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The Wild Hunt
Updated: 10 hours 55 min ago
Pagan Voices is a spotlight on recent quotes and images from figures within Pagan and Heathen communities. These voices may appear in the burgeoning Pagan media or a mainstream outlet, but all showcase our wisdom, thought processes, expression, and evolution in the public eye. Is there a Pagan voice or visual artist you’d like to see highlighted? Contact us with a link to the story, post, audio, or image.
I care about many things. I love many people, communities, and the Earth. I am passionate about many issues. I lean into the discomfort when I discover something that is wrong in myself, cultures, technologies, religions, and politics so that I can do my part to change what can be changed. This means I live a rich life with bright lights and abysmal darks, and I would not have it any other way. . . . . . . I’ve been heartened by the outpouring of support and the encouraging words about taking time for self-care. I appreciate the support and I’d like to say that my self-care is as much for you as it is about me. — Ivo Dominguez Jr., on self-care in the wake of the Orlando attacks.
We were made for these times. You are the result of generations of ancestors who lived through the terrible times and survived. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Take out your comfort basket. Enjoy beauty. Hold your beloveds close. Drink tea. The struggle will still be here when you come back. Goddess knows, it ain’t showed much sign of disappearing heretofore. — HecateDemeter, “I Will Not Leave You Comfortless.”
The truth is though, that globalism and nativism are mutually exclusive ideas. You cannot preserve the identity of a people’s native heritage, and bind them all together as one giant, unified species. There’s too many mutually exclusive differences between the groups. It would be like trying to fuse Asatru with Islam, when at every turn they differ on absolutely every issue, from how many gods there are to how you treat women, to what is the appropriate way to regain lost honor. — Lucius Svartwulf Helsen on the inherent tension between nativism and globalism.
“A lot of food assistance available is through other religious organizations,” said Rev. Amy J. Castner, a priest in the Druid faith and vice president of Pagans in Need. “A lot of people who are Pagans or not religious don’t feel comfortable receiving help from people who don’t share their religious views. Knowing there’s a place for them to go where their lifestyle is accepted makes people feel more comfortable.” — Amy Castner, quoted in the Lansing State Journal article “Fresh veggies, clothes offered at Pagans in Need food pantry.”
In a sense, polytheism is like art. It is interpretation and expression, and absolutely does not and cannot place emphasis on any single unity. There is no end point for polytheism, or for the multiplicity of the divine. It branches and twists, turns and splinters into a hundred iterations, a thousand views and infinitely more interpretations, all underneath the conception of what it means to be a “god,” many of which exist alongside each other under a wider religious umbrella. That which is conceptualized as a single divinity is ultimately – sometimes intimately – multifarious, producing a range of attributes, qualities, and experiences which can felt differently between people of the same household, let alone what would have constituted the differences between two regional traditions. — The Lettuce Man, “I Call It ‘Musashi Contemplates Caravaggio’.”
This idea that people who are evil or commit evil acts couldn’t possibly be Pagan, it drives me batty. It is not up to us to decide what another person’s religion is. If someone is a practicing Pagan, let’s say a practicing Hellene: they worship the theoi, they practice Hellenic ritual forms, they do what Hellenes are supposed to do. They don’t suddenly become not-Hellene because they commit some act that I and other Hellenes think is evil. — Bekah Evie Bel, “Pagans Aren’t Evil.”
We can solve all the world’s problems, we can stop the violence, once we stop looking at life as the singular and start looking at life as a whole. There was a time back in history when humans worked together in order to survive in this world, sadly that was when our ancestors ventured out of Africa into the harsh unknown.
We can make all these advancements in technology, but we cannot make any advancements within ourselves. That is going to lead us down a path that we will not survive and the ego isn’t going to help us when we are there. With everything you see and hear that is going on in the world, we are on that path right now sprinting to the end. — Bear (CanadianDruid), “Can We End Violence?“
I have a theory that what the religious “nones” may be looking for is not the “religionless church” offered by the Sunday Assembly and Unitarian Universalism, but “churchless religion” — symbol, myth, and ritual, without the moralism, dogmatism, and hierarchy — a kind of “Hinduism for the West.” . . . . I suspect that part of the reason we Pagans have not yet capitalized on the growth of the nones is that people can’t find us . . . . I question whether people can really experience Paganism virtually or by reading a book. — John Halstead, from an essay on eco-shrines.
Although the majority of modern Pagans are not anti-capitalists, there is a fundamental contradiction between the Pagan and capitalist worldviews. The worldview of capitalism is sociopathic; it treats everything and everyone as an object to be used. The worldview of paganism is relational; not only does it not treat people or animals as mere objects, it doesn’t look at anything else as a mere object either. — Christopher Scott Thompson, “What is Pagan Anarchism?“
One of the reasons Pagans (people who practice earth-based spirituality) might not know if a curse is legit or not is because there are groups, like Wicca and some variations of shamanism, and other Pagan traditions, that follow the “harm none” principal. Those groups tend not to use curses or hexes in their spell work at all so they might not study that negative juju enough to know exactly how energetic harm is made. That means they might also not know how to stop a curse, or protect themselves from one, once one has been enacted against them.
Yet even those groups that practice “harm none” know that curses in the Pagan community do exist and either by experience or observation they tend to believe they can cause great harm. Most practitioners of the above-mentioned philosophies greatly fear curses for the mayhem, disease, and destruction they can cause someone. That’s part of the way they shun such teachings. — SunTiger, “What Every Pagan Should Know About Curses.”
There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans and Heathens 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.CHICAGO — Wiccan inmate Gilbert Knowles sued the warden of the Pontiac Correctional Center, located in Pontiac, Illinois, for refusing to allow him to wear his pentacle necklace. According to Appellate Briefs, the facility was concerned that the “star” was gang-related or would promote gang activity. Other sources say the same, reporting that the correction center had banned “all inmates from possessing five- and six-point star symbols” for that reason.
Knowles, who is serving a 52-year sentence in the death of a toddler, sued the warden under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the case was recently heard by the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. The court ruled that Knowles’ religious rights had been violated, and the judge granted a temporary injunction, allowing the inmate to wear his pentacle. The opinion concludes, “His freedom of religion has been gratuitously infringed by the prison. The judgment of the district court is reversed with instructions to grant the preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiff.”
Related: Broadly published an article for its readers concerning Pagan practice in prison. Titled Witch Trials: There Is Nothing Magical About Being a Pagan in Prison, the article details a decade-long religious freedom case in California, and includes an interview with Starhawk.
Religion, Politics and Taking a Stand
- Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) has published an article discussing a recent statement by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. At the Republican National Convention, Trump vowed to work hard to repeal the laws that limit religious organizations from endorsing, supporting and promoting political candidates. He said, “You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits.” In the AU article, writer Simon Brown explains the history of this federal tax code amendment, called the Johnson Amendment, and how Trump is not the only politician actively seeking its removal.. Brown writes, “The issue is currently under consideration in Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives have added a rider to an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that would make it harder for the IRS to enforce the Johnson Amendment.” AU has set up a petition to oppose any change to these tax laws.
- In a landmark move, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) passed a measure that supports the 2015 Paris Climate agreement. According to The Huffington Post, 30,000 members met in Philadelphia at the organization’s annual conference, where the measure was adopted in coordination with the interfaith group Blessed Tomorrow. In a statement, Bishop John White, President, Council of Bishops of the AME Church, said, “Damage to our climate puts the health of children, elderly, and those with chronic illnesses at greater risk and disproportionately impacts African Americans. We believe it is our duty to commit to taking action and promoting solutions that will help make our families and communities healthier and stronger.”
Around the World
- In Guan Yu Park in Jingzhou, China, there now sits a 1,320-ton statue depicting the god of war. Designed by artist Han Meilin, the statue is reportedly 58 metres (190 ft) tall, contains over 4,000 strips of bronze, and has a museum in its base. General Guan Yu is one of the most popular figures in Chinese history. He lived from 162-219 C.E. and was a major character in the 13th-century Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. His popularity has grown over time and, in more recent years, Guan Yu has become a common figure in pop culture. At the same time, Guan Yu is revered as a god. According to one website, “It is said that a shrine for him is in every Hong Kong police station. He is also a patron god of Chinese criminal groups for his bravery and fighting prowess. Business people and shop owners put up shrines in order to gain wealth. He is worshipped as a Daoist god, a Buddhist deity, and by Confucianists.” The new statue was just recently unveiled, and will tower over the city of Jingzhou for many years to come.
- The Huffington Post recently featured an interview with Reverend Yolanda, a “Genderqueer Singer-Songwriter/Interfaith Minister.” In 2003, Reverend Yolanda was awarded the title of “outmusician of the year” by New York City newspaper Gay City News. Huffington Post writer Jed Ryan speaks to her about that award, her work since that point, and how her spirituality informs her music. Reverend Yolanda told Ryan: “At the heart of all spiritual paths is the understanding that we are all one … and that there is a divine life source energy that animates all life on Earth. That energy needs to be respected […] I do not subscribe to any one religion, but I do connect with that universality which is in all paths. I love paganism and Wicca and goddess-based spirituality which really honors the Earth.”
- It was announced last week that the Jim Henson Company would be producing a film adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. Award-winning writer and Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna Pratchett will be creating the screen adaptation. For those who aren’t familiar with the work, “The Wee Free Men is the first in a series of Discworld novels starring the young witch Tiffany Aching. A nightmarish danger threatens from the other side of reality. Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, the young witch-to-be must defend her home against the monsters of Fairyland.” The Jim Henson Company will serve as the production company, with Pratchett, backed by her company Narrativia, serving as one of the executive producers. Filming will begin in 2016. No release date has been announced.
- Did you know there is a secret world in Tumblr? And it’s filled with Witches. MIC has published an article exploring Tumblr’s teen Witch culture, including several interviews on coven activity and practice.
- Coming soon to a computer screen near you will be the new webseries Brujos. Written by New York University student Ricardo Gamboa, and directed by both Gamboa and Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke, Brujos will follow the story of “four gay Latino grad students who are witches” as they battle witch hunters. Gamboa writes, “Supernatural has double meaning as these characters access their magic to fight evil and are also depicted struggling to love themselves and combating oppressions like poverty, gentrification, police, sexual trauma…” The show is in production now and will be available in winter 2017. Here is a preview.
All years are full of death, just as they are full of life. This year, however, seems particularly violent. Admittedly, this dark feeling is encouraged by the mainstream media, the alternative media, and social media. Even with that caveat, the past month has seen a heartbreaking tide of killing. Between June 12 and July 22, we collectively witnessed over 150 violent deaths: the Orlando nightclub shooting, the Dallas and Baton Rouge police shootings, the Nice and Munich attacks, and the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Of course, there were many, many other killings in the United States and around the world, but these are the ones that have dominated our national discussion. During the same period, more than 80 people were murdered here in Chicago. Although repeatedly referenced in arguments and memes, the names of the Chicago dead go unspoken as they are used in politicized one-upmanship. Even as we change our Facebook profile images to show solidarity with victims of one of the tragedies obsessively covered by the mass media, mass murders in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere continue to go unmentioned. Such are the workings of our collective consciousness.
I unequivocally condemn every one of these killings. They are all acts of terror and horror, and people of conscience should be mortified by each of these awful acts of violence. Depending on our politics, we blame some victims and lionize others, allowing our prejudices to parse which victims are more deserving of being honored. It is time to move beyond such narrow perspectives and recognize that each life snuffed out is an equal tragedy.The deceased themselves are no longer able to care what ideology or mental state lead to their death. Dead is dead. The question for the rest of us is whether we can find a response better than blaming entire religions, professions, races, or movements. Can we do something more productive than increasing the level of hate?
The time has come for those of us who practice a form of Ásatrú or Heathenry to ask what positive actions we can take in such a charged climate.
For many Heathens in the United States, a cornerstone of worldview is the declaration that “we are our deeds.” If this is to be more than a slogan, we should treat the killers in each of the tragedies equally and hold them accountable for their actions. Rather than focusing on the dead who can no longer speak for themselves, we can demand that the perpetrators be put on public trial and face a lawful reckoning. We can act like the Heathens of old, and insist on bringing the killers before the modern-day equivalents of the ancient Thing, the assembly where public judgments were rendered.
If we are our deeds, let us hold the doer of the deed publicly accountable rather than declaring him innocent without indictment or giving him the martyrdom he seeks by executing him in the street. We often hear the refrain that the innocent have nothing to fear from the police. If that is so, then any officer who kills a citizen in the line of duty should have nothing to fear from a jury of citizens and should volunteer to be put on trial instead of asking his union to prevent legal proceedings. Rather than killing a mass killer on the spot or blowing up a shooter with a robot, let the professionals we employ with our tax dollars use their training to capture and bring killers to account.
Heathens often point to academic definitions that tag historical polytheism as “world-affirming” — in contrast to traditional Christianity, which is asserted to be “world-denying.” Are modern Heathens truly “world-affirming?” To be so means that we are active in the world, that we have a place in this world’s flow of events. Many of us are attracted to the history, legends, and sagas of the ancient Germanic tribes and peoples because of their wide-ranging travels and the determined spirit that led them to play major roles in the timelines of multiple world cultures and civilizations. If we consider ourselves the spiritual descendants of the ancient Heathens, how do we make our mark on the world of today? How do we involve ourselves in the great debates of the issues of our own time?Some Heathens insist that they are only interested in their own innangarð, focusing exclusively on the “inner yard” of their closest family and friends. As in the distant past, today the outside world forces itself into the inner one. Family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community are targeted for hate crimes by both Islamic extremists and those whose personal issues lead them to strike out in extreme acts of public violence. Our Black loved ones are disproportionately targeted by police officers who break their own rules of conduct. Right-acting police officers in our communities are gunned down, and their killers –- in both Dallas and Baton Rouge –- are damaged veterans of our nation’s military.
If we turn our backs on the world and pretend that nothing affects us or those we love, honoring the deeds of our literal and aspirational ancestors while performing blót and symbel, how are we different from Sunday Christians who only turn their thoughts to Christ while sitting in church pews?
If we truly believe that we are connected in a web of wyrd, we must acknowledge the length of the threads that bind us all. We are affected by the wyrd of the police officer shot by a sniper and by that of the unarmed Black man shot by a police officer. We are connected to the children driven down in Nice and to the club-goers massacred in Orlando. Rather than fanning the flames of division, can we agree that all who commit these acts should be held accountable in courts of law, rather than crucified in the court of public opinion or gunned down in primitive street justice?
By putting the perpetrators on trial, we can distinguish between the lone gunman and the agent, between the disturbed and the driven. Maybe this can prevent us from tarring an entire community with the deeds of one violent person. By refusing to even indict officers who shoot unarmed Black children, we encourage conspiracy theories suggesting all police departments are filled with white supremacists. By executing mass shooters in the street rather than prosecuting them, we enable the hateful to draw connections to racial, ethnic, and religious communities where there may be none.
As members of a much-misunderstood minority religion, these issues are of primary concern to us. The targeting of specific groups and the slandering of their reputation is something with which we can deeply empathize. As individual Heathens, we are often tarred with the deeds of the most extreme who claim a connection to our tradition, and even the deeds of those who are only connected to our religion by unprofessional journalists who refuse to perform due diligence.
Shortly after the shooting of the Dallas police officers, The Huffington Post accused one of the victims of being a white supremacist and connected him to Ásatrú – even while acknowledging that he was a Christian. The accusation was based solely on the “research” of “a band of international internet sleuths;” in actuality, on a meme and a blog post by “Johnny Islamabad.”
Quoting the same old quotes from the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center that are trotted out every time a Thor’s hammer is mentioned by the press, The Huffington Post states that “Asatrú” symbols are not “inherently racist” while still insisting that “Asatrú beliefs appeal to white supremacists.” No parallel assertion is made for the appeal of the officer’s Baptist beliefs to violent racists.When practitioners of Ásatrú or Heathenry complain to writers and editors about this sort of meme-based and poorly sourced journalism, their concerns are laughed off or ignored. For Heathens who neither deny their religious beliefs publicly nor cover them with assumed Icelandic-styled pseudonyms, articles like this have serious consequences: no matter how derivative or poorly written they are. In our private and professional lives, we are faced with people who only know of our religion through this sort of journalism. They assume that we share views of the most extreme fringe, or they are at least suspicious that we harbor unsavory notions.
We can pretend that this doesn’t matter, or that we are “tough guys” who care little for the opinions of others. However, these types of media-driven assumptions can have serious repercussions that affect our ability to earn a living or make us targets for various stripes of bigot.
