Paganism Beyond the Warm and Fuzzy

I fell into a frozen lake once.

It was winter, and we were on holiday from school. I was running ahead of my two cousins and my older brother, and I hit a thin patch. In no time, my tiny body was submerged.

The water was violently cold, and I was certain I was going to die.

I didn’t.

Photo by Roland zh, Wikimedia Commons

When I was about 10, I went to a summer camp for kids who like horses.

While riding one afternoon, a fellow camper got thrown from her horse. She was dragged for at least 100 yards. Her body looked like a rag doll flopping about, with one leg stuck in the stirrup, and her other leg and two free arms flailing uncontrollably.

Her head was one horse hoof away from being crushed to tiny, adolescent pieces, and I was certain she was going to die.

She didn’t die either.

Photo by Dan Shouse, on Flickr

A few years back, not long after joining ADF, I was on the road, sleeping in a no-name hotel, and I had a dream.

In that dream I heard a voice, one that was deeper and more expansive than any human voice I’d ever heard. The voice spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, and while it spoke I saw in the blackness of my imagination a white doorway, beside which were standing two white hounds. The voice was like an earthquake.

I jumped out of bed, body trembling, most certain that I was going to die.

That time, I think I might have died just a little.

Photo by Sean McGee Hicks, on Flickr

All things have their place, and there is certainly a place for the warm and fuzzy in Paganism. But I think it’s also necessary to remember that there are parts of nature, and aspects of the Kindred we worship, that can be violently cold, fiercely wild, and terribly awe inspiring.

I hear many people frame the human condition as being either a decision to live in Fear or to live in Love, capitals emphasizing the notion that these states of being are not simply human emotions, but rather that they are cosmic in some way. I like to think that things are more complicated and nuanced than that.

Even death, in its inevitability, is more complicated and nuanced than that.

I keep these things in mind today as I head up for a weekend camping trip in the National Forest. I won’t be riding horses, and the reservoir is far from frozen.

I will sleep, though…

…and dream.

Photo by Andrew.Beebe, on Flickr

While I’m away, I invite my diverse, thoughtful readership to sit for a moment and remember a time when you came into contact with an aspect of nature or your gods — either in a formal ritual setting or in an unexpected place — that was awe inspiring, or terrifying, or visceral.

When did it stop being an idea and start being something real?

I’ll return to the blog after the weekend, perhaps with stories of new adventures in the woods. When I do, I hope that the comment feed looks like a late-night round of campfire storytelling.






26 responses to “Paganism Beyond the Warm and Fuzzy”

  1. Deryn Harris Avatar

    Every time I’ve gone to Yosemite Valley — but not in the way that most might think. I get this very strong feeling of “YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE”. It’s like the trees and rocks and streams are shouting in my ear. The spirits of that place are being crowded out by oblivious tourists and they want their land *back*.

    …so yeah, I can’t go there any more.

  2. […] Patheos Pagan: HomeAboutContact TeoPost Archives « Paganism Beyond the Warm and Fuzzy You Can Take a Druid Out of the Woods…September 11, 2012 By Teo Bishop Leave a CommentIn the […]

  3. Brendan Rowe Avatar

    When I was 13 I won the science fair at my school and the prize was a trip on a Coast Guard cutter on Lake Superior. If you’ve never been on Lake Superior let me tell you that it can be a fierce creature and is the final resting place for many a wrecked ship. While on the cutter a huge Autumn storm came out of nowhere and forced us all below decks for safety. I realized halfway down the steps that my inhaler had fallen out of my pocket on the top deck. My asthma was so fierce at that age that I had to go back for it. Just as I picked up my inhaler a giant wave came and knocked me over the rails. I thought for years that it was my science teacher that had caught me and pulled me back up onto the deck and saved me from a watery grave. I ran into him a few years ago and he said that he didn’t get to me in time and he had no idea how I had gotten back on deck. He just grabbed me up when I did and took me below deck to dry off! I don’t know if it was the spirit of the lake, a water Fairie, or a Diety of the depths that saved me that day. I do know though that I have treated Lake Superior with much greater respect since that day.

  4. DitzyDruid Avatar

    Very well-said, Teo. I couldn’t agree more. Gods know I’ve learned and grown more through fearful or uncomfortable experiences. The understanding that I’ll come out of negative experiences stronger is what helps me get through them in the first place.

  5. Bart Everson Avatar

    Having just ridden out a hurricane in New Orleans, this hits home. We talked with our daughter about the many faces of Gaia.

  6. Uncle Draggi Avatar
    Uncle Draggi

    I have three “stories” that might apply to the ‘question’ being asked, I think.

