Pagan Theology

Pagan Theology:  Blessings

A Unitarian Universalist minister I know recently said that one of the purposes of religious practice is to empower us so that we may go out and bless the world [1].  That idea of empowerment as a vehicle through which we both are blessed and bless the world intrigues me.  How do we Pagans bless ourselves, so that we may be powerful enough to bless the world?

As Pagans we talk a lot about blessings.  Blessed be.  House blessings.  Blessing the working or tools.  We even use “blessings” as an address when closing out letters or e-mails.  But what, exactly, is happening when we bless?  Who is doing the blessing, and what happens?  In the Christian beatitudes there is a whole list of people and traits that are blessed, like the poor in spirit.   When we bless what do we place in the recipient of the blessing, and what do we retain for ourselves?

One way to understand blessings is that they are given and received, thus establishing a relationship between the giver and the recipient.  Blessings create a social contact between those involved.  They are an exchange of magical energy that empowers both the giver and the recipient.  The giver is empowered through the creation of the blessing and the contact with the other, while the recipient is empowered by the acknowledgement of a relationship between the giver and receiver, and by the happy generosity that is received.   Without the exchange, without the giving, there can be no real blessing.

But we can bless ourselves, can’t we?  Of course.  You can do anything you want.  But it may not be all that effective of a blessing.  After all you can give yourself twenty dollars, but when you do you won’t have an extra twenty to spend.   If you believe that there is something special exchanged in the social interaction between giver and recipient [2], then blessings require that someone give, and someone else receive.

This is not all that hard, given that many things can give a blessing, and many things can receive.  We can bless objects in the world, or, in the case of a circle casting, we can actually bless the world.  We can receive blessings from the Gods and Goddesses if we ask.  We can send blessings to our ancestors, or ask to receive them.  But the idea of blessing seems inherently related to the philosophical concept of encountering the other, the “not me,” who humbles us and reminds us we are not the center of the universe.  Blessings tell us others are in the world, that they are part of a sacred whole, and that they are related to us, and we must relate to them.

“Blessed be” as a neo-Pagan expression probably derives from the fivefold kiss [3].  But it’s an intriguing expression, one that perhaps deserves more analysis than it has been given [4].  While the original intent was pretty clearly to bless, or acknowledge the already blessed status, of the vessel into which the Goddess would be drawn, the expression in isolation seems to convey a lot more intent.  The archaic language, typical of early neo-Pagan rituals, would suggest that the statement is more of a declaration than a blessing, in effect saying that the bits being discussed (feet, knees (knees, really?), womb, lips, etc.) are already blessed and the kiss is simply a way of acknowledging that fact.  In this sense the expression is saying you are already blessed, and you should exist in that state in peace.  The fivefold kiss is also a way, theoretically, for the High Priest to acknowledge the presence of the Goddess in the Preistess.  “Blessed be” acknowledges that everything is sacred, including the person you are addressing.

If that were the case, that everything is sacred and blessed, then where would the exchange of blessings come in?   In this case the Goddess has already blessed everything by the act of creative existence.  She exists, and is constantly creating and destroying and in the process blessing the world.  Then nothing needs to be done by us, other than to acknowledge the sacredness of that which is.   Blessing becomes more of an acknowledgement than a gift or a magical act.  We are simply reminding ourselves and others of the fact that everything is blessed.  This is a very static form of blessing, one that does not compel any action to be taken in the world, including the act of blessing itself (because its redundant).

However “blessed be” has another, more existential, interpretation (which is why I like it so much).  Instead of a static declaration of fact, we can emphasize the verb “be” and see it as an imprecation to “exist in the state of blessedness.”  The “be” that just hangs out there at the end of the expression suggests a lot more than “you are.”  Instead it suggests that in making the statement we are recognizing the existence of the one receiving the blessing, the “existential otherness” of another conscious being.  Someone who receives the blessing just “is,” exists as an independent actor in the world, one who we are attempting to relate to through the expression.

In this sense when we say: “blessed be,” we are creating an existential dialog between ourselves as subject, and the recipient as subject.  We are actively blessing instead of acknowledging merely a static blessed status.  After all if everything is blessed, then Fred the Druid is not much different than Barney the dog or rocky the field stone when it comes to being blessed.  Somehow I suspect we mean something different when we say: “blessed be.”  It is an address to an independent consciousness in the world, one that is the same as the Gods and Goddesses, and different from the rocks and trees, one that makes decisions, feels, and needs our blessing.

This makes the expression “blessed be” a complex, three-fold, blessing.  At one level it does remind us that all existence,  all “being,” is blessed by the Goddess.  It also is a way for us to acknowledge the special “otherness” of those we are addressing, acknowledging that we hold the responsibility of treating them as a subject, as an equal, and not merely an object.  And, finally, it is an exhortation to the recipient to “exist in a state of blessedness.”  It is a magical expression that tells the recipient they are not alone, but that there are others who wish them the greatest happiness and fulfillment and will (hopefully) work with them toward that goal.

