A Truth Universally Acknowledged

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” ~ Pride and Prejudice

Many people are surprised to discover that I’m a HUUUUUGE fan of Jane Austen – apparently the public image I present doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of Who Reads Jane Austen, but trust me, she’s my favorite author in the history of ever, and Persuasion is one of the most brilliantly written pieces of English literature that exists today.

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever." ~ Persuasion

To honor Jane this year, on the 200th anniversary of her death, I thought I’d put together a little something for you over on ThoughtCo: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen

Jane only finished six full length novels, as well as one epistolary novella, before her death at age 41, and left two partially completed manuscripts. But those nine pieces of work have formed the framework of the Regency canon, and set the gold standard by which many of us judge other novels of the era.

In July, it will have been two centuries since Jane died, and yet we’re still seeing endless reprints of her work (I own six different editions of Persuasion, and four of Pride and Prejudice), as well as movies, television miniseries, and even fan clubs. Her writing appears on high school reading lists – Emma should be required reading for any teenager, because Emma is kind of an asshole when we first meet her – and has spawned hundreds of literary adaptations.

"Though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her."~ Emma

Never read any Jane? Don’t worry – there’s quite a bit to choose from! If you want to get a better idea of what all that Regency stuff was about, pick up a copy of Jane Austen’s England or What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew to provide a bit of context, and then go forth and dive into Jane’s world!

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Dream Catchers: Totally Not Pagan, You Guys

I love perusing Etsy and Pinterest and getting great ideas and seeing all the clever crafty things that other people are doing to celebrate their spirituality, I really do. But for the love of Zeus’ kidney, y’all. DREAMCATCHERS ARE NOT WICCAN. They’re not even NeoPagan, if we use NeoPagan in the context of “modern Paganism based upon proto-Indo-European religious beliefs.”

Want a dream catcher? Consider the cultural context.

They’re Native American. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating Native American spirituality, it’s completely a terrible idea to appropriate it. In other words, if you’re not Native American, you are lacking the cultural and societal context in which something sacred like a dream catcher actually works.

Now, before you send me an angry email, or comment below with OMG UR SO DUMB DON’T TELL ME WUT TO DO, let me clarify this. Can you create a dream catcher of your own if you want to? Go for it, I’m certainly not going to drive to your house and scold you. I learned how to make them myself, and it’s a fascinating and meditative process. But it’s really important to consider the WHY of the creation. It’s also super important not to cheapen it – in other words, if you want to create one to hang in your home because it calls to you spiritually, that’s great. But if you make one out of plastic and neon and hang a bunch of shitty fake crystals on it and sell it in your Etsy shop as a REAL WICCAN DREAM CATCHER NATIVE CRAFT, it’s possible that some of us will judge the shit out of you.

Taté Walker is Mniconjou Lakota and an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and blogs about issues of interest to Native culture. She says, “The savvy among us know appropriation encourages the dominant culture to forget Natives are modern, contemporary people struggling to overcome nearly 600 years of campaigns to wipe us off the map.”

Walker suggests that if you really want to honor Native culture and show your appreciation for it, there are other ways to do so besides buying a bunch of dream catchers. She has an excellent article on how non-Natives can be allies to the indigenous peoples and their beliefs and practices. In short, she recommends:

  • Supporting Native artists
  • Learning about and backing Native-led movements
  • Calling out appropriation when you see it
  • Supporting non-Native businesses that actively honor Native culture and craftsmanship

Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This includes, obviously, spiritual objects, such as dream catchers.

Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law recommends, in an article over at Jezebel, that you “Consider the 3 S’s: source, significance (or sacredness), and similarity. Has the source community either tacitly or directly invited you to share this particular bit of its culture, and does the community as a whole have a history of harmful exploitation? What’s the cultural significance of the item — is it just an everyday object or image, or is it a religious artifact that requires greater respect? And how similar is the appropriated element to the original — a literal knockoff, or just a nod to a color scheme or silhouette?”

The History Behind Dream Catchers

It is believed that dream catchers originated with the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, peoples of North American. Tribal communities existed primarily around the northern part of the United States and the southern regions of Canada, in particular, around the Great Lakes. Today, the Ojibwe people make up the fourth largest First Nations population in America, and the second largest in Canada. Their history is a long and fascinating one, and the dream catcher stems from one of their earliest legends.

In Chippewa mythology, Spider Woman, who was called Asibikaashi, cared for the people of the land, but especially the children. It was Asibikaashi’s job to teach them the stories of their people, and to keep them safe, but as the population grew and spread, it became harder and harder for her to keep a watchful eye upon everyone. In Spider Woman’s honor, the grandmothers began making webs of their own, made of sinew and plant fibers, wrapped around tear-shaped hoops fashioned from the pliable willow branches that were so abundant.

