Wednesday, October 12, 2011

To be a Witch or to be Pagan

So this is kind of a side note to the general food theme of this blog, but it's something that I think relates closely so I'm going to post it here.

I recently read The Witches' Book of the Dead and early on in the book the author talks about what exactly a Witch is. He differentiates witchcraft from Wicca rather strongly.

In the early 1950's, a new image of the Witch emerged in the form of modern Wicca, which portrays Witchcraft as an ancient fertility cult that worships a god and a goddess. Blended together from bits of pre-Christian religions, Freemasonry, and nineteenth-century ceremonial magic, Wicca incorporates magic into its practices, but it is often secondary to worship. While it is true that some historical Witches have been associated with this deity or that, religious devotion did not define those individuals as Witches, and was certainly not the reason they were both vilified and deified-their power was. (Day, pg 8)

Throughout the book Day draws on images of witches from Greek mythology as well as several other mythologies. His examples while not specifically used as a way to reinforce this statement do an excellent job of performing that task anyway. The excerpt above could be argued, and certainly wicca and modern paganism as a whole drawn considerably from a Magickal background. This background gives strong ties to the power that Christian Day invokes at the end of the passage above.

There is also no avoiding the fact that many modern pagans do not make magick a strong part of their regular practice. It would be easy if you thought of paganism and witchcraft as synonymous to think of these individuals as "weekend" pagans. Much like members of more mainstream religions who make it out to church on high holy days, but at no other time. Personally I feel this gives the matter much less thought and evaluation than it is worth.

Another book that I am currently working my way through is The Modern Pagan: How to Live a Natural Lifestyle in the 21st Century. This text deals with a completely non religious paganism, and in fact takes some issue with the modern use of the word as having intrinsically religious meanings.

Traditional, or true, paganism, in the fundamental but modernized form described in the second part of the book, is essentially a practical, survival lifestyle. But it has during the last two hundred years increasingly attracted interest from individuals and groups wishing to overlay their own customized spirituality upon it. In one sense this simply represents the creation of other religions, and mirrors the processes that Christians applied to Celtic paganism centuries earlier. But certain groups, of which wiccans are perhaps the best known, have retained far more in common with traditional pagans than Christians after the Middle Ages were ever prepared to countenance, and as such these groups often refer to themselves today as pagan, or are so styled by others. Traditional pagans would take issue with this on the grounds that the overlaying of a spiritual element on the basic pagan folk culture takes such groups beyond the boundaries of true paganism. Moreover, the persistent use of the word 'pagan' to describe such groups has led to much confusion over who is pagan and who is not. I can but emphasize my own position that true paganism is non-spiritual . . . (Day, 9-10)

Now, being a "spiritual pagan" I'm not quite ready to give up the term, and I don't entirely agree with the argument that using the term pagan is inappropriate given some of the things that modern neo-paganism emphasizes. However, this passage even if you disagree with the extent of the argument illuminates a very interesting dynamic that is not often discussed. We refer to ourselves as witches, and own the identity that goes with that term, yet at the same time when someone asks a random pagan what being pagan is all about we tend to give some description of the roots of the word pagan. That is to say paganus which meant rural, rustic, a person of the country or land. I've heard this described using a few other terms, but it's always generally along those lines. So was the house wife who toiled day in and day out to do such mundane things as make a home, and help with harvest, and tend the land in general a witch? Would she have thought of herself as a witch? No she would not. There were certainly witches in the days of classic paganism. Wise men and women who tended the unknown things. There are plenty of stories of the local medicine woman, shaman, or druid and the wonders they could perform. Truly modern witches are inheritors of that lineage, but what of the common folk? Do modern neo-pagans have to be inheritors of both the unknown realms of ancient workers of craft as well as the general paganus of the time? No, we don't have to be inheritors of both these realms. Let's be honest though the majority of us are to some varying degree.

Anyone who has walked in modern neo-pagan circles long enough has run across the kitchen witch as it were. More concerned with gardens, sustainability, organic food, and carbon footprints than circles and elements. Though these individuals may practice wicca, or some other form of ancient pantheistic observance they often do not devote themselves to magick and the pursuit of its secrets, often specifically neglecting the aspects of modern neo-paganism that developed from the high magick from the turn to the 20th century.

What does any of this have to do with food and magick? In all honesty the issues I raised in my first blog post live in the intersection of these two paths. I do not want to say these paths are divergent, more that they are convergent. In the past while witches may have been pagan, in truth the craft which defined them as witches had nothing to do with religion, because the common folk often if not always followed the same devotional paths. In today's world this is not true; the pagan and the witch have been merged for better or worse. We seek the secrets of magick both ancient and new, and seek to rediscover the roots of the paganus who is so missed in the hustle and bustle of modern life. While some may be a bit more witch than pagan, and some may be a bit more pagan than witch it strikes me that it is worth the time to recognize that we walk a dual path, and to find the places where these paths can be brought together.

