Thursday, 12 November 2009

Why I Fight

I don't have, and for as far back as I can remember have never had, anything approaching a conventional religion. Oh, sure, I was raised Catholic, but even at infants' school I was the kid who annoyed the teachers by asking difficult questions about the rules. One of my earliest memories of theological argument is of me sitting in the tiny class library in my third-form infants' class, showing another student a picture of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness in one of those cool illustrated bibles they do for kids (I maintain that adult bibles would look a lot better with those fantastic, fully-painted kitschy illustrations), pointing at Satan and going 'This is God' and then pointing at Jesus going 'this is the Devil.' I was a Gnostic at the age of nine! Needless to say the kid freaked, went and told the teacher, and I got me a good shouting-at. The point is, I never bought the official line from Christianity, and I still don't.

As I was growing up I became fascinated by alternative religious movements. I flirted with wicca, as most teens do, but it felt...neutered, somehow. Wicca is too nice for me. There's too much sweetness and light in it. Or at least there was in the wicca that was being touted when I was growing up. My feeling is that it may, post-Buffy, have gotten a little darker and made a little more room for the nasty things in life, but, I dunno, whatever. Most wiccans I met never looked, to me, as if they could last half a round in a mage-off with Granny Weatherwax, so I moved on.

What I eventually settled on, religion-wise, was my current practice, which is one of devotion to an orisha in the Santeria pantheon called Yemaya. Yemaya's a sea goddess, and I've always had an affinity for the sea. Large bodies of water have always calmed me. Standing by the lake or the sea has the same effect for me as standing in a gothic cathedral, an intense, numinous sense of awe and wonder. But it isn't just that. If it was just a sea-god thing, I could pick any number of deities. No, the reason I like Yemaya, the reason she's the only god-like-entity I could ever truly get behind, is because of a story.

See, Yemaya has a son, Chango, the fire orisha. And Chango is a cocky motherfucker. Swaggers all around the place, cheats on his wives and concubines any chance he gets, takes vengeance on anyone who fucks with him: generally Chango is a big, dick-swingin' playa. Any woman he wants, he gets, and he will break any heart without regret. But Chango's an orphan. He's never known his mother.

Then, one night, Chango finds Yemaya at a big feast, and she looks incredible. He doesn't know who she is but he wants this woman. So he swaggers over and tries his usual thing. Yemaya does know who Chango is and takes major offence at being propositioned by him, especially in such a disrespectful manner, but doesn't show it. Instead, she leads him out to the beach, and gets in the sea with him. Then, when Chango's in the sea, she cooks up a big storm and tries to drown him. The whole scene gets so bad that Aganju, Chango's father (or possibly his brother - these syncretistic religions are confusing like that) even comes along and pleads with Yemaya to spare the boy. Yemaya replies with the incredibly zen line: 'I will save him when he is willing to drown.'

(That is the part I love about this myth, that line. You'll only be saved when you give in to the ocean. When you let go of the heroic ego and dissolve into oceanic experience. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

So of course Chango, being a total badass, is not willing to drown, so down he goes. Yemaya lets him back up, and asks him again, and again he basically gives her the finger. So down he goes again. The third time - and of course it's always the third time in mythology, but you knew that - the third time, Chango relents, gives in, and tells Yemaya that she can drown him if she wants to. And so she lets him live.

What I like about this story is the confrontation between the heroic, swaggering, masculine, heroic ego and the deeper, subtler yin energies represented by Yemaya. And the fact that ultimately the masculine hero is powerless against those forces. As all heroes are. You can swagger all you like, you can boldly go wherever you frakkin' want to but boy, at some point, you're gonna go down in that ocean. Your precious strength is going to leave you. You will lose your power to exert your will upon the world. You will sink into the ocean of aging. The ocean of infirmity. The ocean of senility. The ocean of forgetting. The ocean of death.

But that needn't be a bad thing. If you're willing to descend, the ocean ceases to be frightening. And, like quicksand, if you keep your head, all of these oceans can be swum in. Even the ocean of dying.

Of course there are other oceans which are just as much of a threat to the heroic ego: the ocean of mystical experience, the ocean of compassion, the ocean of love. All these things are a threat to the masculine hero because they remind him how small he is. And he can't have that.

We live in a hyper-masculine culture at the moment. We live in a culture afraid to go down in any of those oceans. A culture so macho that, as George Monbiot points out, we fight back against the growing evidence that parts of our planet are literally sinking into the ocean with ever more ludicrous, environment damaging behaviour. A culture which erects hurtful, disabling standards of masculinity which ultimately punish both those who don't conform and those who do. Our culture at this time is like Chango, thrashing around in that ocean, ignorant, confused and striking out in that confusion uselessly, unable to see that it can only change when it makes peace with reality, and abandons the heroic ego. Unable to see that it can only be saved when it's willing to drown.

Our culture has too much Chango in it: too much of the damaging, big-dick-swinging badass. And the collateral damage is there for all to see, in the rape statistics, the suicide statistics, the domestic violence statistics, the harassment which women suffer daily from ignorant male pricks, the homophobia, cissexism and heteronormativity which expose anyone who fails to conform to the prescribed templates of masculine and feminine to be liable to discrimination and violence, and the scars on the wrists of those young men and women who, beaten down by their failure to live up to a warped world's expectations of 'the normal' can see no recourse but to punish themselves.

Our culture needs an overwhelming dose of Yemaya's forces right now. Before we blow ourselves to shreds or choke ourselves to death with greenhouse gases, we need a big, big loan from the girl zone to make us see that all our thrashing about is useless - but if we make peace with the ocean, if we accept that we're going to drown, we may yet be spared.

This has been a longer post than I expected, but then this is a complex topic. Anyway, that's all I have to say for the moment on it. Doubtless there'll be more stuff later but, for now, I need to shower and get my nails on for tonight's gig. Laterz, yeah?

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