Friday, June 22, 2012

The Stonehenge Adventure

Few words could describe the events of the Summer (really?) Solstice at Stonehenge. Since Conner blogged about it, I will post a few supplementary pictures which will hopefully tell the tale of last night/morning.

the last time we smiled that night

they looked quite nice until the torrential downpours hit

words cannot describe how we were actually feeling. soaking wet, wearing garbage bags

And.....the following day. Needless to say, we were still recovering. 

It was just what we needed

The highlight of the night
an ode to our friend, Margery

Thursday, June 21, 2012

To Stonehenge for the Solstice

Traveling to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice was one of my main goals while here in London.  Partly because I thought it’d be a rare opportunity and a good story to have, but I also had a religious interest in the event.  For the past three years I’ve been experimenting with other religions out of both curiosity and desire to join a new religion.  So, attending the Stonehenge Solstice Ceremony was also a way for me to observe the Pagan religion.  I mention this mostly to offer a semi-rational reason for why I would be willing to wait for the sunrise in a field for several hours, during heavy rainfall with only a hoodie, a thin leather jacket and a garbage bag to keep me warm.

When we got to Stonehenge, it was only about 11:30 P.M., so we had a substantial wait until the ceremony would begin.  Throughout the entire night, even during the rain, there was a large party inside the actual stone circle with multiple drummers, dancers and singers.  There were a good amount of people there for “less religious reasons”, but actual practitioners of Paganism were easy to identify.  Amongst all the people bundled up in North Face jackets and waterproofed tarps were others dressed in robes and cloaks while carrying staves.  The color and style of their clothing indicated what branch of Paganism they practiced as well as their status within their faith.  When the rain started about two hours later, a large amount of non-Pagans headed back to the buses to get back home, but the people celebrating inside the circle continued the entire night until the sunrise.  To be fair, I expect that a good amount of those people stayed because they treated the entire event as a party as opposed to a religious event.

The rain cleared up a bit before the ceremony began at 4 A.M.  The sky was still very cloudy, but this did not prevent people from gathering around one of the outer stones.  The ceremony was led by the Head Priest of the Druids, Arthur Uther Pendragon.  In the Druid tradition, he is meant to be the reincarnation of King Arthur leads all major Pagan ceremonies in England.  The ceremony itself was only about an hour long and did not have a concrete schedule or format.  There were specific prayers and chants that Arthur performed, but the more significant part of the ceremony was the performance of music and poetry.  Anyone there who had something they wished to perform in celebration of the solstice was welcome to step forward, whether it was Arthur himself reciting a poem about Druid beliefs, a scraggly man named Hock playing the banjo and singing or a young girl who had typed out a poem on her iPhone.  All of this was very entertaining, but more importantly it was about community.  After each performance, Arthur would thank the person and say a few words about their piece.  Usually, it was about how the performance related to the Pagan tradition, but Arthur really did stress how important being a community was.

Arthur Uther Pendragon - Raised Druid King of Britain
In a Catholic mass, community is mostly fostered through silence and solemn, communal prayer.  It’s very tame and structured, and it’d be a rare sight for someone to come up to the altar and recite their own poetry.  Pagans, on the other hand, foster community through music, dance and even shouting.  It’s very loud and energetic, but the participants have fun, which is not something I used to seeing Catholicism or many other religions for that matter.  They have their moments of reverence and quiet, but largely the ceremony was a celebration of life.  Several times Arthur congratulated and praised the people for showing up and braving the weather and seemed to be just as amazed by Stonehenge as we were. 

What was even more interesting to see was that during the mass, there were two weddings and two knightings.  About halfway through, Arthur asked if there were any couples who were there to be joined.  What was interesting to see was one couple was dressed in regular clothing while the other was in full medieval garb.  Both marriages were very short and consisted of a prayer, wrapping their hands with cords and jumping over Arthur’s staff.  What I was surprised to find out is that these marriages are legally recognized by the British government.  Paganism is considered a “legitimate” religion in England and is entitled to the same rights and respects as any other major faith.  So, while it’s fun to see a man claiming to be King Arthur marry a couple in medieval garb, this was also a legitimate wedding.  The communal aspect of the ceremony showed during this as well.  The second couple had forgotten to bring a rope to be tied around their hands.  When they realized this, most of the people in the crowd quickly began to remove a cord or rope from their clothing to give to the couple so that they could proceed.  This was not a provoked response either, but their way of showing strong support for a member of their community.

As for the knighting, Arthur has the power to induct people as members of his own court in the Pagan religion.  While I was not able to find out exactly how someone gains candidacy for this, the procedure was just as quick as the weddings.  Two times, a man was presented as a candidate for Arthur’s court.  After being introduced, they would kneel in front of Arthur and repeat a pledge as Arthur places his sword over their shoulders.    And then they are treated to a cheering from the crowd and welcomed by Arthur into his court.  The interesting thing to note about this was that, unlike the weddings, you could not simply step forward, nor did Arthur ask if there were any candidates.  Both men had to be presented by other high-ranking priests or priestesses present at the ceremony.  Essentially, the men needed a sponsor of some kind to vouch for them.  But, even with that difference, Arthur was just as happy to oblige the candidates as he did the couples.