In such a climate, how can we not support others who are suffering the same slanders? We can say that we do not stand up for Black lives, because we are not Black. But when they come for us, who will be left to speak for us? If we don’t want our own rights taken away, we must stand up for the rights of others.
We often speak of the ancient Heathens who faced violent conversion from overbearing rulers in Scandinavia and continental Europe. We puff out our chests and fantasize about how we would have acted if we lived then. We place great emphasis on the keeping of oaths. Shouldn’t we stand today against the oath-breakers among the police who abuse their power to terrorize, torture, and kill our fellow citizens? Shouldn’t we stand with the honorable members of the police departments, the Muslim community, the Black community, and the LGBTQ+ community against those in every community -– including our own -– who would harm us all?
There is much that we can do. Heathens of positive intent can push back against horrifying acts of violence, engage with the larger world, take part in the dialogue of our times, and help Heathens themselves overcome the slander of our own tradition. This is a question of individual conscience and local community initiative, but there are many actions that we all can take.
Volunteer and vote for candidates who stand against hate aimed at any community. Openly challenge friends and family (online and in real life) who promote prejudice. Contact the media and push back against biased reporting. Call your representatives and tell them you want them to fight against hate. Get to know your local police officers and support the ones who publicly speak out. Support minority communities in your area and take part in their protests. Join interfaith organizations. Work to make your own Heathen group welcoming to practitioners from all generations, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities.
Or, you can welcome the current climate of hate, deny the world, draw lines of separation between people, and retreat into a monochrome practice that excludes anyone who isn’t exactly like you. But then you must ask what your deeds make you.
Every community has common stories, images, histories, and practices that help to shape and define a narrative. This very narrative can serve as a thread of culture and togetherness among the community, yet it can also serve as a gatekeeper that restricts change or expansion. This intricate dance exists within every group, society, and even within modern Paganism and Polytheist communities.Shared narratives help to define what becomes the status quo, even among smaller subset groups and cultures. The default beliefs and practices often shape how we relate with one another, what becomes acceptable, and what is expected within a given space, community or interaction. Not everyone is fond of pushing against the boundaries of the status quo, it often rubs against our understanding of the world, and it challenges our relationship with change, empathy and cultural sensitivity.
In his piece titled Changing Stories: Using narrative to shift societal values, Jonathan Dawson speaks to the power of the narrative. He writes:
There has, in recent years, been a growing recognition of the power of story to frame how we understand the world around us and our place within it. By ‘story’ in this context, I refer to the grand societal narratives, those clusters of beliefs and cultural norms that give shape and meaning to the human cultures within which we live. In general, these stories are so deeply rooted and so thoroughly embedded within a society’s language, behavior patterns and rituals as to be all but imperceptible. They constitute the bedrock of beliefs that are widely, if generally unconsciously, accepted to be universally true, even though they tend in fact to represent a distinct break with the dominant societal stories of previous epochs.
How does the current narrative within our community support us, and how does it also limit our ability to see beyond the walls we use to contain us? Who is brought in and who is left out in our cultural narratives? Do our narratives keep us stuck and without the ability to grow magically or spiritually? Questions like this often open the doors for dialogue that can lead to an increased awareness and understanding of the way that our community engages internally, and within the world.
Understanding that challenging our narratives can lead to renewed possibilities and a deeper reflection of the many nuances within community can bring about a lot of personal and societal growth. This very concept is not a new one, and there are many people within the modern Pagan and Polytheistic communities, who are doing pushing against the many narratives that often go unchallenged.
This is critical and valuable work.
I reached out in three different directions to explore the radical and often difficult work of deconstructing the overculture of the Pagan community. There are so many depictions of the challenger’s work — too many to capture in any one piece. This notion leads me to consider the value of this as an ongoing discussion, which looks at the many ways that this work is being done by people within our community today.
For this piece I reached out to Lasara Firefox Allen, the Order of the Black Madonna, and the High Priestess Clio Ajana, to discuss how their work challenges the very narratives that help to shape our shared story.
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Lasara, author and spiritual coach, is not new to Goddess’ work. Her latest book, Jailbreaking the Goddess: A Radical Revisioning of Feminist Spirituality, has generated some discussion that challenges the very narrative of the way that we view, engage, and represent the Goddess.
Crystal Blanton: Your most recent work in Jailbreaking the Goddess approaches the Goddess in a radically different way than many previously accepted narratives within modern Paganism. What motivated you to approach the many forms of the Goddess within the framework that you did?
Lasara Firefox Allen: Coming from a strong feminist, anarchist, and somewhat anti-capitalist frame, I experienced the threefold model as both limiting and delegitimizing, in a sense. As women we have been told that our bodies are not our own. The threefold model, being based in biology, is rooted in our utility and productivity.
In addition, the strict binary, and how the threefold model is in a sense responsive to that, removes our agency.
I am a great believer in my politics and my spiritual systems lining up. I didn’t feel that alignment with the threefold model.
The fivefold model that I put forth in Jailbreaking the Goddess is fluid, flexible, self-defining, and offers the group for women to truly stand fully in our power, unto ourselves. Not merely as producers, not only as mother-in-potentia, but as whole and holy beings that are complete at every stage.
CB: The maiden, mother, crone archetypes often highlighted within modern Pagan circles have brought about dialogue of limiting the myriad of faces of the Goddess. This has been challenging for many women who do not see themselves within the faces of a fertility based system. How does your work challenge this narrative?LFA: The fivefold model, and the work of Jailbreaking the Goddess in total, recognizes the divine feminal in all. And it recognizes our process of creativity not singularly as the power of motherhood, but recognizes the divine power in all the ways we create, design, divine, play, love, destroy, teach, craft, compose, sing, dance, fuck, cry, cocreate, collaborate, weave, reap, plant, burn. It also acknowledges the child as a divine being – again, whole and holy unto Herself. And the Old woman.
The five faces are Femella, Potens, Creatrix, Spaientia, and Antiqua. The model can be viewed in the linear, but also has nonlinear application. We may exist in more than one of her faces at a time. We may experience ourselves in Potens in a new interest, while embodying Sapientia in our chosen vocation. We may experience both Femella and Antiqua in us as we sit with a dying parent.
The flexibility of this model really speaks to people – most of us don’t experience life progression in a strictly linear manner.
Many say that the threefold for them is metaphor – that motherhood can really be any kind of creation. Well, I think there is a great deal of value to be found in stepping into models that mean what we believe. I feel that the fivefold model offers this to those of us who have net felt seen or honored in the threefold model.
CB: How does challenging the narrative within your work enhance your personal spiritual path, and how does it support a change in the status quo of our spiritual community?
LFA: I believe it is time for us all to ask, “Is my spiritual system in integrity with my personal beliefs?” And if not, let’s create and recreate it in greater alignment. Does your spiritual system speak of power in a way consistent with your heart? Does it address matters of importance? Does your system allow you to align your personal values, spiritual values, and your acts in the world?
We have been making excuses for outmoded beliefs for too long. you see it in most faiths. Here’s the deal: we don’t need to settle for the inconsistencies.
Throughout Jailbreaking the Goddess I offer tools to create greater alignment. My hope is that each person who reads the book will come out of the experience with a sense of alignment that allows for grace, love, and power in her path.
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The Order of the Black Madonna has a radically different approach to Pagan space. The last two years of public ritual at PantheaCon have shown a diverse audience with very different concepts of Paganism, coming together to share devotion with the Sisters of the Order of the Black Madonna. While the order originated in the Bay Area, it has since grown to having members in all different areas of the United States.There are answers from different people within the Order that show many commonalities and some differences in the diversity of thought. This alone challenges the idea of a static narrative.
Crystal Blanton: How does the Order challenge common narratives in Neo Paganism around inclusivity, gender, and devotion?
Sr Marie Courage: The Order of the Black Madonna was established to be a radically inclusive, feminized, social justice-oriented working group for people from all backgrounds to connect with the Dark Mothers in personally-relevant practices, to all experience the essential-but-not-essentialist meaning of spiritual sisterhood, and to make room for culturally-diverse ritual activities and discussions relevant to Goddess spirituality and peace through justice. Our workings in the name of the Dark Mothers are by and for the benefit of everyone.
Sister C: Most Pagans believe they’re inclusive and they wouldn’t intentionally discriminate against racial, ethnic or sexual minorities, or people who have a disability. But being inclusive is more than thinking you’re inclusive and saying you’re inclusive. Just as Paganism isn’t the norm, inclusivity is not the norm either. We have to continually educate ourselves, challenge ourselves, and actively work towards building inclusivity into our spaces.
Tradition is valuable, but traditions can also be oppressive. Pagans leave Christianity because of its patriarchal traditions. Why uphold Pagan traditions that are equally patriarchal and oppressive? The Order of the Black Madonna challenges male supremacy. It challenges White supremacy. It challenges Christian supremacy. We are racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse. We use inclusive language. We make space for members to use our own symbols and ceremonies. If Pagan groups want to be more inclusive, they should examine their theologies and practices.
Soeur Marie Verité: The Order of the Black Madonna challenges its members and ritual participants to see differences, not to ignore them; to acknowledge how our differences make us great as a culture and a society, and how celebrating differences and honoring the experiences and voices of those who are different from ourselves brings even greater strength to the community as a whole.
We do not exclude anyone based on race, gender expression or lack of gender expression, paths of devotion, or sexual preference; we emphasize and prioritize a culture of respect and consent; and we make space to allow all voices to be heard, especially the voices of marginalized groups who experience blockage, silencing, and exclusion elsewhere. We have created public rituals naming and honoring those who have been murdered by the dominant culture simply for being different; we have stood up together in public to call attention to these events and the systemic destruction of people of color, to say as loudly as we can, “We stand for unity and respect for all, especially the most vulnerable among us, because that’s what She would do, who is Mother of All.”
CB: The Order of the Black Madonna also includes many differing cultural expressions and a radical inclusion of diversity in its shared spaces. How does the Order navigate such shared space while leaving room for the complexity of varying cultural expressions without prioritizing dominant culture?
Sr Marie Courage: In the Order of the Black Madonna, because our members are culturally and ethnically diverse, we align our rituals and workings with some of these basic common denominators, and then invite each member to bring relevant personal practices of their own to the table. In any given ritual, we might involve a multiplicity of languages, cultural concepts, and activities, each represented by a member of the Order who is genuinely connected deeply to what they have brought either by blood or lengthy study. In this way, rather than conforming to a single common belief system, or appropriating belief systems with which we are unfamiliar, we can include numerous different belief systems with respect.
Sister Maria Socorro: The Order’s main priority is to make the world a more just place for those that have been trampled on by the dominant culture, so following that nature we would never prioritize dominant culture. We aim to hold a space that is sacred and all inclusive while not encroaching on cultural appropriation.
CB: Centering devotion for the infinite Blackness brings about many examples of challenging the framework of modern Paganism. How can the devotional space of the Black Madonna expand the (too often) Eurocentric narrative of deity within Pagan practices?
Sr Marie Courage: One of my favorite prayers found in modern Paganism is the Charge of the Star Goddess. I feel deeply the connection in my heart when I say the words, “I am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars.” However, the dominant narrative in the west is about Good Versus Bad, Light Versus Dark. So, although lots of Pagan groups do their work to explain that in Paganism, Dark is not seen as equivalent to Bad, there is nonetheless a really strong paradigm we are battling from the overculture.
The Order of the Black Madonna shifts our focus entirely away from the Eurocentric Light=Good, Dark=Bad paradigm by centering Darkness, specifically Blackness, as the Original Goodness, provider of all possible solutions to our own and society’s current problems, infinite in both compassion and capacity for creating transformation. This has scientific, mythic, and sympathetic implications.
Scientifically, The Black Madonna is the Blackness of space, the generative void beyond the sun, moon, and stars from which all arises and into which all dissolves. Mythically, she is the Black Earth which births us and shapes our flesh, and she is the dark space of creative power at the center of each being. Sympathetically, in the view of the Order, the Black Madonna is each and every woman of color, and we specifically make the effort to honor the rights, needs, and accomplishments of women of color in our ritual and service works.
Sister Maria Socorro: The Order aims to open the eyes of Pagans who have only followed Eurocentric paths, we create a space that is magically straightforward and understandable so that people can comprehend that even if they’re not POC they can still respect, adore, and access the Blackness that is ultimately the source of us all.
Soeur Marie Verité: The Order of the Black Madonna worships the Great Dark Mother at the center of all, in all Her enormous variety and forms that include but also range far beyond the boundaries of Europe. Our members currently worship Her in Her manifestations as a Buddhist goddess, a West African goddess, a Norse shamanic giantess, and the Catholic Theotokos and patron Saint of Poland, Mexican Holy Mother of the Dead, and Notre Dame de Sous-Terre.
We welcome and cherish Her priestesses who feel called to honor and worship Her within their indigenous traditions, and we welcome and respect all matriarchal expressions of deity as they appear in Pagan and non-Pagan practice. Presenting a vision of Her that is clearly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-layered, multi-storied, and multi-Ancestral, yet all functioning together in a harmonious dance to celebrate Her power and love, has and will hopefully continue to demonstrate in Pagan spaces that the Eurocentricity of too much modern Paganism is leaving out an enormous pathway of connection, understanding, and devotion that no longer needs to be.
Soeur Marie Intégrité: Devotional practice to the Black Madonna challenges the common Eurocentric deities within pagan practices: because she is the Mother of All, and images of the Black Madonna can be found in most cultures going back through history, I think that pagans can connect to a cultural representation of the Black Madonna that resonates with them.
Sister LH: One pernicious iteration of systemic racism lurks in the way black and dark are framed in the occult and New Age, that position darkness/blackness as inherently negative (ugly, violent, transgressive, etc). We talk about Black vs white magic, we praise the light and devalue darkness. At best, and I have heard this from all kinds of witches and have been shocked each time i do, the Dark is something which we must accept, to balance the goodness and light. This framing itself shows how deeply embedded this bias is rooted, in language, so deep that white magickians who absolutely consider themselves not racists, can perpetuate this really destructive polar binary hegemony without knowing it.
Sister LMR: One of my favorite prayers is the Charge of the Dark Goddess. One of the most moving passages there for me is “when you gaze into the mirrored abyss, I am there”. The New Age fear and negation of all things dark shows up in our mundane lives as well. Darkness and blackness is feared in our society, and people are dying due to this fear. When we do not actively acknowledge our shadow, it begins to run the show. Confronting our wounds, our prejudices, our privileges is essential to our growth as individuals, to the Order as a whole, and to society at large. Knowing that She is there in the deep blackness, that She is that deep blackness, makes it possible for us to explore the side of our psyche that is often dismissed and discounted.
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As a Black woman that is a High Priestess of a Hellenic tradition, Clio Ajana embodies the very spirit of challenging the common narrative of the Eurocentric framework within Pagan leadership.
Crystal Blanton: How do you feel that being your whole self within Pagan leadership brings a newness that expands previous limitations in our community culture?
Clio Anja: As a Seeker in 2004, I saw few persons of color, maybe five in my first year or so. I did not think about leadership as I found only one person who was in a leadership position, and that was after two years of active involvement in the community. I felt then, and on occasion now, as though I was the “near-invisible” person who might not be the traditional “face” of a typical Pagan.
I am a lesbian and in a tradition that is very pro-LGBTQIA oriented. When I first came to the community, I got the sense that I would have to hide or compromise my sexuality (since I could not hide my skin color) in order to fit in with any particular group. Unfortunately, previous limitations in our community culture have included those who are LGBTQIA, less physically able, geographically-challenged, non-white, or just not practicing according one’s culture of origin. If I see someone now, my personal goal is to encourage folks to embrace the tradition or path of their choice, regardless of perceived limitations in larger Paganism. Being my whole self means that if someone like me were to come along now, in 2016, that person would feel more comfortable knowing that there is a place at the table.
Now, I can lead ritual, teach classes, give back to the community through public discussions or working with those who confined in some way. Visibly, every time I show up to give a talk or to act as a high priestess, there is both surprise and gradual acceptance that a large, black woman is embracing Modern Paganism with such fervor.
The more Pagans see others who do not fit the image of a white female or male practitioner of traditional Wicca, which remains the more commonly-advertised narrative, the more they are seeing that Modern Paganism is moving away from stereotypes that have restricted or even repelled those who might consider practicing or joining a religion under the Pagan umbrella. Being my whole self means that others who are coming along will see that yes, you can embrace your culture while being a Pagan leader.
