious movements, to be held this year in Salt Lake City, so you know which not-so-new-anymore religious movement will be heavily discussed in the presentations.

My paper is a thrown-together mess, but at least it has me thinking about how it could become the introduction to a book that I could write—or co-write, perhaps. More on that as it develops.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Life in the Future is a Dream World

A 1939 short film looks at the amazing world of the future in the year 2000. Keep watching--there is a twist. As usual, the future looks different than people expected.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

From Abortion to Icelandic Music and Back

So Jason decides that he would rather blog about abortion than Iceland Paganism, which leads me to follow the Icelandic Paganism link, as I have read all the usual blather that followed the murder of Dr. Tiller.

Thus I am lead to the documentary Screaming Masterpiece, about Icelandic music, which is now in my Netflix queue.

Must get back to work now -- I have to finish my paper for the CESNUR conference.

Back when I had to teach first-year composition, the joke was that students in search of a topic tended to fall into well-worn ruts: abortion, gun control, the drinking age, etc.

Dealing with the first one was easy, after a while. I just issued a classroom fatwa that only people who had had an abortion could write about the topic.

The real purpose, of course, was to segue into a discussion of pathos and how hard it was to write convincingly about a topic with which one has no emotional connection.

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