Friday, December 28, 2007

Mistletoe, schmistletoe

I must say I am getting rather tired of reading blog posts and web pages about Yule that claim all sorts of Pagan symbolism for stuff that only goes back as far as the eighteenth century, such as mistletoe (and I am a Pagan). If people are going to hold forth on this or any other topic, they should check their facts first. I guess it's partly a tit-for-tat response to the type of Christians who want to purge Christmas of Pagan influence.

People ought to read Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain which debunks some of the wilder claims and establishes what is really ancient and Pagan about Christmas customs - namely, bringing greenery into the house, and giving presents (which was a Saturnalia custom).

As Adventus says, it's very unlikely that people knew the exact date of the solstice, but they would obviously have wanted to rest and feast during the short days and long nights around the solstice. Also, as he further points out, it's rather insulting to our ancestors to assume that they feared the sun wouldn't come back, or they were afraid of Odin.

Whatever, I think there are both Pagan and Christian impulses and symbolism in Yuletide and Christmas, and we should not try to purge the Pagan festival of Christian impulses, or the Christian festival of Pagan impulses, but rejoice in the delightful smorgasbord that is the season.

Actually, axial tilt is the reason for the season - but humans are storytelling apes, after all, and we love a good story. And the Nativity, whether true or not, and whichever god is being born in a cave or a stable, is a very good story.

Benazir Bhutto

I was deeply saddened to learn that Benazir Bhutto has been murdered. I have always admired her for standing up for democracy and people's rights, for being a woman not afraid to speak her mind in a patriarchal culture, and for trying to limit the power of feudal landlords. She was the first woman prime minister of Pakistan. I also thought it was brave of her to return to Pakistan for the current election campaign.

Please sign a petition to demand an investigation into who was responsible for Benazir Bhutto's death, and stop violence in Pakistan. I don't know how much good it will do, but it's a gesture of solidarity with Benazir Bhutto, at least. Of course one should not have to sign a petition to ensure someone's killers are brought to justice, and it is to be hoped that President Musharraf's government will be carrying out an investigation anyway.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Northern Lights

We went to see the film Golden Compass last night, and really enjoyed it. Generally speaking, Lyra's world was pretty close to the way I imagined it from reading the books. The alethiometer was beautifully designed, and the daemons worked well too, especially Pantalaimon and Hester. Also Nicole Kidman was very scary as Mrs Coulter (though her monkey daemon wasn't quite how I imagined him), Eva Green was excellent as Serafina Pekkala, and all the casting was rather inspired, I thought. The CGI was 99% convincing, apart from one aerial shot of London (slightly blurred, but I notice there is a Gherkin in Lyra's world too) and the fight scene between Iorek Byrnisson and Ragnar (not as much blood as one might have expected, but perhaps that's just as well in a children's film).

Serafina PekkalaApparently the Vatican has complained that the film is anti-Christian, but I say, if the Catholic Church recognises itself in the mirror held up to it by the Magisterium, maybe it should do something to clean up its image. Stop telling people what to think, and people like Philip Pullman will stop writing unflattering portraits of your religion. Note what a good press witches (nonconformists and freethinkers all) get from the book and the film. If Christianity had stuck to the radical message of Jesus instead of transmogrifying itself into the heir to the Roman Empire, then it wouldn't bear such a close resemblance to the Magisterium.

It is your values that count, not what you believe.


In a move worthy of a Jeunet & di Caro film, a cultural "guerrilla" group has restored the clock of the Panthéon in Paris. They are called UnterGunther.
For a year from September 2005, under the nose of the Panthéon's unsuspecting security officials, a group of intrepid "illegal restorers" set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building's famous dome. Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s. Only when their clandestine revamp of the elaborate timepiece had been completed did they reveal themselves.
That is awesome - not only did they sneak into the building under the noses of the curators, but they restored the clock and built themselves a small living room, which is rather chic. They were recently cleared by the Paris Court of Justice of breaking any laws.

» More photos at (he compares it to an Umberto Eco novel)
» Interview with Lazar Kunstmann, a member of UnterGunther

Friday, December 14, 2007

save the "witch children"

Children who are accused of witchcraft in Africa have been beaten, abused, abandoned and even killed. This scandalous state of affairs is exacerbated by the arrival of evangelical Christianity in Africa.

Now there is a charity which helps children accused of witchcraft, and gives them a new start in life. It's called Stepping Stones Nigeria, and you can donate via PayPal.

If you're having any sort of social event, please consider using it as a fundraiser for these kids.
I have created a facebook group to promote awareness of this issue.

ban incandescent bulbs

The Irish have just banned incandescent lightbulbs, and the ban will come into effect by 2009.

In this country, they have introduced a voluntary scheme to come into effect by 2011, which is pathetic and will have no effect, as a number of major retailers have no intention of complying.