CB: How do you feel your spiritual and community work stretches our common expectation of what the average practitioner within Modern Paganism looks is like?”
CA: Again, it comes to appearance and the expectation that if you are X, you will follow Y tradition; if you are a Pagan, you must look like A, dress like B, and engage in activities C, D, and E. Through leading and appearing at public ritual, I am a clear statement that not all average practitioners are white, Eurocentric, and from a certain background. I also have done community work where I was very well received, but tested at first for skills.
Early on, I was a participant and leader at rituals where someone has walked past me to one of my fellow practitioners to ask questions, even though I was clearly a part of the ritual. I’ve also been in spaces where the presumption was that I only practiced African tradition, since I am black. Over the years, by doing the work, others see that those who identify as practitioner are more than just those who are hiding in the shadows. We are open, we are out, and we render service to let others know that they are welcome.
In a few decades, I sincerely hope that the common expectation is that the “average” practitioner has no stereotypical appearance or particular path. We need those who are willing to serve as chaplains, as clergy, for the community at large. We won’t get them if our expectation remain small.
CB: How do you feel that challenging the narrative empowers people magically and spiritually?”
CA: The narrative can only be changed when those who don’t fit the “norm” are willing to stand up and be counted. Magically, we grow as individuals and as a community when all who are within dig deep to practice the traditions we are fighting so hard to keep and to maintain. Our spirituality grows from sharing with others, interacting with public ritual and in the circles, groves, blots, and rituals that Pagans maintain throughout the year.
Challenging the narrative permits a larger use of cultural background to broaden the horizon of what can be done regardless of skin color. As persons of color, we draw from the ancestors, from a variety of traditions, and a core of strength. I like to think of it as a residue left from how my ancestors were treated – to survive, we had to have strength. As a practitioner of color, regardless of tradition practiced, I feel all gain empowerment with the gods and in religious devotion.
Magic, Witchcraft, Conjure and Rootwork has always been a way that we privately and collectively challenge the status quo. Embracing and working from a different perspective than the mainstream religious framework has helped to shape the common narrative of Modern Paganism. The story of any community can be a very powerful thing, contributing to the ways that we create, interpret, inherit and apply our spirituality within our lives.
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While a cultural foundation can be created on ideals that challenge acceptable greater societal norms, challenging those very structures can open up the many areas of growth and opportunities. When communities become more invested in ideals that reinforce comfort than pushing against those stories as a means to explore our understanding, we limit our ability to grow beyond the boxes we create.
People are doing amazing work to challenge and reconstruct some of the narratives of our modern Pagan status quo. Pushing against the walls of our static stories can breed possibilities and great spiritual opportunities.
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This column was made possible by the generous support of the members of Come As You Are (CAYA) Coven, an eclectic, open, drop-in Pagan community in the San Francisco Bay Area.
BARRIE, Ont. – Organizers of PaganFest, an annual event established in 2008, announced the winners of the Canadian Pagan Hero Awards last weekend. PaganFest, along with S.E.E.D Fest and Muse Fest, are organized by the registered non-profit organization Canadian Pagan Spiritualists. The three festivals are hosted on seven acres of land owned by festival host and sponsor Earth and Sky Connection, a metaphysical medicine retail store.
For this years event, organizer Tamare White-Wolf decided to hold the awards as a way to fight back against the negativity that she has been witnessing. In an email exchange with The Wild Hunt, White-Wolf described her inspiration. She said:
Honestly, what motivated this was our sick society’s way of finding flaw in others. We need to stop spreading gossip, nick picking, over analyzing, being overly critical and shoving our expectations and hidden agendas onto others. We have overall allowed ourselves to align with some very negative mean spirited ways.
As Pagans who expect others to not judge them, to allow space for uniqueness, for differences of opinion, we expect or at the very least want to be accepted as we are. We don’t want to be defined, we don’t want to have to align with what doesn’t feel right … Yet I have witnessed them/us do exactly what we have been fighting against, the very thing we stand in our truth firmly about. They/we are guilty of it. (This) has to change. I hashtagged #SpreadGoodness instead of saying stop your gossiping and constant hypocrisy. I was inspired to take a proactive and positive approach to help turn the wheel.
Community members were encouraged to nominate individuals who they felt stood out as a “hero.” All nominees received a Nomination Award, and a thank you gift, for their “dedication to the old ways and persistent will to help others.” The gifts, were donated by local community members, and the display table holding them was “breathtaking to see,” according to White-Wolf.
The nominees were divided into three categories:
- Super Heroes: These are the people serving as police officers, nurses or doctors, volunteers, and any others who selflessly serve the community for the benefit of others.
- Honour Roll: These are people who have publicly advocated for the community and given freely of their time and energy teaching Pagan ways. They have have volunteered their time for a spiritual cause.
- Pagan Performing Artists: These are members of the community who utilize the Muses to portray their personal love and beliefs regarding the earth and the old ways.
The response was overwhelming, as almost sixty nominations came pouring in. Instead of voting to decide which of the nominees would receive the awards, community members at PaganFest decided instead to pull names from a hat, as it was proving to be difficult to choose between so many dedicated and worthy candidates.
The winners were announced from the stage by White-Wolf, with assistance from a one-year-old girl, who toddled up to hug her as she was announcing the nominees.
White-Wolf explained why she feels that it is so important to acknowledge the “Heroes” in Pagan communities:
I think there are so many unsung Heroes, we need to acknowledge before they are dead. Society seldom acknowledges it’s Heroes. I see the bigger picture – just imagine the inspiration infused when someone has been honoured and appreciated while they still live and breathe. That fuel may source a revolutionary discovery or heal a nation or drive a message home that changes the world for better, forever! We as a society need to change our ways. This is my little secret plan to heal the world of Pagans. These awards, I hope, will helpKim Morgan, a youth services officer, ordained minister and Pagan priestess, took home the award for “Super Hero.” She was surprised to be recognized in this way for her work. She said:
Wow! Thanks to Tamare for starting this award. I was amazed and honored that I’d been nominated. I’m even more humbled to have been selected as a hero. I do what I do to give back to the community and to honor the memory of a great woman who was my coven sister, Dana Rondeau. I’m so humbled that I was chosen and thank all the people that voted for me. I also challenge everyone to be the change in the world you want to see.
The winner in the Honour Roll category was Laurie Benson, a Green Witch who has shared her talents as an herbalist, presenting workshops and herb walks at festivals and events far and wide:
I am certainly honoured and very surprised about being nominated and then actually winning the Honour Roll of “Canadian Pagan Heroes” out of 60 fabulous nominations. I have been around the festivals of Ontario for over 30 years (and Starwood when it was in New York) and have volunteered and been on staff at all of them, so I guess a lot of people know me!
This past weekend I was at my own festival, “Wild Wisdom Weekend” where ideas are passed from the older generations to the younger ones, so couldn’t attend Paganfest. I will get there soon though, as well as some of the other gatherings that are held there and are growing up around the province. My children were brought up at festivals and are now on staff, as well – pass it on!
The Pagan Performing Artist award went to Joshua Doerksen, a music producer, composer and performer from Toronto. Doerksen has created many original and heartfelt musical experiences, which he freely shares, far and wide. He could not be reached for comment at press time.In addition to the Canadian Pagan Heroes awards, PaganFest also featured camping, workshops, music, rituals, vending and a potluck feast. The keynote speaker was herbalist and wise-woman Susun Weed, and the featured stage show was a concert by local favourites and Canada’s hottest Pagan music export, the Dragon Ritual Drummers. Witchdoctor Utu and members of the Dragon Ritual Drummers also hosted a Voodoo ceremony for festival goers on the Friday night.
Despite being called the “Canadian Pagan Hero Awards,” nominees only represented the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Organizers hope to reach farther, next time. They have yet to determine if the awards will become an annual part of the festival, but White-Wolf said that they are considering holding them every three years, so as not to saturate people, and to allow for up-and-coming heroes to be known.
PENSACOLA, Fla. — Last week, religious rights activist David Suhor delivered an invocation before the Pensacola city council. It wasn’t the first time that he had successfully lobbied for the right to give an opening prayer before a local governmental body. However, doing so as a member of The Satanic Temple resulted in much more attention than when Suhor offered a specifically Pagan prayer before the Escambia County commission in 2014. While only one commissioner left the room during the 2014 prayer, his recent appearance before the city council was greeted by dozens of Christians seeking to drown him out.
When Suhor rose to deliver the invocation, dressed in a black robe with a hood partially obscuring his face, many of the attendees rose along with him. It was not their intention, however, to join their voices in with his Satanic prayer. They stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer, while some of their number brandished crosses and apparently sought to cast out demons. After the protesters began their third recitation of the Christian prayer, council president Charles Bare was forced to order the room cleared.The decision was faced with objections by people who knew that Suhor himself had recited his own prayer during the delivery of the invocation at the previous meeting, which had been called to specifically discuss whether prayers should be replaced with moments of silence. The first twelve minutes of the official video show the entire series of events as they unfolded, including how the fervor spilled over into the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
“My approach in the beginning was to get invocations dropped” from the meetings, Suhor told The Wild Hunt, but those efforts led to no changes. Now, he said, “I am demanding radical inclusion.”
That shift was in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v Galloway, which rather than eliminating prayers from public meetings, required that members of all religions be given the opportunity. In addition to the prayer he offered before the county commissioners meeting, he has also tried to get on the agenda of the Escambia County School Board and the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, but was unsuccessful.
According to Suhor, “We meet all the requirements of all the boards, which are none.” He also noted that, because they are not legislative bodies, neither the school nor utility board is allowed to include prayer under the Galloway decision.
Suhor said that he still identifies as Pagan despite having joined The Satanic Temple (TST), and doesn’t find anything contradictory about that fact. He also continues to use the term “agnostic” to describe himself, but does not consider himself an atheist.
He said, “I can identify with ten different paths, and reject all religions that say you can have only one. I explore many faiths.”
He still enjoys Pagan rituals, he explained, because of the “strong spiritual component.” However, he finds nothing in the seven tenets of The Satanic Temple that makes him uncomfortable. On a pragmatic level, joining TST opened his and mind to finding allies. He said, it “helped us up our game. […] No one seemed to care when I did Pagan, pantheist, or agnostic invocations, but when name Satan and they care about the issue.”
Suhor has shown consistency about that position over time; during his 2014 interview with The Wild Hunt, he was already considering invoking Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to get the issue taken seriously.
None of the four elected boards has a written policy to ensure non-discrimination, he said. This leaves members to practice what he calls an “appeasement policy,” only allowing prayers from individuals who won’t upset the Christian majority in the area. “They give the veneer of inclusion,” he said, but only just barely.
He recalled one school board meeting that he attended on the issue during which the invocation was provided by a local rabbi. The board member who invited him specifically said it was for the cause of diversity. “That poor rabbi thought he was being honored,” Suhor observed, but was actually being used to advance “tokenism.”This is not the only way in which Suhor has expressed dissatisfaction with what he sees as unapologetic Christian privilege in his part of Florida. He is also one of several local residents suing to get the Bayview cross removed from public property.
Named for the public park in which it stands, the 20-foot-high cross is a gathering place every Easter Sunday. After determining that no one had ever obtained a permit for the gathering, Suhor himself applied for and received one for this year, but the day was rained out. Both the lawsuit — which is being advanced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association — and the permit move are about opposing the tacit governmental endorsement of one religion.
In truth, Suhor seems satisfied that his invocation was delayed and constrained and otherwise opposed. City council members opted to leave his scheduled invocation on the schedule, choosing to “grin and bear” the Satanic blessing and hoping the issue would then go away. However, a press release made sure that local reporters were following the debate leading up to the July 14 meeting very closely.
It is not clear if Suhor’s latest invocation received more scrutiny because it carried the name Satan, as he believes, or because The Satanic Temple is more media-savvy than most Pagans. Suhor is a co-founder of the West Florida chapter of TST, and while he’s careful not to say that he speaks for the organization, he acknowledges that he has assumed the de facto role of public face for the group. Membership is growing, he added.
While city council members may not have been prepared for the furor resulting from the request to perform the invocation, Suhor did prepare for the possibility. He recorded a video of the prayer he sang, complete with hand motions, in case it was difficult to follow along at the meeting. That video is below.
“It’s been a great journey, but all things have a life cycle. It is time for us to let you all know that Emerald Rose has decided to retire as a band after the end of this year.” – Arthur Hinds, July 16
ATLANTA, Ga. – On July 16 Arthur Hinds, singer and songwriter for the popular band Emerald Rose, announced via his personal Facebook page that it was time to split the party. The Wild Hunt talked with Hinds, who is also a well known ritualist and bard at Pagan gatherings, about the highlights of performing with Emerald Rose and what’s in store for him in the future.Over the years, Emerald Rose gained a devoted following in two areas that often overlap: Paganism and geek culture. The group was formed 20 years ago among a group of friends who enjoyed getting together and playing Magic the Gathering. As Hinds explains, one of their spouses said that they were wasting their time and should make some music for the Pagan community.
Larry Morris was already well-known in the local Pagan community as a drummer. Logan Sullivan had previous experience being in a band as a brass player. Clyde Gilbert’s background was in heavy metal. Hinds had been a singer and songwriter since he was in his teens.
“Our first paid gig was at a nudist resort where we played about 6 songs.” – Arthur Hinds
While the group was ostensibly created to appeal to Pagans, the group developed a Celtic folk-rock sound that soon made them one of the top local bands in the Southeast United States. Most of their music draws from Celtic mythology, but one CD, titled Con Suite, highlights their roots as a group of guys who love all things geek. It was the odes to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and gaming culture that further widened their audience. Their music was used on the soundtracks of two documentaries, including Ringers, which is about Lord of the Rings fans, and Done the Impossible, which is about the Firefly Television series. They were also the headliners for Hollywood Lord of the Rings Oscar parties in 2003 and 2004.
The Wild Hunt: So you were created as a Pagan band, but when did you become a sci-fi/fantasy convention favorite?
Arthur Hinds: Ahhh, well all four of us were geeks- from comics to anime to science to RPGs and of course MTG. Clyde and I had been to a bunch of DragonCons [a yearly Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention in Atlanta] in the varied incarnations it went through, but we did not know each other at the time.
Then in 2002 Clyde talked [DragonCon] into letting us in. Larry, in particular, writes wacky geeky songs that fit well, but really our strength at cons has been as a Pagan band. The overlap between Pagan and geek is gigantic.
TWH: Yes it is. Why do you think there’s such an overlap?
AH: There are probably PHD papers on that subject. It might have to do with the power of imagination, creating thought forms. Most Pagans identify with created worlds where Nature is recognized as live and worthy of veneration. So many Pagans are first drawn to their path after being illuminated by fiction. Mists of Avalon called many to the Goddess. Also, the willingness to think outside the mainstream is there as well.
TWH: So, at the start, all band members were Pagan? Are they still?
AH: Honestly Cara, I would prefer not to speak for another person about their spiritual path. I think it is safe to say that I am very much Pagan.
TWH: Fair enough. The announcement that Emerald Rose is disbanding comes 20 years after its creation. Is their significance to that? Did you think, “20 years? Hmmmmm…..”
AH: I can’t say that the number really impacted our announcement. It was simply time. Our lives and commitments did. 20 years, however is a loooooooong time.
TWH: It is. Most bands don’t stay together anywhere near that long. Life changes, personality conflicts. Why were you able to stay together?
AH: Well, first of all, we started as really good friends and many of the choices we made over the years were based on that friendship. And really, the Pagan root that we grew from helped to give stability as well.
TWH: In that 20 years you’ve created so much music. Played so many venues. Do you have a favorite memory from a Pagan venue or some time where the spiritual component was most memorable?
AH: Wow, you are asking a lot
TWH: I know, right?
AH: I always love singing Freya Shakti for the right crowd, it has raised much power, but I think I am going to go with a different song. We were performing Dagger of the Moon outside on an overcast night, when the crowd gasped as one. I turned to see that the clouds had parted to reveal a crescent right behind us.
TWH: Where was that at?
AH: I think Maryland Fairy Fest, but I’m not entirely sure. Another one of my favorite Pagan show memories took place on a rainy night. We were dry and safe on a covered stage but the crowd was getting damp. They did not scatter, but kept on dancing. All of a sudden the sky opened and a rain fell. Did the people run? No, they took off all of their remaining clothes and danced harder. I bet U2 never had that happen. it was a mighty rain
TWH: On the flip side, what has it meant to you, to be able to offer excellent quality Pagan music? Why do it?
