Reaching for New Language for the Sacred by Glenys Livingstone

The term ‘PaGaian’, which became the title of my work, was conceived in at least two places on the planet and in the opposite hemispheres within a year of each other, without either inventor being aware of the other’s new expression. It was some time before they found each other … one party in Australia, myself having published a book with PaGaian in the title; and the other party, Rob Blake – in the UK having registered the domain as the term seemed to him to express a cosmology constellating in his mind. The term PaGaian was actually conceived by my partner Taffy Seaborne in late 2003, enabling the book to manifest: heretofore the body of work developed there took six lines to express.

This reaching for a new word, was the reaching for a language, which is a power; to bring together an Earth-based – ‘Pagan’ – spiritual practice indigenous to Western Europe, with recent Western scientific understandings of the planet as a whole living organism – ‘Gaia’ as it has been named, and which by its name acknowledged resonance with ancient Mother Goddess understandings of our Habitat, as an alive sentient being. So, the term ‘PaGaian’ splices together Pagan and Gaian, and it may express a new autochthonic/native context in which humans find themselves: that is, the term may express for some (as it did and does) an indigeneity, a nativity, in these times, of belonging to this Earth, this Cosmos. For myself, the new expression consciously included and centralised female metaphor for sacred practice: that is, practice of relationship with the sacred whole in which we are, and whom I desired to call Mother, and imagine as the Great She.

Human language has been described as  “fire in the mind” by cosmologist Brian Swimme, based on the idea that perhaps it developed dramatically when early humans tamed fire and sat around the fire at night, reflecting on their experiences and telling stories: those gifted with language could affect the group powerfully. As Brian Swimme puts it: “a new selection pressure was brought forth – the pressure of linguistic competence”: that is, language acted as a part of the biological shaping power of natural selection. And today this selection pressure is shaping the entire planet. Human language, in its many modalities, now determines and sculpts the biosphere, the lithosphere, the atmosphere and the hydrosphere – by the stories we tell, the structures we put in place.

In the telling of the Universe story, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry have said: “Cosmology aims at articulating the story of the universe so that humans can enter fruitfully into the web of relationships within the universe.” … and in these times when “the role of the human in this web of relationships is changing so radically”, a new language is called for. They say:

To articulate anew our orientation in the universe requires the use of a language that does not yet exist, for each extant language harbors its own attitudes, its own assumptions, its own cosmology. Thus to articulate anew the story of our relationships in the world means to use the words of one of the modern languages that implicitly, and to varying degrees obscures or even denies the reality of these emerging relationships. Any cosmology whose language can be completely understood by using one of the standard dictionaries belongs to a former era (p.24).

By way of example – and relevant to PaGaian Cosmology, and the growing population of paganistic practitioners of many varieties: a “sabbat” is defined in the Webster’s Dictionary as “a midnight assembly of witches and sorcerers held in medieval and Renaissance times at intervals to renew allegiance to the devil … and to celebrate rites (as the Black Mass) and orgies”. In light of the current situation where “sabbats” are Earth holy days recognised and celebrated by a variety of people, such a definition is mostly simply amusing, and indicative of a particular enthnocentric mindframe. Another example is the defining of “Halloween” exclusively (as the same text does) as “the evening preceding All Saint’s Day: the evening of October 31 often devoted by young people to merrymaking … and playing pranks, sometimes involving petty damage to property”, without any recognition of its sacred indigenous roots: such a definition is again indicative of a bias that is no longer acceptable in the global context that now recognises the historical era of colonization of many Indigenous peoples including those of Western Europe.

To participate in the re-creating of poetic language to name and celebrate the Cosmos is to participate in expressing a new story of the universe which we inhabit; with our words we may spell a new cosmology. Such an enterprise “could hardly be more traditional” as Swimme and Berry have noted, “for relationships are regularly created, explored, developed, ended, and reinvented at every level of being” (The Universe Story, 22). Or as Starhawk has expressed it in The Spiral Dance:

She changes everything She touches, and

Everything She touches, changes.

In regard to PaGaian cosmology: it is not a ‘theism’ of any kind – not an ‘a-theism’ nor a ‘pan-theism’ nor a ‘panen-theism’: nor do I describe it as a ‘thealogy’, though some may. It is about a Place – this Cosmos, this Earth – not a Deity. I prefer the term “Cosmology”: it is a study of, or engagement with, our Place, which is dynamic, a Verb, not a Noun – it is an Event. I understand myself as a student of the Poetry of the Universe. I think that ‘theology’ was meant to be poetry: that is, some of its writers understood it was metaphor … what else could it be as it reached to articulate the Great Mystery of Being? But mostly what it became was the description of a dead butterfly pinned in a glass case, not a butterfly that is alive and flitting about the garden – in the act of being. This Place, this Cosmos, in which Earth is, in which we are, may itself be conceived of as deity – or at least as ‘source’ of being, however one may choose to express it: and all attempts to describe this reality may be understood to be metaphor … metaphor is all we have for an alive, dynamic, diverse reality.

Having grown up in the Southern Hemisphere with a Northern Hemisphere and Christian story of place – and one that used exclusively male metaphor, I knew a profound alienation from my place – that was personal, communal and ecological. The re-membering and creating of a Poetry that could express relationship with my Place – my self as a Place, and indeed as a Place (that is, of substance) and belonging in a Place – became an essential quest. It was a quest for new language in my heart and on my lips, to express sacred relationship with my place.

