Disability Goddess?

Venus de Milo (sculpture in the Louvre)When I was looking for a name for this blog, I did a little searching to try to find the name of an ancient goddess who had some kind of disabiity. Aside from Themis, the Greek goddess of justice (who is blindfolded, not blind, and was not even blindfolded in early depictions), I found nothing.

It is tempting to argue that in cultures both ancient and modern, there is more of a role for the man with a disability than a woman, that women are/were simply expected to be beautiful and perfect, and ignored if they are/were not.

But I don’t want to imply that being disabled is any less of a problem for men (indeed, in today’s cowboy-up culture it may be more difficult for a man to admit he needs help), and I also am aware that there are many areas of world religion where my knowledge is scanty. So: Are there any disabled goddesses?

Time Warp: A Lesson in Dance and Mobility

Here’s a lesson in inclusiveness from “Glee,” of all things. (Gosh, I feel old. I remember when “Rocky Horror” was the dirtiest movie I’d ever seen.) The dance, as described in the lyrics, includes jumping, stepping and pelvic thrusting, yet who can doubt that the guy in the wheelchair is well and truly a part of this Time Warp?


Because I’m thinking about these issues of late, I’m trying to be extra careful with events for which I’m responsible. Which brings me to my wonderful friend Kat, who is not at all disabled, but is pregnant. (You can read more about her journey at Aurora’s Dawn.)

Many Pagans believe in some version of a goddess like Gaia, who created the earth.

For convenience’s sake, insurance companies classify pregnancy as a “short-term disability,” but I prefer to think of it as “doing something really awesome and miraculous.” (I’ve never done it myself, so have no memories of morning sickness to de-romanticize my view!)

Nonetheless, it does place certain limitations on a woman’s body. I know Kat would let me know if she needed anything special at the Red Temple gathering I’m hosting next month. Still, I’m trying to be proactive by making sure she has a place to park near the event. And I’m pretty sure we’ll all be willing to get RIGHT out of her way when she needs the bathroom!

Pregnancy is not exactly an “invisible” disability, but some pregnant women have a tougher time physically than others, even at stages where they may not “show.” (This might be a good time to remind everyone of Dave Barry’s rule that you do not ask a woman if she is pregnant until and unless you actually see a baby emerging from her. If she has merely put on weight, believe me, she does NOT want to hear it.)

For some women, this may be the first time they’ve experienced much in the way of physical limitation. Despite the ads that show happy pregnant women doing yoga and strutting off to work in perfectly coordinated maternity outfits, the reality is that many women experience pain and fatigue along with other symptoms that may make it less comfortable for them to participate fully in Pagan rituals and experiences.

Of course, in a perfect world every woman (Pagan or no) would have access to caring medical professionals and a supportive community to make sure all her needs — physical, emotional and spiritual — were met. I know Kat is blessed in many ways, and I also know there are many Pagans in our community who already feel a bond to her daughter Mary Athena. I can’t wait to meet her!

Good post on this topic

from P. Sufenas Virius Lupus at Aedicula Antinoi. Sample quote:

Something else that I see more and more is the idea that, with proper spiritual practice, those who are on medications for psychological and physiologically-based mood or mental disorders will somehow “get over” their need for such things eventually.

Yes, thank you for your concern, but my issues will not go away if I become a vegan/eat only raw foods/take elderberry supplements/get cranio-sacral therapy/believe in fairies.

Virius Lupus also gives some fascinating historical data on a set of games held at the Egyptian city of Memphis in about 220 CE. Along with categories for competitors who were children and teens, the athletes also included a category that we might interpret to include people who were blind or disabled.

Read the whole thing here.

There’s Another Way

Yesterday’s post discussed a Pagan organization that did not do a good job of making a mildly disabled festival-goer feel welcome. I’m fortunate to be part of a community where there is a concerted effort to do things differently. They prefer to keep a low profile, so we’ll just call them the SSPG (Sooper Sekrit Pagan Gathering).

