The Hearth Fire and the Spear at the Gate: Hospitality in Unsafe Communities

Looking at our lodging from the Oppidum of Alesia
Alise-Sainte-Reine, France

The first night that I spent in France on my recent trip to Gaul was in an old farmhouse a couple of hundred yards from the site of the Oppidum of Alesia. We got to the house at night after 20 hours of air travel and the chaos of Charles de Gaulle airport getting a rental car and navigating out of Paris during Friday rush hour. We checked into our lodging, got a tour of the house from an adorable french grand-mere and took a moment to orient ourselves to the locations of the sites, town, and museums.
For me, many of the trips to sacred sites that I’ve taken recently have been spent leading tours on pilgrimages in Ireland and have been as much work as adventure for me. Bearing the responsibility of others peoples spiritual and travel experiences while they are on a pilgrimage is a richly rewarding experience, but is also a tremendous amount of work.

This trip was different for me. This was a trip of connection and exploration. We were scouting for a Gaulish pilgrimage that we plan to offer in the future, but we were also exploring our own connections, interests, and ghosts in this ancient land.

We chose Alesia for our first stop because of the historical significance of the site to the history of the Gauls and it’s role in standing up and defying the Romans, far along their decent into Empire. It was here that the Gaulish alliance under Vercingetorix took their final stand against Caesar, and it was here that the Dictator trapped, starved, and slaughtered the Gauls breaking the alliance and crushing Gaulish freedom under the genocidal boot of fascism.

Sculpture at MuséoParc Alésia

The Siege of Alesia represents one of the most traumatic moments in Western history. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul led directly to the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of the Roman Empire creating a model for dictators and demagogues to mimic and seize power for centuries to come. This is the model that inspired the Nazis and it’s this model that inspires the Fascists that are trying to take control of world politics today. The cries and wails of Alesia echos throughout our history and can still be heard clearly today if you are listening.

I didn’t know what to expect when we got to Gaul. I have visited other places of great tragedy before. On the Isle of Mona (Anglesey), where the Romans decimated the power of the Druids over a century after Alesia, We viscerally experienced the anguish of the land and the people that suffered there. Mona bled and wailed and we heard every cry and felt every anguish. I expected the same thing at the Gaulish sites, especially Alesia.
As we bundled ourselves up against the French autumn night and walked through the fog up to the Oppidum site on our first night in Gaul, the ghosts of the land were thickly crowding us. Our footsteps were swallowed by the dark and the cold and the quiet woods as we moved closer to the top of the hill where the united tribes of Gaul watched as their freedom, their homes, and their future was caged in and destroyed by the Romans.

The view from the top of the Gergovia Plateau

The tribes had gathered here after the great victory at Gergovia where the united Gauls battered Caesar’s legions and came close to turning back the Roman incursion into Gaul crushing Caesar’s dreams of conquest. They came here to make a united stand against what was clearly the undoing of their society, their communities, and their way of life. This was the largest confederation of Gauls that had ever been assembled, 80,000 warriors with another 250,000 gathering as relief forces from across Gaul, but as the leaders of the tribes stood on that hillside watching the Romans build earthworks and fortifications they must have felt the gnawing fear of entrapment building as Caesar’s legions rapidly encircled the entire hillside with a wooden palisade, ditch and embankment. That fear must have grown as they watched the Romans turn and build a second set of fortifications around the first set facing outward, effectively protecting the Roman legions from attacks from the gathering Gaulish relief forces and trapping the 80,000 troops at the hilltop town of Alesia with dwindling resources.

Recreation of Roman fortifications at MuséoParc Alésia

As I climbed the darkened hillside expecting to hear the sorrow and grief of those that died of violence in the surrounding fields or those that starved to death waiting for relief that was unable to come, I was overcome by an overwhelming and unexpected sense of warmth, welcome, and hospitality from the spirits of Gaul and from the land itself.