    1. When I was about a year old, I took a noser down the basement steps and ‘hit my head’ on the concrete floor. =Hard=! I met a “Pretty Lady” and we talked a bit. When I was feeling a bit better, She asked me which way I wanted to go — toward the warm sunshine outside, or back towards my grandmother, still standing at the top of the stairs. The ‘details’ are private, but .. here I am.

    2. I am a veteran (US Army, 1963-66). I have a bit of understanding of The Dark, of The (=VERY=) Wild Hunt, of Death .. and all that goes with Him. No, sometimes the Old Ones are not all warm & fuzzy, but they -can- sometimes be far more ‘gentle’ and caring/comforting than most realize .. in Their Own ways.

    3. In the past few years .. .. uhm, never mind. A torrential rain with lots of wind and lightning can be just as comforting and “spiritual” as a lazy, sunny day with a gentle breeze. ‘Nuff said.

  7. ErynneRose Avatar

    Hiking Mt. Madison in New Hampshire. The wind was blowing so hard I could barely breathe. I was terrified, and crouched down on a rock, too afraid to continue. My husband hiked on ahead of me. I stayed crouched on the rock until another hiker coming down encouraged me to go on. I stood up and hiked to the summit where my husband was waiting. He and I stood there together in the roaring wind, exhilarated by the beauty around us. Suddenly, my red bandana was sucked out of my pocket by the wind, and fluttered down the mountain. Something about this experience felt surreal; I’ll never forget it.

  8. […] into a usage that doesn’t get as much attention or questioning as I think it deserves.”“Paganism Beyond the Warm and Fuzzy” by Teo Bishop: “All things have their place, and there is certainly a place for the warm and fuzzy in […]

  9. Karla Bufka Avatar

    I’ve seen the ugly of living, the decomposition, the ruination and seen the divine at work in it, but have not known the extremes of meeting in dreamstate. The closest I can come is being with my father-in-law as he slowing reached the end of his life in ICU. As he slipped away in the night, the air became tighter and heavier. As the glow of dawn appeared in the window, my husband and I were holding Dad’s hands and talking to him as the machines grew slower and slower, the air was nearly unbreathable. At the moment all machine noises stopped, the lights seemed grey and the colors waxy. We both leaned in and gave Dad a kiss, told him we loved him and my husband told him to fly away free. For a moment, everything hung on an infinite last moment then in a rush, the room was glaringly bright, the air breathable and sounds from the rest of the wing filtered in.

    Hours later, we left the hospital with the paperwork finished, final plans set in motion and loved ones notified. As we reached the car my husband turned and looked back ,then calmly said, “Now I know what death feels like, hovering and waiting. Fearsome and patient. We sat with Her in Her Reaper form and She waited with us for Dad.” I agree that it was just that way.

  10. Elinor Predota Avatar

    The first time I experienced a blizzard in a pine forest.

    Every time the wind gets up around our house around the equinoxes, and the spirits ride it, wild and dangerous, and the Sidhe play their flutes so I can hear them with my physical ears.

    Every time I catch a vomiting bug: the feeling of horror and terror, being completely out of my own control, and not knowing how long it’s going to last, or if it’s ever going to stop.

  11. […] things.Teo Bishop and I have both fallen through the ice of a frozen pond as kids, and learned that mother nature is not always kind:All things have their place, and there is certainly a place for the warm and fuzzy in Paganism. But […]

  12. Colleen Sorbera Avatar

    Before I was deeply involved in paganism I attended my first wilderness survival course. Our first assignment was to build our own shelter and sleep in it. The shelters had to be apart from the others so we could find enough leaves and branches to use near our space. So I remember my shelter was really pretty well built. And I was comfortable in it, enjoying watching the spiders crawl around. But it was a situation I was never in before . . . alone out in the woods at night. I was fearful of who might be out there, not afraid of bears or coyotes. didn’t sleep a wink and left the shelter before dawn to return to the main cabin our group was using, I guess I experienced a situation where having my current relationship with my deities might have been very useful.

  13. fireschild Avatar

    when I was a child I asked god to save me from a life treating situation . I expected my grandmother’s god of light and winged angelic babies to help me. He didn’t…… what came to help me was a beast of bones and fire….it was dead and alive,.. rotten and made of fire. for me this beast was very real….scary and safe. (when I told my grandmother about it she said it was a demon) the other people whom saw it reacted with fear. (yes, other people saw it. it said things to them . One hear gibberish.. another heard a warning) but for me it was a protective entity. it was warmth..and protection. it was something that didn’t fit into the Christian world my grandmother told me about. I knew this beast wasn’t evil… it just was.. it blocked the path and lead me to safe place. it still part of my world even if I don’t see.. the smell of damp earth and fire where no such smell should be..

