Celebrating the Southern Seasons: Rituals for Aotearoa
Tandem Press, $29.95, ISBN 0 90884 54 0
The Oracle Speaks: Breakthroughs for Humanity
Oracle Publications, $29.95,
ISBN 0 9648443 0 3
Our experience is increasingly shaped by a global awareness. Today our Treasurer announced that there would be no territorial limits to where our compulsory superannuation funds can be invested. Our future prosperity will be dependent on brokers’ judgments made on the basis of micro-changes in the value of shares, futures or currency on the New York, London or Hong Kong exchanges. We will no longer be able to keep track of our funds as they change hands time and again in nanosecond transactions made computer-to-computer across the globe in so-called “real time”. As a result of the removal of national constraints and the deregulation and liberalisation of the global financial markets, such real-time business already dominates the global markets as a proportion of all business and bears less and less relation to the provision and exchange of terrestrial goods and services.
Our lives are thus consigned to “unreal time”. Although it should be noted that real-time transactions have unreal-time consequences leading to the closure of factories and businesses in our towns and cities and reduces politics to the attempt to control the underlying rate of inflation and interest rates in the hope of attracting global interest and investment.
Globalisation also leads to similar, if not identical, goods and services being offered nearly everywhere and in the proliferation of niche-markets of difference and novelty. What is proffered is a radical plurality of cultural constructions, identity politics, lifestyles, moralities and diverse religious and spiritual systems. But these very differences, commodified as cultural products, are increasingly subsumed within the matrices of exchange of our global capitalist economic system. Cultural identities are on sale globally, albeit often re-packaged locally.
The third and most significant impact of globalisation on our lives is the idea of global competitiveness. Our most contemporary experience, repeated without end across the developed world, is to be endlessly restructured to become even leaner and meaner in order to compete in the global marketplace. Of course, this bears little or no relation to actual markets or competitors but operates as a quasi-market in order to discipline us. The idea of the global market in which we all necessarily compete, now internalised, dominates our lives and refashions our institutions.
The growing gap between global “real time” and our lives, the perception of wholesale ecological threat, employment insecurities and the experience of de-politicisation and disempowerment beyond our lifestyle enclaves, has led to a widespread scepticism concerning our political, scientific, religious and social authorities and institutions and raised grave doubts about the very possibilities of rational progress at all. One response has been to “retreat” into alternative local realities — ethnic, spiritual, religious, communal, gender, the short-lived gratification of the designer-aesthetic-world of changing styles and fashions, or various combinations of these.
The Dominion, in a recent article entitled, “New Zealanders turning away from religion”, reported the continuing general decline of religious activity in this country. Such surveys indicate that church pews are unlikely to be filled again in the foreseeable future.
Is religion dying in Godzone? Well, if not quite in a terminal condition, religion, as formal attendance or membership of religious institutions, is becoming increasingly located in a number of slowly withering subcultures, except for a few areas of growth amongst “committed christians” and the religious traditions of recent immigrant groups.
And yet a walk around any of our cities and larger towns will take you past a growing number of specialist new shops selling books and magazines offering materials on meditation, counselling, a seemingly infinite variety of therapies, shamanism, natural diets, spiritual evolution, indigenous wisdom, the teachings of Tibetan buddhism and other Asian mystical traditions, guides to renewed human relationships, new science and metaphysics, spiritual self-help and healing, yoga, angels, rebirthing, reincarnation and other mystical and spiritual practices. Also in evidence are crystal shops and other purveyors of essences and potions.
Most of these specialist shops have noticeboards offering services ranging from massage, deep tissue, Reiki, Alexander technique and other diverse forms of bodywork, aura readings, crystal healing, spiritual self-help workshops, guardian angel sessions, past-life regressions, holistic health programmes and men’s and women’s spirituality groups. Magazines, such as Rainbow Network and Sedona, which have large circulations by New Zealand standards, carry articles informing their readers of their evolutionary spiritual potential and include pages of advertised services offering personal transformation on a one-on-one basis, by workshop attendance or by buying something to listen to or read.
This growing market has been recognised by our mainstream bookshop chains which have reduced their religion sections to a few Bibles and prayerbooks and a few volumes of post-christian theology and replaced them with much larger sections labelled “new age” and/or “spirituality”. The reception of the Dalai Lama last year, who spoke to huge audiences around the country, suggests a burgeoning interest in spiritual matters. In addition, we read of major New Zealand companies including new-age techniques as an integral part of their management training — one has even taught its managers to fire-walk and it was standing-room-only at the latest Landmark weekend seminar even though there was a fee of several hundred dollars. We watch television advertisements for tarot readings and a major denominational church in Wellington is holding regular Celtic services. Some of our friends and colleagues are learning about their past-lives, taking advice from ancient but still accessible channelled spirit guides, joining feminist spirituality groups, having acupuncture or aromatherapy, or have just finished reading the idiotic sequel to the Celestine prophecy.
