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GnosticismGnosticism is an ancient belief system whose basic tenets seem to reappear in many different times and cultures. Gnostics hold that this world is essentially a prison for the spirit. In Gnostic forms of Christianity, for example, the creator god of the Bible is interpreted as an evil demiurge, who built the world to trap us; the real God is on a higher plane entirely, and Christ is our connection to him, providing the possibility of reuniting the trapped spark of spirit within us with its divine source.

For gnostics, our physical bodies are also of the material world, and part of the evil snare that traps us here. Gnostics, therefore, sometimes tend toward asceticism. Although full-blown gnosticism was rejected by the early Christian church, it did leave its mark on the development of Christianity. The notion that material pleasures are sinful, and that life should be about preparing one’s immortal soul for a heavenly afterlife, has a decidedly gnostic ring to it.

The basic gnostic ideas are also present in some eastern religions. In many forms of Hinduism, for example, the material world is deemed to be an illusion (maya) that binds us down karmically and delays or prevents our liberation from the wheel of reincarnation.

Gnostic ideas are also woven into popular culture. The movie The Matrix presents a quintessentially gnostic view of the world, with the ancient gnostic mythos updated into a high-tech futuristic dystopia. The “new age” or metaphysical community, while not tied down to any detailed doctrinal system, nevertheless frequently plays with gnostic ideas, to a greater or lesser degree.

The relationship between modern Paganism and gnosticism is a complex one. On the one hand, many of our metaphysical ideas and magical practices derive from the Western mystery tradition and forms of occultism connected with it. This tradition has always had a heavily gnostic coloring. The “great work” of alchemy and high magic, returning the self to its divine source, comes straight from the gnostic-influenced Neoplatonists of the Hellenistic era. Some Pagans have a spiritual practice involving eastern-style meditation designed to lift consciousness out of an ego-bound and body-bound mode. Many of us would not take issue with the bumper sticker that says “I am a spiritual being having a physical experience.”

On the other hand, I think the core sensibility of modern Paganism is anti-gnostic. We feel at home in this world, and we revel in the physical experience of it. We feel at home with the plants and animals, with the changing weather and the strong earth beneath our feet. We love the pleasures of the body, and embrace sexuality as sacred. For most Pagans, the divine is not a distant light we must struggle to reunite with, but rather is as near as our own breath and flesh.

For myself, I find some gnostic ideas to be enriching. It is good to occasionally step out of my immediate experience and see it as mere “clothing” over a more universal spiritual reality. There is wisdom to be gained by transcending the details of physical life. For me, though, such transcendence is a tool, not an end in itself. It means little to me until I return and engage this life once again, enjoying its pleasures and making the most of my time here. Although I think there is a spark of spirit in each of us that is not bound to this earthly existence, I do not see the earth as a prison or an evil to be denied. Rather, experiencing this world is the great joy and calling of the spirit, it is what I am about.

Houses, Signs, and PlanetsImagine yourself to be an astrologer of long ago. A child has just been born to the royal family, and you are asked to read the child’s nature and fate from the stars. You stand outside, looking toward the east, where the Sun, Moon, and planets rise each day. One by one, you watch the signs of the zodiac appear over the eastern horizon and rise overhead. You note the planets when they appear, and any other portents the sky provides. If you stood there for an entire day (and if you could see the stars during the daylit hours), you would have seen the entire sky rise and circle overhead, and you would be looking once again at the same stars you saw the day before, when the child was born.

This imaginary exercise is a good starting place for appreciating what astrological houses are about. The circle of the sky is divided into twelve segments, each of which, by tradition, applies to certain areas of life. The first of these segments, which our imaginary astrologer would encounter in the first hours after the child’s birth, gazing east, is the most potent, as it shows how the person presents themselves to the world, the things that will most visibly distinguish this life from any other. The second segment, which would appear to our astrologer a couple hours later, shows what resources the child will have to draw on, to make a way in the world. And so it goes, around the circle of the sky.