AH: I love it. I love Pagan music. I love playing and performing in general, but being able to let my spirit shine is the glimmer on the lake. For me it is part of my clergy work and art of my Bardic spiritual path.
TWH: So you know this question is coming. Why is Emerald Rose breaking up?
AH: We haven’t had a giant fight. We still like each other, but our lives and creative paths are separating. It has been happening for a couple of years, and we thought that we owed it to our fans to not just sort of fade away. We wanted to let them know that we are leaving this wonderful path with good feelings and great memories.
TWH: I know from my own experience with serious health challenges how stressful it can be on a spouse. Your wife has been facing her own medical challenges. Is that coming into play for you personally as a reason why you’re ready for Emerald Rose to end their run?
AH: Only a little. I think. I have walked a hard medical path with My Lovely Wife our entire relationship.
TWH: What’s next for Arthur Hinds? I can’t picture you not performing and I’ve seen how much you enjoy encouraging people to perform at Pagan Spirit Gathering’s talent show.
AH: Well, I came to Emerald Rose as a singer and songwriter of both Pagan and secular music, and that is how I leave it. I have three solo CDs and I am working on a fourth. I plan to continue touring and singing and telling the old tales. I had an awesome crop at this year’s PSG show and I’ll continue to do that as well.
TWH: Thanks Arthur. Anything you’d like to add?
AH: Well, I just want to thank the fans who supported us all of these years. I know that sounds like an old saw, but in truth, it is what kept us going. We had a hell of a time.
PARKERSBURG, W.Va.- The city council has “voted to uphold a ban on fortune-telling this week, despite a formal request from a local entrepreneur to do away with the decades-old law,” as reported by Riverside City News. In June we published the story of Heather Cooper, who had opened up a local shop called Hawthorn. Her intent was to offer Tarot readings as well as a place for local artists to display their work. However, she was denied a business license due to an old fortune-telling law, and she pledged to fight to have it removed.
After her first attempt, it was announced that the Council opted to keep the law, with a vote of 5-3. Cooper was disappointed, but she is continuing to work in the store and will keep trying. Cooper wrote, “We will not be doing any readings until further notice. We WILL, however, have classes at our store and continue to have consigned work from local artists. Stop by to see what we have and continue to watch the page for upcoming classes.”
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PENSACOLA, Fla. — Pagan David Suhor, the founder of the local chapter of The Satanic Temple, delivered his invocation before the Pensacola City Council meeting July 14. As we previously reported, Suhor’s scheduled appearance generated concerns, and a special meeting was held in order to decide whether or not to cancel the city’s inclusive prayer policy.
The council voted to keep the invocations, and Suhor was left on the schedule. However, when the day arrived, the council meeting did not run as smoothly as officials would have liked. Suhor’s invocation was interrupted by people reciting the Lord’s Prayer, one council person walked, and others protested. During the meeting several people, including Suhor, debated the policy again.
The entire meeting, including the opening invocation, can be viewed online. We will have more from Suhor about his religious freedom work in the coming week.
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ATLANTA, Ga. — It was announced this week that the Celtic American folk band Emerald Rose would be retiring. The announcement reads, “It’s been a great journey, but all things have a life cycle. It is time for us to let you all know that Emerald Rose has decided to retire as a band after the end of this year.”
The group will be performing at Dragon*Con, held in annually in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, and they are looking for one more venue to stage a farewell concert. The Wild Hunt has spoken to band member, singer and songwriter Arthur Hinds about Emerald Rose’s history, music and the retirement. We will bring you that interview this week.
In Other News
- EarthSpirit Community’s co-founder Andras Corban-Arthen has been in Prague participating in the annual meeting for the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER). Corban-Arthen, who is currently serving as the organization’s president, wrote, “Representatives of 20 countries have gathered in a marvelous old building which currently houses the Czech Academy of Sciences.” Reporting from the event, Corban-Arthen said that they participated in a ritual built around “an old Celtic tripod of stones on the grounds of Vyšehrad.” He was reportedly told by locals that the “more than two hundred” people at that ceremony made up “the largest gathering of pagans in [Prague] in modern times.”
- The Temple of Goddess Spirituality, dedicated to Sekhmet, is experiencing a fiscal crisis. Founded in 1993, the temple is located in the Nevada desert near Cactus Springs. For 23 years, it has operated on the principle of the “gift economy.” However, in reality, the temple, which includes land and a structure, has been almost entirely supported by its founder Genevieve Vaughan. Donations reportedly make up less than 5% of their budget. Now in her 70s, Vaughan is not able to keep up with the temple’s needs. The organization has created a new governing “Temple Council” to develop new methods of funding. As they do that, donations of money and supplies are being accepted.
- Earth Traditions, based in Illinois, has announced a Death Midwife Certification Class for February 2017. The announcement was just made and a Facebook event created. The class will be held in Archer House, Northfield Minnesota and will be led by Angie Buchanan, who was trained and certified as a Certified Death Midwife by Nora Cedarwind Young, one of the founders of the Death Midwife movement. Buchanan said, “Death is the only guarantee we have in life and it is a sacred Rite of Passage deserving of as much thoughtful care and planning as any other life event.” Registration for the class is online and currently open.
- The Guardian has reported on the opening of a local metaphysical store in the city of Lancaster. The owner of the new shop, called Bell, Book & Candle, is 38-year-old Dubhlainn Earley, who describes himself as a necromancer and a practitioner of “black magic.” In the interview he said that there should be more shops in the city due to its history. Lancaster is similar to the U.S. city of Salem. The Pendle witch trials took place in Lancashire, and the accused were all tried and sentenced in Lancaster due to it being the county town. Earley believes Lancaster needs a Witch museum and hopes more Witches come forward now, saying, “there is no need to hide away, come out, come out wherever you are.”
- There is a call for authors for the upcoming book Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions: Faith and Culture Across History. “Author-Scholars are needed for the two volume reference work […] to be published by ABC-CLIO Publishing. We seek contributors with expertise in Women, Religion, and History to write articles of 500 to 2000 words, with overview, historical background, and selected details.” More specifications and requirements are on the website. The current deadline is August 15.
- Another upcoming submission deadline is of the music kind. The Hermetic Library, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, is calling for artists to submit work for their 2016 Magick, Music, and Ritual 12 album. “These anthology albums help promote artists to the audience of the Hermetic Library and beyond. These albums raise awareness about the connection between ritual, music and magick. And, they are a mass of awesome fun.” The submission deadline is Aug. 15.
A Note from the Editor’s Desk
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Over the past month, the new mobile virtual game Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. The app is now reportedly the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. According to the SurveyMonkey Intelligence blog, Pokémon Go has exceeded by several million the daily peak users record held by Candy Crush. Within “three days of release” the game attracted more users than Twitter and now, according to the blog, the breakout game is aiming “for Snapchat and Google Maps.”
But what does Pokémon Go, or Pokémon in general, have to do with the occult? The easy answer: absolutely nothing.
What is Pokémon Go? It is a mobile game application created by the same team that originated the Pokémon franchise in 1996. Just as in the original concept, the user is a Pokémon trainer who must gather Pokémon, or fictional “pocket monsters,” to train for battle. Using GPS locators, the game “places” Pokémon virtually within the users real space. They are on sidewalks, in homes and in buildings. Trainers can “see” when these virtual creatures are near and must get within a certain distance to catch them. But there is far more to it than that, including PokeGyms, PokeSpots, battles, leveling up, teams and more.
However, when are we ever satisfied with the easy answer?
So let’s get out our flux capicitors and head back in time 20 years to when Pokémon first arrived on the pop culture scene.
In the not-so-distant past, Satoshi Tajiri imagined a video game that involved users catching bugs and training them to fight. After six years of consideration and negotiations, the idea became Pocket Monsters, which was shortened to Pokémon. In February 1996, Nintendo released two Pokémon games for its popular handheld Game Boy system. The games weren’t an instant hit, but there was enough buzz for the launch of the first generation card game in October of that year, and an anime cartoon series the following spring.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
It didn’t take long for the popular new game to generate backlash. Excitement surrounding the game built to near fever-pitch among children. Many school officials opted to ban the popular new game from their campuses due to a variety reasons, including: distraction, competition, excessive commercialism, fights, and the violence of in-game battles themselves.
Along with those practical and secular concerns, another issue arose; this one of a moral variety. Religious groups began to speak out against the franchise’s promotion of immorality, which some labeled satanic. They equated the game’s symbology and monstrous qualities to with demonology, mysticism, Witchcraft, Wicca and modern Paganism. In one video sermon, a pastor explains:
Pokémon is a game that teaches children how to enter into the world of witchcraft. How to cast spells. How to use psychic phenomena. How to put to work supernatural powers against their enemies. How to fantasy role play… Pokémon World is a world of the demonic, of the satanic.
Several of the Pokémon histories suggest that the reaction, similar to that above, led to the creation of the Christian card game Redemption. However, this Bible-based trading card game was created and released an entire year before the Pokémon came on the scene. Redemption was more a reaction to the lingering memories of Dungeons & Dragons and the contemporary success of Magic: The Gathering and other similar gaming offshoots.
Redemption‘s creator Rob Anderson said, “Many of the games available had dark and horrific themes […] Much of what is offered in the collectible trading card game market is difficult to reconcile with the Christian faith.” Although the Anderson’s card game preceded Pokémon, the idea was the same and the arrival of Pokémon only fueled the flames of that fear and ideology.
The Christian backlash became so prevalent that the Catholic Pope reportedly spoke out. In 2000, the Vatican TV satellite station announced, on his behalf, that “Pokémon trading cards and the computer game is [sic] ‘full of inventive imagination,’ has [sic] no ‘harmful moral side effects’ and is [sic] based on the notion of ‘intense friendship.’ ”
While the Pope’s alleged message signaled his follower to relax, others, outside of the Christian and Catholic world, remained unconvinced. As reported in 2001 by the BBC and other outlets, as the cards reached the Muslim world, national leaders began actively banning the franchise because they believed it promoted gambling and other immoral activities. Saudi leaders specifically called it a “Jewish conspiracy” that promoted Zionism. Interestingly, these same leaders also identified as a problem the franchise’s use of “crosses, sacred for Christians and triangles, significant for Freemasons.”
In 2001, the Anti-Defamation League responded to the cries of “Jewish conspiracy,” calling them “outrageous.” But, several years prior, ADL had its own concerns with two specific Pokémon cards (Golbat and Ditto) that contained what looked like a swastika. As explained in an ADL press release, the symbol on the cards were “intended to represent a ‘manji’ sign ascribed to Buddhism and Hinduism,” and were only suppose to be released in Japan where the image would be understood as such. However, due to the game’s popularity, the card made it to the U.S. where it was read as a swastika.
In 1999, Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director said, “In today’s shrinking world due to globalization, what is deemed appropriate or acceptable by one culture may have a significantly different meaning in another.” Nintendo did reportedly take the ADL complaint seriously and responded to the group’s satisfaction.In the same year, Time magazine published an interview with creator Satoshi Tajiri. While the conversation focused on his work, the interviewer did briefly ask about criticisms specifically concerning the immorality or “satanic” nature of the game. He responded, “I never heard of that! [Laughs] I heard there was a guy who criticized [kid’s book character] Harry Potter because of the magic. But I saw the author, and she seemed really nice. The critic seemed like a grouchy mean guy.”
Putting things in context, this era, 1996-2000, occurred just after the notorious satanic panics in the U.S. and U.K., and it also followed on the tail end of a pop culture Witch craze. This was a period that saw the release of The Craft and the reign of The X-Files, Sabrina, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. J.K. Rowling had just released a new book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which would soon become an international best-selling series and movie franchise.
While the pop culture engine generally and slowly shifted from a high concentration of satanic Witches to other occult or fantastic themes, the interest in magic and mysticism never died. Cultural fears and desires, relating to social issues, politics and more, continued to play out in various fantasy narratives. Pokémon played into this collective dreaming.
Additionally, the game was a feature of the shrinking global culture, which was precipitated by the internet and an increasingly tech-driven world. Not only was the card game a symbol of this new world-based digital cultural phenomenon, but it was also a distraction for a generation of children, who were showing a decreasing interest in attending religious services, as noted by Pew Forum.
Now let’s go back to the future….
It is now 2012, with the internet and social media in full swing. A blog site called Playing4Real published a mock Time magazine interview with Satoshi Tajiri. The post, titled, “Pokémon Creator Admits Games are Anti-Christian, Aimed Towards Satanists,” was not marked clearly as satire. The mock interview has Satoshi Tajiri saying, in part:
Tajiri: Yes. Pokémon is essentially the correct answer towards life, not Christianity. Everything presented in the game is the opposite of what Christians may believe. Some have said that the game promotes voodoo or magic, and I agree in the sense that there are many things that occur in nature that are unexplainable …
Any regular user of social media might expect what happened next. The Playing4Real post was shared with wild abandon. The fake interview inspired a new round of Pokémon backlash, feeding any still lingering demonic origin theories.
For example, as published in 2010, opponent Brett Peterson compared the Pokémon universe’s use of the elements as equivalent to that use in modern Pagan practice. Peterson wrote, “Most Pagan and earth based religions and philosophies find power in the Four Elements? Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. These are the energy cards in the Pokémon game! […] What are we allowing to come into our homes!”
Yet, at the very same time, another cultural reality was being birthed, one that makes that same connection between the occult and modern Paganism, but from an entirely different angle. This new reality can be found embedded in the growing practice of Pop Culture Paganism. One example is the blog Pokemon Paganism Tumblr blog. Its owner writes:
I have been working for a while now on a Pokémon elemental correspondence system based on a combination of the two most prominent systems from antiquity (Western and Eastern). So far I think I’ve come up with a pretty fleshed out system and I hope to be able to make a few posts on it in the coming weeks. My goal is to have a workable magic system to be used alongside my devotional work with the various Legendary/Mythical Pokémon. All and all I’m hoping to form a more vibrant practice that is more immersive and can also work alongside some of my more traditional polytheist practices.
The majority of people integrating Pokémon into magical practice were born in the Millennial generation or are younger. That should not be surprising, because these are the same people who grew up with the original Pokémon franchise of the 1990s.Tumblr user Kitty, who runs the Pop Culture Paganism Tumblr blog, also posts and reblogs notes concerning the use of Pokémon in religious, spiritual or magical practice. In 2014, Cokujyo Eikyu created a Pokémon Tarot deck, now in its second edition.
Let’s move forward in time again to the present.
This year, 2016, marks the 20th anniversary of Pokémon and the release of its arguably most popular game, Pokémon Go. And, although it’s based on the same gaming premise, the backlash has been decidedly different because of the way it has played out within our collective world cultures.
The new game is getting people outside and moving around, even if that movement is zombie-like or resembles herds of wild animals on a David Attenborough special. One Tumblr user wrote, “Pokémon Go deserves a nobel peace prize for getting me off my ass.”Additionally, the company has created what it calls PokeStops and PokeGyms,which are actual places where Pokémon congregate and where battles happen. Users must be physically within range of these locations to catch these wanted Pokémon and engage with the game further. As a result, Pokératti, those masses of players, are showing up at random locations, with phones in hand, and sometimes even at the risk of being arrested for trespassing.
Interestingly, many churches are reportedly labeld as PokeGyms and, as a result, groups of young people are showing up at their doorstep to play the game. Many church leaders, such as in the Church of England, are beginning to see this phenomenon as a positive development. While the Pokératti may not stick around for sermons, leaders see this move as “a good way to start a conversation that may lead on to other things,” as noted by the BBC.
The same Pokémon game, which once was thought to have driven people from religion, is now be considered a tool to lead them back.
And churches aren’t the only institutions looking to take advantage of the PokeStop or PokeGym feature. Companies, organizations and event planners are using the built-in “lure” or the “incense” game actions to bring Pokémon to their locatiosn in hopes of attracting visitors, customers or the like. The more Pokémon at the site, or the stronger and rarer the Pokémon, the more Pokératti show up.
The Wild Hunt’s own Cara Schulz, who is running for political office in her hometown of Burnsville, has teamed up with a local restaurant and is using the game’s lure feature to attract people to her campaign event. It is a clever marketing tool that creates a pickup community space, which could potentially “lead on to other things.” As we move into Pagan Pride and fall festival season, this tool may just be a marketing concept that organizers can employ to attract visitors to their own public events.
However, before a planner jumps on the band wagon, there is a downside. Do you want groups of gamers lingering on your doorstop? These players are typically more interested in catching Pokémon than the services being offered. This fact has caused problems worldwide where players create hazards for real shoppers or similar. The U.S. Holocaust Museum Memorial, for example, was made a PokeStop and has been reportedly attracting groups of loud and disrespectful Pokératti.
