Tag Archives: ethics

The Minoan Controversy: Military or not?


We know a lot about the ancient Minoans: their religion, their daily lives, their trades, even their cooking. But one subject remains a source of controversy in spite of it all: whether or not the Minoans were a militarized culture.

My purpose today is not to argue one way or another (though I do have an opinion). My purpose is to examine why so many people feel compelled to try to prove that the Minoans were a militaristic society. I think this issue says at least as much about us as it does about the people of ancient Crete.

This issue is related to the need many people have to prove that the Minoans had a monarchy instead of being ruled by councils or collectives of leaders. Sir Arthur Evans, the Victorian-era archaeologist who first unearthed the Minoan city of Knossos and revealed it to the modern world, was just sure that the Minoans had a king who ruled over them, just as his beloved British Empire had a monarch. Otherwise, he reasoned, how could they possibly have become such an advanced civilization? So he named the parts of the Knossos temple complex with terms like Throne Room and Queen’s Megaron. Those names have stuck even though we’ve figured out since Evans’ time that the huge building was an administrative and religious temple complex and not some monarch’s palace. But Evans couldn’t envision a world in which successful cultures arose with cooperative or  oligarchic structures instead of monarchies. And many modern people can’t envision a thriving civilization that doesn’t have a military and a desire for conquest.

When modern people look at ancient Crete, they see a successful society: wealthy, vibrant, worldly. And it makes many people profoundly uncomfortable to think that a culture like that could flourish without a military, without the thirst for blood and conquest. After all, in the millennia since the Minoan cities fell, human culture has been all about armies and conquest, generals and battles and taking what you want. Why should the Minoans be any different?

The thing is, if ancient Crete was different, if the Minoans managed to create their incredible civilization without a military, or with nothing more than a simple merchant marine to protect their trading ships, that means it’s possible to be successful without being a militarized dominator society. That means that militarization, institutionalized violence, and domination are choices, not inevitabilities. And that makes us accountable for the misery, hardship, and atrocities we’ve perpetrated in our own militarized societies.

This is why, every few years, someone comes out with a paper purporting to show that the Minoans had a military and were a warrior culture: We need to justify our own horrors. We need to show that we can’t help it, that wanting to dominate and take and kill is an ingrained part of the human condition and not a choice. We’re mirroring our own shadows in the history we’re trying to write.

Ancient Crete was no utopia, but it was an egalitarian society with a deep sense of the sacred. Instead of trying to make excuses for our own horrible behavior, how about we look to ancient Crete for ways we can do better instead?

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.


Generally I take a very relaxed attitude to how people define their own Druidry. I don’t like dogma, and I don’t like being prescriptive. But there are things I consider totally non-negotiable. I thought it would be interesting to try and pin those down.

Here are the things I consider core to my Druidry and not at all open to discussion. There’s not much in here that is specifically religious, I realise, nothing at all pertaining to deity. Without further ado, the ten dogmatic statements of Bryn are as follows…

1) Without honour, a person has nothing.

2) The world is full of wonder, magic and beauty. It is our duty to seek and appreciate it, to encourage, protect and nurture it.

3) There is no freedom without responsibility.

4) All life is sacred. Everything has value and worth and our defaults should be care and respect.

5) It is what we do, that defines who we are, not what we think.

6) We have a duty to ourselves to be the best that we can be, by whatever terms we define that.

7) We have the right to seek our own happiness, wellbeing and fulfilment, balanced by a duty to act with care and respect where others are concerned.

8) No one has the monopoly on wisdom, and truth quite often depends on where you happen to be looking at it from. But not always.

9) There are no rules or guidelines that can actually tell us how to live well. We have to figure it out for ourselves, moment to moment.

10) Everything matters. Everything deserves taking seriously. Whatever we believe, we should live this life as though it is the only one we have. 

(I have just realised that there is no do or do not in the above, only try. I am the AntiYoda!)

There are a great many other things that I do, value, and think are important, but they do not create standards by which I would judge other people. But I do make judgements about people whose lives and perspectives are wildly at odds with the above concepts.

Art and Craft Politics

If it has a use, it is a craft item. If it doesn’t, it’s art.

