Here’s a few thoughts of ways in which city living can be made more pagan.
Re-cycle/freecycle – with more people around, it’s easier to find homes for stuff you don’t need, and companies who can reuse your junk.
Ditch the car. Cities tend to have decent public transport systems. Look for bicycle routes, and canal towpaths (in the UK) as good ways of getting around. Support pedestrian only zones – they’re quieter, safer and far nicer to be in.
Support urban tree planting. Trees are so good for cities. They improve the view, provide shade, and can reduce noise pollutions and air pollution as well. Arguably, trees planted in cities make more difference to more people’s lives than ones planted out on the wilds, where trees are much more able to propagate themselves anyway.
Support ethical traders, and local diversity. So many of our shopping centres and high streets look the same. What makes yours different? That’s the stuff you need to be taking care of.
Support street art, busking and other random forms of creativity. Throw a few pennies in the hat, and encourage bard craft in urban spaces. Nothing cheers up a grim urban space like a bit of live performance and creativity.
Go on a litter pick. Keep urban green spaces free from rubbish.
Grow something. Anything. Even if its’ just a pot plant by your door. It all helps. Very small green spaces connecting to each other can create green corridors for wildlife to get about.
Support your community, whatever form that happens to take. Be part of where you live. Cities can be isolating, anonymous places where people fear each other. The smallest gestures can make the most enormous differences. As pagans, we serve the gods and the ancestors in part by serving those around us.
We’ve had a lot of blog posts about the positive angles of being a pagan in the city. I thought today I’d post about why I find cities difficult. We’re so used to urban dwelling being normal, but for some people it’s really unhealthy. I offer my experiences.
I grew up in Gloucestershire, in a very small town. I now live in Redditch – which isn’t huge and is fairly green. Visits to cities – Birmingham and London especially – have taught me that city life is not for me.
Firstly there’s the light pollution. It’s always light. Frequently you can’t see the stars. Narrow vistas between buildings means you never see much of the sky, and the skyline is oppressively close.
Cities are loud. I have sensitive ears. I can pick out individual bird voices, find mice in the hedgerow by hearing them. The constant noise and bustle of cities exhausts me. I gather that you learn to tune it out. That’s not a skill I want to learn. For me, being a bard, it’s vitally important to hear and listen to the songs in my environment. More than a day or two in a city, and I can’t think for the noise. There’s also the information overload from posters and advertising. Again, people learn not to see. I want to be present and aware. I don’t want to have to tune out what is around me.
Roads and public transport systems are often counter intuitive and disorientating. I hate the tube, travelling underground, following a map that bears so little relation to actual geography. I lose all sense of the connections between places.
For anyone who is a touch empathic or psychic, cities are a nightmare. So many lives, thoughts and emotions all humming different tunes. So much human misery. The overworked, the unemployed, the poor, exhausted, abused, distressed… the swathes of people who have lost any sense of their own spirit, who walk zombie-like in slow moving hordes, tuning out the noise and the advertising and each other. For a sensitive soul, it’s agony. Either you have to learn not to feel, or you have to get away.
Much of it, I think, is the fault of urban planning. Cities designed for cars, not people. Spaces overwhelmed with advertising. Environment that do not encourage human interaction. Good building, good public spaces, green places, the removal of cars and other quietening measures can radically improve urban spaces.
Populations are such that we can’t all have our own field and wood to rest in. That’s not the answer. We do need to be working to make urban spaces human again. They should be a habitat that supports and nurtures, rather than encouraging fear and isolation. I don’t have much by way of answers, other than the certainty that cities should be about the people, and not about the road systems, the convenience of business and industry, or keeping the costs at rock bottom.
The Wiccan notion of The God and The Goddess tends to focus our attention on deity as wild, rural and natural. However, looking back at some of the pre-Christian pantheons, it’s apparent that this wasn’t how our ancestors did things. Gods can be urban.
Athena was the patron goddess of Athens.
Aqua Sulis (as the Romans named the UK city of Bath) was named for the local deity Sulis, who is paired with Minerva (the Roman equivalent of Athena).
