Because of the emphasis luni-solar calendars place on the eve of the day, today, May 2nd, is sometimes named May Day. More properly it is named Bealtaine — the later holiday for organized (ie paid) labor, May Day, is fixed to the first of the month in keeping with labor time rules. But Bealtaine is an older holy day, one that comes to us from pre-labor, pre-solar time-keeping. It begins and ends at sunset. For folks who want to keep all the maying in one month, rather than beginning on April 30th, the bonfires are lit on the 1st and the may poles are danced on the 2nd. There is a similar confusion of dates in all the cross quarter days. These are all holidays that start on the eve. In fact, most of the ritual is tied to the eve and the night; by morning it’s nearly done but for the clean-up. In some communities, the critical eve is the last day of the preceding month. In others, the eve falls on the First and the sunlit holiday is the Second. So somewhere there are still may pole and Morris dances today, and I can be forgiven for still maundering on about the holiday’s meaning. Or that’s my story anyway…
In most NeoPagan circles, Bealtaine is almost synonymous with the symbolism of human sex, and most particularly with the synergy that comes from achieving balance between male and female energies. The young male god mates with the goddess of the land to bring fertility to the tribe. It is believed that two humans should invoke the respective deities and enact this mating in the physical world in order for it to be made manifest. There is often a battle between the aging god of winter darkness and the bright and perennially youthful summer lord, both of whom are lovers and sons of the goddess — who apparently has no choice in the matter…
As you can probably tell, I think this is all hogwash. I am hoping that as the climate of Paganism changes and expands, more people will drop this nonsense into the dustbin. It is not only baloney, but it is deeply unhealthy, removing agency from most of the world, centering a very limited idea of life, and excluding all those who do not fit into these ‘balanced’ boxes. I am one of those people. I would guess that most of you are as well. We are, most of us, not horny summer lords in the prime of radiance nor devastatingly beautiful land deities who seem to be as bound to pitiful human convention as they are all-powerful. Stories like this set my old brain to muttering things like ‘Only a man…’
But that’s really not accurate, because as much as Gerald Gardner promoted his new religion — Wicca, from which much of NeoPaganism springs — he didn’t actually create very much of it. The creative work was done largely by the women in his life, and Doreen Valiente in particular. Doreen was a talented writer, a marvelous ritualist and wielder of the symbolic, and a caring and loving woman. But she was also rather enamored of nasty things like bloodlines and nationalism and ‘natural’ hierarchy. She might have been fond of the witches who repelled the Nazis, but she also flirted a bit too heavily with fascism in its British guise to be remembered as a fount of esoteric wisdom.
So I do not like what Bealtaine has become in the last century or so. Now, this is not because I am opposed to fertility rituals or sex or men or anything else. It is because all this is not enough to encompass life. There is no balance when everything is hyper-focused on the paltry imaginations of self-absorbed humans. Human mating rituals are nothing to the awakening of a forest in springtide, to the rush of meltwater in mountain streams, to the delighted bleat of a lamb’s first foray into a meadow filled with blooming clover, to an egg cracking open, to the dark miracle of a seed sprouting in the warm sheltering soil. Human beauty and desire are wonderful things, but pale in significance next to the quotidian morning song of a robin welcoming an average sunrise. Human stories are affective and meaningful, but they are just stories, products of our limited perceptions and minds. Reality carries so much more meaning, we can’t comprehend a sliver of it.
This year, I’ve had reason to think on this more than I usually do. My family is dealing with ill-fitting boxes and the near-universal identity crisis that our culture engenders — because we don’t want to be as ugly and destructive as we are forced to feel and to be; and, as a result, we don’t like what we see in the mirror. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say we are not dealing. Yes, truthfully, there is quite a lot of not dealing and discussion of the not dealing and close analysis of the not dealing and plans for mitigating the not dealing. I’d very much like these damned boxes to dissolve into the air that they actually are so that we could just stop all this not dealing. For one thing, I miss sleep…
But in a less facetious tone, I think all this is needless harm rained down on my loved ones from a culture that I despise — and I resent it profoundly!