Thousands are involved with varying degrees of commitment. Are we witnessing a religious or spiritual revival? Will this be the first revival in the long religious history of the west that takes place beyond the influence of the churches and does not lead to new sectarian or denominational church groups? Without the research having been undertaken it is difficult to give a definitive answer. What is clear, however, is that the spiritual business in this country is worth millions of dollars a year and these developments falling under the rubric of new-age/neo-paganism have parallels throughout the developed world.
There is a number of studies of new-age movements and neo-paganism tracing their histories back to the last century, via the communes and counter-culture of the 1960s to the plethora of marginal groups of the 1970s. In the late 1970s and 1980s the growth of the women’s spirituality/goddess movement raised the profile of neo-paganism and television specials such as Shirley Maclaine’s 1987 “Out on a Limb”, watched by millions, launched new-age beliefs and practices into the cultural mainstream.
New-age and neo-pagan practices claim to offer spirituality without a central church or organisation, without doctrines and creeds, a spirituality compatible with the radicalisation of individualism where the self is the ultimate locus for determining what is true. In spite of the diversity of new-age and neo-pagan movements there are some common threads. There is much use of the language of convergence, holism and harmony. Life is viewed as learning and development and direct spiritual experience is at the heart of one’s life-project, a sort of guided do-it-yourself spirituality.
It is claimed that non-rational as well as rational sources of knowledge are equally if not more significant. We must learn to change ourselves by fostering our own inward transformation. Such movements tend to be immanentist, that is, there is little place for transcendental deities or salvation. Rather, the issue is what I must do to heal myself and the planet and how I can reconnect myself to the source, be it land, planet, past selves, inner self or the god(dess) within.
The new age — and some object to this designation as connoting selfishness and/or commercialisation — focuses less on ritual. Many consider that we are on the brink of a spiritual breakthrough, a transformation that will take place under the weight of a critical mass of individuals who have increased their spiritual awareness. This view was promoted by the yogic flyers and meditators of the Natural Law Party in our recent general elections.
It is claimed that the dualism of the Picean age is over, with opposites converging in the current Aquarian age. There is widespread belief in reincarnation (the 1993 Gallup poll recorded 26% of Americans hold such a belief), past-lives and the emergence of a planetary culture based on human spiritual transformation. Recently a Peruvian shaman visited our department and talked about his ancestral Inca traditions — past lives, reincarnation, planetary visits, the need to redress the balance between our material and spiritual lives. He could have been summarising Shirley Maclaine.
Neo-paganism is usually defined as the revival and/or invention of the “ancient” reverence of the goddess — the recovery of the pre-christian, pre-patriarchal traditions of goddess nature-religion — and takes a number of distinct forms. Here the emphasis is more on community and myths, ceremonies and rituals (dance and trance, individual and group) celebrating the seasons of nature’s year with a powerful and central “green” component and a more balanced view of the relationships between material and spiritual. In one of its prominent forms, wicca (witchcraft), many women are reported as have been led to a “coming out of the broom closet”.
These two books represent two facets of Aquarius in Aotearoa, two aspects of the new-age/neo-pagan revival. Both authors have run workshops around the country and promote their wares through lectures and publications.
Juliet Batten is writing for a middle-class audience of largely, though not exclusively, women. An Auckland-based artist and psychotherapist, she is the author of Songs of the Green Snake, Croneologies: Women Emerging Through Menopause and a book on ritual, Power from Within. Born in 1942, she completed her doctoral thesis in English in 1969 at Auckland and was an active participant in the women’s movement in the 1970s.
The beginnings of the goddess spirituality movement might be seen in the 1979 united women’s conference in Hamilton at which a group of women began consciously developing rituals to celebrate the seasons in the southern hemisphere and symbols appropriate for women in this country. A second landmark was the 1984 women’s spirituality conference which was followed by the establishment of women’s groups around the country. Batten has been involved with a women’s ritual group over a number of years and her book of rituals has been widely used by other groups around the country.
In a beautifully written and well presented book, dedicated among others to her Celtic ancestors and the “goddess herself”, Batten offers a delightful practical do-it-yourself, seasonal ritual calendar for Aotearoa/New Zealand based on the eight festivals of the “European year” that take place on the solstices, equinoxes and the midpoints between them. In eight chapters, each dedicated to a single festival. She explores in turn Maori practices, those of pagan Europe and the christian tradition, ending with a series of suggested rituals for today.
