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Unleash the Hounds! (Link Roundup)

Sat, 2015-03-28 03:38

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

We begin with two updates on stories previously reported:

  • A Georgia State House Committee completely tabled the pending SB129 “Religious Freedom Restoration” bill. The unexpected action reportedly killed the bill’s chances of enactment for the foreseeable future. This was the bill that prompted a public response from the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and multiple reactions from the local Wiccan community. Before being tabled, one legislators offered an amendment to ensure that the bill would not be used for discriminatory purposes. The addition read, “…and protecting persons against discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state, or local law.” However, several committee members were opposed to the addition, causing the RFRA to be tabled.
  • The Associated Press has added Wicca and Wiccan to the religion section of its stylebook. Last year, changes were made to the religion section of the popular guide book, used by journalists throughout the world. However those additions did not incorporate Pagan terms. We reported on this story last summer. Now, almost a year later, AP has included Wicca. The guide advises capitalizing the term in all cases and offers a brief definition.

In other news….

  • Last week, a conflict in Iceland finally ended when a road-building company was ordered to move an 87 ton rock considered to be an “Elf Church.” This particular rock was in the way of the road being constructed “between the Alftanes peninsula to Gardabaer.” According to several locals, who work closely with land spirits and the Icelandic elves, the rock is sacred and part of an “elf habitat.” In 2009, Hilmar Örn Hilmars­son, director of Ásatrúarfélagið, performed a rite at the site. After a year long battle beginning in 2014, the courts ordered the construction company to relocate the rock, which happened on March 18. Now, the road-building can continue and the rock is protected.
  • In February, Chicago’s Field Museum opened a new exhibit called “Vikings.” Organized by the Swedish History Museum and supported by Austria’s MuseumPartner, the exhibit seeks to take visitors beyond lore and Hollywood depictions to share real Viking history. Included in the showing are over 500 artifacts which serve as a window into Viking culture through craftmanship and mythology. ‘Vikings’ runs now through October. And, for those who have yet to see the Field Museum’s ‘Voudou: the Sacred Powers of Haiti,’ exhibit, it will be open until April 26.
  • In February, The Interfaith Observer, a “monthly electronic journal created to explore interreligious relations and the interfaith movement” offered a strong message of unity and devotion to the sacred Earth written by Phil Lane, a member of the Yankton Dakota and Chickasaw First. In this article, titled “An Indigenous Call for Restoring the Sacred,” Lane writes, “As we move courageously and wisely forward, in greater and greater love, compassion, justice, and unity, we are reconnecting to our enduring and unbreakable spiritual and cultural foundation for healing and reconciliation. Together we can move in a unified action to restore and protect the Sacred everywhere on Mother Earth.” 
  • As reported in Religion Dispatches, writer Joseph Laycock has released a new book called Dangerous Games. In an article entitled “My Childhood Hobby was Satanic, or so they told me,” Laycock describes how his love for Dungeon & Dragons was rejected as harmful by many adults. He writes, “Much like religion, these [role-playing] games create a new mental space from which players can look back on the world and their lives from a new perspective.” The book is a exploration of this topic and why Christians, and others, largely rejected the game as occult and dangerous.
  • Photojournalist Rony Zakaria’s work in Indonesia was featured in The New York Times on March 16. Zakaria journeyed to the mountains of the country and found people whose lives were deeply tied to the land, and whose beliefs “tend more to animism or paganism.” The Times quotes Zakaria describing how the trip became a personal journey as he learned about the deep connection made between the people and the land. He captures this profound experience in striking black and white photographs.
  • The IndiaTimes published an article on March 14 that listed the “13 religions from around the world that are just to weird to be mainstream.” Coming in at number seven was The Church of All Worlds, which the writer describes as “the largest neo-pagan religion in the world.” He includes a striking photo of Oberon Zell-Ravenheart holding a skull. The entry is directly followed by Jediism and the Creativity Movement.
  • There is no dearth of feel-good stories about humans interacting with animals on the internet. A recent one that made the rounds is a BBC story involving a little girl who feeds the crows and the many gifts that they have brought to her in return.

By Linda Tanner [CC lic. via Wikimedia ]

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Column: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Fri, 2015-03-27 16:31

[Join us in welcoming Manny Manny Tejeda-Moreno, our new monthly columnist. Manny is a professor and social scientist. His scholarship has been focused in research methods, leadership and diversity, and he has a masters degree in psychotherapy. Manny was born in Cuba and and was raised as a child of Oyá. He is a witch and has been in the Pagan community for almost four decades.]

[Credit: Nicolas Raymond/Flickr]

While attending a Pagan conference recently, I was reminded of a behavior that, while is second nature at Pagan gatherings, seems starkly odd in a modern hotel: the no photography rule. Of course people take pictures of one another often, though usually with the implied consent of the person being photographed. It is not uncommon for that implied consent to be present among friends with the assumption that the photographs will be shared with some discretion. But the reason for this rule among Pagans is that the group is collectively concerned about the disclosure of their religious identities.

A few months ago, I published an article on the discrimination of Pagans in the work environment based on my own observations and predictions from theory. Social Psychology, particularly one theory of stigma, tells us that when personal characteristics are not obvious- like eye or skin color for example- the act of disclosing is not only a matter choice but also a process of assessing the consequences of that disclosure. The theory suggests that each of us has an identity that fulfills the expectations of a social setting while possibly simultaneously having an actual identity that is different.

Religion is like that. Unless there is an outward sign of religious affiliation, such as a hijab, one has to look for clues about a person’s faith.  In North America and much of the West, society presumes that individuals are Christian, the most common mainstream religious affiliation. It is, of course, an inaccurate presumption; but the point is that most people generally assume that individuals are not different from those who are the most common. The ability to control disclosure combined with a lack of obvious clues permits an individual to “pass” as mainstream.

For me, this raised questions about the experiences of Pagans in the workplace. Pagans are, essentially a rarer find in the social fabric of faith where the most common thread is Christian. In other words, when an individual says “I’m Christian” in the United States, most people think some variant of “you and 260 million other Americans.”  With less common faiths, such as Judaism, individuals may be marked by stereotypes, but are also recognized as present in the mainline religious experiences.

However, if someone says “I’m a witch,” most people – almost exclusively those unfamiliar with Paganism — are just left with Halloween imagery or TV episodes as a way of understanding the statement. That left me with questions about the kind of discrimination potential that could occur when someone discloses their Pagan faith. In other words, what happens when someone’s actual identity collides with the identity society expects us to have?

The workplace is one area where there is a potential for such a collision to happen and a setting where many of us can experience vulnerabilities because it represents the source of our income. It is also a setting where individuals are trusted with authority and agency on behalf of a company or a profession. And finally, a place where we are forced to interact with many people who may have very different religious, political or cultural associations from our own. The workplace was of particular interest because it’s both a place where we have to go as well as a place where many of us manage our identities more carefully.

[Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr]

I set out to collect two kinds of data for two related studies. The first study focused on compiling stories from Pagans about work. The objective of this study was to compile evidence that many of us have anecdotally about workplace discrimination and, depending on the responses, to create categories from experiences of discrimination.

For this study, I asked for volunteers to be interviewed about these work-related experiences.  The careers of the participants varied from lawyers to store clerks; from park rangers to physicians. It was a fairly good cross-section of different ages and educational levels with a similar mix of backgrounds and Pagan identities, though the most common was, not surprisingly, Wiccan.

Despite being sampled from many backgrounds and essentially unconnected from one another, all participants reported a process of “coming out” as Pagan.

They reported that being Pagan must be a managed identity, one that could seriously affect them with work or clients. The majority of individuals reported being anxious about disclosure as well as reporting micro-aggressions from colleagues who knew about their beliefs. Micro-aggressions are form of interpersonal discrimination that forces an individual to confront how they are different from social norms or behaviors. These micro-aggressions ranged from the very subtle, such as being invited to join Christian-centered prayers before meals or making statements that a Pagan worker can “hex” the boss; to the more serious forms of overt interpersonal aggression like “praying” for the Pagan participant’s salvation.

The majority of participants also noted that they kept track of who knew what and often were very cautious about preventing disclosure to certain individuals, particularly supervisors. This is a behavioral strategy for controlling disclosure that we term hypervigilance.  Across all interviews, a consistent pattern emerged that many individuals were careful to manage their Pagan identity at work, especially among Pagans who had responsibilities over others such as teachers, physicians and psychologists, or were in fields demanding a “rational” persona like engineers and scientists.

As a follow-up to the interviews and for the second study, I gathered some quantitative data using surveys about backgrounds, experiences of discrimination, the amount of satisfaction with work and jobs and the amount of tension work causes for individuals. For this larger study, I invited individuals – both Pagans and non-Pagans from different faith lists – to complete the survey. About a thousand invitations were randomly sent and about one-third responded by completing all the questions on the survey.

The findings here were also fairly consistent. Pagans who kept their identity secret were more than twice as likely as members of Abrahamic faiths (Christians, Jews or Muslims) to experience direct verbal threats or other forms of verbal violence. Those Pagans were also twice as likely to experience other forms of indirect exclusion such as being offered emotional support from a colleague, socializing after work, or receiving advice or help colleagues with work and about 20% more likely to report being dissatisfied with their jobs.

The last two in particular, represent some real deviations from our expected findings in workplace settings. We know many people are dissatisfied with work for example, but we expect that dissatisfaction to be spread along a normal curve in the mainstream population and not be over-reported by one specific group. However, when the analyses were conducted with Pagans who were open at work about their faith, the numbers doubled. They were 4 times as likely to experience all forms of interpersonal violence and indirect exclusion. There was a significantly greater dissatisfaction at work, and significantly increased tension in the workplace. Finally, about a third of Pagans reported being outed at work; and also reported the most serious consequences.

The study also revealed one other interesting finding. In this sample, Pagans happened to be more educated than their Abrahamic counterparts. And yet, Pagans reported earning, on average, 25% less income than their Abrahamic colleagues. This finding is, regrettably, also consistent with theory: a minority group will still experience income challenges despite having equal or better levels of education.

So what does all this say? Well, the data are what the data are. As scientists, we’re trained never to go beyond our data. Having said that, the findings do open up questions about how discrimination is occurring in our community. It raises social justice questions about how we – as a collective, big umbrella group – promote our identity and manage prejudice against us. It also questions how we engage with the broader community in efforts to educate others about Pagan beliefs and identity with the explicit expectation that religious discrimination has no place in our society.

Conducting this research reminded me of a story Pagan Elder Margot Adler once told about her experiences at NPR when she applied for host positions. She spoke about coming out as a Pagan, and how managers were scared of her identity enough that they blocked parts of her career. This research, I hope, is an extension of her legacy. It should serve as a reminder and cautionary tale that the rules we have – such as the photography that I mentioned earlier – have a real purpose. They are there to safeguard the community, because it is still a misunderstood, minority religion and culture. But foremost that we understand ourselves within the social construct of a Pagan identity- which for all the commonness it may have to us- to the mainstream where we remain still deliciously radical.

 

Author’s Note: The reference and original article is “Skeletons in the Broom Closet: Exploring the Discrimination of Pagans in the Workplace”, Journal of Management and Spirituality, 2014, July 24, DOI: 10.1080/14766086.2014.933710. 

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Column: Thoughts on Settlement and Place

Fri, 2015-03-27 04:41

“The trees and the grass have spirits. Whatever one of such growth may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities…”Wooden Leg

We speak and write constantly about connecting to place: to the natural features of a place, the energies of place, the various gods and spirits that inhabit a place. Whether you approach it in a humanistic or archetypal fashion, or whether your relationships to spirits of place are literal and reciprocal, interactions with and concepts of ‘place’ hold a notable importance for the vast majority of us. Some connect by tuning into the seasons, taking nature-walks and learning plant identification, trying to incorporate local foods into their diets, or taking up gardening and otherwise tending to the land. Others interpret messages from the flights of birds, forge connections with the rivers, lakes, and mountains, and make offerings to the spirits of the land.

But what we generally regard as the ‘natural’ world does not encompass the entirety of place, and as valuable as that knowledge is, it only tells part of the story. Especially in developed or urbanized areas, inherent in the spirit and essence of place are the histories, events, structures, and people who have shaped and altered a place over time. While forming relationships to the gods, spirits, and energies of a place is important and critical work, that work is somewhat incomplete without an understanding of the relationships that the spirits have to that place itself, and the way that our species and our influence has altered, interfered with, and sometimes destroyed that relationship over time.

Crumbling ruins on the Willamette River. [Photo by Alley Valkyrie.]

We tend to pay attention to how place affects us, and how gods and spirits affect us, and how development affects us, but we often overlook how human settlement has in itself affected place and the spirits that reside there. For those of us who live on recently colonized and/or conquered land, such an overlooking not only has implications for our relationship to place itself, but it also furthers our denial and dulls our recognition of the sustaining damages and consequences of war, colonialism, and industrialization, and how the land and its spirits have been affected by these forces.

Most would not question the importance of the mythologies, the histories, and the other various stories of the ancient gods as a crucial piece of our understanding of those gods. Yet the gods and spirits that surround us locally have similar histories, similar traumas, similar stories that are deeply intertwined with the history of American settlement and the colonization and removal of the indigenous people of this land. An integral part of knowing where we stand as settlers in relation to the land and its spirits is understanding the history and the trauma of the places in which we inhabit.

In the United States, our defined geographic places, whether they be neighborhoods, towns, or cities, are very recent framings placed around networks of spirit and matter that existed long before white settlers ever stepped foot on this continent. The typical American town is quite young compared to the world’s urban places as a whole, and the age of any given town often correlates to the patterns of westward expansion. One can find towns in New England and Virginia that date from the late 1600s and early 1700s, and yet there isn’t a single town in Oregon that dates prior to 1811. The era in which a town was founded greatly influences both its physical and industrial features, and cycles and trends in urban planning often impose the new upon the old in a myriad of ways that range from obvious to seamless.

The number of generations or years notwithstanding, in America we still remain as settlers on stolen land; land which was traumatized and accumulated through theft and violence. The scars and consequences of that violence remain, both seen and unseen, and little has been done to heal or even acknowledge the traumas that both the land and its creatures have withstood.

As someone who engages in deep interactions with place, the more I integrate that work the more I have come to understand the importance of cultivating a well-rounded understanding of what any given place has been through, so to speak. Over time, I’ve come to understand such work as part of my obligation; part of my duty as one who walks between the worlds. Only in engaging with the entirety of a place to the best of my ability do I reap the full benefit as the recipient of its lessons and stories.

This is not a direct appeal to action nor a homework assignment, but I offer the following questions and thoughts to ponder as they relate to the place beneath your feet or places that you frequent, especially if you frequent towns and urban areas. Obviously not all these questions are relevant to all places, and some are not relevant at all to those who do live on their ancestral lands.

Even if you don’t know the answers or care to search for them, the implications of the questions themselves will hopefully shift the way you perceive and experience your relationship with place, and create an awareness of how the histories of specific places and the impacts of capitalism and colonial settlements affect nature, spirit, and egregore in the present day.

*   *   *

What is the name of your town?
What’s the history behind that name?

When was the town founded?
Who founded it?
What kind of life did that person lead? Where were they from?
What did they leave behind; what were they escaping; what did they hope to build?

Who were the original settlers; the original landowners? What were their names?
What brought them there? What was their history?
How are their names reflected in the modern landscape? Are there streets named after them?
If not the founders, who/what are the streets named after?

On which precise spot of land was the town founded?
What were the first buildings?
Where is the oldest building in town?
What was the significance of that location when the structure was built?
How does that location relate to the town today?

Where was the original center of town?
Is it in a different place from the current center of town?
If so, why? How and why did the layout develop and shift?

How was the land acquired over time? Whose land was it before the town was founded?
What laws or regulations governed the settling of that land?
Who was excluded from settling under those laws?

Which indigenous groups lived there before the area was settled?
Where did they live? Were they migratory or stationary?
What did they eat? What are the basic foods that are native to your area?
Do those plants still grow wild?
Is there anywhere where they are purposefully cultivated?

Who was driven off the land when the town was first settled? When?
Were they removed by force?
Where were they removed to?
Are their descendants still living nearby?
If so, what are their current living conditions like compared to yours?

Are there minority neighborhoods in your town?
If so, why?
If not, why not?
When did those neighborhoods spring up and/or disappear?
What is the local history behind those shifts?
What is the national history behind those shifts?

Who was historically excluded from your town?
Were their laws that targeted Asians, Blacks, or Native Americans?
Was your town a sundown town?
If so, how was that enforced? Who enforced it?

Why did the town initially grow? What attracted people to the area?
What were the primary industries?
Are the names of the streets connected to those industries?
Is there a ‘Mill Street’? Does it lead to the river?
If so, where exactly was the mill? Who owned that mill? Who worked there?
Is there a ‘Water Street’?
If so, is it actually next to the water?
If not, what does that tell you about the shaping of the landscape?

Water Street in Lower Manhattan, three blocks from the actual water. [Photo by Andy C.]

What about the other streets? What stories do they tell?
Is there an ‘Indian Trail’? If so, what was it a trail to, and whose trail was it originally?

