A journey through religions and their cultures.
As I watched the Wicker Man burst into flames, illuminating 12,000 worn but innocent and spritely faces, I thought of the wishes and hopes people had written and hung inside the glowing effigy in the hope they would be released into the air and heard by the gods of nature. The idea is so similar to prayer, yet there was a beautiful naivety to it, something that I didn’t recognise in the more common pursuit. It seemed lighter hearted and fun, for example I read a wish which asked “Please stop me from being gay. Only joking, I fucking love being gay”. It appeared prayer, along with the wider rituals of monotheism were somewhat serious; the Pagan life however, was jolly and filled to the brim with folly.
This weekend, I had been rocking out at the Green man festival, a Pagan music festival set in the Brecon Beacons. The Green man, whose history is not completely understood, has deep roots set in the Wiccan tradition as a deity who is commonly associated with rebirth and the beginning of a new spring cycle. Depicted as a face surrounded by leaves and vines, Green Man is the deity of choice for today’s offerings of fireworks and burning wood. Traditionally the wicker man would also hold a few lucky participants, as an affectionate sacrifice to ensure a good harvest, however today, after a careful and thorough investigation, I found no such volunteers. The youth of today is just too apathetic and non-committal, I suppose.
Being new to the Pagan ways I had decided to concentrate less on the rituals and more on the philosophy of the religion. As my friend Mr Grady told me, “you can’t just do it, you have to feel it”, and feel it I did. While other religions placed man at the centre of the Universe, Paganism places us deep within it, as part of the natural order, neither above it nor below it. My curiosity tickled, I began to wonder why this breed of philosophy isn’t more abundant in other forms of Religion? To me, being a single thread in the natural tapestry is much more exciting and enlightening than owning the picture. With this idea, comes a feeling of belonging that surely no monotheism can equal.
With my freshly opened eyes, I stood with my friend Aimee and watched the hills. While most Wiccans are dualistic in their beliefs (all Goddesses being one Goddess, and all Gods being one God) I still couldn’t feel any divine spark behind nature. So instead, I tried to personify that which I saw around me. I imagined the hills as overseers of the valleys and tried to appreciate everything that they had witnessed throughout their millions of years on this planet, the changing environments, the formation of life and the ever evolving populations sweeping below them. Like a time lapse film reel, I watched as a dynamic planet forced groups to either adapt and survive, or become extinct and have their atoms released back into the ecosystem in order to try again at a later date.
As I deliberated this, I thought of all the atoms I myself am composed of and the journey they must have been on, from the creation of basic elements 13.77 billion years ago at the big bang, to the birth of heavy elements in Supernovas to their time here, endlessly wandering the Earth and its ecosystem. The most beautiful fact I know is that the elements in your left hand were likely created in a different star to the elements in your right. These stars, sadly, had to die in order to disperse these new chemical wonders into the Universe. They would never know of the lives they helped create, but we know that they had to die in order for us to have a chance to live.
Though thinking about yourself as simply a collection of atoms can turn your eyes inside out, I felt strangely content. While I’ve never really feared death, these thoughts gave me a sentiment of perpetuity, that when I died my atoms would simply carry on their journey. While certain monotheisms see death as part of a divine plan, I simply saw it as Nature having enough of me, recycling my elements to give another life the chance to see the Universe we’re all so lucky to be a part of. My body, like yours, is simply on loan from the Universe, and when we’re done that’s where it will return.
It’s never mattered to me whether or not there is an afterlife or anything metaphysical beyond this, but my Pagan awareness had confirmed that this life is surely special enough. I hear so often people talking of a future, eternal existence that I feel the need to remind them that while they are looking towards a life they cannot know is real, they are missing out on the only life they know truly exists. And while Paganism offers no certainty about the meaning of our existence, it offers us the humility to say, “yep, this is bloody marvellous”.
The Green Man now at an ashy end, I tried again to think of spirits and how the Pagans of the past attempted to communicate with them. It struck me as strange that although these people knew nothing of the wills of their Gods, they assumed burning people and things would cover all bases. Of course when they saw that this wasn’t necessarily the right way to go about things, they put it on hold, a point in history now known as “the time of the great realisation”.
I, along with everyone else, no longer believed we were bargaining with Gods, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy and appreciate the symbolism. While other Religions can sometimes force people to believe or leave, this did what Religions were always supposed to do, it brought people together. Whatever their backgrounds, whatever their sexuality, whatever their race, we were all here together, watching a beautiful metaphor.