The last thing I was to point out about the ceremony is that it really was a very informal event.  Arthur and the Head Priestess had control over the ceremony, but it was an open participation event.  Arthur actually made a specific point to welcome not just Pagans, but people of other religious backgrounds and asked them to contribute a song or prayer at the start of the ceremony.  The only person to do so was a woman who sang a couple Native American songs, but the lack of participation did not stop Arthur from repeatedly encouraging people of other faiths to step forward.  I’d never seen something like this happen at any kind of religious event, but I think that just shows evidence of how both informal and communal Paganism is.  Its practitioners do not seek to make the religion powerful and institutionalized, but are perfectly happy to just be able to practice their faith.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Norwich excursion


With many of my classmates choosing to blog insightful, scholarly entries regarding Julian and Margery,  I decided to focus on the events of our excursion to Norwich on Monday. It was a wonderful journey to the far east coast of England, into the quaint, yet historic town of Norwich. 

more after the jump

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Julian and Margery: Unlikely Bedfellows

Over the course of the last several class meetings and during our visit to Norwich yesterday, our class has been analyzing the texts of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, both of whom produced "mystical" autobiographies of their experiences with faith during their lifetimes. I studied mysticism a lot as an undergraduate as well as witchcraft/heresy, and I have found that one distinct link between these two seemingly anterior fields is the suspension of disbelief that the modern student must employ to work with the related texts objectively. Just as medieval society believed that "witches" were actually committing acts of diabolical sorcery, they also had a fair amount of faith in the visions that mystics claimed to be having as divinely inspired manifestations of God's grace. So regardless of how irrational or crazy we think Margery or Julian were, we must constantly keep in mind the medieval context of their chronicles.

That being said, I'd like to try to compare Julian and Margery as so-called mystical women. I tend to come down on the very cynical side of modern scholarship on mysticism, so I'll attempt to keep this tame. However, I will be explicit in saying that I am of the opinion that if true mystics existed, Julian was a prime example, but I think Margery was a wannabe saint who had a lot of guilt about her failure to live a cloistered life from the outset and tried to overcompensate.

Julian of Norwich was brilliant. I think it fair to say that her life as an enclosed anchoress obviously gave her plenty of time to contemplate on theology and inwardly exaggerate whatever intimate experiences she had with God prior to her enclosure, but one can not argue that the woman was not incredibly intelligent and well-spoken. She wrote about the "revelations" she had during a period of illness about 16 years thereafter, which I think is a little suspect. Sixteen years of isolation certainly gave her enough time to craft a fantastic narrative about an event that may or may not have been as intensely spiritual as she claims, although I do not think she malevolently sought fame through falsehood. Regardless of the accuracy of her tale, Julian managed to deeply analyze the teachings of Christian patriarchs and reinvent contemporary theology despite her gender and isolation. Her writing is fluent and nuanced with tokens of brilliance and just enough apostasy from contemporary church institutions to show that she knew the Catholic doctrine but had her own ideas about how it should best be used to honor God. I think it telling that she did not seek out publication of her work, but rather that it was reproduced after her death, because she clearly was not overly extroverted about her mystical tendencies. For me, that makes her a little more credible.

I do not think Margery could have survived one day in Julian's shoes, but I think she really really wanted to try them on. Julian managed to have a complete mystical career in a tiny stone cell, whereas Margery literally roams across the European continent in search of the kind of spiritual experiences that Julian had over a three-day period while lying in her bed. Margery certainly seems to be of the mindset that her life would be better spent living alone with God in chastity and poverty, but she also seems to have had the means to do whatever she wanted and couldn't get enough of wandering around and talking to people, so I tend to think the life of an anchoress would not have suited her. I think Margery probably spent several months of her life crying about the deep religious emotions that her various exploits fomented, but I also think it telling that she couldn't seem to crank out some decent descriptions of what exactly was going on her head. In my opinion, Margery wanted to experience the same kind of revelations that Julian claims to have had, but they never really came, so she tried to overcompensate by manifesting her piety in physical manifestations of religiosity. She wore white clothes, cried all the time, made several pilgrimages, all to, I think, force the mystical experiences that she couldn't manage to pull out. Don't get me wrong, I think it's awesome the kind of social agency she wrought by virtue of her own obnoxiousness, but I wouldn't necessarily call it mysticism.

All shall be well.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Glastonbury: Home of Pagans and Pilgrims

This Saturday, I traveled to Glastonbury with my friend Sarah to replicate a Pagan pilgrimage.  On the way, she filled me in on a massive amount of historical information about the area as well as it's significance to modern day Pagans, in addition to it being the rumored site of Avalon and Camelot.  After four hours of travel, we reached the small town which was filled to the brim with stores for old books, apothecaries, wands, robes and anything else a modern day Pagan Druid would need.  The majority of the population practice a range of lesser known faiths, with several of them marking themselves via either tattoos, jewelry or specific manner of dress.  None of this was unfamiliar to me as far as fiction goes (and by fiction I mean Harry Potter), but these were actual people that practice and pass on ancient belief systems that are almost unheard of back in the US.