  14. Peacesine Avatar

    Years ago I dreamed a group of us were taken by bus to a gated encampment. Once inside I was told by the “Guardians” that I was in hell, but there was a way I could get out. I would just have to figure out how. Like many of the others I pleaded with the Guardians that if I was let out I would be good, do good deeds, devote myself to service, etc. No dice. Then I tried telling them that I was a good person, had family responsibilities, contributed to society, etc. and again, no dice. I saw people who tried to bribe the Guardians; many, many others who gave up and lived in squalor and despair; but others who were allowed to leave, so I still had hope that there was a way. Finally, I said to one Guardian. “You have no power over me. I control my own destiny. I will not stay here any longer.” The Guardian embraced me and led me to the exit. “You are correct, I have no control over you. You are free to live the life you choose.” That dream had a profound effect on me, but sometimes I forget. I’m glad that reading this article has brought it back to my mind as I have been going through a difficult year. I AM free to choose a different path.

  15. Kilmrnock Avatar

    Well , my moment of terror came from the Atlantic ocean . We live on Delmarva , Mid Atlantic East coast US.I have literaly been playing/swimming in the ocean and local bays all of my life . When in my late twenties i was body surfing a few days after a big storm , there was a nasty riptide that day i was unaware of . In all that time i had never been in or knew how to get out of a riptide . I almost drowned that day , the lifeguard got to me when i was literaly going down the third time . right after they got me out , the beach was closed due to dangerous surf conditions . But this event profoundly changed my life, eventualy lend me into paganism. Previous to my near drowning i had been agostic/atheist for ten years . This event sent me on a soul searching adventure for a few years i felt a deep spiritual need after such a life changing event , on the advice of a close freind i looked into paganism , that was almost Thirty yrs ago .So here i am a late 50’s year old ex hipple Celtic pagan , Sinnsesrithe/ADF Druid.Happy and comfortable with where i am in my life.And btw i still love the ocean , to me the sea have a mystical quality about it. Kilm

    1. napalmnacey Avatar

      Nothing gets you to respect nature and the Divine like the ocean. I’ve had similar experiences of it – being in the bosom of the blue, and being two seconds away from losing consciousness under a rough tide. Goes together hand-in-hand, and makes perfect sense despite the wild divergence. I liked reading your story.

  16. Huntressa Avatar

    Once I had a vivid dream that I was walking in a long parade of people. Ahead of us were two doors leading into two different buildings. One gave off the energy of being peaceful and kind and tranquil, the other felt terrible and foreboding. After all the people went into the first door, I opened the second and and slipped into a large, dark warehouse, filled with rust and chains and blackened windows. I stood at the top of a tall metal staircase, looking down at the concrete floor where a single metal folding chair was placed.

    Above, a hanging light flickered out and I became terrified that when it turned back on, something terrible would be in the chair. The light flickered on and it was empty, then out and I was again terrified. Each time the terror grew, knowing that whatever was about to appear would break my mind in two. Each time the light sped up, dark then light, dark then light. Eventually I was too tired of the fear and shouted at it that it couldn’t harm me.

    Then a voice that wasn’t a voice said something without words to the effect that I was within myself and could face whatever darkness I found there with grace. I became completely lucid in the dream and aware of the voice/presence, and then I woke up.

  17. The Real Jersey Girl Avatar
    The Real Jersey Girl

    I couldn’t trace back to any single incident, my link to nature has always been with me…..some of my favorite childhood memories involve my solitary self, observing, appreciating and communicating with the wild things around me.

    Totem animals are very important to me; horses were my first and I rode solo on a horse for the first time at age seven. Since then I have worked with horses and owned horses, ridden over a hundred different horses, cleaned thousands of stalls and fed tons of grain. Because of them I have gasped in horror, shed blood as well as tears of despair and tears of joy……..and I have some idea of what it must be like to stand foursquare, to run 40 mph with your nose first, to have a 340 degree field of vision, to smell the grass and the turf on a hot sunny day.

    Later in life, after having defined myself as a pagan, I discovered my connections with hounds. I have three now….three closely related individuals who have formed their own pack, and I am the leader. I love our walks together, and try to see the world as they do….and wonder at all they things they are smelling when they stand still and lose themselves in the sensation of the scent they are inhaling. When they run in the back yard I watch their intense bursts of speed, their apparently random, but in reality highly choreographed, patterns. I wonder what it must be like to run that way, in a double suspension, cheetah-like sprint with the aid of fast-twitch muscle fiber. When they come back in the house I appreciate them for their sweet, sensitive natures and their sleek, elegant beauty.

    Since last spring I have been observing our local mute swans. I have seen them almost every day, through the nesting season, and have watched them raise their cygnets. I usually see them on my way to work, and wish I could live their lives: to be able to spend every moment with their babies through the summer days, to swim in the river and fly in the sky and stand with their feet on the ground.

