Originally published in Brigid's Fire magazine, February 2012
As pagans we aspire to be connected to the Earth to live harmoniously via a spiritual relationship with deity as we see it – be it goddess and god or various polytheistic forms. This would seem to be an aspiration of virtually all pagans – Wiccans, Druids, Shamans, Witches etc. and pagans who wear no particular badge.
Much is talked of or written about fostering this relationship with the land but there is a big difference between thinking, talking and actually making concrete steps to manifest that relationship in a real and permanent sense. For some, religion or spirituality is simply a lifestyle choice, something that triggers certain emotions and fulfills certain needs but which can be picked up and put down again at will. I’ve heard such people being described derisively as ‘weekend warriors’ and perhaps such a put-down is not entirely unwarranted.
f we take paganism seriously as a path in life and not the equivalent to a cynical weekly visit to church, the mosque, synagogue etc; then that requires a level of commitment way above lip service if there is going to be any real connection, relationship and spiritual growth. If we look at earth-based ‘indigenous’ religions they are all grounded in the mythology of the people and the land on which they live and how they live. Connection and relationship with the land is central and essential in their religious spiritual lives and taking away their history (real and mythological) has been a major weapon in destroying such cultures and communities.
A perfect example of cultural destruction is the colonization of the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti & Domincan Republic) which was once entirely populated by the Taino people. This one time paradise, occupied by peaceful and welcoming people became a hell under Columbus - leading to mass suicide by those not murdered or enslaved, also the forests were felled and the land denuded. Within sixty years the original population was extinct and the land became totally impoverished. The current population, still victims of Columbus’ legacy, are descended mainly from African slaves and most live in desperate poverty to this day.
Lands that have been ravaged like Hispaniola generally have indigenous peoples (if they still exist) that have also been ravaged. Those that have recovered to any extent from colonization have done so through their connection with their past, their ancient culture and the land itself. Looking at Ireland, it is perhaps uniquely placed in Europe as a country that has retained much of its indigenous culture.
The story of the land and its peoples still exists and was written down for posterity in Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Invasions. A dark and terrible history of this land, it tells the story of the first arrivals from Banba and Parthenon through to the Milesians (sons of Míl) that are the ancestors of the modern Irish race. Despite subsequent invasion by Vikings, Normans (and their descendants) the Gaelic culture has survived, albeit somewhat weakened and in some respects largely forgotten.
We are lucky indeed that this history, both written and oral, together with a vast body of lore and mythology still exists and it is this that bears witness to a relationship with the land that is far deeper and stronger than that of the disconnected and self-absorbed modern age. It is clear that our ancestors lived outdoors to a far greater extent than most of us do now, with many of them living semi-nomadic lives and their relationship with the land was direct. Even recent generations clearly have or had a deep connection to the land, even if they were entirely non-Pagan in their religious beliefs. This is even today evident in the testimony of writers such as Michael Gallagher or Joe McGowan who grew up among people with a genuine connection, love, respect and understanding of the land they lived on.
Sadly, most of us have not grown up with that deep relationship with the land or with a deep knowledge of the lore and myth relating to it. For most of us it is a case of building and fostering that relationship over time. One cannot simply put down the remote control and soda can, drive to a forest and start communing with the land – it just does not work like that! Just like relations with people – who tend to remember neglect, disrespect, ignorance, aggression etc. the land does not readily respond to overtures from those that have a history of not treating it well.
As someone who has worked with the land, like others who have experienced the same thing – I have felt the pain and sadness of the land, which has suffered under much bloodshed and also been abused greatly by humanity. If we wish to commune with the land and the spirits that live on and in it in any real sense then we need to make the changes in ourselves for that to happen and also work to facilitate the healing of the land on a spiritual and physical level. After all, it is us that needs the land and us who relies on it for all things, the land does not need us – it will survive with or without our presence.
First and foremost in establishing that relationship is humility and respect – understanding that humanity is not the centre of all things and also understanding that how we have increasingly been living for the last few centuries is not respectful to the Earth. We all talk about change, saving the environment, living in harmony etc. but then, talk is cheap. How many of us actually live those sentiments, every day, throughout the day whenever we possibly can? Most of us quickly forget, seduced by the television’s siren song or the every-day hassles of modern existence.
We are now at a critical point in human history, a time in which we need to make a existential choice between exploitation and equilibrium. This is more a spiritual choice than it is intellectual – because it is our core beliefs and emotional responses that dictate everything we do. When we wish to change deep within our hearts then the change takes on a character beyond dry intellectualism – a genuine desire to change will manifest itself. The luxury of putting off our good intentions until tomorrow and yet another tomorrow is rapidly slipping away, like sand through our fingers. If ever there was a time to sincerely decide whether we are of the Earth or simply just on it, then that time is now. So I implore you, make that choice and live it with conviction in every waking moment, in all that you say and all that you do – only then are we truly worthy of calling ourselves pagans.
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