This is a definition that holds up in high school art classes, galleries, auction houses and all kinds of other places too. I once held an ashtray made by Picasso. Had it been a tiny painting, it would have been under lock and key, and hugely valuable, but an ashtray isn’t art. It was, however, beautiful.

Now, take a moment and consider these questions. Who produces art? Who makes craft items? Who chooses what to spend the money on?

Art is made to be sold to an art market. That’s its sole purpose. At the top end, it’s made to be sold to galleries, companies, wealthy individuals, or it is commissioned for public spaces. Its function is to be decorative, impressive, inspiring, and/or to be a show of wealth and power. The vast majority of famous artists are and were men. There’s an aura of exclusivity about Art, and most of us ‘ordinary’ people couldn’t afford to own any. We buy the poster versions.

Craft items are made to be used. We’re talking Shaker boxes, painted pots, baskets, blankets, rugs, clothing, pottery, decorated furniture… the fine art of using ordinary materials to make your home beautiful. Crafts belong very much to poorer people, to indigenous people, folk traditions. Crafts are often the domain of women.

Every now and then some group of indigenous people, or a folk movement (Shakers for example) become unexpectedly sexy and then collectors want a piece of it, but on the whole, things made for use are treated as secondary to things made purely for decoration. I do not believe this has anything to do with skill, or quality of work (I’ve been in modern art galleries….) and everything to do with class and gender politics.

There is an important green issue to raise here too. Things that are made purely to be things, art for art’s sake is, from a certain perspective, just stuff and clutter. And on the flip side, just because a thing has a function, that’s no excuse for making it ugly and depressing. (Can I mention car parks?) There’s so much fair traded house clutter out there, and that seems to defeat the object of green living in so many ways. Beautiful things made to serve a purpose, are inherently useful and lovely to live with. We have finite resources. Many of us have finite spending power as well, and finite amounts of space to put things on and in. Given the choice, I’d rather have a thing that is both beautiful and useful.

A child’s trust

He believes in me. That’s a humbling thing and an empowering one all at the same time. He believes that I am a good person and that makes me try harder, to make sure I never let him down and am never less than the person he sees. Sooner or later, our parents stop being infallible heroes, but right now I’ve still got something close to that, and I want to make it last because it is such a beautifully, precious gift of trust to be given.

Children are predisposed to trust. They think well of us adults. I remember being young enough to believe that adults knew and understood everything. It was a bit of a shock finding it not so. I’ve been careful, as a parent to flag up the limits of my knowledge and ability. I never wanted him to think I was something I’m not. Yet despite my many shortcomings, weaknesses and failings, he still thinks well of me.

I look at him daily with a mix of awe and wonder. Old beyond his years, helpful, sensitive, insightful, kind and patient, he’s a far better and more emotionally mature person than a fair few adults I’ve met. My son inspires me to want to be so much more than I am.

I don’t know many children that well, but they all come into this world wide eyed and hopeful, wanting to believe the best of us. We have a choice. We can show them how important it is to learn how to be wary, cynical and cautious, or we can try and be the people they think we already are.

No Curses

Lots of people associate paganism, especially witchcraft, with curses. One of the most commonly asked questions I get from non-pagans is ‘do you do curses?’ (It comes along with queries about dancing naked and sacrificing virgins.) Traditionally, curses have been a part of paganism – cunning folk did it and so did our ancient ancestors. However, in today’s ethical climate, it’s not a comfortable issue.

Wishing ill on people, no matter what they’ve done to you, is unethical. It’s not something I have ever done, nor would I consider doing it. There’s a secondary issue that it’s not good to be filled up with hatred and a hunger for revenge. Thirdly, many pagan folk believe in ideas like karma, and the wiccan notion of threefold return- what we do comes back to us. So in thought as well as deed, it’s not ok to send malevolence to another.

So what do you do, when conventional justice does not seem available? I think we all have moments when someone drives us to despair or rage, and we have no viable scope for responding. What do you wish for, or pray for? So below, partly for my own amusement, partly for yours, are some entirely ethical, but not remotely nice responses for when you don’t have any other options.

Wish them self knowledge and the chance to fully understand who they are and how others perceive them.

Wish them learning opportunities, and the chance to understand the impact of their actions.

Wish them the opportunity to share in what they have given you.

Wish them a conscience.