These segments are called houses. Depending on the time and place of birth, a house may contain any of the planets, and any sign of the zodiac. The planets and signs seen in each house show us what energies are active in that area of a person’s life.

In classical astrology, each house had a Latin name that indicated, quite clearly, what it was about. The first house was vita (life), the second lucre (wealth), the third fratres (siblings), and so on. If you wanted to know if a person would be wealthy, you would find the answer in what planets and signs were in the house of wealth.

Today, we mostly refer to the houses by number, which makes them seem more mysterious and strains the memories of new students of astrology. I like to refer to them by names, although some of the old names need a little updating to fit into our modern categories. Here are the house names I like to use:

1. Self
2. Resources
3. Conversations
4. Home
5. Fun
6. Service
7. Partnership
8. Transformation
9. Discovery
10. Accomplishment
11. Friends
12. Mystery

There is a modern tendency to blend the meanings of the houses with the meanings of the signs, which I think is unfortunate. The signs are the ways in which we express our life energies. The houses, on the other hand, are the areas of life, the particular activities we engage in. Remember the game Clue? To solve the mystery, you needed three pieces of information: the name of the murderer, the murder weapon, and the room of the house where the murder took place: Colonel Mustard with the rope in the conservatory. Who, how, where. Astrology works very much the same way: the planets say who (what basic energy is expressing itself), the signs say how (what flavor or way of operating that energy takes on), and the houses say where (what part of my life I can expect to see that energy working in).

Now, there are certainly some “natural” connections or harmonies between the planets, signs, and houses. Venus is the energy of attraction. If Venus is in Libra, we express attraction harmoniously and diplomatically, which seems a dandy combination – much easier than trying to express our competitive energies harmoniously, or trying to express attraction through diligence and dedication, for example. And, if that Venus in Libra is also in the seventh house, the House of Partnership, we will be expressing attraction harmoniously in our marriage or other close relationship, which one would expect to be a good recipe. But if that Venus in Libra happened to be in my ninth house instead, the House of Discovery, I would expect to see this harmonious, diplomatic, energy of attraction come out most clearly when I was traveling, learning new things, or following spiritual or intellectual pursuits. I might find that my happiest interactions with people are with my teachers or fellow travelers, rather than with a mate or partner.

When people run the houses and signs together in their understanding, they lose this important difference between the how and the where of planetary influences.

Incidentally, it is largely for the sake of the houses that astrologers are so intent on knowing one’s exact time of birth. The planets move through the signs of the zodiac over the course of weeks, months, or even years. But the houses spin by with each passing hour. A half hour, which doesn’t seem like much, can make the difference between whether you find your true calling in life in the House of Fun or in the House of Service!

minch-emp-w.jpgFor today’s card, I used the Minchiate Etruria deck, a reproduction of an engraved deck from Florence in the 1700s.

In Italy, the homeland of the tarot, each major city had its own distinctive tarot deck, with traditional imagery and ordering of for the trump cards (now known as the major arcana). Indisputably the most lavish local variant of the tarot was the Minchiate of Florence, which contained 97 cards instead of the usual 78. (The additional cards were the four elements; the four virtues Prudence, Faith, Hope, and Charity; and the 12 signs of the Zodiac.)

Florence, being not far from Rome, often felt the political influence of the Papacy more directly than more remote cities such as Milan and Venice. The church, at various times, had taken issue with two of the standard tarot subjects: The Pope and The Papess (ancestors of the Hierophant and High Priestess familiar to modern tarot practitioners). Therefore, in Florence, instead of the familiar foursome of Papess, Empress, Emperor, Pope, we find three cards, traditionally named The Grand Duke, The Emperor of the West, and The Emperor of the East.

In one way of looking at it, the standard Emperor card has been split into two alter egos. Or, one might think of the Emperor of the East as a crypto-Pope, in which case the Emperor of the West stands for the familiar Emperor card of other tarots. Indeed, he would seem quite at home in a line-up of Emperor cards from other classic tarot decks.