A new language enabled the ceremonial practice of that sacred relationship, and in that process I learned so much: on Her lap, She taught me and others. It is a self-knowledge in its layered and complex dimensions, as She is … the self who is particular, the self who is deeply related, and the self who directly participates in the sentience of the creative Cosmos.


© Glenys Livingstone 2020

Glenys Livingstone is the author of PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion which is based on her doctoral research (University of Western Sydney, Social Ecology. 2002). She has been on a Goddess path since 1979, and has contributed to several anthologies, including Goddesses in World Culture (ed. Patricia Monaghan, and Goddesses in Myth, History and Culture (ed. Mary Ann Beavis and Helen Hye-Sook Hwang). Glenys lives in Australia, where she has facilitated Seasonal ceremony for over two decades, and mentored students. She continues to write and to teach a year long course on-line.

Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess, Paganism

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10 replies

  1. I love this post. Oh yes we do need a new language and I am so delighted you are working toward not only consciousness raising on that front but coming up with new terms. I have long called myself and my work: MysticPagan. At first I really got a lot of flack by calling myself pagan because people thought is was some sort of “heresy” or perhaps a biker group. I don’t get that so much anymore but I wonder how people take it in who don’t contact me.

    Great dreaming there on PaGaian and “poetry of the universe”. And then manifesting it – WOW love it! Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    • thanks Janet. Yes the term “Pagan” is challenging for some to get. When I had to choose a category for presenting at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, it was between “Pagan”or “Goddess”. I chose “Pagan” in the end and “Goddess” came under that umbrella:and it turns out that the Pagan presence was very inspiring … so many varieties and wonderful people. I think more people are getting the value of the placement as “Pagan” these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, indeed, our habitat, our Blessed Mother Earth, is a sentient being. Yes, She’s a Verb. I’ve always loved the term Pan-Gaian. And, yes, the patriarchal religions (which I like to call the standard-brand religions) have consistently and continuously attacked our Pagan religion.

    Thanks for writing this post and bright blessings to you in Australia.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. So glad to see you writing here on Feminism and Religion, Glenys! Your post reminds me of a UU service that I created about paganism back in the 1980s. We had short descriptions of what paganism meant to three of us, and one of my co-conspirators stated that paganism was a verb to her, so she talked about her paganing.

    I particularly love this statement in your post: “I think that ‘theology’ was meant to be poetry: that is, some of its writers understood it was metaphor … what else could it be as it reached to articulate the Great Mystery of Being? But mostly what it became was the description of a dead butterfly pinned in a glass case, not a butterfly that is alive and flitting about the garden – in the act of being.” These sentences bring our need for better metaphor ALIVE, and reminds me of a ritual my coven provided for WIscon’s 20th anniversary (Wiscon is the feminist science fiction and fantasy organization), during which Ursula Leguin was the guest of honor. We enacted the life cycle of a butterfly in that ritual, which I think is a wonderful metaphor for our lives and their changes.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this, Glenys! The name I gave myself – de Gaia, invented in 1990 – follows much of the same sources and dynamics as your PaGaian. I realize, in reading your post, that in naming myself as being “of the Earth,” I also named (spoke of, remembered) the Earth as Gaia, beloved, sacred, source of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I take it that the Gaian in pa-gaian refers not only to the female “divinity” but also to a more woman-centered approach. Too many pagans simply try to rehabilitate the Gods and Goddesses of pre-Christian patriarchies and end up reinscribing celebration of warfare and domination. I see this so much even among younger women. Also though the Universe story is a great idea, I don’t think its creators have a strong critique of patriarchy and as Jungians or influenced by Jung they probably believe patriarchy was an evolutionary advance at least to some degree. Also, they are both Catholics so I would not expect them to view Catholicism as an evolutionary misstep. Look at your quote from Swimme on fire in the mind. Nice image of sitting around ye old campfire telling stories, but language most likely began with mothers communicating with their children, something this story overlooks or trivializes. Also, I note that Swimme speaks of those “gifted” with language in a context that seems to suggest we are already dealing with hierarchies of spiritual power–next step the male shaman and women again left out of the story. Do you look at these problematics in your longer works?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hello Carol,
      re “a more woman-centred approach”: yes indeed – I have never gone with the Olympian pantheon versions when questing to understand the Goddesses of that region, thanks largely to the work of Charlene Spretnak for inspiration in that regard. I did extensive research on Gaia for my essay in Goddesses in World Culture, going back to original pre-Hellenic reverence for Her.

      and re the Universe story as told by Swimme and Berry, my main inspirations in that regard: they do actually have a strong critique of patriarchy, and do not regard it as an evolutionary advance. Brian frequently uses female pronouns when speaking of people. It is true that Thomas was defiinitely Catholic (though his own order tried to limit his influence), but not sure that Brian would call himself that. He says he has “faith in the curvature of space-time”. Their work is generally regarded as “meta-religious” and my contribution to it (as Goddess woman and Pagan both) much appreciated. Thomas himself responded to my thesis and book with “… impressed with your work and with the vision, courage, and ardor with which you have followed through on a major aspect of the Great Work.” He spends some time speaking reverently of the Great Mother in his “Alienation in a World of Presence” booklet.

      re the suggestion that there are hierarchies of spiritual power by saying that some were “gifted” with language: I don’t make that connection. There are many different gifts in any community. Brigid Herself is regarded as Matron of Poetry: it is indeed understood as an essential power along with Her powers of blacksmith and physician.

      I do develop and work with some of these issues in chapters 2 and 4 of my book in particular.

      Liked by 2 people

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