On SSPG’s e-mail list, an organizer of next season’s annual gathering is already gathering ideas for ways to include people of varying mobilities in the main ritual. She was challenged by a former dancer to come up with ways that everyone can dance — not just participate, DANCE. Among the suggestions from the group:

  • Raising energy by joining hands and making a “stirring the cauldron” motion with the joined hands.
  • Creating a center focal point where mobility-challenged people can move and drum (the outer group then performs a spiral dance, and at the center you have to kiss a drummer!).
  • An idea from a past SSPG ritual, in which participants sort themselves into Earth, Air, Fire and Water groups. Air, Fire and Water leave the ritual area to explore the outdoors and bring back symbols. Earth remains in the ritual space and does Earth-related work (I can envision consecrating a stone altar, for example).

I don’t know what the final ritual will look like, but I know that the organizers have shown courtesy and thoughtfulness in preparing for a variety of people to take a meaningful part — including listening to people who have disabilities.

How to Get Me to Avoid Your Pagan Festival

I’m singling out one group here, which is really unfair, but on the other hand, they’ve been putting on Pagan events for decades and really ought to know better. In any case, the points herein should apply to any large-scale Pagan event.

“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” — Helen Keller
“Recognize that the other person is you.” — Buddhist proverb

One of the things that drew me to Paganism was the acceptance and welcome I found there – not just for me, but for lots of people who feel “different” in more conventional settings.

These days, I’m the one feeling different. Thanks to an accident of heredity, I’ve been handed an incurable physical disability that began in my 40s and is getting worse each year. I get to deal with this in every part of my life, but right now I’m concerned about the Pagan part.

A friend recently invited me to attend a Pagan event with her – Twilight Covening, a long-weekend intensive put on by the EarthSpirit folks in Massachusetts. I know some people who’ve gone and found it valuable, so I was interested enough to check out the Web site. Here are some quotes from the descriptions of available activities:

  • For a clan (weekend intensive) focused on energy work: “Participants should be able to stand comfortably for at least half an hour.”
  • For a clan on ritual and energy work: “Please do not sign up for this clan if you have … mobility challenges.”
  • For a clan on singing and chant: “We will do some moderate hiking.”
  • For a clan that is building an oven and baking bread to build a connection with Earth and Water: “People with health, mobility or physical touch issues should not apply for this clan.”

You get the picture. After exploring the site, I came away with a strong feeling that I was not welcome, and told my friend I wouldn’t be going.

As the Pagan community grows and its leaders age, we ARE going to have more people among us with disabilities. There may, indeed, be more than we think already – I know more than one Pagan with disabilities who simply stays away from community events because he or she does not feel welcome. That makes me sad – and, because it’s now my problem as well, it makes me angry.

What I want to do is to turn my negative experience into a positive one. I’d like to propose a few standards for inclusion.

If you are putting on an event – a ritual in your home, a public workshop, a larger event – pay attention to what physical abilities are needed to participate.

Next, consider whether there are alternatives to your plans that would be more inclusive.

  • Is it possible to move the event to a wheelchair-accessible space?
  • Can those who prefer not to go on the hike – for any reason, not just physical ability – do something equally meaningful as an alternative?
  • How can your warrior workshop include the person who has a warrior’s soul in a less-than-agile body?
  • Can the space be arranged so the leaders’ mouths are visible to those who need to lip-read?
  • Who in your community might be available to provide a ride?
  • Is there a space available that’s on a public transit route?

For extra credit, consider how your event can help those with imperfect bodies (that is, all of us) build connections between physical and spiritual worlds, so that ALL participants leave feeling they have been encouraged and welcomed.

Finally, communicate in an inclusive way. How much different would my experience have been if the Twilight Covening people had indicated which clans would be best and most comfortable for people with mobility issues?

For smaller community events, of course there need to be compromises. Many of us do not have wheelchair-accessible homes, including me (and yes, that’s going to be a problem eventually). Be as clear as you can about what is and is not available, and offer to work with individual participants to find ways around barriers.

I know many leaders do these things as a matter of course. They make sure there’s a suitable chair or parking space for a mobility- challenged participant. They provide a guiding arm to a blind Pagan, or make sure someone helps the hard-of-hearing person understand the ritual. 

Most of all, they treat EVERY Pagan as a whole and worthwhile person. This article ends with my gratitude to them, and my own resolve to remember these lessons in my community work.

What’s this all about?

Hephaestus at the forge

A Greek depiction of Hephaestus (Vulcan) at his forge.