But wait, that last statement, that we need to do more than just state the blessing, that we need to work toward creating the effects of the, suggests that we can’t just bless and go, that we need to stick around and do something more.   To better understand how blessings work in the world we probably need to go to their polar opposite in order to understand how Pagan blessings work in the world.  Curses.

For some reason ancient Pagan blessings are less well preserved in the archeological record than curses.  Perhaps this was because curses were often written down on lead tablets [5] made of lead and buried.  Or they were buried in bottles or under thresholds, which makes it a lot easier to find them.  The curse tablets covered a lot of different topics, ranging from stolen property to legal disputes.  What is most important is that, by appealing to the Gods and Goddesses (of the underworld), people thought they could affect the world through their magic.  The magic of the curses empowered them in the world, either directly by intimidating the victim, or indirectly by giving them a sense of assurance that their path in the world was being overseen by another.  They had the power to affect their own outcomes, even if it was magical.

In blessing something similar is happening.  In giving a blessing we are giving ourselves the power to affect others in the world.  By blessing the circle through casting we are giving ourselves the power to create the sacred in the world.  By smudging a house we are giving ourselves or the owners the power to live in a blessed state.  And by creating the sacred, we bless the world through our own actions.  Likewise by blessing others, even if it is a simple “blessed be” in ritual or in an e-mail, we are empowering ourselves through our willingness to give some of our sacred self to others, and we are empowering others by telling them that they do not walk alone, that we are giving them some of our magical energy in support of who they are.  In the case of “blessed be” we are giving this to them not only with respect for their own place in the world, but we are also telling them to remember that they are and are in a place that is inherently blessed.

This inherent nature of blessing in the Pagan world means that Pagan blessings are not simple.  They are individual exchanges of intent that occur within the broader landscape of a sacred existence.  Everything is sacred, while at the same time we create the sacred within the sacred through our actions.  By choosing to bless we are stirring the sacred cauldron in new ways, creating new weavings of connection between the blessing and the blessed.

And once these blessings are out there, we never know where they may end up or what effect they will have.  They empower us by opening up our hearts and minds to the other.   They give us the confidence that we actually can create the sacred, that we can stir the cauldron of the sacred with confidence and good intent.  At the same time our stirrings touch others and the world, and cause effects we cannot see.

Thus a Pagan blessing is the magical invocation of the sacred within what is already sacred.  It is an absurd task, absurd because it is unnecessary.  But this inherent absurdity, that it is being done without needing to be done, that makes blessing a great gift of power.  We are doing something for another that does not need to be done, but that connects us by transferring our good intent.  We ask for blessings because we need that connection, we need to have the other tell us that we do not journey alone, that in our journey we are blessed by the Gods and Goddesses.

As Lisa Theil says in her song “Invocation of the Graces” [6]:

Bless me with good means

Bless me with good intent

Bless me with good estate

Finer than I know to ask.

[1]  Do not get me confused with a Unitarian Universalist.  While I am a member of a UU church, I’m a Pagan member of the church.  UU is what I would call a very externally focused religion, despite its small numbers and tendency toward becoming an intellectually and socially isolated enclave of NPR listeners.  Paganism tends to be an internally focused religion, dwelling on personal empowerment and growth vice social justice or righting the wrongs of the world.  Its not like there are no externally focused Pagans, or internally focused UUs, but in general the things that Pagans talk about are magic and meditation and connection with the Earth while UU’s talk about social justice, cultural equality, and connection with the Earth.  The question inherent in all this is how “blessing” works in these two environments.  The UU focus would be on blessing ourselves and each other so that we can do great things out in the world.  The Pagan approach would be for us to bless ourselves and the world, with little focus on exactly what we are going to do in the blessed world.   This dichotomy is important, in my opinion because it makes us ask how our Pagan blessings change us and the world.

[2]  Throughout this essay I’m going to talk as if two people are involved in giving and receiving the blessing.  However all of the same discussion applies to the Gods and Goddesses giving and receiving blessings, they are, after all, existential entities that act in the world like we do.

[3] Blessed be thy feet… Blessed be thy knees…Blessed be thy womb…Blessed be thy breasts…Blessed be thy lips…  The fivefold kiss is part of the Drawing Down the Moon ritual where, in classical working, the High Priest draws the Moon down on the High Priestess.  The fivefold kiss, in addition to being a nice way for HP Gardner to work with the young ladies, is done immediately before the actual invocation of the Goddess and represents a symbolic blessing of the vessel into which the Goddess will arrive.  See, for example, Janet and Stewart Farrar, A Witches’ Bible, Phoenix Publishing, 1981.

[4]  While everyone likes to focus on the threefold law and the Rede as the foundation of Pagan religious ethics, something I think is a terribly weak foundation, perhaps if we mine other aspects of the early neo-Pagan religion, like the expression “Blessed be” we can come up with sufficient material to build such a foundation.

[5] Curse tablets are found throughout the Greek and Roman Mediterranean.  For a nice discussion go here:  http://www.pinktink3.250x.com/essays/tablets.htm or see John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Oxford, 1992.

[6] http://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Thiel/e/B000APYA2E