I can listen to Andras Corban Arthen all day. He has a rich, low voice with the gentle cadence of caring. He has a lifetime of experience in the Pagan community, and the depth of perception and the wisdom of his words keeps you riveted. He is presenting and performing all next week at Sacred Harvest Festival, near Geneva, Minnesota. Advance registration closes today, gate registration is available during the event Aug. 6-12th.
You are just back from Europe, what were you doing there?
Andras: I go to Europe fairly often, since I have family and friends across the pond (I’m from Spain, originally), and a big part of my work is focused there. This trip served several purposes, the main one being related to a book I am writing, based on one of the presentations I will be doing at Sacred Harvest Festival (SHF) entitled The “Indians” of Old Europe. It looks at the cultures and spiritual practices that were originally called “Pagan” in the context of indigenous traditions from around the world. For over 35 years I’ve been searching for people in Europe who may be keeping alive the remnants of the old ethnic spiritual traditions of their countries, and have found some, both in Eastern and Western Europe, mostly in small, rural, out-of-the-way places where the old languages are still spoken. Most of them do not use the label “Pagan,” though their practices are not Christian and appear to be authentically very old. In some significant ways, they are quite different from what one typically finds in the modern pagan movement, and there are some important things that I think we could learn from them. When I first met these people I hadn’t been planning to publish a book, so before going further with this I needed to go back to touch base with them in person and ask for permission to write about them, their beliefs, and practices. I was able to do that with four of them, and in two of those cases wound up getting more information than I had before, so I’m pretty satisfied on that account.
I serve on the board of trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR), and since I was going to be in Spain, I was asked by one of the organization’s task forces to meet with some of our interfaith partners in Barcelona who helped us organize the PWR that was held there in 2004, to discuss the forthcoming Parliament scheduled for Brussels in 2014. It was a very interesting and productive meeting, and it was really encouraging to hear about the important inter-religious work that is taking place throughout predominantly Catholic Spain, particularly in support of minority religions. I also was able to meet with several Spanish pagan friends, some of them people I’ve known for a long time and who’ve been influential in developing the current Pagan movement there. And, toward the end of my trip, my wife Deirdre joined me so we could have a little vacation just by ourselves, something that we haven’t done in ages, and so I could show her the parts of Spain where my family is from. I’m pretty exhausted at the moment, especially as I’ve been on the road since early June, so I’m hoping to get a chance to rest a bit this week before embarking on another six weeks of travel starting with SHF, which I am really looking forward to.
What countries did you focus on?
For my work on the book during this trip I focused on Scotland, Britanny, and Euskal Herria and Nafarroa in the Basque country of Spain. In my experience, the survivals of ethnic pagan practices in Western Europe have been much harder to find than those in Eastern Europe, where many of them, in countries such as Lithuania and Latvia, for instance, are more open and above ground, probably because they were Christianized quite a bit later than most places in Western Europe, and also because, strange though it may sound, the Soviet occupation may have actually served as a preserving agent for those traditions in modern times. Participants in the SHF workshop will get a preview of the material I have been working on.
What do you personally practice?
I inherited my practices from my teachers, who were part of a family that originally came from a small community in the Gaelic-speaking Highlands of Scotland. They didn’t have a “religion” as such, but a traditional way of life which had a deep spirituality integrated within it, a spirituality which was very organic and which, I suppose, could be labeled animistic rather than theistic. It is fundamentally a way to commune with the great mystery that envelops everything we experience, everything we are, through a very direct and ecstatic engagement with Nature.
How can modern Pagans access these experiences?
This is one of the things that I often try to address in my presentations. In the modern world, when people talk about Paganism, they typically frame it as part of a dichotomy between polytheism and monotheism. That’s certainly one way of looking at it, but it isn’t the only way. And it is actually a Christian construct, it’s how Christianity, as it came into power, defined Paganism, particularly in reference to the Romans and the Greeks. But the older, original definition of Paganism placed it in the context of a very different dichotomy, one between rural and urban cultures. The original “Pagans” were country people, essentially tribal people dwelling in small villages and settlements, who lived directly off the land, who grew and gathered edible plants, who were hunters, and fishers, and herders, who engaged the natural world directly on a daily basis and depended upon it. In Nature there is a balance, and within that balance, humans exist as part of the natural world in the same way that animals, trees, mountains and rivers exist, but we are just one part of the whole, not greater than it — Nature doesn’t exist for our benefit. Urban culture was very different, in that cities were built, in part, to create a buffer between people and the natural world, and to cater to human needs, priorities and comfort above all else. They effectively separate us from Nature, and foster the attitude that we’re more important than the rest of the natural world, and hence are entitled to use it (even abuse it) and control it as we see fit. Given that modern Paganism is almost exclusively an urban phenomenon, that separation can create a very deep conflict within us, between our desire to honor and venerate the natural world, and the urban cultural conditioning that has shaped us, and because that conditioning is by now so deep and so pervasive, it can be very difficult for us to be aware of that conflict, even though it’s affecting our lives all the time. I find it very interesting that, as I mentioned earlier, the survivals of ethnic forms of Paganism which I have found in Europe are all in remote rural areas.
For modern Pagans, this is, I think, a very important question: How can we really experience the deep Nature-centered roots of our ancient practices while living in an urban environment? For my community, the answer was for some of us to leave the city and move to a much more remote and natural place, and then to make it available to the others who stayed. They come for workshops, for rituals, for retreats and can engage in a more direct relationship with the natural world than they are able to in the city.
What exactly is the EarthSpirit Community?