“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director, told the Washington Post. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”
As noted earlier, the PokeStops and PokeGyms are chosen by the company, and only recently has it opened up the option to suggest new locations. The system is not all monetized, but the company has suggested that it may be in the future.
Another organization contending with Pokeratti is the Westboro Baptist Church. The location was also made a PokeGym, attracting battling trainers who are allegedly vying for the right to control this particular gym in order to “troll the Church.” Church leaders responded with their own Pokémon-inspired message saying, “Pokémon Go and Sin No More.” One member told USA Today that they are using the “language that is understood.”Today the Pokémon francise, which began as a simple video game, has now become a viable tool within a magical system, an exercise method, a community-building activity, a marketing strategy, and a political weapon. At the same time, the game is still inspiring the same backlash that it did in 1990s, inspiring new conspiracy theories, angry sermons and fatwas.
Going back the original question: what does Pokémon have to do with the occult? The easy response, as said earlier, is absolutely nothing.
But human culture never allows for that level of simplicity. Therefore, the actual answer is “a whole lot.”
Get ready for the seventh generation in November as a new wave of danger hits the market.
Cleverman. Found in the second instalment ‘Containment,’ this moment stood out. Collins, playing an Indigenous spokesperson on a TV news panel discussion, delivers the line with acid on his tongue, shifting in his seat and barely able to maintain his countenance to suit the panel’s format, which is supposed to represent the epitome of polite society in serious discussion.“Firstly, it’s The Dreaming. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as Hairypeople are not bound by what is,” says Waruu West (Rob Collins) in ABC’s latest original Australian drama
In the world of Cleverman, the Dreaming is mentioned here with the same condescension it might be on an actual TV weekly news and current affairs panel. I’ve seen enough Aboriginal Elders and commentators on such shows to know that Collins did not have to look very far to inspire his character’s reaction in this moment. As an Indigenous man himself, Collins probably didn’t even need that.
In the make-believe dystopian near future of Cleverman, not six months before the action takes up with the first episode, the Dreaming just materialised in the form of the Hairypeople. What was once thought of as just an Aboriginal story and a monster to scare children, is now flesh and blood. They are an entirely different species of human that is stronger, faster, harder, covered in hair, and absolutely not a figment of some distant story derived from an uncivilised past. This narrative fact makes the host’s condescension in this scene all the more misplaced, purposefully nasty.
[Above: Q&A Monday 09 June, 2014. Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ “I am not the problem” speech, in conversation regarding John Pilger’s Utopia.]
This point in the show also created a moment during which, it was white Australian viewers’ turn to shift uncomfortably in their seats, if they had not already. In that scene, with its similarity to real day-to-day viewing, it felt like director Wayne Blair, and writers Michael Miller and Jon Bell were speaking directly to us. And I confess: it was my turn for a little bit of solidarity with my Indigenous Brothers and Sisters fist pumping. Waruu’s statement contained within it something that could easily translate to my own experience as a Pagan and a Witch: Our Mythos. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as the Otherworlds are not bound by what is.
Cleverman is a futuristic sci-fi narrative told using the contemporary language of television and chocked full of very real and very current issues. Included in its themes are Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, forced imprisonment, our nation’s crimes against humanity, as well as the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered at our hands by those most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrants, and refugees. Additionally, the show includes the Scientific Frankenstein, the Shady Media Mogul, themes of fear, terror, racism, bigotry, atrocity, isolation, desperation, violence, and police brutality.
These details are all woven together in a sprawling story that we should in fact not be confused about at all. However, it is the twist with which it’s told that is the real highlight. The fictional Hairypeople are lifted directly from several Aboriginal Dreaming stories. They speak Gumbaynggirr, a language from northern New South Wales, as is the Namorrodor, the monster stalking urban Sydney. Indigenous actors dominate in both the Indigenous and Hairypeople roles. The Cleverman is a cultural facticity.
Our reluctant hero Koen West, is Aboriginal, a refreshing change from what we so often see highlighted by Australian and international news. Koen, an opportunistic young Indigenous man who refuses to choose a tribe, has suddenly had the Cleverman superhero powers thrust upon him. The power is real and present in this show’s world. It is manifest in Koen, Waruu, in the Hairypeople, and in the short (but always sparkling) performance of Jack Charles as Uncle Jimmy the Cleverman who passes the nulla nulla (or waddi a warrior’s club) of the Cleverman onto Koen.
If Koen stands as a proxy for young Indigenous viewers, then the narrative comes with a dare: Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Dreaming is not static. None are left to wonder about the nature of that strength and power. It’s Indigenous and it comes from a very real place.
In this way, Cleverman is the Dreaming. The show is Indigenous story soaked with a real Indigenous past and a contemporary Indigenous experience. With the help of CGI and special effects, the show demonstrates how the Dreaming contains within it the ability to confront new issues and problems with no less potency. The Dreaming refuses to stay static.
The Dreaming is not at odds with western science, political systems, media, or indeed, the future. Rather, here, the Dreaming uses all these modern ideas and formats to its own end. Standing alongside these contemporary mainstream Australian institutions as equally valid and powerful, the show tells a story of change, of how it is made manifest in those who engage with it, and how it can reclaim itself – its Indigenousness – from those very institutions who have sought to diminish it. The Dreaming claims itself, as strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, in the now.
It is here, precisely at this moment, that Australian Pagans and Witches should feel the pangs of empathy. This is art as story magic.
In the first place, we should be familiar with the historical arc that underpins the show. In summary, cultural practices, myths and stories are outlawed, then, after a time, they are repackaged as oddities from a distant past for children’s entertainment. Then, finally, adults start taking these “oddities” back.
Pagans around the world know this story. In recent times, we have seen a major resurgence in many myths and folktales. Appearing on the small and silver screens alike, these stories are being torn apart and remade with entirely relevant themes and contemporary issues, and very often strictly for adults. Examples range from American Horror Story: Coven‘s unabashed, subversive femaleness in all its complicated and messy glory; to the miraculous image at the end of The Witch showing power embraced as the young protagonist is liberated; to Michael Hirst’s Vikings in which a historical Pagan worldview is given prominence over early Christian ideas. Even at Disney, the early and mid-20th Century children’s stories are being approached anew, with the likes of Angelina Jolie’s turn as the Mistress of All Evil in Maleficent. We get this.
However, these things – our myths, reimagined in the mainstream, artistic, and pop culture spheres – can serve to be a hindrance to the legitimisation of contemporary Pagan and Witchcraft discourse. They can be wildly disrespectful and further propagate tired tropes and negative stereotypes that influence the very real lives of the Neopagan and Witchcraft communities. These things do not exist in a vacuum. But at their best, they can serve as a powerful quickening to such communities, who, in turn, find the inspiration to readdress the magical and mythical narratives within the ritual space itself.
These modern retellings can normalise themes and ideas in the mainstream, which can then further legitimise those same ideas as they are contained within our contemporary discourse. The young and aspiring seeker of the Craft, for example, can find heroes and heroines in these places, urging them to look further.
Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Myths are not static.
As a story and as a Dreaming narrative, Cleverman excels at demonstrating that power is best realised through the creative vision, voice and bodies of those who are living a direct experience of it already. Inside contemporary culture, it further demonstrates the power of community support and participation required to push forward with these new narratives. Cleverman‘s mainstream success and positive reviews are a testament to two hundreds years of fighting to legitimise Indigenous voices.
This is a lesson Pagans in Australia can take away. It is a salient reminder that our own myths are strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, now.
Especially as Australian Pagan communities begin to increasingly realise their social and political voices, it is this thought that should stay in the back of our minds when we engage with Pagan discourse, writing, art, and craft, and reimagine our stories inside our ritual space to confront and work with contemporary and very real social and political issues. It is important to promote that same creative talent inside our communities in order to achieve change, justice, fairness, highlight social issues right now.
These ideas and concepts are all on top of the stand-alone joy of engaging with Australian Indigenous voices and creative talent as found through Cleverman. The final episode of season one was aired Thursday, July 7. This particular episode felt like one giant teaser for season two. It left me wanting much more.
We left our anti-hero, Koen, much less “anti” and coming finally into his own, as all sides are baying for war. I agree with AV Club‘s Brandon Nowalk, whose review pointed out the first season was more promise than delivery in terms of story. It was a season of exposition that has left a carefully crafted set of characters ready for the real meat of season two.
But that exposition can be easily forgiven. After all, there would only be a handful of people on this continent with enough knowledge of Aboriginal Law and Dreaming not to require background information. I can only imagine the culture shock and complete lack of context for those watching in the US and, shortly, the UK.
Thankfully, for those interested, there are a few helpful guides that wade into the dystopian near future of Cleverman‘s Sydney. This includes Zebbie Watson’s guide at Inverse, and The Guardian‘s episode by episode recaps. For some extra fun, check out the behind the scenes video with Adam Briggs and, one of my favourite Australian voices, Gurrumul Yunupingu and the inspiration for the Cleverman theme song.
“One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseille would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.” – Hannah ArendtThe ‘catastrophe’ that Arendt refers to was the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of Walter Benjamin on the night of September 25, 1940, only hours after crossing the border into Spain in an attempt to escape the Nazis. Although there is some question as to how he actually died, the most accepted version of his death is that he committed suicide by overdosing on morphine in his room at the Francia Hotel in Portbou.
At the time of his alleged suicide, Benjamin and his two companions were under police surveillance along with another group of refugees from France. They had arrived in Portbou earlier that evening after hiking over the Pyrenées from occupied France, only to learn that they were being denied entrance into Spain. They were to be deported back to France and handed over to the Vichy government the next day.
Despite assurances from members of the other refugee party that they could potentially bribe their way out of it, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine that night, after having been on the run for seven years. It was a dose that he had been carrying around since the burning of the Reichstag. This was seemingly an act of both desperation and defiance. He was not only more than aware of what his fate would be should he fall into Nazi hands, but he had also apparently decided long before that moment that he would choose death by his own hand over such a fate.
* * *
I am not much of a hiker, and I have never hiked a mountain before. I’m in decent enough shape considering that I don’t work out or engage in any type of regular strenuous activity, but I also struggle with chronic fatigue and nerve pain which often keeps me from outdoor activities. And I definitely knew on one level that the trail that I was so determined to hike was a bit out of my league in terms of experience.
But I also knew that Walter Benjamin was in much worse shape than either my friend Rhyd or I. And, every time I dwelt on the fact that he completed the route under the circumstances that he did, and in the poor physical condition that he was in, it served as ample justification for dismissing my own worries. The pull I was feeling to take the hike was strong and not fully of this earth, and I had recognized for many months that the trek was an essential part of our pilgrimage to Europe. We both recognized the importance of tracing his footsteps as a tribute to him, and that importance far outweighed any concerns that I had about my abilities.
At the time that Benjamin escaped from France over the Pyrenées, he was forty-eight years old and suffered from a heart condition, having been in delicate health since childhood. He had been living in poverty and exile throughout most of the 1930s, which had greatly exacerbated problems with both his physical and mental health. When he made his escape, he took with him a heavy briefcase that contained an unknown manuscript – one that he insisted was more important than his own life.
We packed much lighter than Walter Benjamin did, bringing only some food for lunch, two bottles of water, a half-empty bottle of Orangina, a sweatshirt, and our phones. I also took a small notebook and a solar charger, which I kept in a small side bag, while Rhyd carried the majority of our gear in his rucksack.
* * *
By summer 1940, Walter Benjamin had been in exile from his native Germany for seven years. He first fled to Paris in spring 1933, understanding the significance of the Reichstag fire long before most recognized what that event would mean for the future of Germany. As a Jew, a Marxist, and a cultural critic, he knew he was in danger for many reasons, and he sought refuge throughout France as well as briefly in Denmark with Bertolt Brecht. He was a heretic on the run, desperately trying to write and publish as much as he could while both his economic and physical livelihood fell into ever increasing danger.
In 1938, Germany revoked the citizenship status of Jewish citizens, and overnight Benjamin found himself to be a stateless man. Eventually the French caught up to him, and he was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1939. After his release was secured with the assistance of friends in early 1940, he returned to Paris, where he stayed until French defenses were defeated by the Wehrmacht.
Benjamin then fled Paris for Lourdes the day before the Germans took the city. The subsequent armistice between Germany and Vichy France contained an extradition clause that denied exit visas for all German refugees in France and required the French to surrender anyone who had been granted asylum. Overnight, Benjamin was suddenly trapped in a country where he was a wanted man with no legal means of escape.
Knowing that he needed to leave France in order to save his life, he eventually left Lourdes for Marseille, where he managed to secure an entrance visa to the United States in August 1940. While in Marseille, he met up with his old friend Hannah Arendt and then reunited with Hans Fittko, who he had met the winter before when they had both been held at a French internment camp in Vernuche.
After learning that Benjamin was trying to escape, Hans Fittko told him that the only potential route to safety was to make it to Spain without having to go through a border crossing, and then to cross Spain to Portugal and exit Portugal on a boat to the United States. Fittko then encouraged Benjamin to contact his wife Lisa, who had recently left Marseille for Port-Vendres on the border with Spain with the intention of finding a smuggling route over the mountains.
* * *
Every single website we had checked, including the official tourist site for the city of Portbou, stated that the hike was a 7 km, three-to-four hour trek. My instinct told me from the beginning that it was longer than that, and while my general rule is to trust my instinct, I also recognize (usually in hindsight) that there are times when I ignore that hunch for what later is revealed to be an important reason.
Looking back at this specific instance, the reason I ignored that hunch is very clear. Had I known how long the trek actually was, I likely wouldn’t have attempted it.
But having convinced myself at least on the surface that it was a 7 km hike based on the information that we found online, we planned for that amount of time and distance. We slept in that morning at our campsite near Perpignan and timed our travel so that we would arrive in Banyuls-sur-Mer around noon. Based on that schedule, we assumed that we would be in Portbou by four or five at the latest. We took just enough food for lunch and about three liters of water.
* * *
The route over the Pyrenées was a smuggling trail known as the Lister Route, named after Enrique Líster, a general in the Spanish Republican Army. Lister led his troops to safety over the Pyrenées to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Spain fell to the Fascists. While few knew of the route’s existence, one of the people who knew it well was Vincent Azéma, the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, one of the first towns on the French side of the Pyrenées. Azéma was a socialist who had also been sympathetic toward the Republican cause in Spain.
A little over a year after Spain fell and Lister made his escape, the Vichy government took power in France. Azéma wanted to help those who were seeking to escape the Nazis, and his knowledge came in handy the day that Lisa Fittko showed up at his office seeking a route over the mountains. Like Walter Benjamin, Fittko was also a stateless Jew who was wanted by the Nazis. A dedicated anti-Fascist, Lisa and her husband Hans had also been on the run for years and had been working with the underground Resistance for much of that time. The Fittkos had also made their way down to Marseille not long after the Vichy government took power.
In September 1940, Lisa Fittko headed down to the border with Spain with the intention of securing a smuggling route across the Pyrénees. After only a few days in Port-Vendres, some dockworkers told her that the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Monsieur Azéma, would be able to help her find a route over the mountains. She went to see Azéma soon after, who discussed the route with her in great detail and gave her a hand-drawn map of the path.
* * *
I had never heard of Lisa Fittko until she died in early 2005. I had come across an article about her in the New York Times, which ran a story about her life and death and also mentioned Walter Benjamin’s tragic ending. I had heard of Benjamin before, but had never read his work, and it was that story in the Times which first prompted me to seek out his writings.
By that summer, I had immersed myself in his works, hunting down everything I could. It was the same summer that I ended up sharing my apartment with a young woman from southern France who was interning at a production company in Manhattan. The fact that she was from Perpignan, not far from Banyuls-sur-Mer, didn’t strike me as the least bit meaningful or synchronistic at the time. But all the same, that summer was dominated by two distinct perspectives: her observations and views of New York, and the work of Walter Benjamin.
Over the years, Benjamin’s work has undoubtedly influenced my thinking more significantly than that of any other writer, and nowadays I regard him not only as a profound thinker but also as both a prophet and an ancestor with whom I have forged a working relationship over time. And although the pull that I felt was much stronger overall than the individual parts that I could comprehend, the level of influence and relationship that I feel toward Benjamin was the primary reason why I felt the overwhelming need to trace the path of his fated escape path over the Lister Route during my pilgrimage to Europe.