I am a Pagan — that is, someone who believes in the holiness of nature and draws inspiration from pre-Christian religions. I am also, increasingly, someone with a disability, thanks to a hereditary condition called lipedema. (To learn more about this, visit my other blog, Big Leg Woman.)

I’m starting this blog as a way to explore the Pagan community’s engagement (or non-engagement) with its disabled members, and to advocate for Paganisms that are inclusive and welcoming to differing levels of physical ability.

Vulcan is the Roman god of the forge, and in legend was said to have a broken leg that had never healed correctly. (His Greek counterpart, Hephaestus, was said to have a clubfoot.) Despite his disability, he was a powerful deity, governing important matters such as the creation of everything metal (swords, ploughshares, jewelry) and the destructive power of fire. I choose to call this site by his name in part to invoke the power of transformation that the smith performs — in this case, transforming something burdensome (a disability) into something powerful and beautiful (the chance to advocate for a better and stronger Pagan community).

But the fire’s part of it, too. I get angry when I see Pagans treat each other thoughtlessly, or when I see anyone being treated as less than a whole person. So while I cherish the high road, it is possible that I will not always be the High Priestess of Nice.

I chose the name “Vulcan’s Sister” as a reference to Virginia Woolf’s fictional character, Judith Shakespeare, who had the same imagination and talents as her brother William, but lacked his opportunities to succeed. Vulcan, a disabled man, is able through his powerful skills and a bit of blackmail to take his place among the gods and even marry the goddess of love. Women with disabilities are not discussed in history or mythology, and even today women with disabilities experience discrimination and sometimes (sadly) abuse.

Roman Republican

One of these days, Nova Roma is going to remember this is on their site and take it down. As one of the authors, I figured I’d preserve it for all time.


by Marcus Cassius Julianus and Patricia Cassia

(sung to the much-abused tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s
“I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”)

I am the very model of a staunch Roman Republican
I like to read from Cato because things were so much better then
I uphold all the virtues, except when they’re really bugging me
I think I’m so superior with my Stoic philosophy

My family is patrician, we’re descended from a deity
With pietas and dignitas, but never spontaneity
We clap politely at the games when gladiators spear their foes
And when we write a speech it always sounds like one of Cicero’s

My first wife I divorced because she wasn’t rich enough for me
My second ran away while I was on campaign in Sicily
I cast my vote to help a friend and so I’ve just become engaged
His lovely teenage daughter will become my wife when she’s of age

I’ve spent my whole life climbing up the Roman cursus honorum
It’s all to do with breeding, doesn’t matter if your smart or dumb
My slaves and clients tell me someday surely I’ll be Rome’s First Man
or else I’ll bribe the voters to make Consul as a backup plan

I wear my Senate toga with my sandals and my ring of gold
I don’t think anyone should lead unless he’s really, really old
My head is filled with good advice from Stoic sages myriad
Which makes up for my hair, which disappeared when I was just a lad

I’m always at my happiest when all our legions are deployed
“Because, O Conscript Fathers, it is Carthage that must be destroyed!”
I’m a military genius when I’m speaking on the Senate floor
I went out with the legions once, but they won’t have me any more

I built my family fortune up, tax-farming in the colonies
I raided someone’s temple for my statues and my courtyard frieze
I taxed grain from the provinces and shipped it promptly back to Rome
To serve bread to the Head Count, because everyone likes peace at home

The food I eat is covered with a pungent salty fishy paste
It keeps the meat good longer so it doesn’t have to go to waste
We haven’t got tomatoes yet; it really makes me want to cry
‘Cause there’s nothing more Italian than a pepperoni pizza pie

I offered sacrifice up to the great Triad Capitoline
and tied a ribbon to my sheep to let the Gods know it was mine
I also make devotions at my domicile’s lararium
Our household rites are all the same, we never like to vary ’em

I keep my cellar stocked with casks of all the best Falernian wine
It’s just what they expect of you when you live on the Palatine
When I leave town I’m glad to know that all the roads lead back to Rome
That way I can get drunk and still be sure that I will make it home

I’m very well acquainted with the Roman leaders various
I’m pompouser than Pompey and I’m manlier than Marius
I am the Perfect Roman, with the word, the thought, the deed, the look
You can find out more about me in Colleen McCullough’s next new book

And all my friends and colleagues from the Senate, they are just like me…
Because of us you can be sure that Rome will live in history!