It is an organization that focuses on developing and preserving Earth-centered culture and community, particularly the European pagan traditions. EarthSpirit was established in 1977 to serve primarily the greater Boston area, though it grew pretty quickly into a regional organization, and then over the years it’s expanded to include a national and international membership. We work to develop community by providing services that will bring like-minded people together and offering them the means to deepen their spiritual practices and integrate them within their lives. We organize four annual community gatherings, the largest of which, Rites of Spring, is one of the oldest Pagan events of its kind, going on 35 years. We also offer classes, seasonal ceremonies, cultural and artistic events, community forums, special programs for young Pagans. We are also very involved in inter-religious dialogue at various levels, and we do a good bit of outreach to communities and organizations which don’t specifically define themselves as Pagan, but whose aims and values are compatible with ours. The core group of people who help to coordinate EarthSpirit numbers over 100, and we have somewhere between 1500-2000 members who are regularly engaged in our events and activities, with another couple of thousand throughout the country and abroad who are much less regularly involved. A substantial number of our core members have been part of EarthSpirit for 20-30 years, so we have a fairly cohesive group of people who’ve worked and interacted personally for a long time, and that helps a lot to sustain the vision and the integrity of our community, especially when tensions and conflicts arise, as they inevitably do. It also allows new members to assimilate into the community much more easily.
EarthSpirit is a ‘landed’ Community?
Yes, about twenty years ago a lot of the core group that coordinates EarthSpirit began moving away from the metropolitan Boston area to look for land toward the western, more rural part of Massachusetts. We landed at Glenwood, which is a working, 135-acre farm in the Berkshire Hills, in a little valley surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest, and ever since we moved out here quite a few EarthSpirit members have followed suit, so now there are about 50 or so of us living very near each other. We have goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits and a llama. We have fruit trees and a good-size organic garden that provides most of our produce for the year. We make our own maple syrup, and provide the local country store with fresh eggs. Since 1996, Glenwood has also functioned as a pagan community and conference center, where we host workshops, meetings, concerts, films, dances, handfastings, community gatherings, retreats and ceremonies. Over the years we’ve built several ritual spaces to honor our sacred connection with this land, such as a stone circle, a 60-foot labyrinth, an ancestor shrine and a fire circle. We also hold the smallest of our seasonal gatherings here: Lùnasdal, the harvest festival, which usually involves around 150 people or so.
Do you still have an active role in the EarthSpirit Community ?
Yes, I still have a very active role in it, it is my community, the main focus of my life. The main thing that has changed is that, for the last 10-15 years, I haven’t been as involved as I used to be in the day-to-day running of EarthSpirit , since I have been doing a lot more traveling, teaching, and interfaith work on behalf of the organization.
What will your performance at Sacred Harvest Festival be like?
I mostly do music that is not specifically pagan, but that feels very “pagan-compatible” to me, and I also do some storytelling.Usually I perform by myself, but also sometimes with Deirdre as well as with EarthSpirit’s ritual performance group, MotherTongue, which has put out several recordings and has performed both nationally and internationally. One of the main building blocks for EarthSpirit has been a body of ritual songs and chants that we have evolved over the years. They are specific to our community, and provide a common sacred ground for our members. Our community rituals are full of singing, instrumental music, drumming, and chanting. I look forward to sharing some of those chants at SHF.
What do Pagans need to know to do interfaith work?
We have a lot to gain by engaging in interfaith dialogue with members of other religions: understanding, acceptance, respect and credibility, for instance, which can help protect our rights as members of minority religions, and potentially make our lives a lot easier. Many people incorrectly assume that interfaith dialogue involves debating theology with others; it doesn’t. Inter-religious dialogue is about finding common ground, and beliefs can be polarizing and get in the way of that. But religion is not just about beliefs, it is also about service, about taking care of others, about addressing the problems of the world. Common ground is more easily found by focusing on that. Those who get involved in interfaith work tend to represent the most liberal elements in their respective traditions, and a lot of them are motivated by a strong sense of social justice, by a desire to right wrongs and help to fix some of the more vexing problems that face the world. Those good intentions don’t just wipe away all their prejudices, their misconceptions and their fears, but they do at least open the door for those things to be addressed, especially if it is done in a patient and respectful manner.
Not everyone has the temperament for this kind of work. Besides patience, one needs to have a pretty thick skin, to be diplomatic and polite, and to have really good listening skills. And, perhaps more important of all, is the ability to step outside ourselves as much as possible, to see us as others see us. It also really helps to be able to formulate clear and concise ways of describing our practices and beliefs, particularly in a way that others will be able to relate to in the context of their own religions. Having at least a basic knowledge of what other religions are about is also important.
Interestingly enough, I think that the main problem many Pagans have found in inter-religious dialogue is not so much an unwillingness to let us sit at the table (though, of course, that does happen sometimes), but just the opposite: that we are not only welcomed at the table, but that, in fact, people are eager to hear Pagan perspectives on any number of important issues such as hunger, war, poverty, the death penalty, same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. It’s not simply a question of having personal opinions about such topics — everybody has those — but of being able to articulate positions that are founded on Pagan spiritual principles, and in so doing, to enable those of other religions to gain a better sense of Pagan religion, morality and ethics. That’s hard for a lot of Pagans to do, because our movement hasn’t been very inclined to deal with such topics. So the question for Pagans is, what do we have to say? What do we have to offer? As we step through that door of interfaith work, what do we bring? Something like this can be a challenge, but it can also be a valuable opportunity for us to explore and deepen our own sense of what it means to be a Pagan and, in the process, to build and strengthen our own communities.
Andras Corban Arthen is making a rare Midwest festival appearance at Sacred Harvest Festival this year. I highly recommend this opportunity to hear and learn from a legend of the national Pagan community. Advance registration closes today at midnight, gate registration is available during the event Aug. 6-12th. View a schedule of his daily presentations next week.