Our first stop on our pilgrimage was to visit the Chalice Well, a site of both Christian and Pagan significance as it holds King Arthur's healing fountains, the Lion's Head spring and the Chalice Well itself.  The Well is known in legend as being the place where Joseph of Arimathea placed the cup that caught Christ's blood, leading to the Holy Grail legend.  This caused the belief that the water's that run from the well (that were colored red due to Iron deposits in the ground) was Christ's blood flowing throughout the Earth.  The greatest part of all this is that the site allows you to drink from the spring, fountain and well are all still functioning just like the day they were created.  They also allow you to buy bottles to fill with the water or bathe any jewelry or sigils of religious significance that you may have.

Below is the Lion's Head spring/fountain and the Well.

Next up was our trip to the Glastonbury Tor.  At the foot of the Tor, a group of Pagans asked if we were "Ready to fly".  Assuming that they may have been 'well into their cups', we laughed them off and said yes and proceeded up the public footpath.  Sadly, we were not able to walk the actual Druid's path (still used today by High Priest Arthur Pendragon of the Pagan Druid Order) as it was a four hour hike, but we trekked up the stairs placed up the side of the hill.  As we climbed higher, we learned what the group had meant and regretted laughing them off.  The wind got stronger, actually preventing some visitors from completing the hike up to the Tor itself and knocking Sarah down at one point.  The fact that Glastonbury was due for a storm also discouraged some visitors from braving the entire hike.  But, we pressed on and upon reaching the top were treated to a beautiful view of the entire surrounding area of Glastonbury and any nearby towns.  At the top sits St. Michael's Tower where some Pagan pilgrims had left offerings of flowers and apples a compass that directs you to other famous sites in the area.  The harder part was actually getting back down, as all the winds started to blow up the hill, making the Tower a massive wind tunnel that pushes you back.

 Below are several landscape shots as we ascended the Tor, St. Michael's Tower and compass.

 Once we had made our way back to the town, we went to the Glastonbury Abbey Ruins where a Christian pilgrimage was going on.  A large outdoor mass in front of one of the Abbey's still intact walls was ending as we got there, giving us a chance to walk the grounds and visit the site of King Arthur's tomb.  The tomb was a major cultural mixing point as both Christian and Pagan pilgrims come to offer their respects, either giving a prayer or kneeling in front of the site.

Below is King Arthur's tomb site, ruins of the Abbey including the main area and the Lady Chapel/crypt.  As well as a far away shot of the Pilgrim's Mass.

As we finished our pilgrimage, we went into town to join the rest of the Christian pilgrims as they filed into the shops.  We stopped in a book store where I bought a intro dictionary to religious symbols and a book on the Enneagram from a woman in full medieval garb.  Most of the stores were very similar, covered wall to wall with items whose significance I didn't understand, employers in either religious jewelry and some hand-made outfits and a couple of extra tourist specific items like T-shirts and cups.  While going through the shopping block, we met a local wizard attending to about 30 pilgrims, instructing them in basic apothecary and spell ingredients.  When we told him we had hiked up to the Tor, he remarked, "You two are absolutely nuts.  I admire your American pioneer spirit and I'm very glad it's still alive.  But, you are still completely nuts."

Pilgrimage to Winchester

This Saturday a group of students decided to forgo a trip to Paris, but instead went to the City to Winchester, home to the Winchester Cathedral, the Wolvesey Castle ruin, and the house where Jane Austen spent her last days. We also travelled paths to the Hospital of St. Cross, reenacting a pilgrimage of sorts, to this Medieval church to receive the Wayfarer’s Dole of bread and beer.
                  First the group visited the Great Hall, the only surviving building of Winchester Castle. Inside hangs a large round table, reportedly associated with the legendary King Arthur. After walking through a ruin of the Castle cellar/dungeon we visited the monument to King Alfred the Great. Alfred the man, created his capital at Winchester, and was the Saxon light during the Danish invasions and eventual settlement during England’s creation after the Roman legions are withdrawn.
                  Afterwards we carried on to the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, along the way we passed by the house that Jane Austen died in, sadly the house is a residence, and so we could not enter. Following that we encountered the ruins of the Castle, and spent our time examining and exploring the ruins of the site and going through all the rooms and trying to imagine what the site would have looked like if the castle were still standing in all of its grandeur.
                  Eventually we then took a nearby path to the water meadows that led to the Hospital of St. Cross. A place that Medieval travelers could go and receive the Wayfarer’s Dole (a meal of bread and beer, courtesy of the brothers at the church), the only downside to the visit was that the church was being used for a wedding, which gave us more time to look at the beautiful garden on the grounds. The whole experience sort of had the feel of going back in time and reliving the events of a medieval pilgrimage. And to finish the excursion we visited the Cathedral at Winchester and got a great taste of history, and gothic art. The excursion could be called a quick step back into the past and a fast glance into the mind of a pilgrim, and a little bit like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, since we were quite a nice sized group, but all in all it was a good day and interesting as well. 
Evan Heib