I was puzzled. How could a place of such trauma and sorrow emanate such a strong feeling of hospitality, what place does hospitality hold in our history and how does it affect our future?
Hospitality is one of the most important human traits. As animals, we have a number of fairly obvious limitations. We are not the strongest, fastest, or most adaptable species on the planet. We survive and thrive because we work well together. So the idea of hospitality has not only been important throughout human evolution but it can also be seen as essential to our survival as a species.
When we look back and the conquest of Gaul, we can look at a variety of factors that led to their defeat. Roman tactics and weapons were superior, but Gaul had the advantage of numbers. Rome’s army was concentrated and the Gaulish tribes were not only geographically separated but they also did not have a history of working together, in fact many of the Gaulish tribes had long standing rivalries with each other and the concept of joining together to fight a common foe was somewhat foreign to them. Caesar’s true skill was playing a long con of finding the divisions and antagonisms between the Gaulish tribes and using them to pit the Gauls against each other while he looted their riches and culture. Caesar took hospitality and used it as a tool and a weapon, benefiting from it when it suited his purpose and breaking it and taking advantage of it when it suited his goals of conquest.

Statue of Vercingetorix at Chemellier, France
The statue depicts Vercingetorix trampling a Roman soldier and was created by
Auguste Bartholdi who also created the Statue of Liberty

Today, our communities find ourselves in situations that have echos in this brutal past. The global rise of fascism and right wing authoritarianism has been creeping into every aspect of our culture and has been attempting to normalize itself. Like a virus that uses peoples fear, ignorance, and laziness to feed on and grow and thrive, these ideologies infect a broad spectrum of our communities, turning people into easy dupes for demagogues and breaking up friendships and families as the infection spreads.
No community is safe from this and smaller communities like Pagan communities, are only a reflection of the larger communities that they stem from.

Your community might be a bit better than the community around it, it might be more diverse, skew towards justice and equality and be more accepting of people different than them, but that type of safety can not be guaranteed or relied upon unless work is being done to maintain safe and healthy spaces within the larger community.

Lets look at the Pagan community as an example but many small communities fit this pattern. The Pagan community has much of its roots in 1960’s hippie ideals and has as a perception of being persecuted by the larger culture around it. The former has created an attitude of open sexuality that when unexamined can create an environment of abuse. When you combine that with the perception that we are persecuted by others along with the unhealthy worship of “celebrity” Pagans, abusive religious leaders, and an abundance of generally problematic but extremely vocal individuals, you find that problems like sexual abuse end up being hushed up and hidden away. Paganism, along with the remnants of the hippie culture that has survived has a serious issue with creepy and manipulative men that use their influence to sexually abuse young people and up until recently these abusers are often protected and supported by members of the community …right up until the law gets involved.
Even in a community that on the surface appears to be LGBTQ friendly and inclusive, Transphobia and violence against Trans-People is sadly common within Paganism. A generation that fought their entire lives for their own equality seem to have no problem scapegoating and demonizing the most marginalized and attacked population in our community. TERF’s are opportunistic traitors to feminism, often joining forces with ultra conservatives and the “alt-right” when it suits them and sadly, many of the founders of pagan traditions fall under this category.
Racism is also a pervasive issue within the Pagan community. Paganism is a prevailingly white culture. Sure we appropriate and “take inspiration from” a rainbow of global cultures but very little is done to address the injustices regularly done to the cultures that are taken from and even less is done to maintain spaces that are safe for people of color to be a part of. There are groups that are trying to do better at this, groups that are actively working to create an environment of inclusivity but for every one of these groups there seems to be a dozen more that either “don’t want to rock the boat” or are actively attempting to enshrine racism into their paganism with idiotic and xenophobic theories like “Metagenetics”, that there is some sort of blood quantum requirement in order to worship a particular Deity or follow a particular path.
These common and almost subconscious attitudes that the community is rife with, create an environment where marginalized people don’t feel heard, represented, or safe within.

We find ourselves in a precarious situation in regards to hospitality right now. We have headed into a time when we as a larger community are going to need to rely on each other more. In fact, as Pagans, we are going to need to learn to work with and rely on a variety of different groups with different ideals, views, and values. We will need to learn to build bridges and form strong coalitions with people that we might disagree with on some very basic issues. As I have been saying for a decade now, things are going to get much worse before they get better.

But how do we open up our communities while still maintaining the safety that people need in order to thrive and grow and connect with each other?
I imagine that this was a question that the Gauls that were facing the Romans were asking themselves as well. How do you form an alliance with an enemy in order to stand against a strong and pervasive foe.