‘Grim’ in a place name indicates a Viking presence, and alludes to Odin. Thus Grimsby (Also in the UK) is Odin’s.
People have lived in cities for thousands of years. Until relatively recently, the majority lived in the countryside and tilled the land, which is no doubt why ancient pantheons have a strong bias towards rural, agricultural and wild deities. However, cities are not new. With their numbers of available workers and levels of wealth, cities tended to be the homes of great temples. We might imagine our ancestors worshipping amongst standing stones, under the stars, in sacred groves and wild places. In reality, plenty of them lived and worshipped in urban environments, and some of them worshipped specifically urban gods, deities related to human civilization, not the wilds. (The cult of Roman Emperor worship seems a fine example).
Every city has its own character, vibe, or spirit. It stands on its own land. There may be a river flowing through it, and that river may have a deity. Sometimes (as with the examples above) it’s easy to find out who the pagan patron of a city is. For cities that do not have that kind of antiquity, connecting with the deity is a little more challenging. If the city speaks to you, listen to its voice, and perhaps it will whisper a name.
Here’s a song I think really evokes a sense of urban deity.
Connecting to nature is a core concept in paganism. Cities, seem a lousy place to do this. Nature is, surely, somewhere else? Not so. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Cities create heat islands, there’s always noise and light, plants and wildlife aren’t so obvious. But nature is all around you. Here’s some tips for connecting.
Make sure you stop outside every day. ‘Outside’ should not just be the dash between car and office, car and shop, car and front door. Or bus, or whatever you use. Stop. Stand still for just a few moments. Look up at whatever sky you can see. Feel the air on your face. This is nature.
There might be light all the time, but if you pay attention to when the streetlights come on and go off, you can become more aware of the patterns of natural light level.
Find some urban trees. Once you start looking, cities are surprisingly green places. Parks, gardens, canals, and urban tree planting all result in green spaces. Urban decay leads to plants moving in. Where there are plants, there are often insects and birds as well. Find out what kinds of trees are growing around you, and keep an eye on them. See when they come into leaf, whether they fruit, what they do in autumn. An urban tree has just as much tree spirit as one in a forest. You can still talk to them, sit under them, or meditate with them.
Find out about urban wildlife. You may be surprised. Foxes and rats are normal, but Birmingham has peregrine falcons, and there have been sightings of wild otters in the canals. Bats thrive in urban environments.
Think about the tarmac. In reality, it’s only a few inches thick. Under the tarmac there is soil, and the energies of earth are still there, even if we have put a lid on them. You can still connect, it just takes a bit more effort.
Spirits of place exist in urban environments just as they do in wilder ones. Spirits seen and unseen, known and unknown. If you believe that every living thing is imbued with spirit, then it surrounds you. Cities teem with life.
Cities are also an excellent place to commune with the spirits of our ancestors. Find out more about the human history of your city. Who founded it? In the UK, cities may date back to the Roman occupation – Gloucester does (along with any other place-name ending ‘cester’) and there are remnants from many centuries of human society. The past is very much with us in cities. We can see it, touch it, be part of it and connect with our ancestors of blood, place and tradition.
Cities feel very much like big human constructions in which we have taken control of every aspect. They seem remote from nature. They aren’t. Nature sneaks in, and works its roots into the cracks. The rain still falls, the sun still bakes us. We still depend on water to drink, and food grown on the land to nourish us.
Take some time out in an urban space, and imagine what it’s like to be a bird, or a plant there. To be a rat, a seed, a tree. Wild things do not perceive cities as we do. To a sparrow or a butterfly, this is just another environment. The cliffs may be weirdly regular, but that’s about it. To a non-human, it’s just another landscape offering potential and risk. Another place to adapt to and seek a niche in. Experiencing nature in the city is very different from encountering it in a more overtly wild place, but no less important. But then, encountering nature on a beach is different from the top of a mountain, or the depths of a forest. This is the environment we have made, but it is still an environment and we are not the only ones living in it.