Do you live near a river? What is its name? What is the history of that name?
What did those who lived there before you call that river?
Where are the headwaters of that river? Where does it spill out?
What kind of industry exists along that journey?
How does that industry affect the health of the river?

Is there a bridge in your town?
When was it built? Who designed it? Who built it?
Did any of the workers die during the construction of that bridge?
Who were their families? Where were they buried?

Are there railroad tracks nearby? If so, when were they built?
What originally brought the railroad through?
Who was responsible for the building of that railroad?
What else were they responsible for?
Who lived on the land prior to the building of the railroad? How were they removed?
Is the railroad currently in operation?
If so, what kind of cargo is being carried on the rails?
If not, why did service shut down in the area?

Are there sidewalks under your feet? Roads?
Where did the gravel come from? Is there a quarry nearby?
If so, how has the mining affected the land and those of all species who live nearby?

Where does your tap water come from? How does it travel?
How old is that system, and who built it?
How reliable is your water supply? How safe is it?

Where are the dead?

Where are the first settler cemeteries, the pioneer cemeteries?
Are they still standing? What kind of condition are they in? Who are the caretakers?
Do they need caretakers? Don’t just look, listen.
If the early cemeteries are not currently standing, what stands there now?
Where are those early remains buried today?

Where and how did the indigenous of the area bury their dead?
Have those sites been respected or have they been developed?
If they have been developed, are they acknowledged as sacred ground?
Is there even a plaque, a marker?

If there isn’t, what can you do right now to change that?
And how would that immediately affect your connection with those who lie beneath?

 

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

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‘So Help Me, God’ and the Air Force Academy Honor Oath

Thu, 2015-03-26 08:02

In October 2013, the United States Air Force Academy announced that the words “so help me, God” would be optional when cadets recite the Honor Oath. In response, several GOP Congressmen proposed legislation that would force all Academy cadets to add those words back. The Wild Hunt spoke with a Pagan military veteran as well as Air Force Academy (AFA) Public Affairs officials about the proposed legislation and why they believe keeping “so help me, God” optional is important.

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God. – USAF Academy Cadet Honor Oath

Background on the Honor Oath
The first portion of what would later become the Honor oath, “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does …” was created by the Air Force Academy’s first class to graduate in 1959.

In 1984, the Academy was rocked by allegations of a cheating scandal. As a result of the investigation, an Honor Committee was created. The committee’s recommendation was to turn the code into an oath, which all cadets would take. They also added “and furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably” and tagged “so help me, God” to give the oath more gravity. That same year, the cadets voted to approve the Honor Oath and have all freshman cadets swear the oath when they are accepted into the cadet wing.

In 2013, the Academy decided to make, “so help me, God,” optional.

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

Legislation Proposed
Reps. Sam Johnson (R-TX), Pete Olson (R-TX), Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) have sponsored a bill that aims to force all branches of the military to seek congressional approval before they make any changes to any oath. Effectively, it seeks to force an Air Force Academy cadet to say, “so help me, God” when they recite the Honor Oath.

Johnson said that the bill, which is called the Preserve and Protect God in Military Oaths Act, is necessary to protect the freedom of religion of U.S. troops. First introduced in 2013, the bill has been reintroduced this year with the addition of Rep. Lamborn as a co-sponsor.

When The Wild Hunt reached out to the AFA Public Affairs office they said they still stand behind the statement AFA Superintendent  Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson made in 2013 when the AFA made “so help me, God” optional. They also provided background information on how the Honor Oath was created and why they made a portion of it optional.

In the statement, Lt. Gen. Johnson said, “Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference – or not. So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with ‘So help me God.’”

Air Force Academy’s Changing Religious Culture
In 2007 the AFA made news in a string of articles showcasing the institution as the focal point for an evangelical Christian takeover of the military.  When PNC-Minnesota looked into the changing culture of the AFA in 2011, this climate of Evangelicalism appears to have come about due to an over-correction to the sexual assault cases that shocked the campus a few years earlier.

Lt Col Dan Brantingham, AFA Cadet Wing Chaplain, explained, “In the aftermath of the sexual assault cases in 2004-5, some leaders looked to religion to assist cadets in living honorable lives. In doing so, the leaders unintentionally promoted a particular flavor of religion as the solution.”

Starting in 2007, the Academy took steps to renew its focus on freedom of religion. Brantingham says he supports the current Academy policy of religious neutrality, “As an Air Force Chaplain my responsibility is to ensure the free exercise of religion for all cadets to include the minority faith group cadets. When I protect and advocate the freedom of religious conscience for all cadets, I fulfill my oath and because of the brilliance of the First Amendment, I safe-guard my own freedom of religion as well.”

In 2008 and again in 2010, the Academy hosted the Conference on Religious Respect. Out of the 2008 conference the Cadet Interfaith Council was formed, the Religious Respect Training program was launched, and support was increased for the Spiritual Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE). The third initiative to come out of the 2008 conference is what the Academy calls its “cornerstone religious diversity program,” the Religious Respect Training program for cadets, faculty and staff. The program is unique to the Air Force Academy. It includes in-depth training on the First Amendment, and the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The 2010 Conference on Religious Respect continued to examine and refine those initiatives. Sixteen national religious leaders were invited as panelists including Rev. David Oringderff, PhD, head of Sacred Well Congregation and sponsoring organization for the Earth-Centered Spirituality group at the Academy.

In a message to the San Antonio Military Open Circle’s Yahoo group, Rev. Oringderff said he was impressed by the emphasis on ways to promote respect, not merely religious tolerance. He quoted Chaplain Brantingham’s remarks during the opening of the conference, “I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be respected—and everyone else is entitled to that same right.”

Falcon Circle dedication ceremony, 2011 [Photo credit: USAFA]

The most visible result of the renewed commitment to free exercise of religion is the creation of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle. Falcon Circle, which sits on a hill, came into existence through the efforts of a former cadet wing chaplain, Chap. William Ziegler and former Earth-Centered Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL), Tech Sgt. Brandon Longcrier. While Falcon Circle is open to any cadet, Pagan cadets in the Earth-Based Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group have priority in its use. They meditate and celebrate Sabbats at the stone circle.

Air Force Veteran Reacts
Don Branum is an Air Force veteran and Pagan of 19 years who lives in Lamborn’s district. He also works as a staff writer for the Academy Spirit, the weekly newspaper for the United States Air Force Academy.*

When asked how he felt about the proposed bill, H.R. 1425, he said, “I take great exception to Congressman Johnson’s ‘So help me God’ bill, both as a Pagan and a veteran. I’m even more disappointed to learn that Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents a religiously diverse district, has chosen to co-sponsor it. Requiring any man or woman to swear ‘so help me God’ as part of an oath of office or oath of enlistment clearly violates both the religious test clause of the Constitution (Article VI, Paragraph 3) and the First Amendment, which states, in part, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …’

“I’m happy to share the public square with people from all walks of life and all beliefs, because I believe our nation draws its strength from the diversity of its people. But I will not stand quietly while someone attempts to impose his religion on the rest of the nation.” Branum went on to say that if the bill’s co-sponsors value the oaths they took to support and defend the Constitution, they should either immediately withdraw their support for H.R. 1425 or resign from office.

 

*Don Branum’s views reflect his personal opinion only and do not in any way represent the official position of the Air Force Academy, the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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The Struggle over Cultural Perception in the Wake of Violence

Wed, 2015-03-25 09:16

A Turkish media outlet, The Anadolu Agency, reported yesterday that ancient artifacts, stolen from the Mosul Museum, were turning up in European markets and being sold in order to help fund the terrorist activity. Which terrorist organization? Depends who you ask. Daesh. Or to some, ISIL  or the IS. Still to others ISIS. And once, as is reported, the group is an off-shoot of al-Qaida.

Tigris River, Mosul

Since the organization’s formation, the world’s media and political agencies have struggled to agree on a single name. While many now officially rejected the term ISIS and ISIL, both terms linger. Some use the Islamic State, as requested by the group. However, over the past six months, more governments and media are using Daesh, an acronym taken from the group’s Arabic name al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham.

When France officially swapped ISIL for Daesh, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius explained, “This is a terrorist group and not a state.” He also said, “I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.” Agreeing with him, Egyptian officials asked the international media to stop using these terms because they “attach the name of Islam to bloody and violent acts committed by such groups” and promote stereotypes in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide.

Last month, Australian officials joined France is using Daesh, because it is reportedly hated by the organization itself. A middle-eastern paper wrote, “In much of the Arabic speaking world, where people are most impacted by ISIS thuggery and violence, it was settled: piss off ISIS and use the pejorative Daesh.”

However, the term, as an acronym, still presents the same problem as ISIL or the IS. It links the group to Islam through its name and, therefore, fails in a secondary war over cultural perception.

In a religion’s struggle over public image, peaceful groups often find themselves on the defensive, having to distance their members and beliefs from the atrocities committed by those claiming the same religion. While this struggle is particularly brutal for Muslims, they are not alone. Islam is not the only religion that sees violence done in its name.

Unfortunately, such actions can be found across cultures In 2014, a trio in Philadelphia attacked a gay couple; an act which was quickly linked to their Catholic religious beliefs. In Myanmar, the 969 Movement, led by Buddhist Monk Ashin Wirathu, has been the cause of years of religious-based violence. In India, the government struggles against the atrocities committed by right-wing Hindu extremists, who in the past have attacked journalists and threatened rape.

These are only a few examples. In all cases, related religious organizations came out to condemn the violent acts and distance themselves from those that claim their beliefs.

Ryan Smith, co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, knows this problem all too well. When asked about the war over cultural perception, he said, “The best and most consistent strategy for dealing with such acts of violence is to clearly denounce them, explain in terms of one’s spiritual practice why such acts are disgraceful and worthy of condemnation, and make it clear this is a moral position. Merely saying, ‘they weren’t one of ours’ is not enough.”

Why isn’t it enough? Because in many cases, the perpetrators of these acts do, in fact, claim the religion; whether it serves another ideology or not. For those outside of that specific religious sphere, there is no way to know the difference. It is your word against theirs. In recent months, Muslim scholars did exactly that. They published a point-by-point document illustrating how their religious beliefs are antithetical to the actions of Daesh, Boko Haram and other similar organizations.

Just last week, the Heathen community was faced with a similar situation. As we reported Monday, Mesa police arrested and charged Ryan Giroux, allegedly a White Supremacist, with the killing and injuring several people. While Giroux never claimed Odinism, the media attempted to make the connection due to an old chin tattoo. A number of articles mentioned “Thor’s Hammer” as symbol for Odinism and a pre-Christian religion. However, very few noted that the tattoo had been removed and was no longer there.

Regardless, within 24 hours, HUAR published a statement. When asked why, Smith explained:

If the first voices speaking out on the matter are those of the violent organizations and those who benefit from portraying all Heathens, or even all Pagans, as dangerously violent then this narrative will take hold in the mainstream media. This should be no surprise to anyone as the 24 hour news cycle lives on high drama, instant updates, and anything that attracts viewers. If, instead, there are Heathen voices saying loud and clear such actions are unconscionable in Heathen practice and denounce their acts then it is possible to nip these arguments in the bud. Seizing the initiative in moments of crisis is critical in defining media perception.

The Arizona case demonstrates a secondary public relations problem facing minority religions. Unlike Daesh and other Islamic extremists, Giroux never claimed the religion. The connection was made solely by mainstream media due to the presence of a symbol and nothing more. This problem is not unlike cases in which a pentacle is found at a crime scene and the mainstream media immediately jumps to assume Witchcraft.

Alyxander Folmer, a blogger who also responded publicly to the recent Giroux story, doesn’t believe it matters whether the act is publicly linked via a symbol or the person’s actual religious affiliation. “Bad news will ALWAYS outsell good news,” he said. Folmer added, “Just as one betrayal can wipe out years of good faith and trust between individuals, ONE story like this can taint an entire culture in the eyes of the public. In the end it doesn’t even really matter if the perpetrator was a practicing Heathen at the time of their crime, because once that association has been made it can’t be undone.”

Folmer agreed with Smith that, in defense, time cannot be wasted. He added, “We Heathens don’t have that luxury. If we want the world to see beyond the extremists who wear our faith like a mask, it’s not enough to simply distance ourselves from them. We have to stand against them in earnest, and prove to the world through our actions that these people do not represent us.”

These words are not entirely different from those being spoken by Muslims around the world, and certainly not different from those be spoken by Buddhists in response to 980 or by any religious group, specifically minorities, who have faced similar problems of perception. The same phrases are always heard: “That is not us.” “They do not represent us.” “That is a misuse of our sacred symbol.”

While Christians, a majority faith in the U.S., do have their own version of this problem, the scarring on their public image is far less pronounced due to their privileged position within American society. The collective PR engine moves much slower, if it moves at all. Folmer explained, “Groups like ‘Hammerskin Nation’ pervert our faith and our Lore, so that they can use it to justify their actions. It’s no different from how the KKK often uses Christianity to rationalize their hate. The difference is that (as a majority religion) Christianity has enough sway in the public square to ensure that rogue elements like the KKK aren’t seen as representing the whole of the faith.”

Folmer laments that the current Arizona case is only one of many. However, the problem of cultural perception, in its essence, is not unique to Heathens, Pagans, Wiccans and many minority faiths. This battle for a religion’s reputation is ongoing around the world and turns up in many forms. Smith said:

Unfortunately, as apt as specific comparisons like Islam vs ISIL or Christianity vs the Westboro Baptist Church are, there are too many Heathens I’ve met who use the poor reputation Muslims have been unfairly smeared with as an excuse for doing nothing. They claim the efforts of Muslims worldwide to combat such damage to their reputation have done nothing to fix their problems …

After citing a number of positive responses across communities and the growing acceptance of Pagan, Heathen and Polytheists practices over the years, he said, “The worst possible thing to do in the face of a small, dangerous group twisting the beliefs, trappings, and practices of many to justify grossly immoral acts is remain silent.”

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Hospitality: a Pagan Value?

Tue, 2015-03-24 08:32

The journey to report on the Sacred Space/Between the Worlds conference was difficult. What would have taken four hours on the road on a clear day was seven through a late-winter snowstorm on the Eastern seaboard, driving forty miles an hour past at least a dozen vehicles which hadn’t fared very well in those conditions. Journey’s end, however, included welcomes from familiar faces, introductions to local luminaries, and an invitation to lunch with a group of Southern witches who simply wanted to show some hospitality. Those warm gestures led to this question: what role does hospitality play in your tradition? Those who were able to respond created a rich tapestry of perspectives.

[Photo Credit: Fernando Gonzaga, Flickr]

Byron Ballard, Mother Grove Goddess Temple:

I always cringe in interfaith circles when we try so hard to find That One Thing that we all do. There’s a poster that made the rounds a few years ago that had variations on the Golden Rule. I don’t hold with the “Law of Return” but that fits for rather a lot of Pagan folk. Yeah, I had nothing.

In the wild world of interfaith, I actually think it’s more helpful to dive fully into all the stuff we don’t have in common because it affords us an opportunity on one hand to explain our position and on the other to work at understanding someone else’s. But I have given it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with what I think is the most ancient and sacred act that we do have in common — hospitality. The offering of bread or water, or even clean feet, to someone who is not like us. It shows a largeness of spirit as well as a generous nature. It is an act of courage. It should be offered without grudging, as a duty and obligation that we owe the Earth, our Divines and our ancestors. To accept hospitality is also an act of courage — are you then indebted to the host in some meaningful way? Will your return of hospitality when it’s your turn compromise you in some way?

And there is obviously something biologically driven in the act of hospitality. By welcoming the “stranger” or the “enemy” into your camp, your village, your home, you are potentially improving the gene pool for your family and tribe, resulting in some hybrid vigor (if we’re lucky) and a political alliance, too.

So, yes, I practice it as both a Pagan and a Southerner. And there have been times when I’ve not broken bread with those who wish me ill because I believe the duty of hospitality — the giving and the receiving — is holy.

Lilith Dorsey, Voodoo Universe blogger:

All the African traditional religions (Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, Lucumi/Santeria, and others) place hospitality at the top of the list of necessary ways of conduct for devotees. This is an outcropping of respect… respect for all living beings, the ancestors, and the Lwa or Orisha (thought of as divinities by some). Everyone and everything contains a divine repository of Ashe, the sacred energy forces of the universe. When individuals honor this energy by offering food, drink, prayers or kindness to those on this plane and the next they serve both themselves and the religion.

Rev. Edward Livingston, Fire Dance Church:

As we are a legal 501(c)3 church and a not-for-profit in the state of Florida, our rituals are open to the general public, so we are always have hospitality for those who come and attend our services. Outside of that we owe nothing more. I do hear people out about their personal ideas, but hospitality ends when you harm my space, or are rude, or don’t follow directions.

Archdruid Kirk Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF):

Hospitality is key in ADF Druidry. It is one of our Nine Virtues (the others being Wisdom, Piety, Vision, Courage, Integrity, Perseverance, Moderation, and Fertility). And it embodies one of the basic traits of our religion, reciprocity.