It seemed fitting that my friend from Perpignan, who I hadn’t seen since that summer in New York eleven years earlier, was the one who kindly offered to drive us down to Banyuls-sur-Mer in the midst of transit and gas station strikes throughout France. She took us all the way to Puig del Mas, a neighborhood just south of Banyuls-sur-Mer, where the route actually began, and dropped us off on a side street that bordered the beginning of the mountains. We thanked her profusely and stumbled up the hill toward the end of the road.
* * *
On Sept. 24, 1940, Walter Benjamin knocked on Lisa Fittko’s door in Port-Vendres and told her that he had been sent by her husband and that he needed to escape to Spain.
Having met with Mayor Azéma only a few days earlier, Fittko quickly agreed to lead him over the mountains. She also agreed when he asked to take along two acquaintances who he had met in Marseille, a woman named Henny Gurland and her teenage son, who were also German refugees seeking to escape France. Fittko made it clear to Benjamin that it would be a strenuous climb, and that she did not know the route and that they would be taking a risk, but he seemed unconcerned. He stressed that to not make the attempt would be the “real risk.”
Later that day, Benjamin and Fittko left Port-Vendres for Banyuls-sur-Mer on foot, walking down back roads in order to avoid the growing police stops being conducted on both trains and auto routes. Fittko wanted to meet with Mayor Azéma again to go over the details of the route once more and to see if he had any additional advice or suggestions.
* * *
After Stéphanie dropped us off at Puig del Mas, we walked up the hill a bit but quickly realized that we couldn’t find the beginning of the route. I had downloaded a GPS map of the route onto my phone that morning, but it vanished from my screen and then refused to reload as we walked to the end of the road toward the vineyards.
Luckily, we saw a man exiting his car and walking up the hill. Figuring that he was a local, Rhyd asked him if he knew where the route was. The man was more than happy to walk us down the hill a bit, and then pointed us to the right and told us to look for a staircase.
We went down the staircase and through a narrow path, and found ourselves surrounded by vineyards.
We then walked for a few minutes up an easy path, and looking up at the trail before us, we decided to stop for lunch before tackling the steep terrain. We were surrounded by vineyards, some so old that the vines were literal trunks, bearing a much greater resemblance to dwarf trees than any type of vines I had ever seen before. I kept looking down at our food, and then up at the terraced vineyards, and it hit me halfway through our lunch that what we were eating, while quite unintentional, was very similar to the traditional meal that vineyard workers in the region were accustomed to eating – bread soaked in olive oil with some meat and cheese on the side.
After washing our food down with some water, we packed up our gear up again and headed upward through the vineyards.
* * *
When Walter Benjamin and Lisa Fittko sat down with Mayor Azéma that afternoon, he advised them to take a practice run in the daylight before actually hiking the full route. He recommended that they hike up past the vineyards and as far as the tree line, turn around and head back to town and check back in with him. Then, they could attempt the route in full the following day.
And so they set out on the route on the afternoon of September 24, only to learn quickly that the path was much steeper and more treacherous than Azéma had thought. Benjamin had brought a heavy briefcase with him, which Fittko offered to help him carry. When she asked him what was inside the briefcase and why he had brought it on a trial run, he told her that it contained his new manuscript and that he dare not risk being separated from it because its contents must be saved at all costs.
“It is more important than I am, more important than myself,” he told her.
It took them several hours to reach the tree line, and by the time they hit that point Benjamin was so fatigued and run down that he refused to turn back. After unsuccessfully trying to convince him to return to town, Fittko headed back to Banyuls-sur-Mer in order to prepare for the full hike the next day. Meanwhile, Walter Benjamin proceeded to spend the night, the last full night of his life, alone and exposed on the mountain at the base of the tree line with only his briefcase.
* * *
After Rhyd and I made it up past the first plot of vineyards, we came across an elderly couple hiking up the trail. They were equipped with hiking poles, which admittedly made me pause for a moment. Hiking poles? Do we need those too? What have we gotten ourselves into?
We walked behind them for a moment, until we came across an intersection in the paths. They were following the road, but another path went straight up into the mountains, and my instinct told me that the path straight up was the one we were supposed to take. And yet, we were without a map.
“Excuse me,” I asked them. “Do you know which path is the Chemin Walter Benjamin?”
He pointed to the path straight up, and then to the markings at the base of the path. “See the two black lines? Those are what you need to follow.”I thanked him, and looked at him with both gratitude and wonder. Of all the material I had read on the route, not one source had mentioned the relevant trail markings. I expressed my thanks again as they walked off down the road, and we looked at the path before us, both realizing at the same time that this would be anything but an easy hike.
It also didn’t take us long to realize that especially without a working GPS map, those trail markings were absolutely crucial when it came to staying on the path. As the path kept twisting and turning on our way up toward the top of the tree line, it occurred to me numerous times that if we hadn’t run into that couple we would have been hopelessly lost.
* * *
After leaving Walter Benjamin at the clearing on the mountain the night before, Lisa Fittko once again started up the trail before sunrise the next day with Henny Gurland and her son in tow. It took them about three hours or so to reach Benjamin, who was still lying down in the exact place where Fittko had left him the night before.
The party quickly discovered that Benjamin had a talent for navigation, and he expertly directed them, keeping them on the right path as they climbed further and further upward. Everyone took turns carrying Benjamin’s briefcase as they climbed toward the summit. On account of his heart condition, he insisted on taking a minute’s rest for every ten minutes walked.
Despite such a disciplined rest schedule, Benjamin stopped not long before the summit, insisting he couldn’t go any further, and both Fittko and Gurland literally dragged him up the incline to the next resting place not far from the top. A short time later, the group finally reached the summit.
It had taken them between four and five hours from the point of the clearing for Benjamin’s party to reach the summit, and seven to eight hours overall since Fittko, Gurland, and her son had left Banyuls-sur-Mer early that morning. But finally they had reached Spain.
* * *
A few hours after parting ways with the elderly couple, Rhyd and I finally spotted a sign that pointed toward the summit and stated the distance. I realized at that moment that the websites were all exactly half-right. It was 7 km and three to four hours to the summit at Querroig. But it would then likely be 7 km and another three to four hours to get back down and into Portbou.
It was now mid-afternoon, and the breeze and the shade of the cork-oaks made the hot sun bearable. As we continued to climb, a certain amount of diffused worry built up between us. Both time and our ability to stay hydrated were subtle but ever-growing concerns that we managed to communicate lightheartedly, but regularly, to each other without ever quite naming our exact thoughts for what they were.
We started to monitor our water supply, already halfway gone, taking smaller and more deliberately timed sips with an unspoken understanding that we would be up on the mountain much longer than we expected. We took extra care of ourselves; stopping for breaks under trees, continuously looking behind us as inspiration and relying on the visual power of the fact that the more that Banyuls-sur-Mer shrank in the field of vision behind us, the closer we were to the top.
And yet there were feelings of hopelessness at times, feelings that reverberated from our surroundings as much as they originated from within. And those feelings, as much as I tried to block them out, kept bringing me back to the figure whose escape path we were tracing.
After four hours or so we finally reached the summit. We took a few moments to rest and to take in the beauty of it all, but we then quickly began our trip down in order to try to make up for lost time.
* * *
Lisa Fittko had originally planned to leave Walter Benjamin and the others at the summit, as she did not have the proper paperwork and could not risk being caught on Spanish soil. But once she reached the top, she was concerned about their ability to navigate the treacherous downhill terrain. So she guided the three refugees down the narrow mountain paths.
Not long after they began their descent, they stumbled upon a greenish pool of water, obviously dirty and polluted. Walter Benjamin immediately bent over and stopped to drink, as the party had run out of water by that point.
“You can’t drink that,” she told him. “You could catch typhoid fever…”
“Yes, perhaps,” he replied. “But you must understand: the worst thing that could happen is that I might die of typhoid fever – after I have crossed the border. The Gestapo can no longer arrest me, and the manuscript will have reached safety. You must pardon me, please…”
And so he drank, and then they continued on downhill.
* * *
As we began our descent, I noticed that our surroundings were suddenly completely different than the terrain that we had been hiking for the previous four hours. The flora was different. The plants were different. Cork oaks and scotch broom had given way to cacti and succulents, and water could be heard rushing below. And the buzzing of bees was a consistent and strong presence throughout the entirety of our descent through the mountain brush. At times the bees were louder than our own voices, and while it faded in and out it served as a dominating chorus throughout the trek down to the road.While the Chemin Walter Benjamin on the French side of the path had been very casually marked, often with handmade signs, and was nearly impossible to navigate unless one knew what trail marks to look for, the Ruta Walter Benjamin on the Spanish side of the mountain was much more ‘official’ and organized. Every kilometer or so there was a waymarking sign, usually accompanied by a plaque sponsored by the Catalonian government. Each marking detailed an aspect of Benjamin’s life while featuring quotes and graphics. The trail blazes, which had guided us from the beginning, were still present and constant. However, the new signage took out much of the guesswork and deliberation that had characterized our way up the French side of the mountain.
* * *
Lisa Fittko led the party downhill for another hour or so, until they finally reached a road at the end of a cliff-wall that led down toward a town below. Portbou was now directly in their sight and, at this point, Fittko bade them farewell, instructing the group to take the first train to Lisbon as soon as they had their entry stamps.Benjamin, Gurland, and her son continued down the road to Portbou, while Fittko headed back up the mountain toward Banyuls-sur-Mer. The road that wound down from the mountains led directly into town, and they followed it through the train tunnel to the downtown promenade and then up to the train station, where they surrendered themselves to authorities with the expectation of being granted entrance.
It was there at the train station where they learned their fate. It was at this place where police told them that they were being denied entry into Spain and would be deported back to France the very next morning. They were put up at the Francia Hotel for the night under police surveillance, and Walter Benjamin allegedly committed suicide that night in his hotel room, believing that his luck had finally run out for good. His briefcase subsequently vanished.
* * *
It was at that same juncture between the path and the road where Lisa Fittko bade farewell to Walter Benjamin and his party, the same juncture where she had finally decided that they could make it the rest of the way on their own, that Rhyd and I briefly got lost.
I’m generally an adventurous sort that usually deals with being lost without much fear. But, at that point it was only a few hours until sunset; we had next to no water left, and we had already been on the mountain for nearly seven hours. We were not thinking clearly; our judgment clouded by the combination of fatigue, fear, and thirst. And, it was this lack of clear thinking that led to a few mistakes and a few moments of panic.
There was a fork in the road, one way headed slightly up and one way headed slightly down, both pointing in the general direction of Portbou. Those who know a thing or two about mountains probably would have deferred to common sense at that point: if you’re heading down, pick the road that goes down. But we are not mountain dwellers, nor regular hikers, and for the first time since we started, there wasn’t a waymarking sign or a trail blaze to be seen. So for some reason we decided that the road that headed upward was the way to go. And as we continued on, ever doubtful, that feeling of hopelessness once again crept in.I didn’t learn until after I returned to Perpignan and studied the terrain at length that it was only another wrong turn and a dead-end that kept us from walking straight back to France. Once we hit the dead end, we briefly argued over what to do next, and I took stock at that moment of how much my judgment was compromised and decided to defer to Rhyd’s judgment.
He pointed to another road below, stressing that even though it might technically be off the trail, the priority at that moment was to get off the mountain before sunset. I was doubtful but I agreed nonetheless, and we headed down that road only to discover within the next hour that it had actually put us right back on the trail, exactly where we needed to be in order to get to Portbou.
* * *
A few days after Lisa Fittko returned to Banyuls-sur-Mer, and before she had learned of Benjamin’s untimely fate, she was approached by Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee, who had heard of her success in smuggling Benjamin over the Pyrénees.
Fry and his associate had set up a legal French relief organization, the Centre Américain de Secours, with the intention of using it as a cover for smuggling Jews and other refugees out of France. Fry had both connections and funding, and wanted Fittko’s help in establishing a smuggling route that could potentially be lead by refugees themselves.
She agreed, and over the course of the next few years, Fittko and the Emergency Rescue Committee saved thousands of lives by leading folks over the Pyrenées via the Lister Route to Spain. Their efforts went down in history, and the Fittkos as well as Varian Fry are remembered to this day as some of the many heroes of the Resistance. The Fittkos finally fled France for Cuba in 1942 with the help of Varian Fry, and eventually settled in the United States.
And it wasn’t until almost forty years later, during a telephone conversation with Benjamin’s closest friend Gershom Scholem, that Lisa Fittko learned the fate of the mysterious briefcase that contained Benjamin’s final manuscript. She had always assumed that it had reached safe hands, especially given its importance, and was shocked and upset to learn that it had vanished.
* * *
Our original plan had been to reach Portbou by four or five in the afternoon at the latest, where we would then take a taxi to Cerbère, the very first town on the French side of the border, and then a train back to Perpignan where we were staying. The last train from Cerbère was a quarter past eight, and if we did not make it we would be stranded in either Portbou or Cerbère for the night.After following the road down the mountain for a while, we finally started to see houses and we could also see Portbou straight ahead. We both felt a sense of relief, having held a mutual, muted tension for several hours at that point. But with that relief also came a heightened sense that we needed to hurry, as it was already past seven at that point.
Signs of civilization where suddenly everywhere, from cars to dogs to a huge reservoir right below us. Without realizing it, due to our mutual state of light-headed and fatigued relief combined with the need to hurry, we followed the rest of Benjamin’s exact path into town without either map or sign as a guide. As we walked down the road toward town, we kept looking back at the mountain, watching as the fog quickly drew in. We had made it off the mountain just in time.
We continued through the tunnel, down the promenade, and to the train station where Benjamin and his party turned themselves in to the police. And while we were only seeking a taxi, not an entry visa, there was something in the moment, connected to the themes of hopelessness and escape, that lingered with meaning.
After a few minutes’ worth of location-based and linguistic stumbling, we finally hailed a cab to Cerbère and then caught the very last train back to Perpignan.
* * *
While the official story is that Walter Benjamin died by suicide, there is an alternate, much more recent theory of the last day of Benjamin’s life, which many dismiss as conspiracy theory. Yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly supported by a combination of evidence and inconsistencies. This theory claims that he was murdered by either the Gestapo or by agents working for Josef Stalin, who had learned of his escape plans and were determined not to allow him to leave Europe.
Both the Gestapo and Stalin had adequate reasons to want him dead. Not only was he a Jew and a Marxist attempting to escape the Nazis, but he had also apparently offended Stalin quite personally with his most recent and final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Released in early 1940, “Theses” was a biting and influential critique of orthodox Marxism, and it was viewed by many as a betrayal of the tradition as well as a direct attack on the Soviet regime. There was also precedent for such an action on the part of Stalin. Leon Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City only a month earlier by an NKVD agent who was acting under direct orders from Stalin.
There are several oddities about his death that suggest that it was other than a suicide. First, theret was the suicide note itself, which many believe to be falsified because it had been written in French as opposed to his native German, and also contained inconsistencies regarding his location. And then there was the death certificate and related paperwork, which listed the cause of death as a stroke, not a drug overdose. There was also the fact that Benjamin was granted a Catholic burial in a Catholic cemetery, which would have been forbidden had he committed suicide. Finally, the fact that his briefcase disappeared also potentially points to a suspicious ending, especially given the degree to which he felt the need to keep its contents out of the hands of the Gestapo.
It is also notable that Portbou was a small, close-knit town and was rumored to be a Fascist stronghold with a reputation for hostility toward French and German refugees. Once Benjamin and his companions were detained, their presence in Portbou would have been anything but a secret, which created an ideal opportunity for agents of either Stalin or Hitler or anybody else for that matter who wished him dead.
How he truly died will always remain a mystery, as will the contents and the fate of the briefcase that disappeared after he perished. But his writings, his final days, and his life and death itself serve as a series of important lessons and reminders, not just of our past but our future possibilities and the potential we all hold to alter our fates through an understanding and analysis of what came before.
* * *
“Through his life can be read the violent unfolding of the twentieth century, which destroyed not only him, but millions of others. Yet his writings envision a world not condemned to repeat its mistakes, unlike the defeatist cosmology of a Blanqui; a world in which the political subject still has recourse to revolutionary praxis, unlike the disempowering theory of a Habermas. Benjamin’s writings tell of other possibilities, models for future thinking and acting, re-encounters with the past and proposals for what might yet be to come. Such are his important living remains.” – Esther Leslie
I had known for several years now that Lisa Fittko had written a memoir about her experiences smuggling refugees over the Pyrénees, but it wasn’t until we got off that mountain and back to Perpignan that I felt an overwhelming and sudden urge to read her book. It’s almost as though I had deliberately overlooked it on one level and, yet only in hindsight, had recognized this fact, sensing that having read it would ruin my adventure somehow. But after completing the route, taking in Fittko’s recollections seemed to be a crucial piece of the puzzle which was that experience. It is akin to seeking out a book for its details after having seen the film version. After sensing and experiencing what we had over the course of the seven hours over the mountains, I felt need to fill in the potential gaps and the questions in my mind.