You can send a letter (via the Greenpeace website) to the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asking for a proper ban.

what kids really want

According to a series of interviews by the BBC, what children really want from their education is more time to learn about other cultures and the world around them, more innovative use of technology, more social networking, and more support services. I'm surprised there was no mention of the environment, but was heartened by the interests expressed.

I think education should start by discussing the world as it is, and then use that as a starting-point to explain how it came to be that way. For example, when I was at school we studied the Tudors and the Stuarts - presumably because that was the period when the current arrangements of Church, State, Parliament and so on came into being - but if that was the reason for studying those periods of history, no-one ever said so explicitly. If they had, people might have found the topic more interesting.


watercolour day
muted green, brown and copper -
painted pheasant struts.

mist obscures the hills,
familiar shapes soft grey,
a world of spirits.

birch leaves, golden coins
hang motionless on the tree -
winter's treasure hoard

climate change petition

24 hours to go, and crisis at the Bali climate talks. In the last day alone, over 150,000 of us have surged to the global rescue -- calling on the world not to give in to wrecking tactics by the governments of the US, Canada and Japan. We're putting a full-page ad in the Jakarta Post?s summit edition where all the negotiators will see it, warning them to avert Titanic-like disaster -- and we're coming together with other NGOs to deliver millions of signatures for climate action to governments.

If the world can muster well over 200,000 crisis signatures in the last 24 hours for our actions tomorrow, we can show negotiators how urgently we care about setting a course for decisive climate action.

Last week, things in Bali looked good: near-consensus on a delicate framework of 2020 targets for rich countries, in return for which China and the developing world would do their part over time. IPCC scientists have said such targets are needed to prevent catastrophe. But Japan, the US and Canada are banding together to wreck the deal. The rest of the world is starting to waver, so we must do all we can - please sign the petition.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bristol Interfaith Midwinter Circle

We went to the Bristol Interfaith Midwinter Circle last night, and it was fabulous. Each community representative lit a candle on the main table before offering their contribution.

Muslim contribution – Samina Aslam & children – relating to the Prophet Ibrahim & the Hajj, also a Sufi poem by Rumi. This was great, because Samina told the story of Hagar / Hajar from the perspective of Islam, and it is slightly expanded from the Biblical version. I always thought it was sad that Hagar was sent away, so was glad to know that she was looked after (it mentions the spring and the idea that she was the ancestor of a nation in the Bible).

Progressive Jewish Congregation contribution – Rabbi Ron Berry – celebration of Chanukah, and about the Hanukiah. The Chanukah story is always rather moving, and also he lit a candle next to the Muslim candle, which was deeply symbolic in many ways.

Christian contribution – June Ridd – telling us about the significance of Advent. I never knew that each of the four Advent candles stood for something different: the first week is the Prophets, the second week is the Patriarchs, the third week is John the Baptist, and the fourth week is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais contribution – Angela Parr – a reading & a poem. She read from Baha'ullah and then a poem by John Masefield, Laugh and be merry.
So we must laugh and drink from the deep blue cup of the sky,
Join the jubilant song of the great stars sweeping by,
Laugh, and battle, and work, and drink of the wine outpoured
In the dear green earth, the sign of the joy of the Lord.
Buddhist community of Lam Rim contribution – Mike Austin – he read from the Capala Sutra, which reminds Buddhists how to stay awake.

Hindu contribution - an explanation of the daily Aarti ceremony and how it employs the symbolism of the five elements (sky, air, fire, earth, water); a mantra that goes with it; and a reading about the spiritual journey in Hinduism, which culminates in moksha, union with the Divine.

Pagan contribution – Yvonne Aburrow and Nick Hanks – a brief overview of the Pagan customs of Yuletide, past and present. I talked about Saturnalia as the inversion of the usual social order; Yule as the turning point in the wheel of the year, and the oldest known symbols of Yule, which are the antlered man and the old woman; and the Pagan origins of decking the house with greenery and exchanging gifts. Nick talked about how Pagans celebrate Yule now, and about the symbolism of the Christmas tree.

Unitarian contribution – Bernard Omar read a piece about the interfaith significance of the scouting movement, and the interfaith commitments of Unitarianism. He also had the lights turned out during his reading, and read by candlelight, and invited us to imagine we were sitting around a large bonfire, like the Scouts!

Sokka Gakai contribution – Will Grealish led the chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, a mantra from the Lotus Sutra.

Sikh contribution – Mr Singh Bisla & priests - singing accompanied by harmonium & tabla. This was very beautiful and full of yearning for the Divine.

interpreters betrayed

I am absolutely disgusted by the betrayal of the Iraqi interpreters and other people who worked for the British in Iraq.