Just as Maori adapted the Polynesian annual calendar to the different seasons of the cooler climate, Batten presents a strong case for us doing the same and resetting our rituals to reflect our geography and climate — which she terms the recovery of “rhythmic consciousness”. The colonists’ maintenance of the calendar of the northern hemisphere, the loss of the natural link between seasons and festivals, led to a seasonal and spiritual dislocation. For example, we have just celebrated Easter with all of its spring motifs (eggs, bunnies and hot-cross buns) as we move into autumn. Would it not be more appropriate to move the spring festivities to the third week in September and to celebrate the winter solstice by eating a heavy roast dinner and Christmas pudding in June?
In a seminar on religion and identity last year I was disturbed to witness nods of agreement from students in response to a young woman who claimed that as a pakeha she was envious of her fellow Maori and other students who did have an identity because she felt that she had none. She rejected a European heritage as criminal, imperial, colonial, technological and material and claimed that it was nothing to be proud of and, further, that it had nothing to do with her anyway.
The global revival of ethnic identities has a Celtic version popular in the United States, Europe and around the English-speaking world. The answer to the pakeha identity crisis is to become a Celt. There is now a mass of literature on Celtic practices and beliefs and a story in christian and pagan versions detailing the suppression of the Celts by Roman imperial christianity and Anglo-Saxons. In these accounts Celts are presented as deeply spiritual people who kept alive the “ancient” traditions. Much of this literature is constructed from the thinnest of sources and Celts and their Druid priests are too readily assimilated to a pan-European nature religion that extends across the ancient world and the European continent. These Celtic traditions, largely reconstructed from the works of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century romantics, are rapidly becoming the parallel to native religious traditions around the globe.
Batten draws somewhat uncritically on this Celtic and Druid revivalist literature and creates a synthetic tradition out of wiccan and Celtic sources to reconstruct what she calls the “paganism of Old Europe”, a system which reveres “the feminine principle” and celebrates the whole life-cycle.
She calls for pakeha to return to their Celtic roots and revive these all-but-lost traditions. In a single paragraph she moves from Celts to Egypt, Babylon, Greece, the Middle East and back again. Leaving aside the fact that there were many non-Celtic groups in Europe in the first millennium and that descent is problematic, the unlikelihood of such diverse traditions teaching the same thing and the difficulties of clearly distinguishing historical revival from invention, she offers a most static and ahistorical account of a religious system, removed from history and modernity, the dynamism of which is limited to the endlessly repeated cycle of the seasonal year.
The sections on Maori rituals and the chapter on Maori cosmology are well researched and among the best that I have read. Again, the portrayal is a too fixed and static but it is clear and well-written. Batten hopes to find a meeting point between our two colonised peoples, Maori and pakeha (read, Celt) in the ritual seasonal calendar. She highlights numerous parallels between the two systems — a shared imagery, the sacredness of colours red, white and black and spirals, the fact that both traditions are oral, a deep reverence for land, a sense of sacred place. Of course, such parallels could be forged between any two groups. Further, she argues that only on the basis of a Celtic recovery can we meet Maori spiritually.
This is a heartfelt book which rightly recognises the need for an underlying framework which might serve to bring together Maori and pakeha. It is most unlikely — although one never knows with the Kiwi attitude of “lets try it and see” — that as a nation we will reorient our calendar to the southern hemisphere or that many will follow Batten’s advice and become neo-pagan neo-Celts. But, having said that, the book is provocative and as an invented religion there are many worse than Battenism.
The Oracle Speaks is typical of a whole genre of new-age volumes and as such are the bane of those who teach courses which deal with the new age. The Oracle is a 50-something American woman who divides her time between Auckland and Hawaii. She has a uncomplicated message intended for the somewhat less educated and discerning end of the new-age market, as evidenced by her many references to the spiritual alternatives to money, status and class.
The Oracle is fond of the classical resonance of her chosen name/title and the back cover includes an endorsement by the actor, Kevin Sorbo, who plays Hercules in the television series. In ancient Greece and Rome sibyls, woman usually past the age of childbearing who lived in caves held to be the thrones of deities, were consulted as mediums of those deities for advice on a range of questions. The most famous of these was the Pythia, or Pythoness, at Delphi, who selected questioners by lot and for an agreed fee offered inchoate moaning and words which then had to be interpreted/translated by the resident priests-poets. Our very own Auckland oracle clearly identifies herself with someone she calls Pythia, to whom she attributes Socrates’ words, “know thyself”.
She claims that during her first meditation in 1980 she was visited “in spirit” by a great master and that as a result some three months later she experienced enlightenment. By January 1994, she tells us, that she had evolved to such an advanced state of consciousness that she was no longer bound by any limitations and could exclaim: “Now I am free.” She is slightly more forthcoming about three of her past lives, as the daughter of a guru, the head teacher at a school for lamas and as a spiritual seer.
When I telephoned her she told me that she became the Oracle in mid-1995 after experiencing “a strong direction from meditation”. The same strong direction had determined the selling price of her and her businessman husband’s property in Colorado and led them to settle here. The Oracle invited me to her forthcoming Wellington workshop and suggested that if I wanted further information on her that I should consult the feature articles in She and Woman’s Day. She reported that she has begun to speak at New Thought churches and when I asked about her family she told me that during this incarnation she was “serving humanity”.