Hospitality is governed by the obligations of the guest-host relationship.These obligations are a two-way street, where each party owes something to the other. In its simplest form, the host offers a place to stay for a certain amount of time, perhaps food and drink, and entertainment of some kind, even if only good conversation. In return, the guest agrees not to overstay his or her welcome, to respect the inhabitants of the house or office, and to be congenial.

In the ancient world, the giving of hospitality was required by the Gods. In the literature of many ancient cultures there are tales of what might happen if hospitality were to be refused — examples include Odysseus and the Cyclops in the Odyssey, the Roman tale of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and even the Irish tale of Bres and the Tuatha Dé in the Cath Maige Tuired. In all cases those folks who refused to give good hospitality came to a sticky end.

Hospitality is a form of reciprocity, which underlies most human interactions. The Roman ritual phrase, do ut des (I give so that you may give) sums it up nicely. It’s all about give and take, which is also part of what hospitality is all about. In ritual, we are, in essence, hosting the Gods and Spirits at our rites, giving offerings to them that they might give us blessings in return, just as the ancients did. Reciprocity through hospitality — a great way to commune with the Gods.

Druids of Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Solitary practitioner Star Bustamonte:

I’m not really a part of any Pagan or other religious tradition, at least not formally. I do, however, believe that being hospitable is behavior that is important both inside and outside of spiritual practices. While personally I tend to lean heavily towards sarcasm and humour in my interactions with the many people I encounter daily, I also would not hesitate to offer whatever comforts I have available.

I have 3 different types of magical work I engage in:

1) The Mother Grove Goddess Temple: I serve the Temple as Head of The Green Circle (fundraising) and as member of The Circle of Council (administrative). Part of my duties involve greeting participants who arrive and making them feel welcome and at ease. While this is mostly a mundane activity, it sets the stage for how freely and easily participants respond once in ritual space.

2) I do a lot of personal work with the Fae, and working with the Fae requires a great deal of hospitality. I have always offered to them a comfortable space to operate as they see fit in general harmony with my own efforts. Negotiation plays a big role and hospitality is very important to that aspect.

3) Much of the magical work I do is more of a thaumaturgical variety. In this regard, I would say hospitality is more akin to respect for the energies you are working with, but isn’t that the very root of hospitality, anyway? Respect?

In short, any energy I work with is treated with respect. In all magical work, be it working with deity or the pure mechanics of thaumaturgy, I try to be conscious of what I am asking of the energies I am working with and providing whatever might be helpful and or kind in furthering the work.

Josh Heath, co-founder of the Open Halls Project:

Hospitality is grossly misunderstood in heathenry, I think. Hospitality is the expected behavior we show those who have explicitly been invited and it also includes the behavior of those who have themselves accepted an invitation. Hospitality requires a level of respect and service to the people you are opening your home or space to. That respect, like all gifts, must be reciprocated. As it stands, hospitality is often seen in heathen circles as an onus only on the individuals hosting, those who are guests are not always held to a standard of behavior. If we view hospitality as the basic structure of gift giving it is, then it makes the process a bit more stable. I open my home to others, they respect my home and family, perhaps they bring gifts which then create deeper bonds with other gifts returned. It’s one of the core aspects of the reciprocal agreement culture that is central to the heathen worldview.

Yeshe Rabbit, presiding high priestess of Come As You Are Coven:

For a dharma pagan, hospitality is a dearly-held and widely-practiced virtue. It is considered one of the key perfections of wisdom, or paramitas, and is known as “dana-paramita.” When we practice dana, especially toward those who have given their lives to the dharma, we give of ourselves in a special, spiritual way, not simply because it’s polite, or expected as part of our social code. Rather, it is an enlightened generosity that comes from the purest part of ourselves. When we do this, whatever we provide for a guest is not merely food, shelter, or another resource; it is a sacred offering to the divine nature of the other being with whom we share it. Interestingly, dana cuts through a lot of our own preferential ego trips because we learn to give in a holy manner, regardless of what we might receive in return or what’s expected of us or how we feel about the person to whom we are giving. It doesn’t mean we have to like the person, but we still honor that some part of them is divine and deserving of our hospitality (unless that person is seeking to harm us in some way, in which case it’s appropriate to move away from that person and decline to offer hospitality.)

The best way for me to explain the everyday concept of generosity according to the dharma view is to describe something I saw in Tibet when I was there: the thermos of tea. Everywhere we went, Tibetan people were carrying a big thermos of tea with them. In their pockets or bags, they might also carry a cup or two, so that they are always ready to sit down with someone and share a cup of butter tea. It did not matter if they knew you or not, it did not matter if you gave them anything in return (we always did), there was always tea anyway. That generosity, particularly expressed toward pilgrims they did not know, was really so much more than just a hot beverage when we were road-weary.

“Butter Tea” By Alpha [CC lic. via Wikimedia]

Author T Thorn Coyle submitted this portion of her previous blog post on the subject:

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

Who is a stranger? What is the unknown? Whom do we choose to welcome? Whom do we choose to spurn?

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

We gather with our families. We hold each other close. We sit out in the cold, feeling desperate and alone. We feel sorrow in the midst of others. We are the gay kid who fears to come out. We are the chronic user afraid of judgement. We are the Pagan in the midst of Christians. We are mobility impaired and looking up a flight of stairs. We’ve just lost our job. We’re secret dancers. We are ashamed to tell our friends we can’t go out because we need all our money to pay rent. We have dark skin in a culture that privileges the pale. We go without food so our kid can have shoes. We are in love. Our father just died. Our child was killed. Our partner left us. We have big dreams.

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

While scrubbing pots at the soup kitchen, I realized this truth: we are all strangers to one another. Then I realized: we can all welcome one another home.

I welcome you, stranger, Athena, Goddess in disguise. May you find warmth and light, good food, a place to sleep, and someone who will listen. What is the tale you have to share?

Ritual facilitator and author, Shauna Aura Knight:

I can’t really speak to any one tradition, but I can speak to the work I do facilitating workshops and rituals for the broader Pagan community. Hospitality is one of my core values as a facilitator. Sometimes it’s just in the form of what you might call “customer service.” This is often an element that is lacking in public rituals and events. Have you ever arrived to a public ritual and found that there’s no one around to greet you or let you know what’s going on, the ritual leaders are bustling around getting ready, snapping at people, and then the ritual starts and you’re not sure what to do? After, people break out into cliques to socialize and you’re left out. Or worse, have you ever tried to attend a ritual but the directions provided were so poor that they had you spiraling around a forest preserve trying to find the right park shelter? When you finally arrive, people say, “Oh, we do ritual here all the time, everyone knows where it was.”

For me, hospitality is clear communication as an organizer about what’s going to happen at the event and ensuring there are good directions if that’s needed. It’s greeting people when they arrive. It’s working to ensure that everyone has enough information to proceed in the ritual. It’s also ensuring that new folks aren’t shut out of cliques of friends after a ritual. When I’m facilitating a workshop, I work hard to make everyone feel welcome and respected. Hospitality for me is also reflected in how I work to make my workshops and rituals participatory and inclusive. I work hard to make my rituals and workshops accessible, open to all genders, and welcoming. Hospitality isn’t always easy; I’ve made mistakes and I’ll make more in the future, but it’s work that I feel is important.

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Pagan Community Notes: Iceland Asatru Temple, French Pagan Cafe, HUAR and much more!

Mon, 2015-03-23 09:09

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson [Photo Credit: Haukurth (Own work), CC lic. Wikimedia]

As the sun’s light was blocked by the moon’s travel, members of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið broke ground for their new temple in Reykjavík. The ceremony was the next major step in a quest that began in 2006. Columnist Eric Scott detailed the history and plans for this temple in a January article “Temple on the HIll,” interviewing both the architect and organization’s leader, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson.

The Icelandic Review described the Friday event, saying: “The ceremony began at 08.38, at the start of the eclipse, whereby the boundaries were ceremonially marked out, candles lit in each corner, and local landmarks honored. When the darkness was at its height, at 09.37, a fire was lit in what will be the center of the chapel.”  The Norse Mythology Blog posted a photo from the actual ceremony on its Facebook page and on its Twitter account.

*   *   *

A Pagan mother living in Paris has set herself a lofty goal of creating a new Pagan cafe in the city. Krynn Aïlhenya, a French Pagan and Parisan local, said that she’s very active in trying to develop and grow France’s Pagan community. On her new crowd sourcing campaign, she said, “Un espace convivial pour les païen(ne)s de toutes traditions, où discuter autour d’une pinte.” [“A welcoming space for all pagans of all traditions, where they come and talk over a pint.”]

Aïlhenya said that she and the other organizers hope that the space expands beyond that one simple description. Once in full operation, the Pagan cafe would also serve as a “a library, an esoteric shop and could host events like Pagan celebrations, exhibitions, and conferences.” Provided in both English and French, the IndieGoGo description notes that they hope to open by the end of 2015 in the very center of Paris.

*   *   *

On March 18, a gunman opened fired in Mesa, Arizona killing one person and wounding five others. The suspect, Ryan Giroux, was quickly taken into custody. It was not long before the media discovered that Giroux’s was connected to the Hammerskins White Supremacist group. Unfortunately, this detail was made more pronounced by the very large tattoo on the man’s chin – the Hammer of Thor.

After learning of shooting, HUAR quickly offered a statement in reaction. It reads in part, “This individual and his associates are notorious for corrupting many aspects of Heathen practice for advancing their white nationalist agenda by grossly dishonorable means including, most shamefully, the hallowed Hammer of Thor … We, the members of Heathens United Against Racism, denounce Giroux, his associates, and any others who assisted him in perpetrating his terrible actions.” Several other Heathens and groups have issued similar statements, such as Alyxander Folmer. We will be continue to follow this story.

In Other News … Interviews and more Interviews

  • On March 8, The Goddess Diaries Radio interviewed Z. Budapest. In the 40 minute interview, “Z shared her story of being prosecuted/persecuted for practicing her craft in the“last witch trial” in America. Her courage to stand in her truth paved the way for woman to freely practice Goddess Spirituality in our country today.”
  • In conjunction with Paganicon, Lupa Greenwolf is interviewed by PNC-Minnesota writer Nels Linde. Greenwolf talks about her background, her practice and her work on the new Tarot deck. She said, “I have a very deep love of learning about nature, to include learning through books and documentaries.
  • Linde also published another interview done in conjunction with Paganicon. In this article, he speaks with Rev. Selena Fox about everything from her life passages workshop, to political activism, and to the future of Circle Sanctuary. When talking about transferring responsibility to younger people, Fox said, “We need to do more of this. We not only need to do education, but need to inspire and guide action. We need to find ways to take responsibility as individuals, as households, and as communities to work together for a healthier, sustainable world with equality, liberty, and justice for all.
  • ACTION’s 2015 Ostara edition is available. In its 54 pages, Christopher Blackwell includes interviews with Black Witch, Allison Leigh Lilly, Lee Davies, David Parry, Linda Sever, Lorna Smithers, and Stephen Cole.
  • Finally, the Atlantis Bookshop in London celebrated its 93rd Birthday. As they posted, the “beastly” celebration included tea, cakes and “cheeky cocktails.” Now owned by Geraldine Beskin, Atlantis was founded in 1922 by Michael Houghton. It has been one of the cornerstones in London’s Occult and Witchcraft community for nearly a century. Happy Birthday to Atlantis!

That is it for now. Have a great day.

Update 3/23/15 2:45pm: We originally stated that the Paris cafe was to be the first in the city. However, we recently were informed otherwise and have corrected the text. 

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Culture and Community: Evolving Leadership within Modern Paganism

Sun, 2015-03-22 05:49

While the modern Pagan movement is still considered young in comparison to other religions, it has continued to grow and evolve beyond its original container. Today we see multiple generations of Pagan practitioners in various facets of community, from seekers to leaders. The vast diversity within this community has expanded beyond the old images of the middle-aged leader to those on all sides of the age, race and gender spectrum.

Ten to fifteen years ago we did not have as many “younger” leaders rising within the ranks of our Pagan community, yet today the halls of any Pagan convention show younger and more diverse populations than we historically are use to encountering.

[Photo Credit: pixababy.com]

The natural evolution of leadership is something that every community goes through. It is an organic process of foundational stability; the need to have people stepping into and out of leadership within any given community structure.

The Pagan community continues to struggle with the concept of leadership, and there continues to be a lot of challenges on every side of this spectrum. Over the last few months, discussions about ageism have risen to the surface again, with some intense dialog pushing the conversation to the forefront.

In a recent piece on leadership, Annika Mongan explored some of her experiences at this year’s PantheaCon conference. In it she discusses some of the challenges of new leaders within the modern Pagan community and the idea that those who are new to leadership have a lot to offer. She wrote, “I respect our elders and seek to learn from them. I am grateful for all the battles they fought, the roads they paved for us, and the foundations they laid. And I now understand that it is time for me and for us, the younger generations, to step up, to walk upon these paved roads, and to build upon these foundations.”

This is not the first time that we have heard of the specific challenges encountered by young leaders when becoming more active in the greater Pagan community. It is also not the first time that there was a strong reaction to the idea that young leaders may not be embraced by community elders. The growing divide between the generations has become more apparent in recent years.

PantheaCon’s Turning the Wheel panel attempted to address some of these very challenges. Jason Thomas Pitzl, Board Member for Solar Cross and one of the organizers for the project, has been very vocal about the need to sustain effective leadership in the modern Pagan movement. He said, “Turning the Wheel is a new initiative from the Solar Cross Temple that has a very simple aim: encourage young and emerging leadership within the interconnected Pagan and Polytheist communities.The panel conducted at PantheaCon 2015 was just a first step, the next step will be to help create spaces for emerging leaders to network, build alliances, and establish new initiatives. This is so important because without these voices, without building real relationships with these leaders, we literally lose contact with our future. I have already seen our “generation gap” become a “generation chasm” in the last decade, and if we are to maintain the good works earlier generations have started in the coming decades, this must be addressed.”

As we continue to identify the challenges of growth, the generation gaps and the shifting power balance that comes with an aging community, we have the chance to explore what can be done to support the journey. How can we face the challenges of these transitions in ways that are healthy and validating to the multiple levels of leadership, all of which need to co-exist in our community? We know that these questions are layered, complex and intersectional, yet it appears that now is the right time to start asking some of these hard questions.

What are the biggest challenges facing emerging leaders? How can the greater community support these transitions to leadership within our community?

Jessica Sullivan

I would say a major problem is the lack of support for young leaders. There are many in our community, but few are considered “big named Pagans.” Those that are, can be targeted, isolated, and considered an exception to the norm. There is little to no space made for us, the young leaders. When an opportunity does arise, when we climb our way to the table, we are frequently dismissed or unheard altogether. While it’s hard to address these problems, it is not impossible. Making more opportunities for young leaders would be a major and crucial first step. Another equally important thing is to make space in conversations and ask questions. Rather than making assumptions and further making statements, or worse unsolicited advice, at a young leader, ask more questions. Perhaps the said young leader didn’t think of something, but assuming they didn’t and automatically dismissing their ideas or offering advice immediately comes off as both condescending and dismissive. Asking more questions also has the fringe benefits of being more constructive to conversations and supporting young leaders to address possible flaws in their ideas, in a way that is both empowering and builds on their skills as new leaders. Obviously younger leaders have less experience, but by shutting them out and shutting them down, how are they supposed to get the experience to be “respectable” leaders?

The pressure to be perfect, does not allow for mistakes.Young leaders that are selected to join elders in deliberations are in a high-pressure position to represent all young leaders. If they make a mistake, then it is reflected on young leaders everywhere.Youth make mistakes… but that does not mean that they are failures as leaders and should therefore be ignored. Mistakes are opportunities for growth, especially in leadership skills. Even the best of leaders make mistakes, but established leaders have the background and social support, that young leaders lack, to allow them to maintain their prestige and presence in the community. Young leaders do not have those resources. Young leaders need extra support and understanding from their fellow, and older, leaders. – Jessica Sullivan

Annika Mongan

I think one of the greatest challenges for emerging leaders is this fascinating and difficult time we find ourselves in. Elders and founders of traditions are aging and dying and the cohesiveness of Pagan ‘umbrella’ has come into question. We still have elders among us who pioneered the way and whose work laid the foundations upon which we stand. At the same time we have important conversations about our identity led by younger generations, including around our relationship to racism, cultural appropriation, and social justice. The face of our Paganisms is changing and it is challenging to know when to look to tradition and the work of our elders, and when to recognize the need to build on their foundations differently then they may have imagined. – Annika Mongan

Jason Thomas Pitzl

It is truly hard for me to narrow this down to a single challenge, but I would have to say that one huge obstacle we collectively face is the fact that the old networks used to establish the infrastructure, events, and relationships within what we call the “Pagan Community” are largely disconnected with what folks under 30, and maybe even under 40, are doing. I’m not trying to say this in an accusatory way, I’m simply relating what I’ve seen in my experience. Now, this isn’t true everywhere, there are regional pockets that have managed to maintain healthy multi-generational models that are working, but I’ve also seen many instances of disfunction, break-down, and clinging to decades-old turf battles that have seemingly salted the earth in terms of building healthy communities. This widening “generation chasm” means that our value systems, and our ways of operating, even our vocabularies, are drifting apart. You have only to look at the responses to #blacklivesmatter, or the emergence of the Polytheist movement, or the renewed interest in radical thought and action from within a Pagan, Polytheist, or Witchcraft context, to experience these experiential gulfs.