Hospitality is an often misunderstood idea. Many tend to view hospitality as an obligation that a host has to a guest, forgetting that that obligation must be reciprocated by the guest to the host. It’s important to remember that hospitality can be broken by both the host and the guest. Hospitality is the set rules that allow humans to thrive in a dangerous and uncertain world. Breaking it or failing to offer it when it is needed breaks the contract that we have with every other being on this planet. It is not however, a chain to be manipulated to force someone to be vulnerable to attack.

It’s impossible to look at the path ahead of us and declare that we can “go it alone”. As the fall progresses we will be unable to rely on governmental resources to protect or aid us and we will be forced to look at our various communities to support us when we need it. So there will inevitably need to be an effort to build coalitions across a variety of communities. Powerful things can be achieved when communities can look past their disagreements and work towards helping others, and as our normal safety nets continue to fail us, the people most vulnerable will need these communities to provide those safety nets for them.
BUT……. and this is crucial, we cannot sacrifice the safety and security of our closest communities, with our hearth fires, in the name of cooperation.

These are the types of decisions that the Gauls had to make while addressing the onslaught of the Romans and the collapse of their social structure. They has to make formal alliances with former enemies in order to fight a common foe. They had to weigh the benefits with the risks of trusting those that had proven to be untrustworthy with the specter of the loss of everything to a seemingly unstoppable enemy. This is where the rules of Hospitality meet the reality of the world and we can learn from it.

A community can not be considered safe unless there is someone protecting the gate from what would harm those inside and safe communities need to be the foundation that we build our future on. The hearth fire is sacred. Those that you welcome to your hearth fire should expect and should be guaranteed that safety and welcome that it is your sacred duty to provide. In order to protect that sacred space it is absolutely necessary to defend it. This is an instance where good gate keeping is essential for the health of the community.

The smaller the group the easier it is to maintain the standards and safety necessary for people to feel comfortable enough to connect with each other and connect with the unknown. Without clearly stating your standards of behavior and more importantly enforcing those standards, you are not maintaining a safe community and if you are inviting marginalized people into that community you are sacrificing their safety and well being for the undeserved notion that you are inclusive and progressive.

It is essential for us to create and maintain these standards within the communities that we are able to. We must create spaces for people to come together that are truly inclusive and safe and we must defend those spaces from those who would use our hospitality as a weapon against us.
We must create warm and bright hearth fires, for our community to be able to heal and grow and nourish each other, and those bright fires must be defended with sharp spears and watchful eyes. This is a place where is is OK to be exclusionary, where it is necessary to keep the individuals out that are diametrically opposed to your well being and the well being of your people. This is difficult but mandatory work in community building. Its uncomfortable, its dirty, its confrontational and requires courage and backbone, but without it your community can never be safe.

But how to we reach out of these safer spaces in order to build the alliances and coalitions that we will need to survive in the long run? How to we create larger communities that can work together to solve bigger problems? How do we, like the Gaulish tribes, form alliances with those we consider enemies without exposing our vulnerabilities and putting our loved ones at risk?

If events like Pantheacon have taught us anything it’s that no matter what policies are in place, large multi-tradition events are impossible to keep completely safe. Big events like Pagan conventions and gatherings have shown us very clearly that no matter how “progressive” our larger communities are they will always have issues with sexual predators, racists, TERF’s, and other general bad behaviors.

But there is also value in us being able to come together as in larger communities. Sharing traditions and practices, meeting new people, and most importantly working together on bigger and more challenging projects is essential for our future. The “Big Tent of Paganism” is a Gods damned mess, but it also has great potential to be a force of good in the world and provide value in peoples lives, but that type of larger meta organization must be opt in for the most marginalized people in our communities. These events are not safe and cannot be advertised as safe for everyone. We need to be clear about the risks and dangers as well as the efforts that the organization putting on the event are making to address this lack of safety.

At the end of it all, what truly contributed to Pantheacon’s actual safety was a combination of dedicated volunteers that perpetually fought for safety policies to be implemented and enforced by the Con leadership and individual groups with suites that created strong and clear safety and inclusion policies and strictly enforced those policies at the doors of their suites. Pantheacon suffered greatly from the “can’t we all get along” attitude that it was founded on being in conflict with the emerging safety needs and concerns of the greater community. They tried to adjust to the changing times and were often held back by a leadership that was woefully unprepared and often unwilling to confront bad behaviors especially among their peers.