Food is a fundamental realm where this possibility can be realized. If our goals are to establish an energetic connection to nature and the naturalistic deities which call to us then food is an ideal medium. In many of the rituals I have attended there is a cup of wine passed around, and a nice piece of bread purchased at the store or local bakery. While these are not necessarily inappropriate offerings to those who watch over us, the use of purchased fare misses a significant opportunity to commune with the mythology and experiences of our divine patrons. There are two ways to approach offerings made in a modern pagan context. You can truly learn the desires and passions of those you worship via research, or communing with them through meditation and vision. You can also offer the Gods what is uniquely yours.

When we look at these options three very distinct forms display themselves. To offer the Gods what you have, what is valuable, what is available yet precious is the path of the pagan. The farmer who worked the land knew what came from the land, and his offerings were what was most precious to him, what he devoted himself to most dearly. The priests, and wise men and women on the other hand had the luxury of trying knowing the Gods. It was in fact the calling of the priests, Druids, and etc. to do just that. There may be a specific offering given at a specific time to a specific deity, and another appropriate offering at another time in another place. How specific these rites were of course varied, but it is the path of the priest to know these specifics. Witches were something of a different matter altogether. Understanding that historical context for witchcraft is problematic at best, but if we look at Day's description of the witch the one thing we can determine is that the cornerstone of the witch was his or her power. When we look at offerings we see then that the third option, the one where you create what is uniquely yours is very much the path that fits the traditional witch. On a quintessential level creating a manifestation of your creativity and will and bringing it into the world then sacrificing that manifestation to your deities is the path most appropriate to both the witch, and if you follow a more modern path the high ceremonial practitioner, for the most sacred things to both is their will and power.

To bring together the tight connection with the land and cycles held by pagans and to pursue the path of Magick and power are two things that have been brought together in the modern neo-pagan movement. Understanding what part of that lineage we are communing with is powerful in it's own right. Making conscious decisions when we provide offering to craft our will into the world and offer it to the Gods, or to commune with the inner desires of the Gods and spirits, or merely to offer up what is most precious of our world helps us connect more deeply with nature, our gods, and to ourselves. That at it's core is the power of taking the fruit of the land and making it a part of our ceremonial work.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Poverty and the Food of Poverty

Preserved Meats, Grappa, Coq Au Vin, and just about everything fermented that we consume as part of our diet today. What do they all have in common? They are "luxury items" at least in America, and often in their home countries as well, but at one time they were a staple of poverty eating.

Preserved Meats are now the ultimate in luxury items. Prosciutto for it's nutty lusciousness, applewood smoked varieties of ham in the US are prized for their carefully developed flavors, and even simple "country hams" that require long soaks to remove their unmanageable salt content are all considerably luxuries. For other meats it can be even more true, a bag of beef jerky at the store is now a luxury for someone who will buy it and eat it as a "snack" and then go and have a full meal with a complete compliment of protein a couple hours later. These meats were originally dried and eaten at a time when they were a core staple of one's diet in the cold months. Beef Jerky was a food of intense poverty. Only in a modern setting would we consider consuming beef jerky as a snack instead of our only meat for the day. Why only eat beef jerky when luscious fresh meat can be had at the store for so little in the middle of February?

Coq Au Vin, which is renowned for it's magnificence, its aroma, its delicate texture was a way to use up a Rooster at the end of it's life because no piece of meat, no matter how problematic to cook could be wasted. Now it's a slow cooked extravaganza, rarely ever prepared because of the intense amount of labor involved. Even most foodies I know wouldn't invest the multiple days it takes to make this dish properly

Then there's Grappa, the perfect example of a stable of poverty turned on its head. Grappa is a liquor made from the leftover grape skins, pulp and stems after wine is made. The commoners of the time would drink Grappa while wine was much more available to the upper classes. Nothing was wasted in that time. Now the name Grappa is protected in the European Union, there are strict standards that must be met in order for a drink to be called Grappa. To say this is a strange fate for a drink that was designed as a way to get one more strained use out of waste is a bit of an understatement.

These similar, but unrelated examples demonstrate the profound change in the way we think about food. In searching the internet for texts on paganism and food I have found blog posts about the ethics of eating that talk about local food, and the impact on the planet, and so on and so forth. One piece in particular about Pagan Food Restrictions struck me in the way it spoke about food. The author talks about organic food, and local food, and the environmental impact of shipping food. Then he references a local beef farm that he will not buy from because they grow corn and feed it to the cows, which is not what cows evolved to eat.