As an illustrative aside – I have seen the mere mention of empowering younger leaders met with instantly defensive comments about “respecting elders” as though respect were a finite resource to be hoarded instead of an ethos to be spread far and wide, but I digress.

How can our interconnected communities support smoother transitions? By being brave, by listening and learning, by not sequestering one’s self entirely in pockets of comfort. – Jason Thomas Pitzl

Courtney Weber

We need more “how-to’s” and “This worked for me when’s….” I could find plenty of information written for a Christian pastor on how to support a person with severe depressed or suicidal person in their community, but it’s hard to find that information in my spiritual context. We need more leaders sharing their specific experiences in conflict, crisis, or otherwise. We particularly it from leaders or other members of the community with professional counseling, conflict mediation, or other backgrounds that deal with the tough and painful. We simply need more information to do the work, but we need it through a lens identified in Pagan spirituality. If you’ve been through it, talk about it. Have a place where people can reach you (website or social media). Answer emails. Make yourself available to people who have questions. – Courtney Weber

Jasper James

The biggest challenge facing emerging leaders right now is the disunity and animosity that is growing between certain sects due to racial tension within the modern Pagan community. I witnessed both blatant confrontations and a complete dismissal of race based issues hidden behind the “we are all one” rhetoric at Pcon this past winter. The truth is, I feel there is a lack of empathy for the very real struggles facing PoC brothers and sisters today within the Pagan community that leads to a lack of action. In my opinion, the greater community can support smoother transitions to leadership and action by officially adopting LOVE as its ultimate mission. The vibration, 528Hz is known simply as the “Love Hertz.” It has been used by molecular biologists to repair genetic defects, and early historical records indicate that it was used as an inseparable part of ritual ceremony. By approaching spiritual practice with the vibration of Love, you fundamentally attune yourself to the interconnectedness of all of creation. Therefore, If your spiritual practice has the true element of Love at the core then it is impossible for you not to take responsibility for that which occurs around you. – Jasper James

Sophia Sheree Martinez

My journey as a leader started with my initial need to be part of a community. I have been part of a few communities that have since dissolved, taken different shapes, or just plain didn’t fit. My first coven experience (Circle of the Gathering Winds, Chico, CA) required me to be capable of writing and conducting my own rituals. That experience becomes my first taste in any Pagan leadership. From then I knew I was meant to do more for my Heathen community. I eventually moved to the Bay Area, where I helped create Golden Gate Kindred and its charter completely from scratch (a kindred comprised of free and equal peers). Strong differences of opinions unanimously dissuaded all voting members of our kindred from affiliating with any existing Heathen organizations, causing many people within our wider community to question our judgments.

Most of our members being under 40 years old … it takes a lot of knowledge and wisdom to feel confident when debating with well established Heathen elders about the changes you’d like to see. Reputation and honor are very important in Heathen practice, and people tend to be unconditionally loyal (often to a fault). It was hard to get our kindred recognized for a while because of tightly knit communities, but we have been gaining a voice and growing presence quickly over the past year.

To those who have been open to change, who have welcomed and mentored us, that is exactly what we need to feel accepted and of equal importance. I often organize events such as Blots, Sumbels, moots, and study groups for our kindred. While we do not have elected leaders, our members have all made niches for themselves, and I just happen to be the one facilitating events currently with help and inspiration from other members. It takes time, commitment, patience, and consistency to keep a community together. I believe a good leader is someone that lends their skill to empower the community, keeping faith that the community will keep giving back in countless ways. – Sophia Sheree Martinez

Lisa Bland

“One of the biggest challenges that emerging leaders within the modern Pagan community is that there is a real lack of education and mentorship. Mentorship is one aspect that current leaders can offer to younger members of the community who are stepping forward in their own leadership abilities. Our communities need to find ways to develop our own leadership programs or workshops, and mentorship programs – these two things together have been shown throughout evidence to be cornerstones to helping develop leaders and improve leadership structures. Until our community is able to support these workshops ourselves, I would see benefit in seeking out some of these educational needs through other avenues such as workplaces, other community organizations, and young leaders seeking out those who they identify as leaders that could provide one on one mentorship. I feel that the greater community has a real struggle with changing leadership and also with a recognition that leaders and teachers may not be the same person. Paganism is so diverse and continues to grow! We will see more leaders in various areas blossom and this shift in how our communities grow together will determine how each community area will not only survive, but thrive. We may all be a part of the same garden, but not all plants grow well next to each other. For a thriving garden, understanding what each plant needs, and how they can support one another will help communities feed each of our spirits.” – Lisa Bland

Lasara Firefox Allen

I will say that I think the solution to smoother transitions in leadership is mutual respect. – in all directions. As someone in the middle of generations (daughter of a pagan mother and mother of a pagan daughter) I can say there are more than two sides to this issue.

To me, the central question is; how can we create intergenerational integrity? – Lasara Firefox Allen

The comments above provide a clear snapshot of the many different angles that people come from and the variety of ways that this topic can be approached. It is a big one, and one of the many hard conversations that the modern Pagan and Polytheist communities are engaging in right now. As we embark on the myriad transitions that are continuing to shape our culture, we have to explore this age old problem that many communities have faced time and time again. How do we honor and learn from our elders while making space for those who are currently leading or emerging as leaders? How do we make space without dishonoring the process and our past?

It is essential to look at the concept of leadership from a multifaceted perspective, one that has many faces, many different purposes, and an interconnected need. When we approach community and leadership from a perspective that is layered, intersectional, multi-dimensional, and necessary, we are able to see the variety of positions that are valuable within the growing and expanding modern Pagan movement. Polarized concepts of leadership discourage creativity, supportive transitions and honest reflection of the needs we are tasked to support.

In our discussion, Jason mentioned something very key to this process of evolving leadership, closing the age gap and creating space for emerging leaders. “That doesn’t mean ignoring elders, or removing leaders, it means make space. Ask them what they want to do, what they want to achieve, they may surprise you with the innovative methods they have towards building a vital and healthy group. Make transition happen, handoff projects, build trust. The only way we are going to see any of the worthy projects started in the last 20 years endure for the next 50, or 100, is if we do this. If we don’t, they just might build a new community without us”

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Around the World: Voices of Canadian Pagan Activists

Fri, 2015-03-20 12:36

March 14, 2015 – a day of action across Canada [Photo by Paul S.Graham]

It is hard to ignore the current political climate in Canada. Never before have we been faced with a government that has tried to overhaul and carve up our country quite the way our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his Conservative government are doing right now. For a country renowned for it’s affable nature and politeness, things are changing. In numbers not seen for decades, people are becoming radicalized and discovering reasons to become activists – for the environment, for our social programs, and now for the basic safety, privacy and security we had come to take for granted.

On January 30, 2015, Bill C-51, an “Anti-Terrorism Act” was unveiled in the House of Parliament. This massive piece of proposed legislation includes sweeping, radical changes to Canadian law and security systems by reducing the privacy and freedom of speech of Canadian people.

Bill C-51 would allow the government to:

  • Expand the definition of “Security” to not only include public safety, but to also prevent interference with the “economic or financial stability of Canada”. This could mean if you were a protestor at a rally or blockade against a pipeline you would be seen as a national threat to security.
  • The bill leaves the government to its own discretion to designate what activities may be security threats, without clear definition.
  • Even experts, such as Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, are unclear about what will constitute free speech under this bill. How are average Canadians supposed to know what can get them into trouble? The Criminal Code of Canada already has laws against committing or inciting others to commit terrorist acts. C-51 adds another layer including “advocating or promoting terrorism.’ which makes understanding the offense even more difficult.
  • The current criminal code already allows for something called “preventative arrest,” or the ability for police to arrest and detain without charge if they think you may commit a terrorist activity if they don’t. C-51 expands this, lowering the threshold and doubling the time you can be detained for.

The list goes on from there. Bill C-51 is a sprawling document over 60 pages long. With a federal election looming on the horizon, the Harper government needs to gain approval and push it through fast. It has already been voted in by the majority Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper. Now it must be brought before the House committee on National Security and Defence. If they approve it will be re-introduced to the House of Commons for a final vote before it is enacted into Law.

In a speech delivered at an anti-Bill C-51 rally on March 14, Pat Martin, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre explained how Harper rushed the process of closing the bill:

…he has moved closure on this bill after only one and one-half days of debate, he has truncated the committee process to only a few witnesses will be heard, he has run roughshod and undermined everything that is good and decent about our parliamentary democracy in his zeal to ram this bill through Parliament…the last time Parliament dealt with any kind of amendments to the public safety act was after 911, we had 54 days of debate in the House of Commons, we had 90 witnesses, expert testimony, because we know you do not interfere with these basic fundamental rights and freedoms lightly. This is not something you do with a day and a half of debate in the House of Commons….Harper has undermined the ability of your elected representatives to act on your behalf….you have to take it to the streets – sometimes civil disobedience is civil defense. 

On March 14, 2015, more than 60 Canadian communities held rallies and marches to protest Bill C-51. All across the country people from all walks of life participated in an action that, if this Bill passed, would no doubt land them on a government watch list.

Within Pagan groups, what does this mean? Many of us are environmentalists, some of us subscribe to alternative news sources, or campaign for religious freedom. Within the description of Bill C-51 is a wide grey area that we fall into and many of the causes we hold dear and participate in could land us on the government’s watch list. Many Pagans across the country got involved in the day of protest.

Outside the Canadian Houses of Parliament, a 1-year old, third generation Pagan attends his first protest. [Photo by Marc LeBlanc]

In Canada’s capitol city, Ottawa, Ontario, hundreds of people gathered outside the office of the Prime Minister on Parliament Hill. Sheena MacIsaac, a member of the Board of Directors for Gaia Gathering – The Canadian National Pagan Conference and mother of two, attended with her family:

We are participating because this bill is a terrible overreaction. It feels like it has been sitting in wait for anything to happen in Canada. There is no accountability, nor oversight. The terms are vague. I don’t want my children or family targeted because we love the earth and are vocal about it.

In London, Ontario, Sophia, an American Pagan living in Canada as a permanent resident, is shocked to find out that Canada’s politics are just as compromised as other places. Her reason for participating in the March 14th protest is pure and simple, She said, “I can say is that political action is part of my commitment to the living Earth that supports us with such grace.” 

On the west coast of the country, in British Columbia, the Pagan presence in Vernon took the form of writer and Priestess, Sable Aradia, one of over 400 people who shut down the highway in her hometown of Vernon, a small city of 40,000 people located in the lush Okanagan Valley.

Of her participation in the protest, Sable says:

Sable Aradia protesting Bill C-51 outside the office of her local Member of Parliament. [Photo by Chris Madsen]

I’m not really an activist. I sign occasional petitions and write the infrequent letter. The last thing I publicly protested was the Gulf War. But C-51 was a deal-breaker for me. It’s a less-well-regulated variant of the Patriot Act. What’s particularly troubling is the inclusion of groups that threaten the “economic well-being” of Canada. Since environmental activists and First Nations often chain themselves to trees to stop loggers and would-be frackers, it’s pretty clear how they intend to use this clause. I see no way in which the bill would, in actuality, increase our security but I see many ways in which it would endanger our civil liberties. It is an overreaction to an isolated incident and it’s clear that it is at least in part motivated by racism. It has no place in the Canada that I want to live in. My tradition of witchcraft is BTW descended but distinctly influenced by the more political climate of West Coast Paganisms such as Reclaiming. My politics tend to be moderately left-wing. I support equality, freedom, feminism and environmentalism. For me those ethics flow naturally from the Charge of the Goddess.

Also in British Columbia, activist and Pagan podcaster Sparrow, of the Wigglian Way Podcast hit the streets of Vancouver, along with over 1000 other protestors, and gathered on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Sparrow, who has put her talk into action recently protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline through her Burnaby Mountain home, felt that there really was no choice but to protest C-51:

Bill C51 is counter to what being Canadian is all about. We have the freedom and the responsibility to keep government in check. It is our government and our country is supposed to be a democratic one. Bill C51 is in direct opposition of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The bill would in effect make it illegal to protest in this country. It is a direct attack on First Nations people and Activists. This bill has nothing to do with “terrorism” as those in authority would have us believe, but everything to do with raping this land of it’s resources.

Sparrow is very active in environmental issues as well as Aboriginal rights and equality issues. A project she is passionate about is Settlers Info.org, a website offering information and resources to facilitate a paradigm shift in Canada among the non-aboriginal Canadian population in relation to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people and create unity and understanding among the entire population.

The Winnipeg, Manitoba edition of the protest was also attended by over 1000 people and many “WinniPagans” joined the crowd. The rally was held in the courtyard of Winnipeg’s City Hall and featured speakers from government, Aboriginal, student, and community groups. Underscoring the wide range of people who could be considered a threat to national security was a performance by “The Winnipeg Raging Grannies” who provided some hilarious songs of protest and decent and reminded us of how easily our own actions can be deemed dangerous.

This is what a threat to Canadian national security looks like – The Raging Grannies [Photo by Paul S. Graham]

One outspoken WinniPagan is Katherine Bitney, a poet, essayist and Witch who participated in the protest accompanied by her daughter and granddaughter – three generations of strong Pagan women determined to fight for the land:

My Paganism in a sense drives and/or determines my politics. Learning natural law, as it manifests in the world around us, and living from an ethics based on this. We are very aware that this bill is aimed at anyone who opposes Harper’s agenda to give the land over to corporations that will, already do, destroy it. It makes environmentalists, anyone who stands up for the land, Indigenous people, into enemies of the Harper state. It silences and criminalizes dissent. As a Pagan it’s my responsibility to listen to and watch out for the land, and to speak out against, fight, its enemies. All land is holy.

Reinforcing the Pagan connection to the land, is Lawrence, another WinniPagan, who attended the rally with the rest of his covenmates:

The bill would be used to crack down on the civil, humanitarian, and ecological endeavours of groups who choose to protect those rights against corporate and economic profiteers. C-51 places economic interests on par with – or above – human and ecological rights. As a witch, that makes no sense at all. My gods aren’t capitalists. They are gods of the wood, of the land, of waters, of air, of sacred groves and hearths. There is nothing in that which calls me to spoil the land, starve living beings, or disproportionately churn what natural balance is left. I choose to be political so I can protect that which is sacred to me, respect that which the gods find honourable, and affect what change may be possible.

Winnipeg Witches protest C-51 at City Hall [Photo by AT]

What should Canadian Pagans and Witches do about C-51? Sparrow had this to say, “Now, I do expect more from Canadian Pagans. I expect the mundane and the magical. I’ve been to a lot of ritual where the idea was planted, but nothing is growing. I’ve also been to ceremony where you make a pledge to Spirit or the Gods, and YOU DO WHAT YOU PLEDGE. It’s not that hard. Really. Get out to a “call to action”. Activism is fun.”

As a response to the increasing dissent toward the government of Canada and the growing frustration of Pagans with the way things are going, more and more Pagan folk of all stripes are fed up and becoming activists. Sable Aradia invited some of us to join her in her new blog, Winding Widdershins, dedicated to Canadian politics through a Pagan lens. She said:

In general, I prefer not to discuss politics in Pagan circles; we’re already such a factitious lot. But our spirituality guides our ethics, and our ethics do influence our politics. I don’t like politics myself, but I keep finding out about things that concern me through Facebook feeds and chance conversations and that’s no way to do it. I figured we needed a forum to encourage this kind of discussion, if nothing else so that I don’t feel so impotent against overwhelming forces. 

Looking ahead, it really seems like this will be an exciting year of political activity in Canada. With a federal election tentatively scheduled for October 2015, issues like Bill C-51 will be boiling over and Canadian Pagans will be stirring the pot.

By earth, by air, by fire, by water
We are the good earth’s sons and daughters
By voice, by heart, by my own hand
I swear to keep this holy land
By the power of three times three
This is my oath So mote it be
And as you share
So do you swear

– Crystal Coven of Winnipeg’s  “Oath to the Land”

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A Blessed Spring Equinox

Fri, 2015-03-20 06:00

Today is the vernal (spring) equinox. It is the astronomical beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Wiccans, Heathens, Polytheists and various modern Pagans celebrate this day as Ostara, Lady Day, Shubun-sai, or simply the spring equinox (autumnal equinox for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere.) Other Spring festivals and holidays, include Holi or the Hindu festival of color, Higan in Japan, Nowruz or New Year on the Persian calendar, the Christian Easter and Jewish Passover. And there are many others.

Azaelas in bloom [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

This year’s vernal equinox, which will occur today at 6:45 pm (EDT), will coincide with two other astronomical events: a solar eclipse and a supermoon.

According to Accuweather, the early morning eclipse was most visible in northern regions around the Atlantic seaboards.For example, “those living in northern Scotland can expect approximately 95 percent of the sun to be blocked during the eclipse, while those as far south as Rome, Italy, can expect more than 50 percent.” The Guardian did live updates, including video and photos, saying it was the best eclipse viewing in the U.K. since 1999.

