Simplicity and Abundance

Often I read references that infer that a pagan lifestyle is one of simplicity. My litmus test for any idea such as that is: How would the idea fly with the true pagans, our Mesolithic and Paleolithic ancestors? If you have a chance to read my essays in Sacred First Foods, especially the ones named Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic you will see that after millions of years of pursuit we had finally arrived. We had an abundance of leisure time, far more than we have today, even while remaining wholly dependent on hunting and gathering to survive. What an abundance of leisure time provided was the opportunity to finally examine our artistic and spiritual natures. The art produced during the Upper Paleolithic is breathtaking; it is also mystical and in many cases inexplicable. Clearly having leisure time even in the midst of a long history of simplistic living was anything but simplistic. Imagine spending every minute of every day for your entire life engrossed in the study of Earth science, Earth mysteries, astronomy, herbal medicine, history, and sacred landscapes. And think about the stewardship required to create thousands of rituals that pertained to everything from hunting and fishing, through clan and society initiations, to puberty, childbirth, and Crones. Among tribal people a day doesn’t go by that there isn’t at least one ritual going on about something, or a plethora of preparations taking place in anticipation of another. The lives of old time pagans were sophisticated, complex, and lived with a degree of devotion we can’t even fathom today.

In Ancestral Airs I wrote of many rituals and one in particular came to mind with this notion of simplistic lives and their connection to paganism. It is not a ‘real’ ritual in the sense that I didn’t observe it or read about it but was rather extrapolated from my years of study. It illustrates how ancient hunter gatherers held a long view of the wheel of the year and how they prepared in advance for an event that was to take place numerous moons beyond the present moment. The quote that follows also demonstrates the incredible skill and knowledge of the natural world needed to survive and survive well in both a biological and ritual sense. Lastly it shows that in egalitarian cultures the needs of the tribe came first, before personal identity or ambition.
“My alliance was always host to the Death Clans during the transition. They had nominally permanent camps outside of the village to accommodate all the journeys and returns each cycle. The women were particularly generous with food and supplies, and many men volunteered to help carry winter reserves up to the caves.

Every year for as long as could be remembered and no doubt beyond the Oak Clan women made a special gesture toward their Death Clan guests. It was a tradition I found very gratifying. During the summer, parties of women would go into the Old Granite Range for birch, pine, and mountain ash. Others would harvest alder, hazelnut, beech, ash, yew, and maple from the Chalky Mountains. This material went to five or six dozen pairs of snowshoes. Some men preferred those that were made from slabs. Others liked the style where mesh of nettle, linden, or boiled elm bark had been woven inside the wooden frames. Flax fiber was suitable too but never used by the women of my alliance.

The Oak Clan then made an equal number of buckskin bags and prepared generous amounts of the medicine that had spared many from mortal catastrophe in winter. The leaves of beech, tansy mustard, and fiddlewood went to decoctions and lotions for frostbite as did an ointment made from poplar buds. Wild parsnip was used as a steam remedy for severe exposure that usually included frostbite. Washes for snow blindness were made from wormwood leaves, dogwood fruit, apple bark, or lady’s seal root. Mountain everlasting went to a fine poultice. The steam rising from boiling blackthorn bark restored the sight as well.
The greatest remedies included, no matter how rueful, came from the herbs that helped us through abstinence. Each of the medicine bags filled by the Oak Clan women contained ample amounts of honeysuckle bark, waterlily, hop, and vervain to relieve our suffering of six months without the comfort of females.

The snowshoes and buckskin bags had been prayed over as the materials were collected and worked. All of the gifts were further purified and blessed with washes and smoke by the Spirit Fletcher and Fire Societies. The women were pleased to be able to honor us in this way along with all the other provisions they had provided. It was an event that made me acutely aware of the meaning of Oak Clan heredity. It had been these women who had instilled in me the passion for preservation, the wisdom of history, and the value of tradition. I understood why elders tattooed boys with their mothers’ badges before they left for the world of men. The value of our mothers’ clans and their blood that ran through our veins could never be dismissed or forgotten.”

This quote, one of many, shows us that true pagan lives are anything but simplistic. The Oak women had to know where in hundreds of square miles the right species could be found, when the best time to harvest was, how to actually harvest the materials, then how to use those materials for the mentioned tools and medicines, and finally how to preserve them for later use. So while we as pagans and animists fantasize about having more simplistic lives it is best to remember how our jobs and household obligations might actually be replaced. Ancient men and women not only hunted but gathered materials for food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and ritual, and they cultivated the knowledge they needed to do so. Their ceremonies were long and filled with critical detail, and this knowledge was so comprehensive it required elders years to teach their apprentices. I think the myth of a simplistic life and its connection to paganism has been sufficiently ‘busted’ here.

Note: Should you want the botanical names of the species mentioned please visit the botanical cross indexes found in either Essays or The Compendium for Spirit Handling.

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