If you can’t tackle a person directly about wrongs committed, sometimes it helps to imagine them in front of you (when no one else is around to think you are crazy) and say aloud all the things you wish them to hear and understand. It’s a good way of venting and getting it out of your head and heart.

Above all else, wish for poetic justice, and imagine what form that would take. I’m going to come back on the poetic justice issue because it’s such an interesting one, both from a writing and a druidic perspective.

Beliefs and Competing Priorities

I heard this on the radio this morning. Radio Nottingham was focusing on how doctors who were strongly religious were reluctant to engage in end of life care for patients – interesting enough. I then wandered the internet to find out more… and saw that the Guardian has apparently taken the opposite perspective, that atheist doctors are more likely to help patients to die. Same story, but slightly more rabble-rousing.

While this could be considered a balanced perspective (ie both sides of an argument), it’s fascinating to see how the same story can be presented in two entirely different ways by the news media. Rather than encouraging the reader to make up their own mind, however, each story points them towards the conclusion that we need to be worried about our doctor’s faith when faced with terminal decisions.

Now, my particular reason for focusing on this today is that I have direct experience of the truth of it – specifically how those medical professionals who hold strong faith beliefs allow this to influence patient care. And we do indeed need to be aware of it, as pagans and those who will inevitably need to consult a doctor at some point in our future. But more importantly, we need to be aware of our own wishes at times of medical emergency.

While working in the NHS, I have been in charge of administrating End of Life Care Decisions – the final wishes of those who know that they are to pass on shortly. While still known in some areas as ‘DNR’ (Do Not Resuscitate) Orders, EOLCDs can in fact relate to anything. I had a lovely communication from a lady who wished to die on the beach at Skegness, surrounded by her family – a logistical fiddle, but one that was a quiet pleasure to help with.

I used to say that while I never met these people, I was one of a scant few medical professionals who was charged with their care at this crucial time, when they were most vulnerable and in need of help. Sometimes the ‘Next of Kin’ box was blank – they had no family or loved ones. Care homes can be good, but as we have no doubt seen on revelatory ‘real life trauma’ programmes, can be less than caring as well. I would spend a good deal of time calling to confirm everything was in place, and despite some managers chuckling at how I was going far beyond the demands of the role, I didn’t care. Some GPs had no idea of who this patient was. Care homes had no knowledge of terminal wishes. I advised, politely but firmly, that this was quite important to the patient – but sadly only when potential legal comeback was mentioned would I get a reaction.

What I did get from time to time was a call from a GP, furiously accusing me of supporting euthanasia and virtually assisting in the murder/suicide of their patient. How dare I – did I not trust him, as a qualified Doctor, to administer the correct treatment to keep them alive? And, more often than you’d think, a GP refusing to sign off a patient’s EOLCD (ie their affirmed wish) – because the doctor was a Christian and could not ethically allow it.

I have also been told of a gentleman who was deeply claustrophobic and had left specific instructions for a Viking-style funeral, rather than a burial – the worst thing he could imagine was being put in a hole in the ground. Unfortunately, he was a large fellow, and the local Council and crematorium felt otherwise. He was duly buried. His friends were actually planning to exhume him in secret and organise something, so shocked were they at this callous attitude to his expressed wishes.

This, to me, was the crux of the issue. At what point do our wishes become invalid when placed alongside those of others? The key point of contention for euthanasia there, but very relevant to any major decision, in which personal beliefs are strongly held. But what gives us the right to inflict our beliefs on others? Professional medical training versus belief? Or patient wellbeing contrasted with right to life?

We all have a right to life – absolutely. But I received EOLCDs from fully fit people in their 30s, who simply knew there was a history of dementia in their family and wished to record a decision for their life not to be prolonged if quality and awareness dropped below a certain point (in one gentleman’s words, ‘not to live as a vegetable’). Others are so ill, their list of diagnoses is too long for the box on the form. Their quality of life is virtually nil, and they’ve had enough. As with Organ Donor Cards, these wishes must be respected.

The one certainty in life, I have often been told with a grin, is that we will die. Death is a side-effect of life suffered by 100% of us. Yet more people seem unwilling to face this fact. While I understand the wish to fight tooth and nail to stay alive, I also understand and appreciate the need for personal wishes to be respected – no matter how they may clash with our own. Support must be provided, but to create comfort in the sick, not to encourage them to go against their own wishes. If you are terminal, do you wish to be told that your final request is wrong?

