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Pagan Values Month: Living in Relationship

The very fact that I am writing this entry for Pagan Values Month--June, in case you missed it--is a testimony to the importance of relationships in Paganism.  Despite the fact that we are now eleven days into the month of July, I can't bear to let Pax down.  Not only is Pax a kind and generous-spirited Pagan writer, not only did he invite me to participate this year, but he has become a friend, although we have never (yet) met in person.  We have that so-important thing in my religious life: a relationship.

So this one's for you, Pax--but also for the spirit of Paganism, that I think lives in our need to form and honor powerful relationships in the world.

*          *          *

My husband Peter, a biology teacher, has a classroom full of odd and interesting animals: a turtle, a gecko, two hamsters, and a ball python.  Next year, he's planning to get finches, to help him illustrate his annual evolution talks, and the references to the Galapagos Islands, and all the varieties of finches that can be found there.

He also has a dragon: a bearded dragon called Harriet.

While not quite as interesting a classroom pet as the kind of dragons Hagrid keeps, the reptiles known as bearded dragons are, in fact, quite lively and intelligent.  Now that it is summer, Harriet (and the rest of the menagerie) live at our house, where I get to observe both them and my husband's interactions with them all at close range.  Harriet is in a smaller tank than usual, in order to fit her into the house with all the other beasties, and by the end of a day, she is visibly bored--quite literally climbing the walls of her aquarium.  She wants out, and Peter often agrees, taking her out in his office, behind a closed door (so our dogs won't mistake her for a chew toy) and letting her run around to her heart's content.

He also takes her out, supporting her carefully from beneath all four legs to keep her from becoming anxious, to show her to guests, or to feed her chunks of apple he places up the length of his arms.

She is, for a lizard, a fairly charming being, and clearly pretty alert and interested in the world.  I don't in the least blame Peter for finding her interesting in turn.

But my husband, my rational and scientific husband, behaves somewhat oddly toward Harriet at times. Along with giving her room to run, exercise, and crickets and apples to eat, he spends time training her to accept affection.

My husband owns a dragon, and he is training it to be petted--to tolerate his fingers, not just holding her or moving her about as non-lethal elements of her lizardy world, but to accept those same fingers moving affectionately over her scaly sides.

Harriet will permit this.  But unlike the ability to run freely, to hunt crickets, to eat small mice or apple chunks, she doesn't seek it out.  In the world of physical affection, Harriet pretty clearly could scarcely care less.

Which makes sense.  Think about it: she's a reptile, a lizard.  Her kind do not cuddle one another or their infants for warmth or comfort.  They do not even touch when they reproduce.  More than we can ever appreciate, lizards are born alone, live alone, and they die alone... though not lonely.  It's just who they are.

We, however, are not like that.

There's really no practical need for a reptile to be trained to allow petting, even for a classroom animal.  This isn't really about Harriet's needs, or even Peter's students.  This is about who Peter is, by nature, by birth: a mammal and a primate, a being that constantly seeks out relationships and the powerful connections of touch.  We, not Harriet, experience the world through skin hunger, heart hunger, and a need to commune and experience closeness and connection.

What is true for my husband is true for me, for you, and for all of us monkeys.  We want to touch.  We want to soothe ourselves through connection.  We want to engage and we want to relate, and not with one another alone, but with the members of each and every species we can find: bearded dragons, but also dogs, cats, horses, even trees and potted palms.  It is who we are, by nature.

And we Pagans, whose religion includes reverence for and homage to the powers and forces of the natural world,  we bring our natures into our religious life.  We seek relationship, perhaps above all things... with one another, with the natural world, and with the gods.

Think about it.  How do primates establish relationships?  How do humans establish relationships?  There's food and there's touch, right?  Ask the girl out to dinner before you get physical.  Feed and cuddle the infants.  Groom the other chimps, and share with them your bananas.  It's how it's done.

And if it is difficult to touch a god, we've certainly done our best to feed them.  Perhaps the earliest of all Pagan rituals was the sharing of food.  What is a proper Homeric sacrifice?  Among other things, it's a barbecue where the gods are invited:  Hestia gets the first libation; the Olympian gods receive the smoke (if not the substance) of the grilling meat--the fat and the bones are theirs, but also the scent (which anyone can tell you is the best part--even vegetarians are drawn in by the smell of a burger or some bacon on the grill).

In the ancient world, the poorest citizens might only get to eat meat after a sacrifice.  What the gods did not take, the humans shared.