What is this enlightenment? She describes it as achieving “unity consciousness”, returning to the self, surrendering to the light and the releasing of “separate self-identity and ego”, a merging with the light and somewhat more graphically as, “it is like your endorphins are going off all the time”!
The Oracle has now devoted her “remaining time in this incarnation” to teaching this enlightenment to other seekers. The book is divided into four seemingly randomly arranged chapters and includes six “open” letters written by the Oracle and an interview of the Oracle by the Oracle herself! The purple spiritual prose is actually written in purple ink.
The book offers “practical effective and simple ways to purify oneself and reach enlightenment” and her message is indeed simple. There are no bodily practices or mental exercises to be mastered. All one has to do is relax and “listen within to the pure messages of your soul for your enlightenment into divinity” and “give yourself permission to be who you really are”.
The truth is that we are all divine, spiritual beings who live a single life through a multitude of incarnations in the “energy universe”. Our experience and “spiritual learning only by the direct experience of the soul” will do if our true situation is obscured by a series of self-imposed limitations.
The Oracle recommends the antidote of learning who we truly are. “On the average, properly regressing 10 to 20 incarnations and the spaces in between will tell you who you are”. By means of these regressions you can “trace your past and reveal the causes of certain impure thoughts and erase the weakness of the mind and its control” and thus be in a position to “join the wondrous ecstasy of non-separation with the universe and ride its waves of love and joyous harmony”. She contends that by using her “direct” and “simple” approach you can save years and “even lifetimes” in your evolutionary and developmental quest.
Although recognising the value of the help we can receive from spirit guides, angels, friends and family “who are the formless energy state”, the Oracle is rather condemnatory about most new-age offerings — channeling, kundali yoga, aliens and auras; past life regression is all right but she advises that after a few sessions we do it ourselves. They are characterised as a “hindrance and enlightenment inhibitors” as they detract from the task at hand, which is “to know that you are the key and centre of your universe”. The Oracle has some rather novel notions, such as that behind the third eye there is a fourth one and that the “heart centre” near the solar plexus is the repository of our inner gifts and talents and all that which travels with us through our many incarnations.
The Oracle’s style is all her own: “This oracular is a simple one. Behold the truth within and hold it in your heart.” But all too often the writing is poor and potentially confusing: “Relax”, we are told and “your need will be supplied”. One imagines she means not the need but what you need! If you follow her path “your aura becomes brighter, your wellness healthier”. Her terminology is a mishmash of Paul Brunton (“oversoul”), Werner Erhart (she steals unacknowledged his great line, “understanding is the booby prize”), and other new-age manuals. Her favourite terms (after “simple”) are words with the prefix “re”, as in regiven, renew, rewired, reunite, recreate, reclaim, reinstituting, redevelop, relearn, recall, redivision, redirection, re-establish and re-integrate — there are others.
She also offers advice on diet and six principles of prosperity, which is good as long as you are providing a “service or product which enhances the operation of the universal law of harmony and balance”! The Oracle holds that our divinity is “our destiny” and that as we move from knowledge of externals to “inner knowing” humanity will take its next evolutionary step — hence the book’s subtitle.
This book is clearly intended for a very specific audience. The message is one of empowerment. But the reference, apart from a one-liner about a de-gendered god being “divine love”, is not to gender, but to class. There is much here about not worshipping others and enhancing one’s self-esteem by spiritual evolution. The Oracle offers a rather watery and egalitarian spirituality in a form that Ken Wilber refers to as “new-age drivel”.
The new age and neo-paganism are with us in Aotearoa. Our recent survey of our first year students — though, of course, religious studies students are not generally representative — revealed that approximately a quarter of our students are new-agers or neo-pagans in the sense that they subscribe to a radical individualism, believe that society’s current problems are primarily spiritual, consider life to be an evolutionary series of incarnations and believe that the world is on the brink of a new universal consciousness and that the planet is a divinity (goddess) that is also within us. There is a need for further study and analysis in order to discern the extent and significance of such developments here.
The two books identify two of the social locations for these developments, a middle-class educated lay readership and the more working-class spiritual seeker. Both, albeit in differing ways, seek alternative identities and realities to that of surviving the current global transformations and both are, of course, caught up in the global hawking of spirituality. Both consider that life can be simpler and more rooted, whether in the self or in the land and its seasons.
Their apolitical messages make me anxious. I suppose that I am on Marx’s side when he insisted that social and political transformation will lead to better men and women rather than that of our two authors who support Freud in his notion that positively changing the person will lead to positive social and political changes.
Paul Morris is professor of comparative religion at Victoria University.