I ordered the book online from France, had it shipped to my home in Portland, and started to read it immediately upon my return home nearly a month after completing the hike over the Pyrénees. I was immediately taken in by her recollections, and quite blown away by both her overall story as well as by a few similarities between her experience on the mountain and our own.
Among other things, had I read Fittko’s book beforehand and known that it would be a 15km hike that would take twice as long as I assumed it would, I likely would not have attempted it. And yet learning that they had also assumed a much shorter hike brought our experience in step with Fittko and Benjamin’s in an oddly synchronistic way. In her memoir, Fittko wrote of Mayor Azéma’s “elastic” understanding of time in terms of what “a few hours” actually meant, a tendency which she noted was common in mountain dwellers. Seventy-five years later, I had discovered the same tendency in those who authored the many websites that spoke of a three-to-four hour hike. In both cases, this tendency resulted in similar experiences and conditions in terms of the non-mountain dwellers who took such advice at face value, and then proceeded to trek over the mountains.
But much more so than matters of time and distance, Fittko describes a certain disposition, a certain determination and desperation, a certain way about Benjamin that he overwhelmingly exuded in her presence throughout his last days. The sentiments in her expression and emotion were so familiar that it was though I had read her words many times before.
For tucked into her words and descriptions were the identical sentiments and thoughts that I had taken from the mountain itself that day. In tracing Walter Benjamin’s final hours, in gaining that perspective as we followed his final path and in our mirrored experiences during that journey, I feel as though I somehow collided into his spirit directly and to this day the resonance of that collision is not only lingering but ever strengthening. In following the footsteps of and paying tribute to a prophet whose heresies tragically collided with fate, what came forth was a new level of understanding, connection, and Work.
* * *
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.
ABERDEEN, Scotland — A recent archaeological dig at a church in Scotland has helped bring the public perception of Witches and the history of their persecution into sharp focus. A team of scientists in Aberdeen uncovered up to 2,000 bodies and a cache of medieval archives showing that the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting was used in the 1500s as a “Witches’ prison.”One relic that has gripped the imagination of the public is an iron ring mounted on one of the walls (pictured below). It is believed to be where the accused were kept before going to trial. This, along with the rest of the finds, are a result of a 10-year project at the church, known locally as Mither Kirk, which is Scottish dialect for Mother Church. St Nicholas Uniting is the name of the Mother Church and Administrative Head Church of the city.
Through this find, on one level, a very vivid image of the persecution of Witches has emerged. The records that were unearthed demonstrate that details of the witch trials were painstakingly recorded by Church officials. Archivist Martin Hall said that those tried for witchcraft were “very frequently accused of healing diseases, usually using unusual methods”.
He added: “Janet Lucas (one of those recorded by the archive) is accused of taking threads from people’s clothes to heal or enchant them.”
In another example, a man called Andrew Mann was accused of “long-standing affairs with the Queen of the Elves” and “stealing a herd of cattle and leading dances through the countryside on All Hallow’s Eve”.
Those accused of Witchcraft were invariably burned at the stake, and the materials necessary to perform the burning, such as the number of tar barrels and the amount of wood, were painstakingly recorded.Parts of Mither Kirk date to 1150, and it currently still operates as a Church of Scotland site. The building’s eastern wing, which had not been in use for many years, was given the go ahead for development in 2003. When it was finished, the wing was opened up as a public facility for the people of Aberdeen.
Of the 2,000 bodies discovered during the dig, which began in 2010 in the Eastern zone’s old graveyard, only 900 bodies were considered completely or partially buried. The rest had been disturbed in some way, thought to be mostly due to placing new graves on top of existing ones.
A number of bodies were also found interred in the walls of the church itself. However, it is not yet known if any of those bodies are connected to the Witches’ prison, and it is also unclear why the story has only been covered by mainstream media now – long after the discoveries were first made.
Sensationalised coverage by the BBC placed a particular emphasis on the Witches’ ring. Project leader Dr Arthur Winfield admitted that he did not understand the media attention. He told The Wild Hunt: “It is only post-excavation work which is still ongoing, plus finding links to other information sources.”
“The [BBC] piece clearly focused on the use of St Mary’s Chapel as a prison for Witches in the 1590s,” he said. “There is a ring – which is quite insignificant – in the wall to which they were chained.”
Dr. Winfield also added, “I was rather sceptical but it seems that the city archives contain the itemised invoice for payment for putting the ring in place.”
Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, who is currently undertaking a major research project on the history of Witchcraft, stressed the fact that, in terms of news, there have been no new discoveries. He said: “The finding of unrelated burials in the church has reminded people of the iron rings in its vaults where accused criminals, including alleged witches, were held awaiting trial and execution. We always knew about these.”
Prof Hutton continued: “Aberdeen had an especially vicious mass witch hunt in 1596-7, in which local cunning folk got swept up with socially suspect characters, and convicted on confession, probably after torture.”
As Prof Hutton explains, Scotland’s record on the treatment of Witches differs sharply from that of neighbouring England. He said, “In Scotland it was very difficult to avoid conviction of Witchcraft, unlike in England where the acquittal rate was 75%, because the people who arrested the person accused were empowered by the government to act as her or his judges.
“The mode of execution was, however, similar, as English victims of Witch trials were hanged and the Scottish were usually strangled. But in England the bodies were then buried and in Scotland they were burnt.”
As Prof Hutton and project leader Dr Winfield both highlight, while there is a definite link to the persecution of Witches at the site, the extent and full nature of that link remains unclear at present. The find at Mither Kirk represents a great opportunity to discover more, not only about this fascinating period of history, but also of the history of Witchcraft in Britain.It is often said that these Witch trials and executions, on one level, served as public entertainment. With that in mind, it would appear that the modern sensationalist spin on the story, as presented in the British press, offers up the victims in that very way. Additionally, the BBC’s focus on the more grisly details of such an archaeological find is in keeping with the tradition of mainstream British media sensationalising any news story remotely Pagan.
But Ashley Mortimer, a trustee at the Doreen Valiente Foundation and director at the Centre For Pagan Studies, feels the spotlight that has been shone on Mither Kirk can still be seen as a positive. Mortimer said, “I think it shows the Pagan community not to forget where it came from, that our history informs us and those outside of our community of how we came to be here.”
Mortimer continued on to say: “That bloody history records that people who describe themselves as Witches were far fewer in times past and those that didn’t describe themselves often found others doing it for them – with dire consequences.“I think it reminds us that we occupy a place of equality in society now which we should treasure and value carefully, one we should remember was hard won over many, many years by those brave enough to stand up for our rights to do as we will and call ourselves what we will.
“Our ancestors deserve our gratitude and we owe it to our descendants to preserve the history – modern, ancient and in between – so that we may never forget where we came from and how we got to here.”
All of the details found in the archives will be put on public display, and the remains that were dug up will be reinterred in a specially built crypt in the church.
The true story of Mither Kirk’s Witches is still to be told, but for now we have been reminded of their presence.
* * *
For more background on the Witch Trials in Scotland, Professor Ronald Hutton recommends Brian P. Levack’s Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion by Brian P. Levack.
NEW YORK — WitchsFestUSA, an annual Pagan festival held in the heart of New York City, was attended this year by Christian protesters. The noisy group, who stood all day on the corner of Astor Place, held up large signs calling for repentance and angrily yelling at the passing crowd. Despite the protesters’ presence, the Pagan festival kept to its program and ended on a high note.Now in its fifth year, WitchsFestUSA describes itself as an outdoor, Pagan street faire. Its mission is to “bring the community of witches or pagans together in general and enjoy who we are as such, while at the same time raising funds for The NYC Wiccan Family Temple acquire our own space of worship.”
The festival was founded and is annually hosted by elder High Priestesses Starr RavenHawk and Luna Rojas. RavenHawk founded and now runs Wiccan Family Temple and the Academy of Pagan Studies, both located in New York City. In 2013, RavenHawk was featured in a Time Magazine about Witchcraft and its modern day practice. Rojas is also a high priestess and member of the Wiccan Family Temple. Additionally, Rojas is the founder of the New York City Pagan Council, a pagan civil rights organization.
RavenHawk and Rojas have been running WitchsFestUSA since 2011. The festival takes place in New York City’s Greenwich Village on Astor Place between Broadway & Lafayette Streets. The one-day Pagan event hosts a variety of workshops, rituals, performances, and vendors, all set up on Manhattan streets like a typical city street faire. This year’s guest presenters were many, including: Rev. Don Lewis, Lilith Dorsey, Christopher Penczak, Courtney Weber Hoover, Lady Rhea, Rhonda Choudry, Qumran Taj, and Lexa Rosean.The group of protesters, who numbered between 10 and 20 at any given time, arrived early and stayed all day. They set up on one corner of Astor Place, near the festival’s teaching tents. The group held up signs and yelled at the growing festival crowd. According to RavenHawk, this was the same group of people who protested Pagan Pride in 2015.
Witch and author Christopher Penczak told The Wild Hunt that the protesters appeared to be “some evangelical variety” of Christian, but he could not identify any specific denomination or church affiliation.
“I have never encountered such a belligerent group,” said Hannah, a member of the Temple of Witchcraft and a regular attendee at Pagan and other similar conventions. “One [protester] screamed in my face that I need to repent.” She said that, in her experience, most convention protesters are typically more passive. “These guys were seriously full of aggression and hate.”
While the group kept to its physical location on the street corner, its members were reportedly extremely loud and often shouted over the teachers trying to teach, which appeared to be their goal. In a blog post, author and priestess Courtney Weber Hoover wrote, “We delayed the beginning of our workshops as their ‘Repent, you guys! You’re all going to hell!’ rallies were too loud!”
Lexa Rosen, who was scheduled to teach in the tent directly beside the protesters, attempted to start a chant and a spiral dance to hush them,” as relayed by Wiccan High Priestess Dawn Marie. She said, “In the end we moved her tent over so she could do some of her workshop.”
As Penczak began to teach his workshop, he quickly realized that he couldn’t “speak without yelling to be heard.” He said, “Though naive, I thought: ‘has anyone asked them to be quieter in a polite way?’ Have we tried to just talk to them?’ So I tried.”
While other attendees had engaged with the protesters in theological debate, Penczak “had a more practical request in mind.” He simply wanted to ask them to lower their volume. As his story goes, he approached the woman leading the chants, who said, “Can’t you see I’m busy. I got a job to do. I’ve got no time to talk to you.” Penczak then “tried to explain that [he] also had a job to do and she was making it impossible.” She ignored him.
Penczak said, “I tried to talk to what I thought was her associate right next to her but the gentleman turned around, and his sign said ‘Will work for cigarettes,’ and he explained he wasn’t with her.” He said that he then returned to his “teach-yell” workshop.
Weber Hoover said the same: “I led my Tarot class with a chorus of shouts about Jesus and redemption off to my left.”Priestess and author Lilith Dorsey experienced the same. She shared this story:
I was all set to give my Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism workshop when I realized I was about 10 feet away from a loud group of Christian protesters. My godson who had come with me asked if I was going to try to reason with them. My initial response was that I used to sing on Broadway and it would be possible to talk louder than them even at this close distance. So my understanding class gathered close and I proceeded to project a well-received and well-attended lecture despite the circumstances.
Dorsey added, “After my class was over I think there was a moment where I flashed some devil horns and stuck out my tongue.”
In talking about this unfortunate situation, Dorsey made it a point to express her “respect for Christians who practice what they preach.” This sentiment was echoed in Weber Hoover’s blog post. She wrote, “I won’t call [the protesters] Christians. I know too many wonderful Christians to lump them in with this crowd.”
However, Dorsey said that, in this particular situation, she felt “disturbed and disrespected.” She added, “I have sat on interfaith councils with Christians and people of all faiths. Fortunately I have never had to directly deal with such vitriol until now. It was extra disheartening to see many people of color protesting, which in light of recent events and the #blacklivesmatter movement makes me want to ask them don’t you have better things to shout at.”
Winifred Costello, a Traditional Witch and the proprietor of AwenTree, was visiting from her home in Western Massachusetts. She said, “I felt upset for the presenters, organizers and attendees that worked hard to put on the event. The protesters were yelling so intensely and with such anger, that I did could not hear the workshop presenter speaking and I did not feel comfortable sticking around.”
Dawn Marie echoed that sentiment, saying, “[The protesters] were really angry and aggressive, and I started to worry that it would get out of hand because of the recent shootings.” She had to shield herself, adding that she felt “rattled” and “inconvenienced.”
The New York City Police Department was on hand and watching the protest. RavenHawk noted that four officers remained near the protesters at all times to protect the attendees. Dana Marie said that “[The officers] were respectful and kept us protected while keeping an eye on the protesters and telling them to stop getting so loud.”However, not everyone felt safe. As mentioned earlier, Costello left the festival because of the intensity of the protest. She said, “Due to recent events in the nation, I felt far more sensitive to, and disturbed by, the strong vibe of intolerance radiating from this group in particular. It is not that I haven’t encountered religious protesters before but given the reality of how intolerance is literally leading to folks being killed, I just had no stomach for the energy these protesters had. If they want to spread their beliefs I think there are more productive, kinder and tolerant methods than the actions they choose.”
She continued on to say, “The biggest take-away from this experience was that we need to keep advocating for positive, safe change, for acceptance of diversity in our country. The time of angry intolerance and fear-driven actions needs to shift towards a time of inclusion, acceptance and peaceful interactions.”
While many attendees simply ignored the protesters, others, like Penczak, did engage with them in some way. RavenHawk told The Wild Hunt, “I tried at first to reason with them that, this is our civil rights to be here and practice our religion, just like they do. To which they answered that it was their right as well to do their job and save us despite ourselves.”
On her blog, Weber Hoover describes her own action, in which she hugs two of the protesters and repeatedly says, “I love you.” Her chanting first elicited the same statement back. However, as she continued and got louder, the two protesters became fearful that she was casting a spell.Weber Hoover said, “[A leader] held his hand up and started shouting an incantation, as though to strike the Devil out of me.” She added, “I don’t know that my choice this time was the answer, but it was the right answer for me at that moment.”
Other actions included the drawing of pentacles, spirals and other magical images in chalk and salt on the ground at the protesters feet. Dawn Marie said “One gentleman had started smudging and charging the circle he had drawn as well as the other symbols around him. The whole thing was a barrier of peace.”
Dawn Marie was impressed with the attendees’ reactions to the situation. She added, “They didn’t blow the smoke at the protesters or disrespect the protesters as much as pray to the Gods for protection on the festival.”
In retrospect, RavenHawk told The Wild Hunt that the situation was “very offensive” and “traumatizing.” She said, now, “I literally cannot seem to want to hear anyone speak to me or near me about Jesus. I am so turned off by it right now, and never noticed or paid attention to it before.”
Despite that experience, attendees universally reported that RavenHawk handled the situation with grace and was “cool and calm” despite the unwanted guests and the continual disruptions.They said that she did the best she could, communicating with officers and being available to attendees, vendors and presenters.
By the end of the day, nothing that was done by the organizers or festival participants provoked the group to leave their corner. However, at the same time, nothing the protesters did ended the festival. Although presenter voices needed to be louder and some teaching events had to be relocated, WitchsFestUSA 2016 was considered successful, ending with a rousing closing ritual.Dorsey said, “Overall it was only a minor distraction at an amazing event, run by some of the most competent and powerful people I know. ”
RavenHawk expressed her personal gratitude to everyone involved. In a public post, she wrote, “We sang songs of love and the Goddess, clapping our hands to our own beat… later on many drew sigils of pentagrams on the street before them.. witches took lemons and made lemonade. Refreshing.”The sixth annual WitchsFestUSA is already in the planning stages and will be held July 15, 2017 at the same location.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As we previously reported, this year’s recipient of the Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fun is 18-year old Pete Ryland Shoda III of Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is the third scholarship awarded by the fund since it was created as the Tempest Smith Foundation closed its doors.
Eligible scholarship applicants must be a high school senior or equivalent, and must be able to demonstrate that they have been a practicing Pagan for at least a year. They must submit two essays, one that is on a scholarly topic of the applicant’s choice, while the other discusses how Paganism has impacted the applicant’s life.