I am honoured to be part of an NHS Multi-Faith Forum, full of very wise folk from a huge variety of traditions, all endeavouring to advise rather than evangelise. None wish to inflict their beliefs on others, but simply acknowledge and prepare for potential requests from those who are sick and in need. This includes the famous cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions and suchlike.

The reason I am there is because I was called by a lady who was anticipating her forthcoming demise, and was actively frightened by the treatment she had received from her local hospital. She had removed the word ‘Pagan’ from her records, as the doctor who would be performing surgery on her had told her bluntly of his own strong Christian beliefs, and that she would be ‘in the hands of God’ (ie him). When she was giving birth, three midwives were called – because they had seen That Word and truly believed there was a chance she would sacrifice her new-born baby. She was refused chaplaincy – an offence under the Human Rights Act and current NHS Policy – because they did not acknowledge her Paganism as a ‘proper’ religion.

While we are chronologically in the 21st Century, the current fear of causing offence due to religion has unfortunately meant that faith and belief issues (whether directly religious or not) are instead disregarded. This in itself is unethical as human beings. Times of medical crisis come to us all, and it is crucial that we do our best to make our wishes known – and those in a position to do so allow those wishes to be adhered to. This may be the most difficult thing in the world – I know Ambulance crews who have had to stand back from a patient in cardiac arrest because she wishes for no resuscitation. Others look on in horror… but that was her wish. That crew are there for her in the way she wanted – and that took more bravery than those rib-cracking chest compressions and defibrillation.

The Guardian, fortunately, has come to a similar conclusion in an associated Opinion. Understanding can be reached if we communicate – important for us as people as well as followers of the Pagan path. Most of my work seems to boil down to this fact: gently communicating, explaining rather than arguing or shouting. My passion comes across in my words, truly felt and thought through, expressing my Duty of Care to fellow beings. Sometimes this is enough to stop a rant in its tracks – and once others start to really listen, half the battle is won.

Pagan Police

There are no pagan police. (There are police who are pagan, that’s a whole different issue). There’s no overarching body to whom you can complain, or who can bestow justice. There’s no one whose job it is to go round shutting up pagans who embarrass other pagans, or say things most of us don’t agree with or post total drivel in forums.

In many ways this is a good thing. Paganism is about taking responsibility for yourself and your actions – the idea of anyone policing that, in all its diversity, is anathema. Paganism is not about dishing doctrine or enforcing rules, nor is it about power and hierarchy. But every now and then you may encounter someone who calls themselves a pagan, but, in your perceptions, betrays paganism with every word and action. And yes, those folk make most of us wish we had some kind of official body to run to.

What this means is that each and every one of us has to police the community as we find it and take responsible action. If I said that was a minefield, I’d be guilty of terrible understatement. However, here are some broad guidelines for how to tackle rogue and nuisance pagans.

1) If anyone is using their claimed pagan status (as priest/ess, teacher etc) to abuse others, coerce, defraud or otherwise mistreat, this is a matter for the regular police and you need to take it that way.

 2) If you have problems with someone creating a bad press image the only answer is for other pagan folk to approach the media and try to get their voices heard too. It’s not an easy solution, but sometimes it works.

3) If someone is working inappropriately or dangerously within the community, the only answer is to make other resources available – and that can mean stepping up and teaching to give people an alternative to bad teachers. You can’t make people do differently, but you can give them choices.

4) Be very careful of clashes of style and personality. Not liking how someone does things is not grounds for attacking them or instigating ‘witch wars’. It is fine to disagree. It is not fine to hound or harass people because you don’t like how they do things. You have every right to offer an alternate opinion. If you have a problem with another pagan’s behaviour, it is vital you make sure that your own actions remain lawful and honourable.

5) We are all different and we frequently disagree. How we do it speaks volumes about who we are. Sometimes it’s better to walk away, unless there is genuine risk of harm being caused. Usually the best solution is to create a viable alternative. Taking responsibility means taking action that may be demanding and difficult, but if we think we can do better than the teachers and priests who have stepped up already, then the only honourable action is to step up.