It is perhaps fittingly ironic that the person who so laced the new faith in the wholeness of nature with toxic notions of human hierarchy and exclusion and patriarchal convention was also the person who crafted the credo that I follow, the only one I’ve ever not found wanting: Harm None. Valiente also wove a good deal of pseudo-medieval bullshit into her Wiccan Rede. ‘An it harm none, do what ye will.’ I mean, really! And of course, she privileged the human will, in keeping with the teachings of her spiritual guidepost, Aleister Crowley. Later on, baby boomer Wiccans further muddied the waters by adding vague rhymed couplets and botched archaisms, but the essence of the rule is the same as the ancient Latin axiom, primum non nocere (first do no harm).
If Harm None is the prime directive, then there is no room for exclusion and enforced labeling. It also, apparently unbeknownst to dear Doreen, strips human will of its privileged centrality. To harm none is not to follow the will, but to limit the will to only that which does not cause damage. Harm None engenders a search for a trail of causation and impact, a search for victims and a broadening of the realm of consequences. It builds and renews awareness. It is a removal of the blinkers imposed by our culture, the blinding screens that are emplaced between action and effect. And humans are so wired that once we see the harm we do, we cannot unsee it. One of the essential functions of the elite propagandists is to keep us blind to our actions — or we’d just stop… out of pure revulsion… and bring down the whole system with our cessation.
Harm None leads to a radical opposition to violence and destruction and waste. You can’t even believe in waste when you eliminate an Other that is forced to accept and absorb all your consequences. There is no ‘away’ to hide behind when you can harm none, not even hidden beyond that bin the kitchen. But it’s even deeper than that. It takes Harm None to see that the very idea of waste itself is not real. It is a human construct. Entropy is not real. Energy and matter are conserved, always, though order shifts constantly. What we name waste is simply that which has moved beyond our control. If entropy were the ontological reality in the universe, then by this time, there would be no order left — and we would not exist to name it.
Tolstoy tells us that Pythagorus once said that to allow our children to kill insects is to enable them to kill any other being (though one gets the feeling that the particular horror lies in killing humans of that child’s socioeconomic class, not killing per se…). I would say that killing bugs is not as soul-destroying as raising a child to this culture’s norms of waste and generalized harm.
The boy who pulls the wings from butterflies is sick. We recognize him as such. He recognizes the sickness in himself. Perhaps he enjoys that sickness, that special recognition. But he is not judged to be normal. He is acting in deviant fashion. He is wrong. And he knows it. In our culture there are tools and techniques to isolate the wrongness, to contain it and, as much as possible, set it right. He is not encouraged to kill innocent beings. He is not even allowed to continue this behavior openly. He must hide if he is to persist. The point is that he is unable to be blinded to the consequences of his acts. If he is to continue, he must face the fact of the insect death by his hand. Killing is so deeply disturbing that seeing this death is normally a barrier to that act. The boy must be truly ill to carry on with full knowledge. He is causing immediate harm with intent. He is damaged, no doubt, perhaps was already damaged before committing such a senseless wrong, but he is not damaged by that act. He is not becoming acclimated to hidden harm as a consequence of that act.
Yet, he is not as damaged as children in this culture who casually cause harm that they never see, that they are not allowed to see. Killing a butterfly is recognized wrongness, but it is nothing compared to the numbing effects of our daily living, committing waste and harm at all scales. A teen that eats fast food — food that is predicated upon the suffering of many beings, including other humans — that drives a carbon-spewing automobile that racks up a windshield of dead insects — among many other harms — that tosses the toxic plastic trash out the window — sickening and killing thousands of beings for decades to come — that young adult is considered normal. Each of these acts damages our children, inures them to the damages incurred by their acts. They are blinded by the normalcy of the harm they do. They do not recognize it as such. All that death, all that harm, all that destruction at her hands is not only accepted — and therefore hidden from view — it is required of normal status. In our culture, it is deviance to not engage with all this death and suffering.
Our children learn that an Other exists, a place and being state that will take all the consequences of consumer culture, that will hide it all away from the sensitive human psyche. The suffering and harm that a boy might experience directly in the presence of his wasteful behaviors — for example, drinking water poisoned by cattle feedlots — is made acceptable when only experienced by hidden victims, no matter how numerous. This form of off-loaded violence is admissible, normal, and right. And the child that learns it, learns far more efficiently how to kill without consequence than the sick child with the torn butterfly wings.