Additionally, there will be a supermoon tonight. This happens when “a full moon or a new moon … occurs during the moon’s closest approach to Earth on its elliptical orbit.” Spring is certainly arriving in style this year.

Here are some quotes celebrating the seasonal holiday….

This Spring Equinox is a resurrection of all things Maiden for me. The Spring Equinox, is a time of rebirth and my work as a Priestess is to allow the energy of the wheel of the year and the medicine that it holds to mould me and to guide me, and so, this year as I prepare for ceremony I prepare to rebirth my Maiden self. Though I am walking in my Mother years I still have access to that Maiden self, each waxing moon honours the Maiden within me and each Spring that is sprung is a season to pull her up from the recesses of my unconscious… – Candise, From “Spring Equinox Resurrection”

In the great Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year drama of the Goddess and God, Ostara is a time to celebrate the Lady in her guise as the Maiden and the Horned God in his role as the young horned god (we call him “Goatboy” at our house). Since it’s a celebration of younger deities the energies in the circle are often younger too. There’s something about Ostara that has always made me feel young inside, like a kid, and I think that’s something to celebrate. – Jason Mankey, From “8 Ways to Celebrate Ostara”

The Autumnal equinox is just around the corner for us in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the mid harvest festival on the Pagan seasonal wheel and this year for me, it is about Foundations. For I am starting a new business, one that I hope will grow into a strong creative path and living, but for that to happen I need to create strong foundations, both magically and physically and find the balanced between both. - Mistress Polly, From “The Autumnal Equinox,”

This is a very powerful time to do magic, not only because of the balancing of the earth’s energies, but because of the way our own beings echo the earth’s changes. We are literally reborn as we emerge from our winter sleep, ready to partake of all the pleasures of the earth, and to meet the challenges we will face as the world changes around us daily. - Peg Aloi, From “You call it Easter. I call it Ostara.”

Spring flower. [Photo Credit: J. Pitzl.]

And from The Huffington Post:

“Spring equinox is a time of new life, new growth, and renewal,” [Rev Selena] Fox told The Huffington Post. “It is a wonderful time to get outdoors and commune with nature, watching migrating birds, the greening of the landscape and budding of trees.”

…Those who are city-bound and surrounded by concrete sidewalks and skyscrapers may be crying a bit on the inside after reading that. We feel your pain. But Fox says there are actually many ways for urban-dwellers to connect with nature on Ostara. The priestess shared seven tips for celebrating the new season — even without access to streams and meadows.

May you all enjoy a fruitful and blessed spring!

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Child Helps Conference Attendees Calm their Inner Dragons

Thu, 2015-03-19 07:47

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – I turned my phone to silent and found a seat in a workshop at Paganicon, a Pagan convention held in Minneapolis, Minnesota over the Spring Equinox. I was particularly interested in this presentation and had it marked as one I couldn’t miss. It wasn’t the topic that caught my eye as I looked through the programming guide, it was the presenter – 9-year-old AuroraWolf.

While some Pagan festivals and conventions have children’s programming, I haven’t heard of any that had programming presented by a child as young as AuroraWolf. Coming on the heels of conversations in the Pagan blogosphere about the need to make room for younger leaders to emerge, I thought I’d take a look at what our future could possibly look like.

The presentation was titled Calming Your Inner Dragon and was open to children and adults who wished to learn calming techniques when they are angry. There were 5 adults and 3 children sitting in a circle in smaller convention room usually set aside for meditation.

The description for the workshop was written by AuroraWolf

AuroraWolf introduced himself by name and said his preferred pronouns are he and him. He then explained what the workshop was about and what we’d be doing. He described his anger as a feeling he got in his chest, “I kinda felt fire with wings and I heard a heartbeat. Not mine, but a small tiny heartbeat, kinda like a baby dragon.”

Looking at the other children and the adults I could see everyone nodding their head. They appeared to immediately understand what AuroraWolf was talking about and the vivid imagery eliminated the need for lengthy explanations. AuroraWolf then asked others how their dragon feels and what happens when it gets growly.

One young boy said that when his dragon gets out of control he wants to break things. An adult said he feels very small and very quiet and cold.

A stark difference in this workshop as opposed to workshops lead by adults was the lack of unintentional shaming. In adult conversations about anger, the focus is on control and the inference is that losing control of your anger is a failing on your part. AuroraWolf never inferred that feelings such as anger were bad or that you were a bad person for experiencing them. He led a very open and matter of fact examination of anger, the effect it can have on you and others, and then shared ideas for how to calm your dragon. His language was direct and non-judgmental. Your dragon isn’t bad, here’s how you can care for it.

How were his presentation skills? His next workshop should be on How to Present a Workshop.

After each round of discussion, AuroraWolf asked, “Has everyone spoken who wants to speak?” and then he looked around at each person. He didn’t rush to the next point and was fully in the present moment with each person. When one young attendee tried to contribute to the discussion but became a bit upset, AuroraWolf jumped in with, “It’s OK for you to have a pass.” He looked truly anxious for her to know it was ok for her not to speak and that no one would think any less of her. But AuroraWolf also didn’t dwell on the exchange and draw even more attention to her, either.

The suggestions that AuroraWolf offered for calming your dragon could be implemented by children or adults. He said that when he’s at school and he needs to calm his dragon, he pictures it curled up in his chest and he scratches it behind the ears. The dragon then falls asleep. As AuroraWolf was describing the method, the other kids immediately closed their eyes and moved their hands as if they were scratching a dragon curled in their arms. I’ve taken many guided meditation classes, but this 1 minute gem could have saved me much time and effort over the years. It not only treated anger as a partner to work with instead of an enemy to oppose, it was ridiculously easy and I’ve put it to use since the class.

AuroraWolf demonstrates a calming hand gesture he uses for meditation

Other ideas were focused on distracting the dragon. AuoraWolf said that candles can be used to distract dragons because they like to chase the scent rising up from the candle. He also went through basic candle safety. Pixie, a 9-year-old attendee said that she distracts her dragon by thinking about something that happened a week ago or by smelling cookies.

The workshop lasted just over 20 minutes. This was another nice change from adult presenters, and I’m one of them, who feel if they have a 50 minute time slot they will, by all the Gods, fill those 50 minutes.

The decision to allow a 9-year-old to present at a conference isn’t one every convention would consider, but Becky Munson, Programming Director for Twin Cities Pagan Pride, the organization that produces Paganicon, said they didn’t treat this submission any different from any other. She said their process is to try to take at least one thing from each person who submits a proposal and that’s what they did in AuroraWolf’s case, as well.

They did, however, spend some time discussing how to support AuroraWolf so he would be successful, “There’s special considerations when you have a child presenting because they aren’t equipped in the same way as adult to deal with all of the nuances that come with standing in front of a group and teaching and handling that. They don’t have the life experience so part of it is making the consideration for how we do it, not if we do it. And then give them the support because they’re the leaders that we need in 5 or 10 years to do programming for 50 or 60 people as Paganicon gets bigger.”

AuroraWolf’s mother said the idea to create the workshop was solely AuroraWolf’s. He wrote his own proposal and sent it in. AuroraWolf said the idea didn’t come to him all of a sudden, “It was just hovering around in my head. Apparently I could feel the dragon banging around because apparently he was chasing the idea.”

Munson said that she wasn’t surprised to see a workshop proposal from AuroraWolf because he was very involved with the conference last year as a volunteer.

Pixie thought it was “really cool” that AuroraWolf’s workshop was accepted. She was excited, saying “I really like dragons and sometimes I’m extremely hyper so I thought I’d be good for me.”

Her mother, Lapis, was also pleased to see a workshop led by a young child. “We bring Pixie with us to ritual all the time and try to answer her questions but I think she could learn so much more and understand so much more from her peers. Having a 9-year-old do a workshop and explain those different meditation techniques, I think it will help a lot for her to be able to internalize it and understand it on her level versus what we try to teach her.”

AuroraWolf said he was excited to do the presentation, but also nervous, “I’ve never done a presentation before so maybe this could be my first time and all of a sudden I clenched up because I’ve never done a presentation before. I might blow it.”

The presentation went smoothly and any nervousness that AuroraWolf may have been feeling wasn’t apparent. He was calm, attentive to his audience, and as interested in what they had to say as he was in presenting his material. If this is an example of what our future leaders look like, we’re in good hands. I’ve also come to the conclusion that most presentations should be done by children.

AuroraWolf’s mother was understandably proud of her son. “I was proud of him from the beginning. When I asked his dad if he was doing a proposal and he said he was going to volunteer instead, for completeness I asked [AuroraWolf] if he was going to do a proposal to my surprise he said yes. I thought Ok. That’s good, but he has to do it on his own. But I am tremendously proud of him. I knew he could do it, I knew he was brave and strong enough. He wasn’t always sure he was brave and strong enough but I have all the confidence in the world in my little boy.”

So how does AuroraWolf feel after teaching his first workshop? “I feel as happy as a puppy who could never die.”

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Wiccans Enter the RFRA Public Debate in Georgia

Wed, 2015-03-18 08:47

ATLANTA, Ga – It has been a year since we looked at the current debates over RFRAs or Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. In 2013, we reported on a Kentucky bill that had been prompted by concerns over the safety of Amish Buggies. In March 2014, Arizona’s infamous “anti-gay” bill was making news, and eventually vetoed. This past summer SCOTUS ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, raising awareness of the application of RFRA laws within society.

These are only three examples of a far reaching legislative battle over the boundaries and practical exercise of religious freedom. Basically, the debate comes down to whether we need more precise legislation to protect religious freedom or whether the state and federal constitutions are enough.


In the past month, the debate has flared up in the deep south. Up until February, there were two proposed “religious freedom” bills before Georgia’s state legislature. Representative Sam Teasley’s (R-Marietta) HB218 called “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act,” and State Senator Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) SB129 called “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

When SB129 was approved by the Georgia State Senate on March 5, Teasley abandoned HB218 and joined in supporting McKoon’s bill as it moved into the House. Opponents are calling this bill the harshest state RFRA yet, because the bill is very open-ended in defining burden and religious exercise. For example, the bill reads:

‘Exercise of religion’ means any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief, including but not limited to the practice or observance of religion under Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, Article I of the 74 Constitution of this state or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, or the use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise. [71-76]

The recent Senate approval raised the volume on the conversation, bringing out some new players, including Atlanta-resident Elton John. He said, “[SB129] claims to protect religious freedom and encourage tolerance. In reality, it encourages the same discrimination that’s haunted the South for too long.” John goes on to explain how the bill will target Atlanta’s LGBT community, calling it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that will only “institutionalize the hate some people hold in their hearts.”

On March 11, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, based in Washington state, published its own response to the Georgia bill. High Priest Dusty Dionne wrote:

We thank the state of Georgia for its forward thinking and dedication to religious freedom. It has been a reality long-held by Wiccans that the laws did not extend far enough toward our own exercise of religion [50-15A-2. line 71] to be truly encompassing of our freedom to worship. The original Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as passed by our illustrious president Bill Clinton, was a landmark move that opened the door for minority religions, and small local churches to have more safety to worship within their communities than ever before. This new bill will create sweeping changes that will open the doors for the Wiccans within Georgian communities to worship, work, and LIVE their religion to its fullest.

Dionne goes on to list a number of ways in which the Georgia RFRA will support Wiccan religious practice and lifestyles, including the growing of sacred plants and “multi-partner relationships.” Dionne told The Wild Hunt that in no way is that list of potential protections exhaustive.

Logo Aquarian Tabernacle Church

Dionne’s sent his article to all Georgia state senators as well as the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). On March 13, AJC writer Jim Galloway responded in a post titled “An Unusual Voice enters the religious liberty debate.” Another local news site picked up on the story in a post titled, “Georgia’s Religious Freedom Act is Opposed by Elton John, But Supported by the Wiccans.”

It wasn’t long before ATC’s article began to pick up momentum in cyberspace. One writer said that the statement “will go down in the Annals of the History of Bluff-Calling,” and that he hopes “the Aquarian Tabernacle Church pushes this as far as they can.” A Heathen blogger simply said, “Honor to the Wiccans who came up with this one” and then contemplated whether Heathens should “try some humorous responses to discrimination as well.”

As Dionne’s article cycled around, Georgia Wiccans began to speak out, and many questioned Dionne’s approached. Atlanta-resident and blogger Sara Amis responded saying, “We can fight for our own,” pointing out the number of Wiccans present in the state. In “Pray Naked Re-Dux,” Amis wrote, “Dusty Dionne … greets this news with less hostility than I, also with a list of new freedoms the law could grant to Wiccans. (But he left out naked rituals in public! an oversight I’m sure.)” Having followed this debate since its beginnings, Amis goes on to say:

The Georgia state constitution already offers very robust protections to religious expression, even more than the First Amendment. Unnecessary laws are generally a pack of trouble on principle, and many people feel…I am one of them…that the only “protection” this will actually offer is for bigots in mainstream faiths.

Other Wiccans voiced direct frustration with ATC’s efforts. Like Amis, blogger and Wiccan Priestess Lydia M. Crabtree is opposed to RFRA legislation, but she expressed real concerns over the strategies used by the Washington-based ATC. She said that they “are confusing the issue.”

Agreeing with Crabtree is local Wiccan Priest Matthaios Theadoros. He said that he believes the article is “well-intended” but that he “uncomfortable” with the methodologies. Theodorus said, “Instead of working to undermine RFRA, I think it is only going to cast suspicion on Wicca.” He explained:

They are seeming to set up Wicca as one that participates in polyamory and insinuates some sort of questionable herb use. Though some Wiccans may be polyamorous, it is disingenuous to suggest that it is an inherent part of the religion. To suggest Wiccans should be exempt from urine or blood tests on the basis that Wiccans do not want others having our essence is going to come off as foolish at best and suspicious at worst considering that part comes after a section on allowing the use of certain herbs that cannot be locally grown

As Amis pointed out, the AJC reporter seemed to be “confused about whether [the ATC article was] a hoax.” And that was the overriding sentiment present in local reactions. Was ATC serious? Was it a hoax? Was it bluff? When asked, Dionne confirmed that he was indeed serious and explained:

If the bill goes through, this will be part of what we will be coaching Wiccans to accept as part of their rights, and then we will start dealing with winning the court cases, and that will cement our rights. Change can be made, and if they give us a framework of law that they think is going to give them exclusive religious rights, then what we are going to do is set our beliefs into that framework, and we legally should have the same expansion of our rights.

Dionne pointed out that this type of work is part of the ATC legacy. Peter Pathfinder was instrumental in past religious freedom battles. Dionne, now as the High Priest of the Keepers of the Gate ATC Mother Church, High Summoner of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church Intl. and Consort to the Arch Priestess Belladonna LaVeau, is compelled to pick up that baton. When asked why the Georgia bill and not the many others being proposed in other states, he said, “I am new in my position. Give me some time.”

And, there are many other RFRAs being debated currently. Americans United (AU) recently published an report on the various bills that have either “picked up steam” or “stalled out,” including the Federal RFRA.

As for Georgia’s bill, the debate rages on. Proponents continue to defend SB129’s non-discriminatory basis, and that it’s only purpose is to protect “people of faith” and their right to practice.

Opponents argue that the RFRA has nothing to do with religious freedom. Just yesterday, Georgia Unites Against Discrimination held a rally on the steps of the capitol to protest this point. Like many others, the group stresses that the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution are more than enough to ensure religious freedom in Georgia.

State Capitol [Photo Credit: Ken Lund /Flickr]

However, there is one detail being overlooked in this entire conversation – one that may be of particular interest to Georgia’s Pagans and others practicing minority religions. The proposed bill references “Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, 19 Article I” of the Georgia constitution as the marker of the state’s religious freedom laws.This portion of the constitution reads, “Each person has the natural and inalienable right to worship God…”

Because of its open-ended language, SB129 actually nullifies that particular criteria. It defines the “Exercise of Religion” as “including but not limited to the practice or observance of religion under Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, Article I of the Constitution…” In other words, while the new bill may open doors to discriminatory behavior, abuse and similar stated issues, it also appears to be serving to undermine a section of Georgia’s state constitution that is, in the end, problematic itself.

The Georgia House is scheduled to vote on SB129 on April 2.

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The Unique Challenges in Pagan Prison Ministry

Tue, 2015-03-17 07:57

SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA — It has been said that casting a ritual circle describes a sacred place, outside of time and space. Whoever came up with that phrasing likely has never worked within the U.S. correctional system, where space is rigidly controlled by an unyielding culture and where time moves according to the whims of an incredibly complex bureaucracy.

San Quentin Prison yard [Photo Credit: Zboralski / via Wickimedia]

However, it’s easier to see how time and space can be folded and spindled by looking through the eyes of Aline “Macha” O’Brien, who is now nearing the end of a quest to get a group of Pagan inmates some incense and candles. It is a process that has taken nine long months.

“There’s nothing that’s simple in prison bureaucracies,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It’s very bizarre, quite opaque, and in flux.”

The many regulations exist to keep staff and inmates safe and secure. But in a penitentiary system as large as California’s, and in a prison as old as San Quentin, those who aren’t part of the system would easily be confused by the dizzying number of requirements. In addition, the exact constitutional rights entitled to inmates — and in what form — are also moving targets, as court cases cause wardens to change tactics.