These handmade spider webs were hung over children’s sleeping areas, to filter out bad dreams and only allow good thoughts to pass through. Feathers were hung at the bottom of the web, and the idea was that the good dreams would travel down the feathers to the child, allowing him or her to ignore the bad ones, trapped in the netting.

According to Native Languages, “During the pan-Indian movement in the 60’s and 70’s, Ojibway dream catchers started to get popular in other Native American tribes, even those in disparate places like the Cherokee, Lakota, and Navajo. So dream catchers aren’t traditional in most Indian cultures, per se, but they’re sort of neo-traditional, like fry bread. Today you see them hanging in lots of places other than a child’s cradleboard or nursery, like the living room or your rearview mirror.”

Today, many Native Americans see the commercial wholesaling of dream catchers as cultural appropriation – again, going back to what non-Natives may see as cultural appreciation, many people of tribal backgrounds see as a way of perpetuating and profiting from stereotypes.

So, does this mean you can’t have a dream catcher if you want one? Not at all – the dream catcher police aren’t going to come over and confiscate it. But, like so many other aspects of modern spirituality, if you’re not a Native American, it’s important to think about not only why you want a dream catcher, but how you go about obtaining it.

Dream Catcher image from lininhamonfredini via Flickr, Licensed through Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-2.0)

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Healing Sounds & Singing Bowls

 

Singing bowls sound amazing!

In many metaphysical disciplines and traditions, sound therapy is used as a healing modality. This is because certain tones, frequencies, and vibrations are associated with healing in a number of belief systems – people have been doing this for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular methods, and why they’ve become traditional.

Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list, because there’s no way I can cover everything in a single blog post – entire books have been written on the subject – but these are some of the most popular.

In many traditions, instruments like bowls, bells, rain sticks, rattles, and even didgeridoos are used as part of healing practice. Singing bowls are typically found in Eastern mysticism, including Buddhist practice, and are technically a type of bell. Practitioners create sounds by rubbing or striking the rim with a mallet, which is usually made of wood. In many cases, the sounds are made to signal the beginning or end of a meditative period.

A rain stick is a hollow tube, often made of wood, and sealed on the ends. Before it’s sealed shut, the tube is filled with beans or small pebbles, and pins are arranged on the inside surface. What this does is create a rain-like sound when the closed tube is held vertically – I have a rain stick, and it really does sound like falling rain! In central and south America, rain sticks are made from cacti, and in Asia and Africa, they’re’ usually created from dried bamboo. About.com Healing Expert, Phyl Desy, says, “Rain sticks are a sacred instrument used in prayer ceremonies to bring about rain and thunderstorms. The rain stick is also used as a musical instrument.”

This guy is totally multitasking with didgeridoos, drums, and a guitar!

In Australia, you’ve got the didgeridoo, another tube-shaped sound-maker, but unlike the rain stick, it’s open on the ends, and not filled with anything. With its origins in Aboriginal practice, the didgeridoo emits low-frequency vibrations that are believed to bring about healing in the sick. Many people believe that these low vibrations can actually bring about changes in living tissue. Interestingly, studies have indicated that playing the didgeridoo, and not just listening to it, can help treat sleep apnea. Also, it’s really fun to say the word didgeridoo.

Mantras and Chanting

In many metaphysical practices, mantras and chanting are used as part of meditation and ritual. Particularly among those who do chakra work, it’s believed that different types of mantras can be used to unblock the various chakras, or energy vortices in the body.

The theory is that each of the seven chakras has its own vibrational level. By using mantras that are in harmony with the chakras, you can open up your chakras and re-harmonize your body and spirit. Perhaps the best known chakra mantra is Om or Aum, which is associated both with the crown chakra and opening up the third eye, but there are others which can be used depending on which of your chakras you feel may be blocked.

How Does Sound Healing Work?

Sound therapy is being used by metaphysical practitioners to treat a variety of ailments, from stress and behavioral disorders to neurological and musculoskeletal pain. In addition, Eastern mystics have used sound for hundreds of years to reduce anxiety and aid in meditative work.

Sound healing is essentially the use of frequencies and vibrations to heal physical and emotional ailments. Many people believe that each living organism has its own unique resonant frequency, and that if we’re off-kilter physically or mentally, we can change these frequencies with sound healing.

Kathryn Drury Wagner of Spirituality and Health Magazine says, “sound work inhabits a curious space: It has been used for thousands of years—think of overtone chanting from Central Asia, for example—yet, it’s also on the frontiers of modern neuroscience.” Wagner also says that sound therapy, sometimes called brain-wave entrainment, “isn’t without its skeptics, but some research supports it. In 2008, the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published a review of 20 studies of brain-wave entrainment and patient outcomes. The conclusion was that brain-wave entrainment is an effective tool to use on cognitive functioning deficits, stress, pain, headaches, and premenstrual syndrome. The studies also suggest that sound work can help with behavioral problems.”