    Most of my nature worship happens with my animal companions, so perhaps I am not as solitary a practitioner as one might think.

  18. Ywen DragonEye Avatar
    Ywen DragonEye

    I had a dream once where a dragon was terrorizing a town. I remember people panicking everywhere trying to find shelter from the beast. At one point, I was crossing a bridge over a river, and the dragon rose up out of the water, looked at me and said “I want YOU”. I asked if I accepted would s/he leave the others alone, and s/he said “yes”. I then dove into the water. I awoke quite shaken. I have since determined that this was my being called by the Dragon, by Mother Earth, into service. I have built Cylch Draig, the Circle of the Dragon, a combined stone circle, labyrinth, sacred grove where we now gather to celebrate the turn of the wheel.

    1. Meg Avatar

      Have you ever read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”? The water-dragon/monster is an ancient and near-universal symbol of spirituality and the mystery of the universe. I’m delighted to see your account of your dream, because it fits so perfectly in the human framework. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

      1. Ywen DragonEye Avatar
        Ywen DragonEye

        Hi Meg – I am familiar with Campbell’s ideas on the Hero’s Journey, but I had not heard about the water dragon – something for me to look into! Thank you!

  19. Nicole Youngman Avatar
    Nicole Youngman

    Hurricanes. A bit obvious coming from a New Orleanian, I suppose, but the difference between people who are new to the area and the people who know how to deal with such things is really striking. Not that we don’t worry–especially after Katrina–but for smaller ones, we know the drill. As it turns out Isaac’s storm surge was as bad as Katrina’s in some places, but here in NOLA proper, we had trees down all over and no freaking power for several days but not another round of catastrophic flooding thanks to the greatly improved levee system. The heat has been the most intense part of it for me, strangely enough–feeling debris and nearby trees whack the house and feeling the house sway in the wind all night was one thing, but the reality of the HEAT afterwards was really something–when the power’s down, there is NO ESCAPE from it. You can’t just go inside and cool off. We’ve had at least one heat-related death in the area since the storm. That’s a part of nature that’s ever-present and not-so-fuzzy (though definitely warm…) that we just don’t pay as much attention to and respect like we should when we can easily shelter from it.

  20. summermoon Avatar

    i experienced the goddess as the dark mother not as death per se, but as the dark, slimy, disgusting, decay of all living things after death. it was terrifying, but illuminating and expansive at the same time. this was during a reclaiming mud people ritual at a week long witchcamp in vermont. we had not spoken words for several hours, has done silent invoking and casting and then played in the mud and lake for a while. during this fun, beautiful, freeing, playful, child-like experience on a perfect summer day in the green mountains, i experienced the goddess in a way i never had before. starhawk ended the ritual by painting my forehead with mud and saying “all of nature speaks. all you must do is learn to listen with your heart. then you too will understand.” i felt like i already did understand, at least a little bit.

  21. Quinn Avatar

    Years ago, on my way to work one morning, I put on a recording of whalesong to listen to on the way. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by water and I could feel my cetacean body…fins, fluke, and all. I could feel my vocal chords vibrate as I sang out into the deep. The water was cool and refreshing and felt very much like the home it was. There was a time when such an experience would have terrified me, but not this time. It was awesome to bask in the moment…celebrating it before it ended and brought me back to my everyday reality.

  22. Michael Putnam Avatar

    Two years ago my wife lead me on my second trip to the other side (you may call this astral projection or shamanic journey but we call it spirit travel) to meet my totem animal and/or spirit guide. I met a deer (the species kept changing between red, white tail, axis, fallow and elk) with whom I began to run through the fields of my world. Soon I looked down to see that I was running on all fours, with hooves instead of hands or feet, my head felt heavy beneath my antlers but I was simply happy. I ran for what felt like hours (even though I was only under for thirty minutes or so) and only stopped when my companion and I came to a hill, the distant top crowned with stones veiled by mists. I froze in fear and awe. I have not been back to that plane but I feel called to find out what lies within those stones occasionally but I still fear it.
    My wife noticed something wasn’t right and called me back, my shoulders ached, not used to being used like that and I was covered in goose bumps. That was probably the most powerful moment I’ve ever experienced, it was real before that trip but I returned with a new reality.

  23. Kireth Avatar

    about 7 years ago. Lon Milo DuQuette presenting Enochian Vision Magick.
    Hundreds of people chanting in Enochian, then we sit silently as Lon
    continues. My feet begin to rise and soon my butt is off the chair. I
    risk breaking out of the experience by
    peeking to make sure I’m still in my seat and I am. Soon I’m parallel
    with the floor. I continue to ascend until I am completely vertical but
    upside down, the only points of ‘me’ still in contact is the crown of my
    head. I still don’t know what to think of my being lifted by angels,
    but I do know it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever