Interview with Tess Dawson, editor of Anointed

Hello all. Today I am interviewing Tess Dawson, the editor of Anointed, the newest Bibliotheca Alexandria anthology celebrating the Deities of the Near and Middle East.

Full disclosure: I have nine poems published in this book.

How long have you been a Canaanite Pagan? Also, what term do you prefer to refer to your religion by?

Hi Amanda, it’s great to chat with you. I’ve been honoring the Canaanite deities for over twelve and a half years now, and I practice the religion of Natib Qadish. Natib Qadish, more accurately rendered natibu qadishi in Ugaritic, means “sacred path.” Originally there was no word for religion in Ugaritic because it wasn’t a separate institution: believes and practices were interwoven into life. There is a passage in Ugaritic literature which asks the deities to guide people through the “sand-swept paths of wilderness,” and I couldn’t find a better metaphor for religion, hence the name natib, natibu (“path”), and qadish, qadishu, qadishi (“sacred”). I call practitioners of this path qadishuma in the plural, or qadish (or qadishu for male and qadishtu for female) in the singular.

I’ve been gravitating away from the general term “Pagan” with a capital P in preference of other terms like polytheist or revivalist, “Canaanite,” or simply “qadish.” It’s an issue that I’ve been thinking about a great deal of late, and I’ve changed my opinion. I once made use of the word Pagan quite freely, but now I use it less and less to define my religion.

If given a choice between the terms “reconstructionist” and “revivalist,” I like the term “revivalist” better. Most reconstructionists would classify my religion under the term “reconstructionist.” However by its very name, reconstructionism gives some folks the false impression that we reconstruct religions exactly as they were in days gone by, and the word disallows flexibility and inspiration. Reconstructing religions as they once were is not only impossible, but also undesirable. Although we have a great deal of information about what past religious practices were, we will never know the whole story. And there are elements of past religion that many of us would not “reconstruct”: child labor, fewer rights for women, primitive health care, less-advanced technology, and so on. In my situation, ancient Canaanite religion as described by the Ugaritic texts is based on a theocracy and involves offerings from the collective wealth of a city-state. Although I try to get as close as possible to what ancient religion entailed, there are certain elements I’m not willing or able to “reconstruct.” For instance, I’m not giving up my computer and reaching out in prayer over the internet just because the ancients didn’t do it. The term “revivalism” offers the idea of breathing life back into ancient practices, and doesn’t imply that they are done exactly as it was in ancient times. After all, not even Christianity or Judaism, which have unbroken continued traditions, do people practice their religions exactly as people did in yesteryear.

To make a longwinded story short, I’m a polytheist, a revivalist, and a qadish practicing the ways of Natib Qadish, modern Canaanite religion.

How did you find your way to this path?

A few years before I knew about the Canaanite pantheon, I had been delving into eclectic Wiccan-based Paganism, and I found the ways lovely, but unfulfilling. I didn’t feel a close relationship to The Goddess and The God, I didn’t relate to the Green Man or a moon goddess, and try as I might I didn’t have a relationship to any of the Celtic deities. I looked into Heathenry for a little bit, but even though I liked it I still didn’t feel “at home.” Over time, I began to feel more and more frustrated, and I wondered if I would ever have a connection with the deities at all. I was leaning towards a strong agnosticism, thinking that perhaps there are deities but there is no way to communicate with them or know them in any way. I reached out in prayer, as I typically did at night, and one night in December 1998, I asked “Is anyone out there? Does anyone care?” I received an answer in my mind that someone was out there and cared, and I asked for a name just to check if what I was hearing was my own mental chatter or something else. I received a name, and it turned out this was the name of an ancient Canaanite goddess whom I had never heard of before. Her presence answered many questions I had in the back of my mind prior to the experience, but hadn’t yet researched—questions such as did the people of the Bible honor other deities before the Bible was written? That her presence fit in line with questions I had, and that I didn’t even know of her or her pantheon prior to the experience was evidence for me that I had a divine encounter. From then on I have honored the Canaanite pantheon.

I began reading and learning all I could. For a very short time I tried honoring the Canaanite deities in a quasi-Wiccan framework because I didn’t have much of anything else, but it felt disjointed, disconnected, and I felt the deities could be best honored in a way more familiar to them. After a great deal of research, I began patching together Canaanite rites and the seasonal calendar, and this was the beginning of Natib Qadish.

Is there a Canaanite God or Goddess that you are particularly devoted to?

I honor the entire pantheon and try to see to the needs of all the deities, however I have the closest associations with ʼIlu, ʼAthiratu, Choranu, Rashap (Rashpu), and to a lesser extent ‘Athtartu, ‘Anatu, Nikkalu, Yarikhu, Shapshu, and Kathiru-wa-Khasisu. ʼIlu and ʼAthiratu are the head god and goddess, respectively, of the pantheon and they are known for their great wisdom. Choranu sees to expelling toxins and venoms, protective magic, and curses. Rashap is a deity of warfare and plague. ‘Athtartu concerns herself with treaties, fairness, and justice. ‘Anatu is a goddess of warfare and ferocity, but she is also loyal to her friends and can be protective and helpful. Nikkalu cares for the fruiting orchards. Yarikhu is our moon god, while Shapshu is our solar goddess. Kathiru-wa-Khasisu’s sphere of expertise ranges from technology to music to magic.

What kind of response do you get when you tell people about your religion, both Pagans and non-Pagans? Have you been accepted or found any resistance and misunderstanding? I imagine you do a lot of educating, as many Pagans do. 

I get mixed responses which typically depend on the individual person.

From many Pagans, I see a response of genuine curiosity. Sometimes I’m just ignored. Often I’m met with assumptions that I do or think the same things as majority Pagans underneath my religion’s obvious differences. Sometimes there is the mistaken impression that I engage in the same practices as majority Pagans, except that I “use” different deity names. Some Pagans assume that my religion has a great deal in common with their religion(s), and there’s discomfort when that expectation isn’t met.

Once, when I was talking to a British Traditional Witch, I mentioned that I honored a moon god, Yarikh, instead of a moon goddess. He told me that I was flat-out wrong to do so, and that “everyone knows” that the deity of the moon is a goddess. There are many Pagans who accept what I am and what I believe, but sometimes I run into a patronizing attitude, such as “yes, dear, you can believe that all your deities are different beings, but one day you’ll mature into knowing the Truth that they are all one.” It gets discouraging because people mean well and people try to be kind and helpful. I think both patronizing attitudes and assumptions are the most frustrating issues I run into, especially because people are generally not cognizant of these attitudes and assumptions and they don’t intend any harm.

It is from non-Pagan polytheists who have separated themselves from the Pagan movement that I get the greatest amount of understanding and appreciation for my religion and its differences. They tend to assume that I’m different from the beginning then ask questions to gain a better understanding. They don’t get upset or nervous like some mainstream monotheists do, and they don’t look for similarities, glaze over the differences or trim elements to fit into preconceived categories or Romanticist paradigms like many Pagans do.

As regards to Christians, Jews, and other religious or non-religious folk, I generally don’t bring up the topic, or if I do so I couch it carefully. I’ve had a Muslim proselytize to me through email because he saw my website and worried about the fate of my soul, but there was no hellfire, anger, or pressure in his tone. Religion was brought up at a mixer I attended, and when I replied that I honor many deities the conversation turned to [insert local sports team here] so fast it made my head spin, and the false smiles abounded to cover a perceived as a gaffe in etiquette. My wonderful Unitarian Universalist relatives heard the word Pagan (back in the days when I used the word), but didn’t understand that the previous word—Canaanite—indicated a crucial piece of the identification and difference. For a while they assumed that I was a witch practicing Wicca, when both identifiers are far from the truth. I’ve had Christian friends over the years who have a live-and-let-live attitude, and they do not treat me differently than they do anyone else; and some of them engage me in deeper topics of spiritual conversation. I get along with small handful of mystical Jewish friends, and indeed we pick each other’s brains for information. Most people, if and when they learn that I have a religion different from the Big Three (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) either become curious and ask good questions, or just avoid bringing up the subject altogether out of discomfort.

I do spend a lot of time educating, but since I’ve dropped using the “Pagan” moniker and have adopted “polytheist” or “qadish” I spend a less time clearing up misconceptions. I don’t worry about trying to convince or remind Pagans to include my religion in their definitions of the Pagan movement. I’m not met with as much utter confusion with non-Pagans who have seen only that Pagan = Wiccan. I spend more time getting to the interesting parts about what it is I do and what I believe.

What motivated you to edit Anointed? What was your experience working on it?

Rebecca Buchanan of Neos Alexandria suggested that I put together a devotional project for Bibliotheca Alexandrina so I gave it some thought. Over the years as a practitioner of Canaanite religion, I’ve met many people who honor a variety of pantheons throughout the Near and Middle East—Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Hurrian, and even the Arabian pantheons of the Nabateans and the Sabeans. Even the better-known Mesopotamian religions (Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian), do not get much exposure. I wanted to give a voice to these different ways and the veneration of these pantheons. I also wanted to represent the tiny but growing movements for alternative religion, polytheism, and Wicca that I was hearing about in these areas today. I believed this book could be a great opportunity for people who honor these ways and pantheons to have material that they can use, and it helps us all to realize that we aren’t alone. I have a friend who recently said “Anointed is a ‘companion’ and not just a book, a companion for the heart, the soul and the mind.” I am truly glad, for this is what I had intended.

You also wrote Whisper of Stone, which was excellent, by the way. Can you tell the readers about that book?

Thank you, Amanda, I’m glad you liked it. Whisper is the culmination of seven years’ research and practice. I wrote it as a practical guide for people who want to honor the Canaanite pantheon and practice Canaanite religion. When I first started honoring the Canaanite religion, there were many history books available on the subject, but very few resources for applying the knowledge in practice. Indeed the only resource available was Lilinah Biti-Anat’s wonderful website, Qadash Kinahnu, which is still running today, albeit at a different web address. I’ve since gone in a slightly different direction from Lilinah, and I focus on Late Bronze Age material from Ugarit. Whisper of Stone is the practical guide I wish I had when I started out. It covers all about Canaanite religion that an introductory book should include: deities, tales, seasonal calendar, holidays, rites, magic, offerings, symbolism, herbs, stones, animals, and more. Whisper is loaded with copious footnotes so the reader knows where I get my information; I drew from over eighty resources.

The title comes from a passage in Ugaritic literature, where the tales say Baʻlu Haddi (Baʻal Hadad) possesses the “word of trees and the whisper of stone” and the secret knowledge of lightning. I like the imagery of that passage and the phrase “whisper of stone” brought to mind the idea of restoring respect to the images of ancient deities made of stones and metals, as if the images were whispering and waiting for us to listen once again to whom they represent.

What advice do you have for people who are drawn to Canaanite religion but don’t know how to start?

I would suggest reading all you can, making offerings, and praying for guidance. As for reading, I am happy to report there are more resources on the web and in libraries now than there ever before. Take a look at http://canaanitepath.com/courtyard.htm for community groups and blogs, and at http://canaanitepath.com/resources.htm for helpful links and a list of library resources. There are great groups for networking on Yahoo and on Facebook.

Any other projects you are working on?

I’m working on a book about Canaanite magic, The Horned Altar, which will come out via Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc., sometime in 2012-2013. The book has two sections, one for magic the ancient Canaanites performed, and one for the ancient techniques brought into the modern day. It will cover topics such as ethics, prayers, curses, recipes, symbolism, sacred alphabets, choosing a name, reading coffee grounds, dream interpretation, life in ancient Canaan, understanding the body, animal fetus divination, and relationships with the deities. After that, I’d like to work on an herbal with a Near and Middle Eastern focus.

Any final words?

I don’t have any, but if you have any further questions, Amanda, please feel free to ask.

Yishlam le-kumu,

Peace and wellbeing to you all

Tess Dawson

Bio

A Canaanite polytheist for over twelve years, Tess Dawson leads the largest online Canaanite polytheist groups, teaches workshops, and serves as a leader in the Near Eastern and Middle Eastern polytheist communities. Ms. Dawson is the key force behind the religion of Natib Qadish. She has written for Witches & Pagans, PanGaia, SageWoman, Circle, Pentacle, The Beltane Papers, and a few anthologies.

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