All of his points are valid, and speak to pagan ethics and morality and so I don't want to dismiss them, but at the same time they all very profoundly miss what I have always seen as the root of people's connection to the earth. That root is poverty. In the past we could not follow a recipe because there was no megamart around the corner to provide exactly what we wanted on a moment's notice. Our great grandmothers made culinary wonders with what grew in their gardens, and the animals they raised that would not live through the winter, and any number of other, often meager resources at hand. The spices and herbs that were indigenous to a part of the world defined the flavors of their native regions, simply because they were what was available.

I have spent the majority of my life watching my parents cook according to this philosophy, and then learning to cook by this philosophy myself. Over the years though as I have brought the fruits of my labors to work, to parties, and to cozy gatherings in the homes of my friends people often express awe at the food I make. Something about the praise for fare that was simple to make, and often improvised simply confuses me. What bothers me the most about this praise is how it demonstrates the rarity of the skills necessary to make such food.

There is another more specific story that profoundly drives home my point. I used to be a member of the labor union board for the clerical and technical workers at Indiana University. IU decided to begin a healthy living initiative related to their health insurance offerings. There are several such programs around the US, the idea being that if you get people to regularly get checked for major biometrics (cholesterol, blood pressure, BMI etc.) that you'll be able to reduce the amount you spend on health care because people will take better care of themselves overall. Repeatedly I heard the same refrain from staff as the details of this plan were being released. "I can't afford to eat healthy food". Several union members referenced Bloomingfoods, which is the local Bloomington equivalent of Whole Foods as being out of reach, and this somehow meant they had no choice but to continue to eat terribly. My mind reeled as I heard this refrain over and over and over again. What it amounts to is "I can't afford to buy raw ingredients and then work with them, so I will buy food that has someone else's labor already priced into it". The association of organic with "healthy" completely compromised their ability to think about food in the simple terms of "What's available, and what is the most that I can do with what I have?" That simple statement is I believe at the core of how to reestablish our connection to food and our own cycles.

The union sponsored 2 healthy cooking classes in an attempt to reach out the membership and help them to gain the skills necessary to cook for themselves and really dig in and discover how to cook for themselves. The other member who put these classes on with me had a very different perspective on how to teach the classes. He wanted to emphasize tradition, and luxurious ingredients, and . . . well to be honest a lot of things that resulted in high fat expensive meals. Yummmmmm. Or something. To this day I have never seen so much Parmesan thrown in one casserole before, and I pray to never see such a thing again.

All of this brings me back to the general disconnect between us and food. As pagans we are drawn to work with what's in season as part of our meditation on the land, its cycles, and the nature of the bounty provided to us. As people living in a time when money is scarce, and pinching every penny is important we should be buying what's in season because it will be affordable, and will help us to learn how to cook with a variety of ingredients. When we honor our ancestors we can meditate on their strength, and willingness to make for themselves. Not just make a dish, but to truly invent the dish a little bit every time we walk into the kitchen to cook. We should take part in these traditions ourselves, and when we invent something truly fantastic, when we craft the perfect batch of lasagna, the batch that we know we will likely never make quite the same way again it is a plate of that dish that belongs on the altars to our ancestors. While we cannot sacrifice the fatted calf that we toiled over, we can offer the best spoils of what labors we do perform, and in many ways that is the most powerful magick we have to offer.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Time for a Reset

Ok, so this was a very different blog earlier in the year. It was a blog about various restaurants in Bloomington Indiana because I desperately needed a way to express my thoughts and feelings about food. I used it to discuss food culture in Bloomington and to talk about the way the city had changed, as well as just . . . well review eateries.

Sadly for the blogs future, but joyously for my future I ended up being thrust into a move to Chicago shortly after beginning the blog. I knew I was bound for Chicago, but everything happened MUCH faster than my family's original plan (at least a year faster). Needless to say my investment in Bloomington food culture became somewhat more difficult to hold on to.

So now I find myself in Chicago and quite honestly the same sorts of reviews just don't seem as meaningful. Chicago has a thriving food culture, with critics and feedback. It is a myriad of mixed experiences and microcultures of gastronomic experience. Where as a complex critical voice was something Bloomington was sadly missing I don't feel that the same approach would bring something new to the Chicago conversation.

So I am taking the blog in an entirely different direction while leaving the archive in place. I have recently begun a much more devoted study of pagan religion and ritual than I have practiced over the past several years. As with all things spiritual I think religion and ritual can and should be tied into the aspects of our lives that are most significant.