While others choose to fight those legal battles, O’Brien has been focusing on giving one group of Pagan men the opportunity to worship their gods. Many people find religion when they are incarcerated. A recent Chicago Tribune article provides an look at religious belief in prison and how that works from a inmate’s perspective.

Because so many are finding religion, education on the basics of ritual and practice are an implicit as part of O’Brien’s work. That is a challenging enough proposition for professional chaplain working in large churches, where presumably there’s a single set of beliefs and rituals to transmit. But trying to be an expert on all which falls under the Pagan umbrella is near impossible.

The group O’Brien works with identifies as Wicca, while she herself does not. The rituals, as she described them, are what many might think of as having a “generic” structure, including a cast circle, elemental correspondences with directions, and a focus on one or more deities that change from ritual to ritual. She stays with what she knows, which is decades of worshiping as an eclectic nature-based Witch, and has worked to improve the conditions under which these men follow her lead.

O’Brien described the so-called chapel for minority religions as a storeroom where the initial preparations of the space involve moving what’s inside to the edges so they have room to gather in a circle. They lean some of the furniture against the wall to muffle the sounds of the gospel choir practicing next door, which can be distracting. While prisoners are not permitted lighters or matches, the use of incense and candles is okay per the regulations of this particular facility, so securing more of these supplies quickly became a priority.

Aline “Macha” O’Brien

One of the barriers drawn by most correctional facilities is a demarcation between visitors and volunteers. Those who work in the system — the volunteers — are not permitted to have any kind of personal relationship with a prisoner, which includes visiting them during designated times, sending them correspondence, or otherwise engaging outside of the time and place of the volunteer work. Likewise, if one visits a prisoner, one cannot at the same time be cleared as a volunteer.

While it was not difficult to secure someone willing to donate the ritual materials, that donor could not be known to the men in any way. The person who finally agreed to make the donation was Matt Whealton, a member of the San Francisco-based Temple of Ra. “Having had a close family member in the penal system some years ago, I understand how much it can mean for inmates to get some kind of humanizing support from the wider world,” he explained. Given a list of needed supplies, it was Whealton’s job to order them from the approved supplier — in this case, AzureGreen in Massachusetts — and ensure that the necessary paperwork accompanied the order so it wouldn’t be cast into some kind of correctional-facility limbo upon arrival.

As O’Brien explained, getting to that point has been challenging. At first, it wasn’t even clear if the vendor was approved at all, because she couldn’t get the same answer from any two people. With the assistance of Rev. Patrick McCollum, she was able to confirm that piece, and worked up a supply list which, she said, “needed to get about six approval signatures” before they could proceed.

Whealton himself had to confirm in writing his intention to donate the supplies, then the fully-approved form had to be mailed back to him so that he could include it when he mailed payment. If the approval form isn’t in the package upon its arrival at San Quentin, the box won’t be waiting for O’Brien when she goes back to open it up.

The list of supplies is carefully scrutinized to weed out anything deemed contraband. Prisoners are not allowed items which can be used as weapons, such as brass candlesticks or anything made of glass. Nor can they be given images containing any amount of nudity, which rules out quite a bit of sacred imagery. O’ Brien must bring a lighter herself for the candles and incense. While she was able to secure permission to use some glass votive holders, they are locked up securely in the chaplain’s office when not in use.

Even once the supplies arrive, much of the work to provide further religious props come from O’Brien’s home printer, which churns out everything from appropriate deity images to seasonal decorations like eggs and holly.

To this longtime Witch, the constraints of the prison system can be imposing, but the bigger problem is on the horizon. As noted earlier, many inmates find religion in prison. O’Brien said, “When these people are released, they are going to seek out people in their new faith community, and those people won’t know anything of their backgrounds.”

Because of the rules prohibiting personal relationships, she herself knows nothing about the crimes that landed these men behind bars, nor anything about how that experience has shaped them. Because Paganism is not a monolithic body, and does not have much in the way of infrastructure, she fears that the community will be unprepared to work with this new population.

How these people, who have lived in a place where time crawls and space is cramped, will ultimately integrate into a community that seeks the mysteries beyond those limits remains to be seen.

 

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Pagan Community Notes: Open Halls Project, Judy Harrow, Pagan Music Festival and more

Mon, 2015-03-16 09:02

As first reported on the Norse Mythology Blog, the U.S. Army has not yet added Heathen and Asatru to its religious preference list. Dr. Karl Siegfried writes,”Over two months after being notified of approval, Army Heathens are now in a state of limbo.”

We spoke with Josh Heath, co-founder of the Open Halls Project, who said, “The Chaplain backed away from his initial statement that the addition was approved,” and “he misread the speed in which the addition was going to be processed.” Heath said that the Open Halls Project will continue pressing for this recognition. He added, “The Army Corp of Chaplains has largely been helpful to us during this process. We particularly want to officially thank Chaplain Bryan Walker for his assistance. However, we also are growing increasingly frustrated that it has taken so long for this process to reach its finale. The Open Halls Project will continue to advocate for this addition, and will do everything in our power to ensure every soldier knows when it finally has been approved. Our soldiers deserve this recognition of their right to claim their faith. Heathenry is about a commitment to one’s community, a gift of service. The US Army has the duty now to return that gift as is our custom.”

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As we reported last week, Judy Harrow was “honored by The Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ) division of the American Counseling Association (ACA).” She had been nominated in January by Michael Reeder, LCPC. At a special award luncheon Friday, a member of the Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) faculty accepted the Ohana award on Harrow’s behalf. CHS Director Holli Emore said, “Ms. Harrow was crucial to the development of Cherry Hill Seminary early on, building our pastoral counseling department into a program which would meet professional standards as well as the needs of the growing Pagan community.”

The award itself will be housed for viewing at the New Alexandrian Library (NAL) in Delaware. Board member Michael G. Smith said, “Ms. Harrow was an avid supporter of the New Alexandrian Library. She recognized the need for the Contemporary Paganism to preserve its history and cultural artifacts for future generations so they would be able to have a greater appreciation and understand their roots, their beginnings. She felt so passionately that she left her personal library in her last will and testament to the NAL. It is a great pleasure for us to see her work celebrated by her colleagues and we are honored to house her award, along with her collection, at the Library.”

 *   *   *

The Dragon Hills Retreat and Right Time, Right Place Productions will be hosting a spring Pagan Music Festival in 2016. Over Memorial Day weekend, musicians from around the world will come together in Bowdon, Georgia to perform at this private 30-acre campground and event center. According to the most recent updates, the festival will host over 20 bands, as well as100 vendors and more.

Currently booked to perform are: SJ Tucker, Sharon Knight, Celia, Tuatha Dea, Wendy Rule, Damh the Bard, Witch’s Mark, Murphy’s Midnight Rounders, Bekah Kelso, Spiral Rhythm, Spiral Rhythm, Dragon Ritual Drummers, Elaine Silver, Mama Gina, Beltana Spellsinger, and Robin Renée. Organizers say that more performers will be added and tickets are already on sale. They added that “a portion of the proceeds will go to benefit Katie’s Krops.”

In Other News

  • This Friday will be the soft launch of the new site Gods & Radicalsborn out of a PantheaCon presentation made by Rhyd Wildermuth and Alley Valkyrie. On Friday, they will publish their first essay by one of their contributing writers. Other essays will follow periodically until the site is in full operation. Gods & Radicals has been garnering much buzz in the community. When its facilitators made a call for submissions, the response was overwhelming. The site will publish works that focus on anti-capitalism, environmentalism and social change. They write, “We Pagans are trying to re-enchant the world, to bring back the magic of the forests and the mountains. We are trying to hear and revere the wild places the sacred forgotten places, the spirits of ocean and rivers and lakes.” 
  • Manannan mac Lir was back in the news again when the Limavady Council decided that the original statue was far too damaged to repair and that they would be erecting a replacement. According to the Derry Journal, the Council said that “a new sculpture should be made by John Darren Sutton at a cost of £9,950 and erected on Binevenagh.” The old statue will be on display as tourist attraction. However, as the decision was made, there was some outcry. According to the Belfast Telegraph, one local councilor believes that the “plan to use the damaged sculpture of a Celtic sea god as a tourist attraction would promote paganism and false gods.”
  • In another part of the world, ancient statues, relics and other historic sites are being pillaged and destroyed by ISIL. The destruction of these treasured artifacts has upset many Pagans, Polytheists and Heathens. One California Pagan, Jack Prewett has called for a Global Day of Mourning on April 18. Prewett calls the destruction a “tragedy for humankind” and says,“Let us mourn the loss of our history, our heritage. Cry for those that will come after us and know that once we had our history in our hands and let it slip through our fingers.” Why did Prewett choose April 18?  That is the U.N.’s World Heritage Day.
  • Last fall, in the heart of Arkansas, a group organized to host the first ever Pagan Pride event in Conway. According to reports, they had over 300 attendees, which far exceeded expectations. Unfortunately, the city of Conway has since passed an ordinance prohibiting all vendor sales on park property. Organizers said, “This means that we wouldn’t be able to have vendors, our singers and presenters wouldn’t be able to sell their merchandise, and there wouldn’t be any concessions! The only option that the city has given us is to rent out the Conway Expo Center.” If the organizers follow through, the event will cost significantly more money. The organization is now reaching out to the community for help through a GoFundMe campaign.
  • The Aquarian Tabernacle Church, based in Washington state, has recently released several statements responding to the most recent attempts to enact a religious freedom restoration act (RFRAs), specifically in the state of Georgia. The ATC’s statements have created buzz in both the mainstream media, the Pagan blogosphere and local Georgia Wiccan community. We are currently working on this developing story and will bring the details of the debate on Wed.

That is it for now. Have a nice day.

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Column: Plaster Divinity

Sun, 2015-03-15 07:41

Athena Velletri.
Plaster cast of a Roman copy of a Greek original by Kresilas or Alkamenes, ca 420 BCE.
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO.
Photograph by the author.

Athena looms. She towers. She stands above me, dominating my entire field of vision. She raises her right hand into the air, as if to bring some other addressee to a pause; she stretches her left hand to me, palm upturned, as though she were offering to help me to my feet. Fabric folds around her body, bunching together at her waist and shoulder – enough fabric, it seems, to wind around the world. Her war-helm rests atop her head; on her breast sits the head of Medusa. I stare up into her eyes; they are blank, but that blankness is the opposite of empty. Every emotion is inscribed on Athena’s face.

I kneel there before the goddess for a long moment, my breathing haggard from the proximity of the sublime.

Somewhere behind me, I can hear women’s voices. I think they are talking about payroll. In front of me, behind Athena’s back, a car passes by. I see it through the mini-blinds: a black Acura. The windows face out onto the Mizzou North parking lot, which lies off of Business Loop 70 in Columbia, Missouri, the college town where I live. The building itself used to be a cancer center; other medical facilities still share the parking lot. The neighborhood is an aging commercial district, separated from the main campus by about a mile and a half. Around Mizzou North, one finds a Ford dealership, a Break Time gas station, a Payless shoe store, a Long John Silver’s. It is a strange place to go looking for gods – and yet here they are.

The University of Missouri is moving its Museums of Art, Archeology, and Anthropology over to this building from their old homes on the central campus, and so most of the collections aren’t yet on display. One galley, however, is open – the Cast Gallery, full of plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman statuary. The casts on display are packed together in a single L-shaped room on the first floor of the building. I found it rather cramped, but the density of the collection heightened my sense of the sublime; within only a few hundred square feet, the Venus de Milo, the headless Nike of Samothrace, and the Apollo of Olympia shared space with the tender pair of Hermes and the infant Dionysus and the mute horror of Laokoön and His Sons being killed by sea-serpents. A row of luminary busts sits against one wall: the heads of Homer, Sophocles, and Theseus all sit together, members of parliament never elsewhere convened in history.

But the piece de resistance, at least for me, was the Athena Velletri. A copy of an original housed in the Louvre, Athena Velletri dominates her section of the gallery, and I found myself drawn to her over the dozens of other masterpieces littering the room. Perhaps it was simply the size of the statue – Athena stands 10 feet tall, such that her outstretched left arm is at eye-level for the average person – or perhaps it was the intricate details of the bunched cloth in her robe. More likely, it was simply that Athena has always been one of my favorite goddesses, as far back as I knew what a goddess was. (Just now, I remember something: the first book – or long story, at least – that I ever wrote, when I was twelve. The main character worshipped Athena. Write what you know, so the saying goes.)

As I knelt before the Athena, I found my mind wandering away from the cast gallery, and even away from the milieu of the classical world in general, moving instead to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In that essay, Benjamin advanced a theory of “the aura” of an individual artwork – that is to say, the combination of history and physical presence that serves to instill art with the value of authenticity. For Benjamin, this aura originated in the religious functions that works like the Athena Velletri would have had in their classical origins, and which was maintained even after the end of the Pagan period: “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition,” he writes. “This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura.” When art became separated by religion, that holy aura came to be embodied in other ways: in aesthetics, in majesty, in l’art pour l’art, all of which he theorized would find their final culmination in fascism.

Benjamin argues that reproduction cannot help but destroy the aura of the work of art, finding its most triumphant expression in the creation of modern art forms like the film, a genre of art that has no “original” to possess an aura at all, only the many copies[1]. (I’m hardly the first to ask this, but one wonders what he would have made of the internet.) In the age before mechanical reproduction – before photographs or high quality lithography, certainly before instant Google searches and Wikipedia – to experience a work of art, one had to physically travel to that work of art, had to confront its aura personally. Even if one had never worshipped Athena, had lived in a world that had, to all appearances, abandoned worship of that goddess two thousand years before, to see the Athena Velletri was to be a part of Athena’s cult.

The Athena that rises above me is made of plaster, smooth and white. Her right arm is a little out of joint, exposing a crease that reveals the many pieces of which she is made. She is, indeed, a copy of a copy, and perhaps more iterations than that. I am sure that some museum shop would happily sell me a copy of this statue, one of many anonymous thousands. And yet the aura is there – not the aura of aesthetic and authenticity, as proposed by Benjamin, nor even quite the old cultic aura he supposed was held by the Greeks. For me, it is an aura of overpowering recognition. I was raised without temples, but with the longing for them; I suppose I made the identification of the museum with the mysteries long ago. I kneel and whisper my prayers to Athena, to the Athena, to the goddess in the plaster. I am still trying to catch my breath.

 

[1] He thought these new art forms, bereft of aura, could resist the fascism from which he had fled, and was on the whole much more positive about technology than most art critics.

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Column: Living Social Justice

Sat, 2015-03-14 06:31

[From the Editor’s DeskThe Wild Hunt will be leaving the Pantheon Foundation to make another big step forward in its continued evolution. In April, we will begin taking the preliminary steps needed toward becoming our own independent registered nonprofit. We thank the Pantheon Foundation for its time and dedication in helping us achieve this goal, and for supplying us with the needed strength to stand on our own. In addition, we say goodbye to columnist Sam Webster. For the last year, he has shared his writing and work with our readers. We thank him for his contributions and wish him luck in any future projects and pursuits. Starting in April, you will find Webster’s work on Patheos’ Pagan Channel.]

This year, it seems one of the unofficial themes to come out of PantheaCon was social justice. There were many panels, presentations and off-program discussions, and a crisis around issues of race to make it pertinent and lively (see Glenn Turner’s post for a summary.)

We will have to do better before everyone will feel welcome in our halls.

Social Justice / Social Activism

Social justice, and its close companion social activism, are a vibrant energy in our community, at least at the moment. We’ll have to see in what way it will endure. American culture, and we as a sub-culture in it, have a notoriously short attention span coupled with amnesia. Will Pagans and the magical community hold our focus or move on to another outrage du jour? Sadly, the problems, social, environmental, economic, political, and so on, don’t pass so quickly and it has long been the task of social activists to drag our attention back to those problems when our attention wavers.

I laud those whose speech informs us of the oppressions they experience or witness. I honor those who place their bodies on the line to defend, to demonstrate, or even just to demand attention to the intolerable. While not every protest causes obvious change, every action is another weight in the balance that will change society for the better.

The challenges before our community are large. It would take being in a coma to not see the profound social imbalances where some have deep access to resources and others, often simply due to birth, have little to no access. Becoming conscious of these imbalances is necessary. I listen to this discourse and try to learn how others are suffering, what they want to do about it. From that, I determine how I can help.

Beyond the discourse, there are many and various ways of applying effort to actually change society. The really visible ones are the protests, rallies, speakers in presentations and panels. The writers of blogs or other forms of journalism, or more persuasive writing, all contribute to the effort. But not everyone organizes or attends protests, or gives speeches.

There are other less visible types of social activism. The primary kind is voting, a citizen’s duty. The simplest, and I would say most important yet most overlooked, is the raising of children with healthy social consciousness. The mothers and fathers who are doing this are building the next generation. We can see today how important this is in how the Millennials and younger cohorts have such a comparatively decreased degree of homophobia or racism. Generalizing as this is, of course, this is changing society profoundly if slowly.