What act cements a relationship more, even now, even in secular society, than sharing a good meal?  It is how our animal selves understand that we are in this together: the sharing of food, of life.  And so our religious traditions include that shared meal: whether in the form of a blot to the gods of Heathenry, the final offering to the Goddess at the end of the Wiccan celebration of cakes and ale,  or the offering of milk or fresh bread made to the Good Neighbors on our windowsills.

We're seeking relationship.

Our legends, our stories, are so often about relationship too.  Women are seduced by gods or marry spirit animals; men marry deer or selkies, are taken as lovers by the Queen of Faerie or a tree nymph or a goddess.  Animals can talk to us, steal the sun or bring us the seeds of beans and corn, ask us riddles or punish us for our offenses against the gods.  The boundaries between humanity and nature, and between humanity and the world of the gods, blur time and time again.

We are in relationship with our world, with the spirits, with the gods.

Can you say, "anthropomorphization?"

Now... can you say it like it's a good thing?  Because it is.  It's how we think.  It's how we understand.  It's how we connect.

We are human.  Whether we are petting a lizard, or longing to embrace the sun on solstice day, this is how we touch the world.

We relate.


Bright Crow said…

This post brought to mind two seemingly unrelated lines of thought.

First: Jim and I have been a couple since 1985, and we are both nearing 61. In the past few years, I've noticed that, for all the other expressions of relationship we share, the most telling one is what happens in bed. I don't mean the sex...I mean the night-long playing of "spoons." Nothing seems to affirm or recharge us more than cuddling as closely as we can.

I vaguely remember that in David Bowie's movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, the aliens made love by joining together every part of their bodies that they could possibly join.

Relationship and touch.

Second: One of the most radical things about Jesus' message was his insistence that humankind and God are in an intimate, personal relationship, not one that has to be preserved and mediated by priests and purity rituals and sacrifice. And, if there is anything to the Incarnation, it is that God wants to be able to touch people in the flesh.

And so it is.

Bless├Ęd be,
Anonymous said…
perhaps you've heard of this book before. not really pagan, but about a human relating to an animal (in this case a snail). i haven't read the book, but i did read reviews, interviews, and watch a video trailer re: the book.

from the name, you'd wonder how exciting can it be, but it is actually a highly rated book.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

below is one of the editorial reviews. you can also read some of the reader reviews to get an idea of the book:

Editorial Reviews

At age 34, Bailey was stricken with a mysterious virus while on a trip to Europe. Her healthy life had been full of activity, and now just the thought of getting up to get something was exhaustive. When a friend found some violets and brought her one in a pot, she also added a live snail below the violet’s leaves. Bailey wondered why she needed a snail, but after square holes began to appear in a letter dropped on the violet’s pot, it occurred to Bailey that the snail needed food. She put a withered flower in the saucer below, and when the snail began to eat, Bailey realized that she could hear it eating—it was the sound of someone very small munching on celery. Soon the author realized she was attached, the snail providing an oasis of calm for her frantic and frustrated thoughts. She worried that the snail’s world was too artificial, so her caregiver created a woodland terrarium. Not only did the snail have a new home but Bailey had a new game: hide-and-seek with a snail. She began to read about snails, learning from scientists, early naturalists, poets, and writers, and found herself beginning to understand a snail’s world. And when her snail began to lay eggs, Bailey discovered that she might be the first person to record observations of a snail tending its eggs. This beautiful little book will not only make snail lovers of its readers, it will make them appreciate the small things in life. --Nancy Bent


Wha-da-hell, ya doin' leavin' dem rocks all over the place.

Anonymous said…
I read the book about the snail! And it was quite absorbing. I would recommend it.

Thank you for a lovely and thought-provoking post.
Joselyn said…
As a bearded dragon owner I have always known that they live fairly isolated in the wild. I have also witnessed first-hand the incredible bond that can be created between these animals and humans. However, I never really put the two together, which makes me appreciate our bond that much more.

This also made me reflect upon some relationships in my personal life and the importance of them.

Thanks for the great read.
Unknown said…
Wow this post really meant a lot to me! I love reptiles, and I do pet mine too! It's so interesting that we WANT to pet them, to show them affection, even though they really won't show affection back to us.
Many people dislike lizards as pets because of this, but I find them to be intriguing because of it. I'm going to reference your article in a future post to my social networks because I think it's highly relevant to both lizard owners and human beings in general.

Thanks for an awesome read.
-Ashley @ Lizard Facts

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