The sick child is deterred. The normal child is encouraged, as long as her methods are indirect and hidden away, as long as she can confine her victims to a hidden Other of inferior status, as long as she firmly believes that she is insulated from the consequences — even when she is not. Our normal children are taught to kill not only other specific beings, but whole classes of life. They are taught to steal the futures of these Others, to take away all interiority and desire in their victims. They are taught to deaden the larger world, view it as a resource or receptacle for their consequences. They are taught to take the life of the living world. And as a result they are taught to deaden their own sense of right and wrong, to damage their own souls — and to hate the very root of their being.
This is why we live in a rolling identity crisis. There are cracks in the screens now. We can no longer hide away the harm completely. We may not be entirely and consciously aware of all our consequences, but we also can’t remain as blissfully unaware as was once possible when the consequences were not Everywhere, All the Time. So we do not like who we are and we are thrashing about trying to find some sort of mirror that reflects the goodness that we want to see in ourselves. Quite often this leads to even more harm. Because, of course, everything within this culture is dependent upon harm. We end up doing needlessly harmful things like shaming those who can’t afford the standards du jour for seeming normal. Or… like creating a ludicrous ‘nature’ faith that centers a human sexuality that does not even encompass most of the forms of that very limited fragment of Being.
But they did create Harm None. And maybe that will help us escape our abnormal normalcy. For one thing, more and more people are aware that gender is just as artificial and silly as race, but just as devastatingly effective at excluding people from the tiny list of those who benefit from work done in this culture. More people are turning away from the forms of toxic masculinity that are seen in this Bealtaine story of two men fighting against each other for the right to possess an objectified woman. More people are realizing that a culture guided by the feminine principles of cooperation and community is not only less destructive, but it is also more happy, full of abundance and contentment. And a few people are starting to see that history is on our side… this type of joyfully interdependent living is the actual human norm. It is how most past societies have been organized and how many societies outside this culture are currently organized. Man the Hunter is fading into the misty savannah and Woman the Gatherer is reclaiming her original prominence.
But sometimes I lose faith…
I am reading Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature (2012, Moon Books). Her writing is reassuring and sparkling and rigorously reasoned, but there are jarring moments. She talks of dissolving all lines, but still cordons off the rationalizing thought modes of humans as best or perhaps uniquely able to process the world of information — even as she admits that we have no way of knowing how other being states perceive and then integrate that perception into their being. So far, she has gone no further than to show that there are analogues. Well, undoubtedly there are! How else do we explain synthesis and conclusion and resulting responsive action? These are mostly wholly foreign methods of accomplishing what is called rationality by humans — even by an animist — but they are valid evidence of mind. Perhaps her cautious tone is to assuage egos, to make her book more marketable. But when she draws back, it sounds like a false note.
In her defense, that’s a permanently muddy puddle in philosophy. Because we can’t know what others know. Nor even how they know. We can’t even know what it is to be another human with all the same methods of perception and knowing. So I’ll give that one a pass. However, in talking about the past and human ways of viewing the world prior to this culture’s exclusionary influences, she mentions almost in passing an assumption of violence in the human constitution — when that is quite possibly the only difference between us and our ancestors.
She uses primitive a bit too liberally in her efforts to distinguish those who assume a living world of agency and intent and those who assume an insensate world of resources. She finally circles around to admit that there is no primitive man, but it takes a chapter of talking mostly about EuroWestern men, and the conclusion is lost in her more salient point: that there is no division between anything. But this lack of a simplistic, primitive state of nature in humanity is essential to her point. Because it is the point! In our culture, we don’t see a generic distinction between humanity and the ‘irrational’ world. The distinction is between the elites and every other thing on this planet, including most of humanity. The only division privileged EuroWestern men have admitted is between themselves and all else, including their ancestors, including the women who live among them, and including all other men. They are uniquely endowed and therefore superior to everything else. To say there is no distinction between humans and all else is actually to challenge this notion that EuroWestern men are natively ascendant. So to make her point she must emphatically stress that there is no biological or cultural difference between moderns and the past. And maybe not use words like primitive at all.
Also she falls into the usual intellectual trap of apologizing for a seeming desire a return to the dark past, when that is exactly what she is saying and what is likely necessary. That past was when humans lived good lives within the comfortable bounds of the natural world, an integrated part of that world. This is not romancing the unknowable past; it is simply stating what worked and continues to work. Whereas the Western system of specialness for just Western males is patently not working. And the key to that is the only discernible difference between now and back then — our intensified capacity for violence.