Serving Community

Other work work to build healthy communities. The small groups that we Pagans form can be ways of concentrating the worst of humanity’s bad habits, or crucibles of transformation that purge our bodies, speech, and minds, of the pernicious poison of sexism, racism, genderism, homophobia, and the like. There is nothing like close contact with the ‘other’ to shatter the barriers in our hearts and build the interpersonal bridges that render the objectified other into a person, even into a friend. Creating these kinds of groups is my work, so I am mindful of its place in the scheme of social activism.

Since graduating seminary in 1993, I have worked as a ‘community minister’ amongst Pagans. Building communities and the empowerment of groups and individuals so that they may be spiritually and materially effective in the world is my work. My space is religion, as befits my training and talents. It is also a space where moral and ethical values can be directly cultivated and expressed.

For thousands of years, basically all the time before the Protestant Reformation (starting 1517), values were expressed and transmitted though ritual and at the hands of the religious specialists of those cultures. We Pagans, who preserve the power of ritual in our civilization, have at our disposal a profound means to transform ourselves, inculcate good social values, and sometimes even directly affect larger society.

Money and Authority

One of the places where we are weak is in our relationship to money. Being one of the four great elemental tools, the coin can no more be ignored than the wand, cup, or sword. Yet we are pretty bad at it, and have serious issues with money. Maybe it’s a hold-over from the hippies who rekindled Paganism in the 60s, perhaps it’s an embracing of spirituality and rejection of materialism and capitalism.

Associated with this is our relationship with the law and with authority. Pagans, witches, and other magical folk, have been marginalized for so long that we forget to use the law to our advantage, even when that law was constructed to protect us or gives us the tools to build what we need. Likewise we sometimes attack authority thinking that it can only be oppressive.

This is quite problematic. Authority begins with the self; yet so many are disempowered that they are not the authority of their own lives. But we can start from where we are, with what little we have. We can then build out from there structures of action and responsibility, which is what creates true authority. As these structures interweave with other people, each their own center of authority, larger more dynamic and powerful structures can be built.

Inevitably, leaders emerge to pilot the institutions the structures create. Recognizing that these institutions are yet another tactic to change society, and that the leaders of those organizations are working to enact the will of those aggregating to create the institution, can help us to realize that this too is form of social activism.

It won’t solve every problem, and only some have any use for it, but certain problems will be hard to solve without these tools. It also has the virtue of being a subtle yet profound means of subverting the dominant social order through alternative, networked, modes of authority. Each success transforms another part of our world.*

Now What?

What to do now that the PantheaCon panels and protests are done? What is the positive creation we can engage in to build a better future?

Overtime, I would like to continue to hear from the overt social activists on what we are able to do. They have done a lot of thinking on the subject. Much of the discussion so far is criticism of self or other, invaluable to understand and be motivated to solve the problem.

Better still that we have also been hearing directly from the oppressed and abused. This should guide our actions. An action plan or at least a strategy is needed that will change our culture or our subculture. What kind of program, what actions can we do to improve conditions? What actionable suggestions can we take back to our small groups to make things better? I’d like to hear some more ideas and apply them.

As for myself, I have a strategy I have been using for decades, one common to the folks working in religion or spirituality. I’ll keep teaching the tools of spiritual empowerment. I’ll keep setting the table to welcome any who wish to do the work, irrespective of race, or gender, or other characteristics. I will continue to build groups and institutions to embody and transmit the wholesome values we must live by if we would live in a just and peaceful society. I will continue to find ways of aggregating the power of individuals and groups into forces that cause good change. These are where my skills and talents lie and how I am best used. There are many other approaches to the problems before us, we will need them all to succeed.

*   *   *

* Author’s Note: Technically I am an anarchist, of what some call the syndicalist variety. For some concrete examples of how this can work look into the Viable Systems Model by Stafford Beer. It gives a powerful tool and examples for robust self rule. The goal is to use this method of organization for the Pantheon Foundation as it matures. More here.

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Sir Terry Pratchett 1948 – 2015

Fri, 2015-03-13 07:59

Terry Pratchett [Photo Credit: Myrmi, cc lic. via Wikimedia ]

So much universe, and so little time” – Sir Terry Pratchett

It was announced yesterday that beloved fantasy author, Sir Terry Pratchett, had died from complications due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Throughout his 44 year writing career, Sir Terry has touched the minds, spirits and imaginations of people all over the globe, becoming one of the U.K.’s most well-read authors and is, according to the BBC, second only to JK Rowling.

His work has become of particular importance to Pagans and Heathens, who have found within it a unique expression of their own practice and spirituality. Ashley Mortimer of the Doreen Valiente Foundation said:

Terry Pratchett has done several great services to the pagan community and the true Craft of the Wica: He helped the wider community see us as more include-able and accepted by poking good-spirited, perceptive, knowledgeable and downright genuine fun at us through his hilarious characters  – you know you are widely recognised when the writer trusts the general reader to be familiar enough with you to “get” the in-jokes about you. He also painted witches in a positive light with his witch characters always being the heroines and “good guys” of his stories and, best of all, he reminded us in the pagan and witchcraft community that, by seeing ourselves warmly through the eyes of others, we should never take ourselves too seriously.

Sir Terry Pratchett was born Terence David John Pratchett in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. As a child, he was fond of astronomy but was unable to qualify for such studies and, eventually, turned his imagination to science fiction novels and fantasy. He devoured both American and British classics. At the age of 13, Sir Terry published his very first story, called “The Hades Business,” in a school newspaper.

As an adult, he pursued a career in journalism. While working for the Bucks Free Press, Sir Terry wrote and published a number of short stories under the pseudonym “Uncle Jim.” However, it wasn’t until 1971 that he published his first book titled The Carpet People. He followed that up with The Dark Side of the Sun in 1976 and Strata in 1981.

Sir Terry is best known for his Discworld series, which he began in 1983 with the publication of the first book The Color of Magic. This series became so successful that, in 1987, he left his job at Central Electricity Generating Board to become a full time author. The rest, as they say, is history.*

In the early 1990s, as Sir Terry’s popularity reached new heights, the Pagan Federation decided to host its very first indoor conference. Having connected with that community, Sir Terry supported the effort. Vivianne and Chris Crowley recalled, “His talk left us with tears rolling down our faces – tears of mirth. He judged with humour our stunning array of witches competing for the ‘Best Magrat’ competition, impressed by the enthusiasm that we Pagans showed for bringing his characters to life. Evenly-handed, and ahead of his time, he awarded the prizes to two women and a man.”

The Crowleys added that Sir Terry was “officially agnostic” but “was one of the most Pagan-friendly of authors.They said, “He had enough familiarity with the Pagan community to create the kind of jokes that resonate with Pagans everywhere.” Over the years, the Crowleys got to know him better through the fantasy author circuit and found “his humour warmed up in the best possible way those long cold hours hanging around back stage between giving talks.”

More recently, in 2010, the Crowleys joined in Sir Terry’s “lobbying [efforts] at the Conservative Party Conference for the legalisation of assisted suicide.” They noted that his eloquence, sincerity, and authenticity won over many of the legislators.

Sir Terry was also known to have attended other U.K. Pagan events. Author and teacher Christopher Penczak remembers meeting him at Witchfest. He said, “I had not read his books yet, so I really didn’t appreciate the moment.” But Penczak remembers the author as being very friendly and nice to all the presenters at the event.

Penczak eventually did read the novels and said, “I feel like his stories gave me more insight about Witchcraft, the spirit of magick, coven dynamics, responsibility, ego, dealing with the public, humor, and the role of service of the Witch more than most of my occult books. His insights were brilliant.”

2012 [© Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons]

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Sir Terry continued to write as many as 3 novels a year. The Discworld series eventually contained 41 books and a number of related short stories. According to his website, he has sold over 70 million books, translated into 37 languages.

Along with receiving many literary awards, Sir Terry was appointed ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’ for his work. In 2008, he was knighted with a sword that he himself forged. As noted by The Independent, Sir Terry added what he called magical touches to the metal and, then, kept it secret until the event. He was worried about the authorities and was quoted as saying, “It annoys me that knights aren’t allowed to carry their swords…That would be knife crime.”

In 2007, Sir Terry was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s Disease after what was assumed to be a stroke. The Crowleys said, “Terry handled his illness with enormous dignity and courage.” According to the BBC, it was his writing that kept his spirits up and kept him going as his health declined. At least five of the Discworld books were written and published after the diagnoses.

Sir Terry’s death was announced yesterday via Twitter in a style that recalled his work.

AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

— Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015

 
The capital letters recall the way Death, the character, speaks in his novels.
 

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

— Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015

The End.

— Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015


It was reported that he died in his sleep with his cat and his family by his side.

Since the announcement, many Pagans and Heathens have joined the millions of other fans who are now mourning the loss of a great writer and kindred spirit. Ashley Mortimer of the Doreen Valiente Foundation said, “Terry Pratchett proved that the principles of mirth and reverence are perfect partners in paganism, the Craft and indeed wider human culture. His untimely passing is a great sadness to all of us.”

Christopher Penczak said, “I’m very saddened by our loss of Terry Pratchett … While not being a Witchcraft teacher, he was certainly a teacher of Witchcraft, at least of a healthy Witchcraft culture, including the many things I think are important to keep in mind in our practices and community.”

The Crowleys said, “Terry was a true magician, not in the sense of being a practitioner of the Art Magickal, but in his ability to conjure up new worlds, to weave a spell with his words, and beyond the wonderful humour of his writing, to evoke profound ideas that struck chords with the postmodern religious imagination.”

In memory of Sir Terry, people have been posting their favorite quotes.The Doreen Valiente Foundation offered this one:

Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

The Crowleys shared this:

It was a place where witches met. 
Tonight a fire gleamed on the very crest of the hill. Dark figures moved in the flickering light. 
The moon coasted across a lacework of clouds. 
Finally a tall, pointy-hatted figure said, `You mean everyone brought potato salad?

Finally, there is this one:

If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story

What is remembered, lives!

*   *   *

*Note: Biographical data taken from multiple sources, including www.famousauthors.org.

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Life Cycles: What Modern Society Can Learn from Paganism

Thu, 2015-03-12 05:43

“Now that’s what I call magic—seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. It’s sittin’ up all night with some poor old man who’s leavin’ the world, taking away such pain as you can, comfortin’ their terror, seein’ ‘em safely on their way…and then cleanin’ ‘em up, layin’ ‘em out, making ‘em neat for the funeral, and helpin’ the weeping widow strip the bed and wash the sheets—which is, let me tell you, no errand for the fainthearted—and stayin’ up the next night to watch over the coffin before the funeral, and then going home and sitting down for five minutes before some shouting angry man comes bangin’ on your door ‘cuz his wife’s havin’ difficulty givin’ birth to their first child and the midwife’s at her wits’ end and then getting up and fetching your bag and going out again…We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and center of witchcraft, that is. The soul and center!”Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32)

Modern culture has done its best to separate humans from the cycles of life. Once inside our homes we can’t tell if it is January or July, night or day. Our meat comes in tidy packages and we buy asparagus year round. Birth and death happen elsewhere, out of sight.

[Art by Xiaomei23 / Deviant Art / cc. lic]

Pagan culture often seeks to do the opposite, to reconnect humans with the cycles of life. To understand and explore the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and life and death. This isn’t a repudiation of science or comfort, it’s not a step backwards or romanticizing the past. It’s about bringing the best of our ancestors’ cultural values into the modern age to live a more connected and fulfilling life.

The Wild Hunt spoke with several Pagans and Polytheists about the work they do in helping others, Pagan or not, reconnect with the cycles of life.

Birth
While birth is now much safer for American women, they have also lost more of their personal agency. Hospitals can be a birthing factory where women lay on their backs in unfamiliar surroundings. The birth process itself is no longer a Mystery where women experience a deep and profound power. It’s a medical process. While many hospitals are trying to improve the experience and involve the entire family by creating birthing suites, they are unequipped to add back in the power.

Which is why women are once again turning to midwives and giving birth at home, surrounded by family or friends.

A midwife is a person who is trained to give care and advice to women during pregnancy, labor, and the post-birth period. Melanie Moore is an atheist witch and a Certified Professional Midwife in the state of Iowa. She wants to help women regain the mysteries that are experienced during childbirth while also ensuring the health and safety of both mother and child.

“I always loved pregnancy and birth. When I was five and my mother was pregnant with my brother, I wrote and illustrated a pregnancy exercise book. In school reproduction and birth was always fascinating to me,” said Moore.

She said reading Ariadne’s Thread by Shekhinah Mountainwater as a teen also had an impact on wanting to become a midwife. The book uses the Goddess Ariadne as a basis for a women-centered spirituality.

It was during her own second pregnancy when Moore met a midwife and discovered the Traditional Homebirth Midwives of Iowa. After that, she committed to becoming a midwife and giving women birth alternatives.

Hospital births take place in a sterile environment and the birthing mother is given an IV while fetal monitors are attached. The mother is usually confined to bed and isn’t allowed to take in anything other than ice chips. There’s also a limit to the number of family or friends surrounding, usually 2 or three adults. Drugs can also be administered, either for pain or to speed up contractions.

Melanie Moore, background, looks on at a new mother, baby, and family after a birth.

A home birth with a midwife is very different. It can a private and quiet experience or it can be a noisy celebration in a house filled with family and friends. The midwife focuses on helping the mother tolerate the contractions and keeping her comfortable. The mother can walk around, eat or drink. Time isn’t a factor, the birth unfolds on the time schedule nature dictates.

Moore said that birth isn’t a scary mystery you need to pay someone else to do, but if you do pay someone, remember they are working for you. “I know it seems scary to accept that kind of responsibility,” said Moore, but she added that, “You are descended from millions of women that gave birth successfully. You are powerful and strong.” She also said that women should not allow themselves to be talked into an induction, the baby comes when it and the mother’s body is ready.

In Iowa, only Certified Nurse Midwives are licensed to attend births and the majority of them work in hospitals. Moore’s certification, while a accepted in surrounding states, isn’t accepted in Iowa. She, and a group of midwives and other supporters, are working to change that. Women in the group have registered as lobbyists and have worked with Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R) to introduce legislation to define “the terms “midwife” and “midwifery” and states that anyone acting or holding oneself out as a midwife or practicing midwifery shall not have committed a public offense by doing so.”

Moore has been working for 15 years to make midwifery more accessible to women in Iowa and to help women reclaim their power. She said, “I believe in women. I believe women’s strength. I know that midwifery is its own type of magick. Maybe not in a supernatural way, but magick just the same.”

Death
“I have always believed that the moment someone passes over is a sacred moment. A doorway between two worlds and a time of magic and possibility. To be present and help to facilitate that time with beauty and dignity is a sacred trust and an honor.” – Michele Morris

Advertisements for products that claim to help you keep a more youthful appearance are everywhere. Life insurance salespersons take seminars on how to break through clients’ denial that they will eventually die. Older persons are no longer cared for by family and die in their own beds surrounded by loved ones. We send them to facilities and visit occasionally. Then when they die, we send their body off to professionals who stuff them, dress them, and paint them to more closely resemble a living person. Current culture leaves us ill prepared for death and the process of dying. Not for our own and not for our loved ones.

Kris Bradley, who recently completed a course on for death midwives and home funeral guides, said, “We, as a whole, are a very death denying culture. Death is almost a taboo subject – like if we speak about it, we might catch it.”

Similar to birthing midwifes, death midwifes help persons through this transition. They may come to a hospital or assisted care setting or they may come to the home. Death midwifes aren’t new, but the resurgence of death midwifes as a career is.

Rev. H. Byron Ballard is a Priestess of Mother Grove Goddess Temple and has helped the dying and their families for just over 20 years. She said “Just like a midwife at the other portal of life, someone not in the family can do things the family might feel too close to do.” She said that she helps families understand that this process is another rite of passage, and can be natural, participatory, and beautiful.

Michelle Morris started working with the dying while she was a nursing student. She was one of the few students who didn’t mind holding someone’s hand while they took their last breath. Now that she’s also a minister and a counselor, her work with the dying continues at a local hospice with both Pagan and non-Pagan families.

Morris said that Western society in general has no specific death rituals, other than an unofficial but deep seated tradition of avoidance. “People with a terminal diagnosis are often treated as though they are already gone by everyone around them, often including their own family. Because we have no traditions, people often are at a loss as to what they should be doing when they truly want to help,” said Morris. She noted that people will often do nothing rather than possibly do something wrong. She helps provide a framework the dying person and their family can use to say goodbye.

Morris said that, while she doesn’t share her beliefs with the families she’s working with, the fact that, as a Pagan, she’s has a comfortable relationship with death helps create safe place for them to find their comfort, in whatever form that may be.

Rev. Selena Fox presides over a green burial at Circle Sanctuary

Bradley is following a different path and is working to become a death midwife. After volunteering Reiki sessions at a senior center she said that she was touched by how much the seniors enjoyed the sessions. She found out many of the seniors lived alone and the Reiki sessions were probably the only physical contact they had. “This got me thinking about what it would be like for them when their time came. Would they be alone?” wondered Bradley.

Bradley decided she wanted to be a death midwife and created a Kickstarter campaign to fund half the costs for an 88-hour training program for death midwives and home funeral guides. Within just a few days, the campaign was funded and Bradley completed her training in August of 2014.