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Ribbon Trees & Rag Bushes

offerings

This is an article that originally appeared on my About site, but with the migration to the super-cool new ThoughtCo vertical, some under-performing articles got done away with. However, I was traveling recently and saw a ribbon tree, and it made me want to share this once again.

The history behind the use of ribbon trees is a long and complex one. It’s a practice found in a number of different cultures, so I thought it would be interesting to do a little digging and see how they compare in various places around the world. Although it’s difficult to tell, at least initially, where this practice may have originated, it looks like it’s safe to say that it’s something that happens pretty much globally.

Sometimes called wishing trees, other times called rag bushes, these plants are often decorated by strips of cloth by visitors who want to see their wishes fulfilled. In some areas, these trees are located near sacred springs or holy wells, although that doesn’t appear to always be the case.

Irish Clotties

At the Hill of Tara, which was the home of the High Kings of Ireland, there is a pair of trees growing side by side. It’s not uncommon to see these trees tied with brightly colored pieces of cloth around the Beltane season. The trees – which are hawthorns – are decorated by visitors in early May, and the strips of cloth are known as clotties.

Interestingly, in recent years people have been tying seemingly random bits of detritus – plastic and metal, in particular – to the trees at Tara and the area around the holy well of Kildare. This is a deviation from traditional practice, in which the cloths from a sickbed were tied and hung along with appropriate prayers. As the sickcloths decomposed and biodegraded in the elements, the illness itself was carried away.

There are some belief systems that refer to Ireland’s clottie trees as “Fairy Trees,” but again, this is not part of traditional Irish legend, and appears to be more of a new age type thing.

Chinese Wishing Trees

In Hong Kong, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees are a popular destination for tourists, as well as the locals. These large banyan trees are part of a shrine where visitors can burn joss sticks and ask for their prayers to be answered. In the past, there was a practice of writing one’s wish on a piece of paper, tying it to an orange, and tossing it up in the tree. For years, papers hung in the trees, but apparently this became dangerous, because in 2005 a branch fell and caused injuries to several guests.

After that, authorities set up a series of racks on which people can tie their wish papers, in the hopes of allowing the trees a few years of recovery time.

The Hindu Kalpavriksha

In the Hindu religion, the Kalpavriksha is a divine tree that fulfills wishes. This tree of life, or world tree, appears in the Vedic scriptures, and is said to have originated during the churning of the primal waters of the ocean, and was found by Indra, the king of the gods. Indra took the tree home with him and planted it there so he could have it with him at all times. In some Indian villages, individual trees – often fig, coconut or the baobab – are considered Kalpavriksha trees, and are often decorated by residents as a way of asking the gods to grant wishes.

The Walleechu of Argentina

High in the mountains of South America, some indigenous peoples still honor a tree that has been a source of wish fulfillment for many generations. A British missionary wrote the following account:

“Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place, numberless threads, by which the various offerings, such as cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth, etc., had been suspended. Poor Indians, not having anything better, pull only a thread from their ponchos, and fasten it to the tree. Richer Indians are accustomed to pour spirits and mato into a certain hole, and likewise to smoke upwards, thinking thus to afford all possible gratification to Walleechu.”

Appropriate Offerings

If you’re lucky enough to see a wishing tree or a rag bush somewhere and want to add to it, make sure that anything you hang on it is in fact biodegradable. Blogger and travel writer Rich Rennicks, over at A Trip To Ireland, points out that many people put in a lot of hours trying to save the rag trees at Tara from the damage done by so many years of inappropriate offerings.

Rich says, “Traditionally, people tied strips of linen or cloth to a rag tree as a symbol of their prayer (long before synthetic substances were invented). Over time, these offerings have been replaced by inappropriate modern items (mass cards, glass jars containing candles, coins embedded into the bark, rosaries, dummies/soothers, etc.) and some complete rubbish added by careless people who either didn’t think about their actions or added the first thing they had to hand (nylon string, plastic ribbons, rings, beads, love locks, loom bands, or — strangest of all — socks and underwear–why?). Things that don’t naturally and quickly biodegrade or rot away harm the trees by killing limbs, preventing buds forming and leaves opening, or breaking branches. Over time, others add more bad stuff under the mistaken impression that the items already on the tree are acceptable, and the trees start to weaken and die.”

He suggest small strips of non-synthetic cloth – draped over branches, and not tied – as an acceptable offering that will eventually biodegrade without causing long term damage. Also, colored paper ribbon like crepe, or origami papers are a great option as well.

Ideally, you’ll want to leave the tree intact and healthy for future generations, so if you have a chance to leave anything, consider something non-tangible, like a simple prayer or song describing your wish, cast upon the wind and into the skies.

Image by Jennifer Pickens, licensed through Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)