Among all homo sapiens, there isn’t any physical or mental capacity that is different from, never mind inferior to, modern humans. Those who lived two hundred thousand years ago are exactly as we are. Furthermore, there isn’t much basis to believing that our homo sibling species were all that different, given how similar our more genetically distant but contemporary ape cousins are to us. We all have the same hardware and are culturally programmed with very similar software, but for one important exception. We moderns are violent. More basically than that, we are capable of violence. Uniquely. This is such a rare trait in life-forms that it begs for explanation, not assumptions. And it is directly tied to our very recent fall from an animated world.
No other species sees itself as distinct and separate, and no other human culture so vehemently prizes isolation and exclusion and a false image of independence that hides all the actual dependency in hierarchical Othering. This is how we are violent and this is how our ancestors and those completely outside of the EuroWestern tradition were and are not. A being that sees itself as an integrated part of a whole with no Other states of separation does not produce violence and the harm of waste. There is no violence possible that does not harm the self. There is no ‘away’ to hide waste and destruction. All harm is self-harm — as we are now learning…
Acting violently assumes disconnection, from consequences, from victims, from the whole being state. Animism recognizes no such distinction. Animists are quite assiduous at Harm None, because all harm hurts the animist on top of everything else the animist cares for. Violence is only common in modern humans (and human-adjacent beings) because we have created this myth of separation, of special status, of agency in an ocean of insensate matter. Resources to be exploited. And for a little time, until the consequences became overwhelming, that myth of separation made it possible to reap wild benefit from the inferior world. So our animist natures were suppressed in the elites that benefitted the most, and violence crept in as a tool to maintain their status. But violence cannot arise where there is no story of specialness, where the world is whole and encompassing, and all consequence is shared. Maybe not equally, but there is never a complete escape, and often a lessening of consequence in the present leads to a magnification of effects in the future. Eating to the exhaustion of food stores under the smiling summer sun creates starvation and death in the dearth of winter.
On the deep levels of our being, we know that we cause harm even as we consciously hide it away. However, this story of special separation suggests superiority over all the Others, and if we possess a negative trait, even one that we carefully conceal, all those lesser Others must also be subject to that trait. Maybe even more so. So our logic hides the dearth of evidence for Other forms of violence. We do not see this lack of violence in the wider world precisely because we are conditioned to not see its prominence in ourselves. We assume violence where there is none and are blind to what bleeds out of our own culture. The lives of our ancestors were not ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, full of aggression and conflict. Those are all inventions of the dualist philosophy. There must be an object for there to be aggression, and there are no objects in a world that is wakefully alive with interiority in every being state, in the animist world that is the common condition of humanity.
We scratch our heads over this lack of evidence for aggression. We invent myths of primitive humans with spears and constant wars, seemingly unaware that violence is a tool only of elite humans intent on maintaining that privileged state. But in nature aggression is minimized. Always and without exception, beyond us. Where there is conflict over needs, the matter is always settled in ways that minimize harm and stress. Oppositional beings will merely slide away to avoid the stress. Violence is never the tool of choice even when facing death. (Which is not violence… but only a cycling of life.)
The good news is that this violence is not our inheritance. It is a decidedly alien trait that we must aggressively maintain through belief, propaganda, and acts that are abhorrent, acts that are so vile we must be actively dehumanized in order to overcome our innate revulsion. If we were to escape this constant conditioning, if we could let it all fall away, then we would slide away from all these stresses like the sensible beings that we are. We would lose the ability as well as the desire to be violent. This is not us. This is Them…
From this I do take hope. I believe that we will regain our ability to live within the bounds of a whole and healthy world. We will not degrade into a dystopian man-scape. I don’t believe that is even physically possible. It is not possible to be so destructive without suffering the consequences that limit that ability to destroy. Man-scapes do not exist except in our fancies. This one is already crumbling even with the support of literally an entire world’s worth of inert resources. I also would point out that this culture has never been as pervasive as those who created it believe it to be. But when we remember that the world is awake, we lose the capacity for harm. That is how Harm None is made real. That is our past. That is our future. This present is an aberration, one that is breaking apart under its own dis-logic.
I believe we are moving into a world in which everything is us. And when everything is us, there is no room for wasteful harm. When everything is us, we will be freed from ill-fitting boxes that attempt to separate and exclude and confuse. When everything is us, the very concept of violence vanishes. When everything is us, we will be happily whole once more.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023