Bradley said that one of the greatest contributions a death midwife can offer is information and support before the active dying process starts. Bradley added that people can make the process easier on everyone if they get all of their important papers in order, such as living wills, advance directives and medical power of attorneys. They should also create a plan for how they want their death to play out as far as how their spiritual needs should be addressed, and even pre-plan their memorial service and/or funeral.

While many Americans say they wish to die at home, few actually do. The reasons can range from not having someone at home who can care for them, not having family nearby, or confusion about what is the best possible care, or relatives not knowing the person’s wishes and defaulting to hospital care.  Having a death midwife helps simplify these challenges. “Being a person who can take a shift being in the room, giving the dying’s caregiver a much needed respite so they can continue to care for their loved one. [A death midwife] can act as a coordinator to get family and friends involved in care, and at the same time keep a calm, spiritual space for the dying. It’s much easier for a death midwife to tell loud Uncle John he needs to leave the room for a while then it is a family member,” said Bradley.

Bradley said that even Pagans, with their focus on connecting to cycles and their positive view of what happens after death, still fear death when the time comes. “As much as our faith might mean to us and as much as we hold our beliefs to be true, death is still the great unknown.”

She said her biggest comforts on dying is knowing that she has made plans to be buried in a green cemetery in a simple shroud, “I will literally go back to the earth and help the wheel keep turning.”

Her advice to others is that there is no right or wrong way to die, only what’s right for you. She stresses the importance of putting your wishes in writing and making those wishes known to family and friends, “If you aren’t sure where to start, contact a death midwife or a home funeral guide and ask them for advice where to start.”

Rebirth
“The themes of life and death and rebirth are deep in the human psyche. They have been played out in the mythic poetry, pageantry, ritual theater, music, and dance of deep human culture across the globe. So how has modern humanity lost touch with these myths and the important rites of passage that surround them?” – Kari Tauring

The ideas of rebirth, reincarnation, or even an afterlife where you retain your sense of self are no longer as accepted as they appear to have been in the past. Kari Tauring, an author, performer, and Völva, noted that even the dominant religious rebirth story in the US, the rebirth of Jesus, is starting to be being rejected in modern times. Since Christianity supplanted and replaced all other previous rebirth stories and now that tale has also started to lose its appeal, the wider U.S. culture is left with no stories to help us make sense of our own mortality and hopes for rebirth.

“Perhaps that explains the modern fascination with zombies and television vampires,” said Tauring. She added, “I think it is psychologically dangerous to live without a mythic connection to nature and to our ancestors and to the cycles of life. It’s a human need.”

Lynette Reini-Grandell (left) and Kari Tauring (right)

Tauring is using song and dance to bring stories of birth, marriage, death, and rebirth back into modern culture. She, along with Lynette Reini-Grandell, have been performing “Waking the Bear” at a theatre in Minnesota for the public. Those in attendance include those of all, or no, religion.

In the performance Tauring and Reini-Grandell explore the folk songs and stories of Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian, German and American bear lore. Through song, poetry, and dance they first tell the the Finnish story of how the forest goddess created a bear from wool fluff tossed into the waters of the world by the spinner in the sky. Tauring said, “In a way, this is how all life is created, from the dust of the stars. This section of Runo 46 from the Kalevala is so beautiful that I could not help setting it to music and dance.”

In the show, the bear goes into hibernation which is like a little death, and in spring, emerges with a cub. Tauring and Reini-Grandell then present three stories of shape shifting with the bear form, one from the Norwegian people, one from the Mansi people (Tyumen Oblast area of Russia) and one from the Ute people (Colorado into Utah, USA). In the third part of the performance they kill the bear and ritualize its death not as a funeral but as a wedding, which comes from a Finnic tradition. By marrying what they killed, the bear transcends death. Tauring explained, “In some way, we agree to become that which we kill, that which we eat, in the deepest of ways. This is the deepest sense of shape shifting and marriage. We make an agreement with the bear to let it wear our shape as we have worn its shape.”

During the performance, the audience often appears moved while a few appear disturbed or uncomfortable. Talking to one attendee named Angela, she said the experience, “…shook me to my core. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not sure if I feel more comforted or less [about death] but I feel like it’s something I’ve avoided.” Her friend Melissa added that she felt this was something she’s been missing, “This filled in a profound hole I didn’t know I was missing. There has to be something, I don’t know, something more after you die. That can’t be the end.” Both women said they were raised Christian, but now consider themselves atheist or agnostic.

Tauring agrees that her performance may stir up a deep ancestral memory in modern humans. “That’s why it is intense and might make many people uncomfortable. It takes us to a place at once universal and deeply personal, an ancient place where we must experience the emotions of life and death and rebirth and shows us a way to transcend our fears around the inevitable. The new modern society seems to be looking for this, hungering and longing for this. It is my intention to continue providing workshops and performances that feed this deep need.”

Author’s note: This article was written in honor of a very young Heathen child in my local community who has been battling cancer for several years. Sadly, all treatments have failed to halt the spread, and this bright and brave 7 year old boy has only a matter of weeks before he joins his forefathers on the other side.

 

Addendum 3/16/15 10:00 am: We are very sad to hear of the passing of author Terry Pratchett, who was quoted at the beginning of the article. Pratchett was much beloved in the Pagan community because he understood the “root and heart and soul and center of witchcraft.”  We extend our condolences to his family and friends. 

What is remembered, lives.

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Women, Witchcraft and the Struggle Against Abuse

Wed, 2015-03-11 09:18

In the U.S., March is national Women’s History Month, and Sunday was International Women’s Day. Around the world, individuals and organizations celebrated the role and influence of women in society. Pagans and Heathens were among them. There is much to celebrate. In many places, women have come a “long way baby” from the Victorian days of limited opportunity and arranged marriages.

However, this is not the case everywhere. Limited opportunities and crimes against women persist throughout the world, manifesting in many different ways. Last March, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was quoted as saying in an interview with NBC, violence against women is “the worst and most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on Earth.”

[public domain]

According to a recent New York Times article,”35 percent of women worldwide, more than one in three, have experienced physical violence in their lifetime.” In that same article, it is reported that “38 percent of women who are murdered are killed by their partners.”

This past Monday and Tuesday, the U.N. convened the Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. During the two-day session a number of prominent international women spoke about conditions in their countries. Generally, the speakers agreed that the problem is very serious and highly complex. As such, there is not one single solution that will fit every country and every culture.

In the U.N.’s official report, Phumzile Mlabmbo-Ncguka, undersecretary-general for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and executive director of U.N.-Women was described as saying:

We need urgent action and much stronger political commitment.” Human rights were interdependent and indivisible, Mlabmbo-Ncguka said, adding that men must be partners politically and in the home, including as parents. Men and boys were key to dismantling the patriarchy. That meant, among others, saying “no” to early marriages. The bold, brave acts of one Head of State or one student leader could have far-reaching effects. “We must make the economy work for women,” she stressed, adding, “empowering women empowers nations

Unfortunately, some of the most horrific, violent crimes committed against the world’s women are connected to witchcraft. It is often said that the historical European and American witch-hunts were simply organized attacks on women. In contemporary society, this seems to be, at least partly, true. Whether the reasons or motivations are the same would be a project for sociologists and historians. However, it is enough to know that the current witch-hunts and related tragedies are very real, and women are most commonly the victims.

In June 2014, the U.N. released a report opening with the question, “Did you know violence and abuse against elderly women, the world’s fastest growing demographic group, range from sexual violence, property grabbing, financial abuse and increasingly, extreme violence against older women accused of witchcraft?” It continues on to say, “Witchcraft accusations that are used to justify extreme violence against older women are reported in 41 African and Asian countries…”

But none of that is news. Women, specifically older women, have been the primary victims of witchcraft violence for years. However, what is news, is the growing and very recent pressure worldwide to fix the problem.

In Monday’s U.N. Session, Nana Oye Lithur, minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection of Ghana, reported on the positive momentum and strides being made in her own country in an effort to bring about gender quality.The report describes her as saying specifically, “The [Ghana] Ministry had recently closed down one of the country’s ‘witch camps,’ which had held captive a number of women accused of being witches.” The December 2014 closing was marked as an historical event in the fight for women’s rights.

Women in Nepal. [From Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank SB-NP01]

There are efforts being made by local governments and international advocacy organizations to end this tragic cycle, one that is based on a fear, cultural stigmas and gender-bias. Last year, we reported on one of the most recent legislative attempts to curb the witch-related violence. Like others before it, Nepal made illegal all witchcraft accusations and related violence. The South African Pagan Alliance (SAPRA), Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) and other similar advocacy organizations work with International Human Rights groups, the U.N. and local governments to continue pushing for this level of awareness and legal intervention.

Unfortunately, laws don’t necessarily bring an end to the violence. A 57-year-old woman, believed to be a witch, was just found “thrashed” in a village in Nepal. A recent article out of India suggests one of the reasons for continued hunts is a lack of law enforcement education. The article says:

Murders and other serious crimes in the name of witchcraft, sorcery and superstitious practices continue unabated in the State despite more than a year of enactment of Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, 2013, thanks to utter ignorance of its provisions among law enforcers on the ground.

The article adds that India is now working to educate its local police force.

In Africa, Tanzania’s government has recently taken a different approach. This January, it outlawed the actual practice of witchcraft. Over the past several years,Tanzania has seen a marked increased in the number of albino killings caused by so-called “witch doctors,” who propagate fear and superstition. Many locals believe that the limbs of a person with albinism have magical powers. According to a Red Cross report, these “witch doctors” will pay upward of “$75,000 for a complete set of albino limbs.” While this horrific violence is not at all limited to women, it is yet another abuse in a long list. Last year, the Huffington Post featured stories from a number of Tanzania’s albino women and their struggle to survive.

But murder and dismemberment are not the only problems caused by the propagation of witchcraft superstitions. According to a recent BBC report, the U.K. is facing a similar issue with the African Sex Trade industry. The article reads “British courts have found difficulty in bringing African sex-traffickers to justice because a belief in black magic and juju “spells” makes victims afraid to testify.” The women, taken primarily from Nigeria, are made to believe that these “witch doctors” hold powers of them and, as a result, are terrified to fight back or speak out.

The problem here is twofold. There are women, mostly elderly, who are being accused of witchcraft and, consequently, face abuse, confinement and death. Then, there are others, again mostly women, who are being manipulated through fear of witchcraft, into prostitution, a life of solitude, abuse, dismemberment and death. In some cases, the governments have banned witch-hunting and, in others, witchcraft itself.

Unfortunately, the latter legislation causes problems for legitimate Pagans, folk practitioners, or others using magic for purely spiritual purposes, such as WITZAN in Nigeria. Members of SAPRA have been working to reform these laws within their own country of South Africa, while also raising awareness for the problem. March 29 marks the beginning of SAPRA’s annual event called “30 Days of Advocacy Against Witch Hunts.”

The problem rages on with no end in sight, and not just in the countries mentioned above. Equally as troublesome  is that “witchcraft,” even if it’s just in name, is being used as a method to promote gender inequality and to justify the abuse of women and girls.

At this week’s 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was described as saying:

Women continued to suffer disproportionately from the economic crisis, from the impacts of climate change, from the displacement caused by conflict, persecution and other challenges. Extremist groups continued to ‘viciously and systematically attack girls and women…

This work includes the detangling of cultural fears and gender-biases, from superstitions, from would-be “witchcraft,” and from the spiritual practice of magic and Witchcraft.

General Ban Ki-moon then called on the Commission to speed up its efforts, to find workable solutions for these problems and to finally bring about true gender equality and create a world safe for women – all women. He added, “The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential.”

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Mystical Mashup: Sacred Space Joins Forces with Between the Worlds

Tue, 2015-03-10 06:49

HUNT VALLEY, MARYLAND –When at any single Pagan conference with a robust lineup of workshops, panels, and rituals, a participant might find it difficult to choose what to attend and what to pass on. When two conferences join forces, those decisions become, at very least, four times as difficult to make. Such was the experience for 3-400 people who attended the combined Sacred Space and Between the Worlds conference in Maryland this past weekend.

These two events became one this year through a combination of cooperation and astrology. Sacred Space is an annual conference which is held around this time. Between the Worlds — not to be confused with an identically-named Midwest spiritual event — is scheduled astrologically, and like Sacred Space, takes place on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. This year, the stars aligned so that the two conferences would be in competition for attendees, speakers, and even organizers, as they have long had at least one board member in common. Instead of cannibalizing resources, the decision was made to combine the two into one whopper of an experience.

Between the Worlds won’t happen again until 2020, and it’s unlikely to ever overlap with Sacred Space again. The events have some common elements, which made the mashup manageable. Both have highly selective processes for choosing teachers, and require the content to be intermediate to advanced. Between the Worlds has handpicked teachers, while Sacred Space combines invited headliners with a proposal process designed to highlight local talent for a wider audience.

A harsh winter storm delayed many arrivals on Thursday. However, with only a few minor scheduling adjustments, the conference kept humming along. Friday and Saturday, the two full days, started with a plenary session during which a panel discussed a single topic before the bulk of the attendees. Friday’s topic was “alliances with the spirit world.” On Saturday a different panel discussed the nurturing spiritual communities.

Each panel was nearly two hours long, with a combination of debate, insight, and wit that highlighted the different perspectives of the panelists. Listening to Archdruid Kirk Thomas and respected author Diana Paxson debate why Odin seems intent on recruiting followers captured the Friday audience’s attention. Is he gathering fighters for Ragnarok, or trying to forestall it?

Ivo Dominguez, Jr, Michael Smith, and James Welch at the gala

The next morning’s discussion on community was equally as engaging. Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki explained that for all the dysfunction in American Pagan communities, they are far more evolved than what she is familiar with in England, where, “we Brits keep a stiff upper lip,” and don’t see much value in community at all. After identifying herself as the oldest person there, Ashcroft-Nowicki said, “I’m here to learn.”

Just as the days began with a single big session, they ended with the same, but those endings couldn’t have been more different. According to Sacred Space organizer Gwendolyn Reece, both Friday’s main ritual and Saturday’s gala were largely Between the Worlds in origin. Sacred Space does not have a large, main ritual at all, and of the gala, she remarked, “Between the Worlds does that better,” in part, because it costs extra to attend, allowing for live entertainment and plenty of food.

The entertainment came in the form of Tuatha Dea, a band that set the tone by musically calling the quarters and raising the energy in the room to a pitch that was joyous, but not so intense as to be overwhelming. In addition to a deep book of original and lively tunes, this band was able to perform everything from “Whiskey in the Jar” to “White Rabbit” with panache and flair. Their work complemented a silent auction to benefit the New Alexandrian Library, which included an astounding variety of items ranging from original art to gift baskets themed around popular Pagan holidays to ritual jewelry of exquisite beauty.

The main ritual, held Friday night, was a very different kind of energy; one that highlighted the strengths of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. Attendees were encouraged to participate in a preparatory class, during which chants were taught and the layout of the ritual was explained through guided meditation.

The ritual itself began on time, characteristic of an organizational decision to reject “Pagan standard time” out of hand, with the doors being sealed against latecomers. The theme was one of personal transformation as expressed by the “Witch’s Pyramid.” It was built on the astrological significance of the event, which was scheduled during the seventh of a rare series of Pluto-Uranus squares that represent the deep transformation of Pluto coming together with the explosive change represented by Uranus. While much time was spent laying those foundations, when the energy did start flowing, the call to move beyond one’s comfort zone and act for change in the world was unmistakable. By the time the seals upon the ritual gates were opened, this energy could be seen burning in many an eye.

Altars at Sacred Space.

But the choices beyond those big sessions are always difficult. Preparing for possession or oracular work with Diana Paxson? The sorcerer’s tongue or journeying to the phosphorous grove with Christopher Penczak? Deepening understanding of the witch’s pyramid with Ashcroft-Nowicki, or Ivo Dominguez, Jr?

Monika Lonely Coyote tackled the difficult question of differentiating mental illness and spiritual experience in one session, and how to act as a psychopomp for a dying individual in another. There were classes on hexes, breaking curses, alchemy of breath and alchemy of sex. Kirk Thomas offered a class on sacred gifts, which discussed reciprocity with the gods and its relationship to hospitality in ancient cultures ranging from the Greek to the Irish. Byron Ballard’s “Hillfolks Hoodoo” couldn’t have been more different than T. Thorn Coyle’s idea of “Practical Magic.”  However, each teacher brought deep wisdom and displayed a mastery of the craft. Dorothy Morrison offered a class on money magic that was both practical and earthy. In short, when all the choices are beyond “Grounding 101,” every decision is a difficult one to make, an opportunity cost by which one piece of knowledge is gained, and another left behind.

In that way, this idea is similar to a point that Morrison made about magic, and why she does not include “an it harm none” in her spells. She noted that all magic comes at a price.

“If you work a spell to get a job interview, someone else’s resume fell into the trash,” Morrison said. Requiring that a spell harm no one takes away its power, she observed; better to understand that no magic is without consequence. Or, as Coyle put it at one point, “You have to own it.” That’s the kind of lesson taught at this conference: very little in the world is black and white, and the burden of the adept who walks in sacred space is to take responsibility for the many gradations between the worlds.

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