The man in the card is adorned with all the traditional emblems of imperial power: the crown, the orb and scepter, the eagle. He is in his middle years, mature but still strong and virile, apparently at the height of his prowess as a ruler. His expression, though, seems intense and brooding, as though he is burdened with many worries.

For centuries, Western Europe kept alive the image of the Roman Empire as a universal political order, the secular partner of the catholic church. The original Roman Empire, of course, had come to an end before 500 CE, but its ghost loomed over the Western world, generation after generation. When the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans in 800, the institution of the Holy Roman Empire was born, which did not completely disappear for another thousand years.

The Empire during these situations was sometimes a true nation-state, and other times more of a political fiction, a power broker in the dealings of the European monarchies. During the time of the earlier tarot decks, the Emperor was an immediately recognizable symbol of universal secular authority, overlord of all Christendom, in abstract principle if not in mundane reality.

In this card, I see a person whose whole being is devoted to the exercise of power. Although theoretically at the top of the feudal hierarchy, he must constantly monitor the political machinations of those under him, in order to remain secure in his position. He reminds us that power comes with a price, and can be its own undoing. Furthermore, when we reflect on the fact that the “empire” he rules is really only an afterimage of the Roman Empire, at the mercy of the mightier powers of armed kingdoms and a politically aggressive church, we see an image of power fossilized and crumbling.

Power over others is a lure that has seduced human beings in many different times and places, throughout the history of the planet. Great works have been accomplished under the command of powerful rulers, and emperors the world over have sought to leave a legacy of achievement behind them. Many, either by weakness of character or by driving ambition, have become tyrants, leaving behind them a legacy of fear and destruction.

This card offers a warning about the ways of power. Power is not simply a harmless energy we can exercise for benevolent purposes. It has a life unto itself: it distorts relationships, breeds corruption and jealousy, and can leave us lonely and brooding. It is also notoriously fleeting.

The message of this card is to examine the role of power in your own life. How does power work in your relationships, at work and at home? What is your relationship with the institutions of power? Is the power you experience organic and active, or is it rigid and fossilized, part of a structure that has outlived its orginal meaning?

Green RisottoShould Pagans be vegetarian? It’s a question that comes up with some regularity in Pagan circles, and opinions vary widely, as they do among Pagans on virtually anything.

Some look back with fondness on the habits of our Celtic and Germanic predecessors, for whom serious feasting always included beer or mead, rowdy song and dance, and plenty of meat (on the bone, with knives being the only utensil likely to be employed from time to time). Others are more drawn to gentler ways of living, and would prefer not to harm any living thing.

Wiccans and many other Pagans honor the spirit of the Wiccan Rede: an it harm none, do what you will. And few of us would limit “none” to mean “no member of the species Homo sapiens“; most of us are firmly devoted to the idea that all beings, not just humans, are alive with spirit and are more like us than unlike us. Thus, for those who follow the Rede, the question is whether killing animals for food can be reconciled with our core ethical principles at all, or under what circumstances.

Truth be told, I have some sympathy with several different perspectives on the issue. I do believe in a life that seeks to avoid harm to myself and others, and animals are certainly included in that (as are plants as well). I think the fact that the slaughter happens “invisibly”, far away behind the pristine scenes of the supermarket counter, makes it easy for many people to eat meat who could not, with a clear heart, do the necessary killing themselves. As Pagans (or as ethical persons of any persuasion), it seems we are obliged to be informed about the true ramifications of our choices. When I lived in England twenty years ago, the local butcher shop had carcasses hanging on hooks out front, unskinned. I think they made more vegetarians among the university students there than they made customers. There was, at least, a kind of honesty to that – something that might do suburban meat consumers in the US some good.

And, if one somehow gets past the gruesomeness of killing animals, there remain serious ecological and economic issues. The reliance on animals for food is extraordinarily wasteful and damaging to the planet. It takes something like 10 times the resources to produce a pound of meat than it does to produce a pound of grain or vegetables. Most of the grain farmed today goes to feed animals for slaughter, not to feed people directly. When you start to contemplate the wastefulness of this – not just the land, but the water, the fossil fuels used to run the operations, and the pollution produced – it becomes hard to see meat eating as a wise and responsible choice. Most Pagans claim to be quite concerned about what we are doing to the Earth, whom we regard as mother and goddess. We buy carbon credits, hybrid cars, reuse our shopping bags, compost our kitchen waste, and so on. These are all important steps, but if you work the numbers, eating meat undoes all the good we achieve with these Earth-friendly practices.