So here we are, the world around us is becoming far more dangerous and the larger communities that we are part of are a bit of a trash fire and cannot be relied upon to be the safe nourishing places that we need them to be. How do we move forward and build the relationships that we need within our greater communities when so many of the leaders and members of those larger communities are either dangerous narcissists, bigoted charlatans, or just too comfortable or cowardly to stand up when someone is behaving poorly? How do we stand together when we must?

Our future requires strong and safe communities where people are able to live, grow, love, and connect with their Gods or the unknown and those places must be boldly and firmly defended from those whose beliefs and prejudices will put you and your’s at risk. We need warriors with spears at the gates of every nourishing hearth fire, we must defend what is valuable and vulnerable from those who would do harm.
We must also work to reach out and work together on larger issues. Our various smaller communities need to learn to work together even when they don’t agree, but also must maintain basic human decency and work to create spaces that are free from the worst offenders and most dangerous individuals. We can build these larger coalitions and events but must also be honest and clear about the actual level of safety that these spaces can or are willing to provide. Most importantly, in providing the clarity that we need to maintain a larger group or event, we must be clear about the real risks and dangers that these events create and we must never expect marginalized people to attend them. Walking into a space that is not secure needs to be a choice and individuals need to have to option to opt in to this level of community but still have their voices heard by the larger community.

Presently we find ourselves in a situation that can been seen as a reflection of where the Gauls sat pondering the onslaught of Caesar. We can recognize that our world is deteriorating rapidly around us and can clearly see that the people most like us are often people that cannot be always trusted or relied upon and like what befell the Gauls our enemies will use that mistrust of each other to weaken and dishearten us. We know that our future will rely on alliances and trust and don’t know who we are able to trust and ally with. We will find ourselves needing each other to survive soon and the network our smaller groups is broken and cloudy, and we are often unable to tell friend from foe.
As we step forward into an uncertain future we must rely on our clarity, honesty, and instincts to protect us and inform our choices while being aware of the rising tide of misinformation that we are being fed.

Moving forward, we need bright and welcoming hearth fires guarded by sharp spears and keen eyes. We need visible welcoming policies that make clear what behavior is expected in our spaces and those policies must me upheld. We need to stand together while still recognizing and respecting our differences while we also vigorously protecting those that need protecting.
To survive our communities need strong warriors, nourishing healers, and wise leadership.
Without that we are lost.

The Vercingetorix Monument at Alesia
(shown here with his girlfriend)

2 thoughts on “The Hearth Fire and the Spear at the Gate: Hospitality in Unsafe Communities

  1. Great post! There’s so much to ponder here. I’m a Death Midwife and largely serve Deities of death (mainly Kemetic) in my personal and small group temple-based devotional practices. When I make spiritual pilgrimages to places of historical trauma, I feel compelled to perform public rituals of mourning for the peoples who were massacred/displaced at those sites. In the ancient Near East, particularly in Egypt, such rituals were often civic, encompassing large swaths of community engagement. I’m looking to revive that tradition in concert with other Polytheist, Pagan, and occult groups in and around Chicago. In my own Chicago neighborhood, which is built atop a mass paupers’ grave that dates to the mid-nineteenth century (I had no clue about the neighborhood’s sad history when I became a first-time home buyer a few years ago), I find it’s the spirits of the human dead–not so much the land spirits, who seem to exude a great degree of resiliency–who demand acknowledgement and communally witnessed grief in order to heal and release themselves from earth-bound attachment. It can be heartbreaking and certainly exhausting work; I wish more Pagans recognized this need. British occultist Peter Grey outlined a brilliant manifesto on processing the collective trauma inflicted by Abrahamic monotheism in the West through what amounts to Death Midwifery in his essay, “Apocalyptic Witchcraft.” It’s a cri de coeur that I wish more Pagans would read, share, and discuss!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think that these places want to be visited and honored.
      What been interesting is that the needs of the dead in each place can be very different.
      Mona wanted us to feel their pain and had parts of their story that they needed to tell.
      The famine graves in Ireland wanted to be remembered.
      The dead of Gaul was very clearly concerned about hospitality .
      There’s too much to say about the catacombs of Paris. I’m still processing that

      Liked by 1 person

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