Safa, 28, one of the rejected interpreters who worked for the British for more than two years, received a letter from the Locally Employed Staff Assistance Office in Basra which said: “We have considered your case very carefully but we are sorry to inform you that, because your service with the British Forces was terminated for absence, you do not meet the minimum employment criteria for this scheme.”

Safa told The Times that he had never resigned but had been forced to stop working after receiving two bullets and a written death threat at his house in Basra in April. Married with one child, he said that he was advised by an army liaison officer and intelligence officials to stay at home until he felt safe.

A few months later the interpreter contacted the military to see if he could return only to be told that he was not needed but would be called if an opening arose.

Talk about faceless bureaucracy. Not to mention perfidious Albion, high-handed colonialism, and outrageous betrayal of good faith.

The government needs to help these people, and fast.

Lynne Featherstone MP has posted an entry on her blog today about how you
can help keep up the pressure on the government on this issue

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

my daemon is...

RAVEN - Your daemon may be a member of the crow family. You are intelligent, observant, and gregarious. Just as a crow or raven picks shiny objects out of the dirt, you pick up tidbits of information or ideas and store them away. You have a good sense of humour, but sometimes lose patience with people who are antipathic to your nature. You are swift to alert others when you find the truth, and you have no tolerance for those who would hide it.

Take this quiz!
His Dark Materials

Saturday, December 08, 2007

just plain thick

People like this should not be allowed to spout their nonsense in the public domain:
The new co-host of "The View," Sherri Shepherd, insisted Tuesday that Christianity was older than ancient Greece, and even Judaism.
Even Whoopi Goldberg didn't seem too sure whether there were any Christians around at the time of Epicurus (341-270 BCE), even though she was pretty sure there weren't. Hmm, you would have thought the popular usage "BC" would have been a big clue...

I would imagine that even creationists, who are total numbskulls, know that Judaism predated Christianity, because the Bible makes it clear that Judaism came first (unless the reader is severely intellectually challenged). It also mentions the other religions that were around at the time when Christianity started, and which fairly obviously predate it (e.g. in the Book of Acts when the silversmiths of Ephesus raise a clamour against Paul, saying "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians").

You would have thought that before somebody went on TV to talk about Epicurus (or any other topic), they would be required to get their facts straight. Not only does this woman think that there have always been Christians (what, even in prehistory?) but she also said earlier this year that she didn't know if the world was flat or round.

This would be funny if it wasn't deeply, deeply tragic that this kind of nudnik is actually allowed on TV, or indeed, allowed out on their own without supervision.

[Thanks to Caroline Tully for sending me this.]

Friday, December 07, 2007

plastic shamans

Fresh controversy has broken out over the issue of plastic shamans and other new-age wannabes ripping off Indigenous American rituals. Jason Pitzl-Waters comments:
While I think that modern Pagans and polytheists should strive towards solidarity (when feasible) with those who practice pre-Christian faiths and rituals, our support should never be confused with the notion that we have a "right" to "borrow" (and take out of cultural context) their spiritual practices for our own benefit. Empathy for the Indian struggle does not confer the right to appropriate Native traditions and practices. Praying like an Indian doesn't help the Indian preserve their culture and integrity, it only serves our vanity and dilutes authentic practice.
There's an excellent article about Responsible Eclecticism and Cultural Appropriation which outlines the difference - basically if you take someone else's ritual and plonk it down in your spiritual context with no thought about what you are doing, that is cultural appropriation. If in addition to that, the group you have borrowed from is in danger of having its culture and land-rights stomped all over by mainstream culture, and you do nothing to help them in their struggle, that is the pits. And most of the plastic shamans have done nothing to assist in the indigenous struggle for self-determination, they've just ripped off their rituals and made a great deal of money out of them.

If on the other hand you look for parallels within your own tradition, and adapt the borrowing to your own context (an example being centering prayer, which is an adaptation of meditation) that is responsible eclecticism.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I am Che

...hear me roar!

I used to have a photo of me aged about 14 wearing a beret and looking like Che (only without the beard) but unfortunately I lost it.

[meme via gamoonbat]

prison for religious bigots

A pair of religious bigots who posted entirely false and unsubstantiated allegations of "satanic" child abuse on their web site have been given a nine month prison sentence in Australia.

Such allegations could have extremely serious consequences for the victims (and have had such consequences in the past), so it is only right and proper that the people making untrue allegations like this should be jailed. This case should also establish a precedent for clearing other bigoted and libellous nonsense off the internet, such as this list of supposedly dodgy organisations (some of which are not dodgy), which should be replaced with this list of how to spot the warning signs of a dodgy group (see the section 'Some danger signals to watch for').

Read the Australian OTO press release for more details. Also see the Wild Hunt for more background information.