On the other hand, I find myself out of step with the hard-core animal rights culture. For me, one of the lessons of the Pagan faith is that death is a natural part of life, and that we are all connected in an ecological and spiritual web, whose many strands include creatures becoming food for other creatures. I don’t believe that what the coyote does to the rabbit is immoral. I don’t believe animals (or people, for that matter) have some sort of abstract “right” to remove themselves from nature’s great system of life and death, which is sometimes violent. For me, rights are a legal concept created to solve certain problems between humans living in competitive societies; they are not some great underlying moral directive.

Instead, I find myself more in sympathy with indigenous cultures around the world, whose people subsist mostly on plant foods, but who supplement their diet with meat from hunting. When only rudimentary technology is used, a human hunter becomes something like a coyote after a rabbit. Such cultures live in close enough contact with the plants and animals they use for food that they respect them and know the spirit that lives in them. It is very different from the callous, numb consumerism that dictates eating habits in developed countries.

If I lived in the pre-industrial world of the Pagans of long ago, I might be inclined to eat meat from a hunt, on a fest day, with the spirit of both the hunter and the prey animal very much alive in the moment of the act, and honored.

But I don’t. I live in a world where meat doesn’t come from a contest between predator and prey that honors the spirit and prowess of both creatures. I live in a world where meat comes from breeding animals and subjecting them to lives of suffering, for no other reason than to serve the casual gluttony of a civilization that has lost its sense of connection with all other living things, and lost its respect for the Earth that is the source of all life.

So, should Pagans be vegetarian? I do believe it is a personal choice. My way of looking at it is not the only valid one. We can all live better lives than we do, in some area or another, and I don’t judge the priorities of others in that regard. I will say, however, that if being Pagan has anything at all to do with honoring the spirit in other living things and honoring the sacredness of the Earth, then eating meat is not something Pagans can simply take for granted, as followers of so many other traditions do. It should be a point of concern and reflection for each of us.

Mercury and Venus Presenting Eros and Anteros to Jupiter (Paolo Veronese)Venus and Mercury are in conjunction now, merging their energies into a single form. This conjunction is a particularly long-lived one, its influences being felt from mid-February to early April. The exact date of the conjunction was this Monday, so we are still quite in the midst of it.

Conjoined this way, Venus and Mercury form a union of heart and mind. There is an easy communion now between feelings and thought, between imagination and expression. Venus dominates this partnership, being much more comfortable in the sign of Pisces than Mercury is. She is filled with beautiful visions, imaginings of love and harmony, and Mercury smoothly gives these visions concrete expressions, in words or perhaps through his skills as craftsman.

This week and next present a special opportunity to make good use of this energy. The planetary pair find themselves sextile with Jupiter in Capricorn, offering him some assistance and inspiration. Jupiter in Capricorn is concerned with expanding our sense of self-worth, our role in the community, and the respect and appreciation of others. For some of us, this may mean broadening our work life, being called into a wider sense of vocation. For others, it may have more to do with becoming more valued by friends or family. Either way, Jupiter is helping us achieve, accomplish, and advance into a richer role among others. It’s a long term project for him; he’ll be working on this into next year.

Right now, though, he gets a fleeting but potentially important boost from Mercury and Venus. Their artistic, dreamy visions are something Jupiter can use to lend image to the new substance he is building for us. If you are expanding your business, this is the time when the new logo will pop into your head. If you are working with people face-to-face, this is the time for a little shift in style. If you are artistically creative, consider putting your creations to work in the service of your pragmatic efforts.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday represent the peak opportunity to use this energy, but its influence will linger into early next week.


March 2008