In times past people put enormous amounts of energy and focus into food. There were royal chefs who's job it was not just to make sumptuous food, but food that balanced the 4 humors of the body. They were physician, magician, and guardian of the physical well being of the royalty, as much as any other person could possibly hope to be. In the east entire philosophies about the impact of foods on our bodies flourish wherever you look. A food might be particularly yin, cold and reserved, or particularly yang, hot and energetic, among a million and one other things. These systems are in many ways similar to the associations we use today in paganism correlating planets, to astrological signs, to elements, to aspects of the Kabbalistic system, to herbs, symbols, and components of the rituals we perform to manifest our will into the world.

In our modern world the old humor systems are largely gone, and while modern paganism draws much from eastern traditions, especially in much more recent times food, cooking, and it's magickal connection to the energy of our lives and existence has largely been ignored in the pursuit of magickal systems.

I recently decided to search for texts that explore these obvious connections but when I went digging all I could find was "Magick in Food: Legends, Lore and Spellword" by Scott Cunningham. This book is out of print and ranges from $22 something used on Barnes and Noble to over $40 for the 1 copy floating about on ebay at the time I performed my search. I as all pagans who discovered the path while they were younger am quite familiar with Cunningham's work. I tend to find his texts on general wicca and paganism a bit simplistic. However, his texts on more specific topics such as his work "The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews" are exceptionally useful texts. However, it was still very disappointing to find only one book that even came close to the topic I wanted to explore, and I am reluctant to spend that kind of money for any book published by Llewelyn. Not that the quality of their publishing is particularly poor, but it's hardly profound either.

One can find a plethora of books for the "kitchen witch", but they rarely focus on food. They rather focus on the kitchen and pantry as a storehouse for items associated with magick, but the fact that the kitchen is a place of cooking, and nurturing, and the love of a meal shared is an incidental aside in most of these texts. The fact is the kitchen is the center of the hedge witches magickal storeroom BECAUSE of its connection with food, cooking, family and love. It is not an incidental association.

We live in a time where we are disconnected from the earth and the place where that connection should have been the strongest, at the dinner table has ceased to tie us to the land. We live in a time where people fight to get food that is local because they want to be closer to the earth. What does that mean to a pagan who is trying to develop a relationship with the spirits of place? We live in a time when you can go to the store and purchase 5 chickens for an amount of money that while not ignorable isn't really substantial in terms of our entire existence. In the past you labored and worked to get your chickens to be fully grown, and they represented not just meat, but eggs, and the potential of future chicks. So when you sacrificed a chicken who was in her prime you were sacrificing much. What does this change mean to a modern practitioner who is trying to appease their patron deities? Yes, you can pour some wine from the corner store, and place some bread from the corner bakery, and maybe you even bought the good port wine from the local winery, and the nice fresh bread from the artisan baker, but are you connected to that food the way the farmer who raised and cared for the beast they sacrificed, or the peasant who grew the grain, and dried the grain, and cultivated the yeast from a culture older than they were to make the bread to break on the altar of the gods, in hope that it would result in another harvest that would allow them to make sacrifice again? What's more, what do the answers to these questions even mean, and what would you do with that knowledge once you answered them?

In the days when paganism was the religion of the peasant, the religion of the Latin Paganus rustic country dweller these connections were so intrinsic that our ancestors didn't need to think about them. They could not escape their connection to the land, for they lived or died at its whim. If we truly seek to reclaim that heritage, that connection to the earth then we must dig into what was done in the past and consciously cultivate what our ancestors took for granted. We must also understand that while the critical connection caused by this inherently natural connection has unquestionably been lost, what does it mean in our modern fast paced, Android, Boxee, Google Plus world to rediscover it. The connection will not look like it did to those who came before us, but as the disconnection from our food and the land has lead to a world where obesity and malnutrition can exist in the same package, so too I believe it has left a hole in our pagan spirit, and our magick. I will not pretend to understand the full nature of that gap, but it is something that I cannot separate my mind from. So I seek it out as truth, in whatever form I may discover it.

I have left the archive up because while my previous posts are not explicitly pagan in nature, many of my thoughts on place and heritage, and the meaning of food is contained within those posts from my time randomly reviewing eateries in Bloomington. I will sometimes post something intrinsically pagan, and I will sometimes post something that is little more than a meditation on food and our lives. It is impossible to avoid the implications of the unseen connections we have with food and the land, and sometimes you have to just look at the world to realize that magick and spirit reside in the most mundane of items, places, and thoughts.