For this year’s winner, Paganism is made up of a set of values that are important for him. As Shoda, who is now 18 years old, wrote in his essay:
Mother Nature is watching me, and the wind is listening to me, carrying my spells, chants and requests to the Universe. Always helping, always taking care to leave a small mark, always being a good person to others, taking care of the Earth, giving back when I can.
The Wild Hunt: Did you grow up Pagan? If so, how did your family include you in their religious practices, if at all, when you were young?
Pete Ryland Shoda III: My mom has always been Pagan. She was the one who led me in the path. I have always been included in rituals when I wanted to participate. So knowing that I was able to be included or even help in rituals when I wanted has been nice.
TWH: How old were you when you became aware of other religions, and how did that affect you?
PRS: I was around the age of 10 when I really started to do things in the rituals, I had been in a few b
TWH: How old were you when you decided for yourself that you are a Pagan? What made you realize that?
PRS: I was 12 when I figured it was right for me, what made me realize that is I just liked doing it and there were no other religions that I connected with. My mom has always allowed me to go to other religions to see what they are like, but being Pagan is where I feel like myself.
In his winning essay, he further explains:
It […] means that I have the ability to talk to the Divine, Earth Mother, Father Sky, where and when I want, not having to go to a building, not having to communicate my emotions and words to a person that says, “you are forgiven”. For the Divine, by whatever name you call it, is in me, I can communicate within myself, self-love, self-healing, self-forgiving, for the Divine lives in me, you, us, the trees, the plants, the grass, she is all around.
TWH: The fact that you even applied for the scholarship shows you’re open about your Paganism, as does your essay. Can you recall a time when you explained Paganism to someone and felt that they understood what you meant?
PRS: I would have to say there were lots of times at school when I was asked about my religion. Then I would tell them, explain things and the back story would have to follow right behind that. But overall every one that I have told has understood, but I can’t say they all have agreed with the idea.
In his essay, Shoda wrote, “Living in West Michigan, the Bible belt, is not easy being Pagan, it’s hard to defend my thoughts and beliefs to others. I have been asked many times how I can be Pagan, how I can live like “that.” To which I ask them how is it that you are able to live with such a vindictive God.”
TWH: Was there ever a time when you felt you were unfairly singled out for being Pagan that you’d be willing to describe?
PRS: I have been very lucky, there has not been a time like that in my life. I try to have open minded people as friends, if they can’t understand me and my way of life then they are not a real friend to begin with. So overall it has been a good experience.
TWH: How has your being Pagan affected your life in school, if at all?
PRS: I have been really lucky, the school that I went to was really full of nice people, they were accepting, again they may not have agreed with it, but they accepted me.
TWH: Do you practice or socialize with Pagans outside of your immediate family? In what ways?
PRS: Not really how it stands, because I do not have time to work it out with flying and school as well the two jobs I have, but if i did it would be going to Pagan pride and other things like that.
TWH: Did your religion factor into where you applied for college? How so?
PRS: No. my career is what factored in where I applied for college. I have known since I was 12 I wanted to fly and that has predetermined where I would be going to college.
Shoda is a graduate of the West Michigan Aviation Academy, and will be continuing his studies at Grand Rapids Community College and Northwestern Colleges. He plans to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Aviation Operations.TWH: How do you feel your religion relates to your chosen field of aviation?
PRS: When I fly, I am in a plane, but I am still so close to nature, so peaceful, it’s my Ohmmmmmmmmm.
TWH: It’s clear from your essay that Paganism is part of your identity, as you write that “it gives me the choice to worship where, when and how I want.” Would you share some examples of where, when, and how?
PRS: On holidays, with my mom, in rituals, and gatherings. But I like it when I am walking around, when I am riding my scooter, when I feel connected. I worship, pray to my Gods or Goddesses anytime. Every night before I go to sleep I say a thank you to the divine for all that I have and think about that day and how blessed I am. People think wealth is money, [but] it’s not, it’s how loved you are, how happy and healthy you are.
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As the winner of the Michigan Pagan Scholarship, Shoda received a $500 award to be used to help advance his studies. He will begin college in the fall.
TROUT LAKE, Wash. — Over the weekend, Columbia Grove, ADF hosted its first Pan-Pagan camping festival at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary in Trout Lake, Washington. The festival, called Beyond the Gates, was attended by 35 people, and featured a variety of workshops and rituals. For example, ADF Archdruid Emeritus Reverend Kirk Thomas, who co-owns and operates Trout Lake Abbey on which the sanctuary is located, offered two lectures: Celtic Arthur and The Ancient Celtic Religion. Phaedra Bonewits was there to host a workshop on Ritual Participation and the Life and Times of Isaac Bonewits.
Among the rituals held was one dedicated to the goddess Fortuna, which, they said, “dates back to the Roman Republic.” It was held Friday night in the Druid Sanctuary’s Stone Circle. Senior Druid Jonathan Levy led the ritual and “was joined by the grove’s Bard leader, Arin Hembd.” Hembd said that Levy decided to do this ritual because of Fortuna’s “unbroken following.” Hembd explained,”Under many guises and forms this goddess is worshiped continuously through the present time, with such examples of Luck Be a Lady Tonight (from the musical “Guys and Dolls”) and phrases like, ‘How fortunate you are.’”This inaugural Beyond the Gates festival was considered a huge success, and the group hopes to do it again next year. Hembd said, “Guests mentioned feeling as though they truly were Beyond the Gates when entering the property of Trout Lake Abbey, which has a deeply sacred feeling.” Levy and Hembd added that they were able to interview some of the attendees, such as Bonewits, Thomas and others. The interviews will be uploaded to their Part the Mist podcast over the next few weeks.
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OLYMPIA, Wash. — In less than one month, Pagans, Heathens and polytheists will be heading to Washington state to attend the second annual Many Gods West conference. The event is hailed as “A Polytheist Gathering for the Pacific Northwest.” Throughout the weekend several different rituals will be offered, including those hosted by Jason Mankey, Cascadia Grove, ADF, the Golden Gate Kindred, Marcella “Allec” McGuire, Sean Donahue, Anaar Niino, Laura Tempest Zakroff, Phoenix LaFae, and Gwion Raven.
Other presentations are focused on an array of topics from “Teaching to Transgress: Decolonizing Polytheistic and Pagan Pedagogies” and “Uprooting Patriarchy in Paganism and Polytheism” to “Working with Water Spirits” and “Bee Magic and Medicine.” One of the other features of this year’s event is a Plenary Session, titled “Building Polytheist Community,” and hosted by blogger John Beckett.
Syren Nagakyrie, one of the conference organizers, said, “What I find the most amazing is the feedback we have received about Many Gods West from people who attended last year, and the level of excitement from people who will attend this year for the first time. Many Gods West is a very welcoming and inclusive space of peers and we are committed to maintaining that space. We take hospitality for people and gods very seriously. While we are not an anti-capitalist conference, we do hold those values very closely; we are queer, we are anti-racist, anti-transphobic, and stand against bigotry. We are also entirely organized by women. These things form the legs which support our work with the gods and create a welcoming place at the table for Them as well. I think our presentations and rituals, none of which were solicited by the organizers, show this. To bring together so many devoted people from diverse backgrounds in celebration of the gods and each other is a great honor and a wonderful opportunity for our communities.” Many Gods West will be held Aug 5-7 at the Red Lion Hotel in Olympia Washington.
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PENSACOLA, Fla. — As we reported last week, local Pagan David Suhor is scheduled to deliver an invocation before the Pensacola City Council on behalf of The Satanic Temple. Suhor made news in 2014 when he delivered an invocation before the September meeting of the Escambia Board of County Commissioners. During that delivery he sang a prayer written by Starhawk with “accompanying magical gestures.”
This time around, Suhor will be delivering his invocation as member of The Satanic Temple. After it became known that he was on the schedule, the city council began debating whether to end its inclusive prayer policy. A special meeting was held July 7 to discuss the issue and allow for public comment. During that meeting, as reported by the local press. “a theological debate unfolded for an hour and half.” Suhor was at the July 7 meeting and asked the council to “replace the invocations with something that allows everyone to speak or pray or think according to their own conscience.” He ended his plea with “Hail Satan!”
In the end, the council opted to keep its inclusive prayer policy, which means Suhor will be delivering the invocation July 14. All city meetings are live-streamed and recorded for public viewing.
In other news
- The Adocentyn Research Library, located in Northern California, announced that it now “has 9,461 books.” Although not officially open, Adocentyn continues to grow and gather needed resources in order to fulfill its mission to become the “premier Pagan research center in the Western US.” Volunteers gather several times each month to catalog the many donated books and put them on shelves. Anyone interested in helping the cause can volunteer to assist with various tasks, or can donate books or funds.The library’s Facebook page is kept up to date.
- In the wake of recent events, groups of Pagans and Heathens are calling for unity in magical workings with intent of ending violence and promoting justice. Pagan author Dana Eilers offered the following: “Is it time to lend our considerable power to the scourge of violence that is swallowing our country this summer? Yes, it is! More violence is not the answer. I suggest a National Magical Movement aimed to STOP THE VIOLENCE NOW. The July full moon occurs on the night of July 19. So, at midnight between July 19-July 20 (whenever midnight occurs in your respective time zones), perform a magical working, cast a spell, pray to your gods, meet in ritual, and do whatever it is that you do best to STOP THE VIOLENCE NOW”
- The Covenant of the Goddess is getting ready for its annual Merry Meet conference, which is to be held August 11 – August 14. Each year the event is sponsored by a different local council, located around the country. This year it is being hosted by Northern California Local Council (NCLC) and is being held in San Jose, California. Merry Meet is a conference that typically offers workshops, vendors, community, as well as providing a setting for the organization’s annual business meeting Grand Council.
- Another organization that is planning its annual summer gathering is Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). Last year, the organization relaunched its conference, called Convocation, after a ten year hiatus. The event was held in July 2015. This year’s Convocation will be held in late August in the historic town of Salem, Mass. The 2016 guest speakers include Byron Ballard, John Beckett, Gypsy Ravish, Lauren Estan, Rev. Shirley Ranck and Rev. Amy Beltaine. In her blog post, J.K. Hildebrand writes, “All are welcome…CUUPS members, ministers, seminarians, and those interested in UU Paganism, earth and nature centered spirituality on all levels.”
- UK writer The Bad Witch attended Treadwell’s recent conference on the UK Satanic Panic of the 1980s. In a blog post, she discusses the media’s role in that scare and highlights the work of one journalist, who “bucked the trend.” The Bad Witch writes, “Dr Rosie Waterhouse, now director of the MA in investigative journalism at City University London, was a reporter at the time. She investigated what was being called Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) and found that evidence to back up the claims simply didn’t exist.”
UNITED STATES — On Tuesday morning, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was shot in the chest and back by a Louisiana police officer outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. By Tuesday night, protests and vigils began in that capital city. While many people were still examining the video of the shooting and processing what happened, another shooting occurred. On Wednesday evening, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was shot by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While an official police video of the shooting hasn’t yet emerged, a video of Castile’s death was livestreamed on Facebook.
By Thursday, protests against police brutality, along with vigils for the two men, swept the nation. Most protests have been peaceful. However, one in Dallas, Texas ended with five police officers killed and seven others wounded by a former military member who said he wanted to “kill police officers, especially white ones.” Two protesters were also wounded in the attack. Then, on Saturday evening in Minneapolis, several officers were injured by protesters throwing rocks and bottles. Police responded with CS gas and rubber bullets.The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have much in common, along with a few differences. The deaths of both men were caught on tape and viewed by millions of citizens. Both men were carrying a firearm when they were killed.
In Minneapolis, police pulled Castile over for the stated reason of a broken taillight. Unknown to Castile, police reportedly thought he matched the description of an armed robbery suspect, and wanted an opportunity to take a closer look at him. According to Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who was in a car with him, the officer asked him for his license and registration. She said that, as he reached for his I.D., he informed the officer that he had a concealed-carry permit and was armed. Reynolds said the officer told him to put his hands up and not to move. But, as Castile tried to put his hands up, he was shot five times and died. Reynolds said that Castile was attempting to comply with conflicting orders by the officer: to produce his identification, to put his hands up, and to not move.
In Baton Rouge, Sterling was just outside a store when police came. Officers were responding to a call that a man was displaying a firearm or that it was visible. As Sterling is a convicted felon, he was not legally permitted to carry a firearm. However, that fact was reportedly not known to police at the time of the shooting. Additionally, the video doesn’t show Sterling brandishing or reaching for his weapon during the attempted arrest. What the video does show is Sterling and the police struggling, then the officer fires several times killing Sterling.
Both cases have civil rights activists, Black Lives Matter activists and many others questioning whether these killings were justified or examples of excessive force used by police.
The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagans across the country about why they attended the weekend rallies, what religious ethics drive their actions, and what they experienced first hand.
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Kenya Coviak is a diasporic practitioner of modern neo-pagan witchcraft and folk magick, Founder of the Great Lakes Witches Council of Michigan, Co-treasurer of Ancient Faiths Alliance; Founder of Black Moon Grove and President of Pagan Pride Detroit INC. Coviak said:
“One, I am a diasporic, that means Black. [A] woman in this great nation who is directly and indirectly affected by what is going on in the class and race conflicts ongoing in the way we treat each other as a country. The blood that is being spilled is my own in spirit, kith, and kind if not kin. It is a greater issue when it comes to Black Lives Matter. It is not Black Lives Matter OR Blue Lives Matter. It is Black Lives Matter AND Blue Lives Matter. Because the tide of wickedness that is flowing through the rivers of pain in our country are a form of sickness that is seeking to divide and dissolve our collective unity.
“Those who have been twisted and turned into the tools of hatred and bigotry are killing citizens before they can even get to the hearing. And there is a spectrum of force that is being skipped and cherry-picked when it comes to Black and Native and Poor people.”Coviak continued, saying “The fact that there are Pagan activists all over the electronic landscape is one thing, but unless we get in the streets and off the keyboards, what good are we to people who do not have time to put their coffee next to the screen and read the latest thought piece?
“Michigan is unique in that it has so many new and old Pagan and Heathen groups that are openly and actively involved in bridge building. There is no justifiable reason that there should ever be a demonstration where NO representative of Pagan faiths are in attendance. And the fact that I went through three bundles of smoke cleansing herbs and oils means a great deal to me. Even security and law enforcement were open enough to ask questions and even let the smoke clear and bless them.
“I am an activist and former Family Service Worker for Head Start. Boots on the ground is how I have always rolled. I experienced the energetic [at the rally] shift from anger to focus to optimism. As the crowd grew, so did the feeling of a storm breaking. Some were overwhelmed and took generous gulps of water as they were comforted by volunteers.
“My values dictated that where there is a spiritual awakening, and where there is an etheric shift that trauma causes, I should be there if I can. I come with heart, hands, and soul to share the weight.”
Tasha Rose, a practicing Witch, said:
“I went to the rally because clear injustice was laid upon Philando and his family. I wasn’t able to stay beyond bringing food that I made but that’s how I serve, I cook. I prayed as I made a simple snack for protesters and as is my personal daily practice, imbued the food with love and strength and resilience and other attributes I thought would be needed by those standing up and speaking out.”Rose added, “This man was innocent. He was murdered by a police officer who spooked like a newly broke horse after he profiled Philando. These kind of people do not deserve to count themselves as protectors of the peace when they are waging war built on classist, racist pretenses. I went and left prayerful food and said my prayers at the rally because we should all feel safe around those who wear a badge. We should all be able to drive without fear of being murdered by those who are sworn to serve us.”
Sara Amis is a writer and Faery Tradition initiate. Amis said:
“I actually went to two marches: one Thursday evening from Five Points to Piedmont Park, and one Friday that started in Centennial Park and basically went on for the rest of the evening with a bit of rally in between. Aside from the obvious…that I think there’s a problem with police violence that the system as it functions now is not addressing, and that there is a measurable racial bias element to it as well…I think it’s important to be present, to walk the streets with those most at risk and hear what they have to say in their own voices, to let them know they are supported in real time with my own feet and voice and risks. It’s an act of democracy and an act of love.”Amis continued, saying, “I wrote an ‘Incantation for Justice’ a year and a half ago, which begins ‘The place of the witch is beside the downtrodden.’ If anything I’m more convinced of that now than I was before. Fundamentally, if I think that life is sacred, that each person is a unique expression of the divine, it’s not good enough to think that in the abstract. I have to express those ideas in concrete ways.
“Atlanta is interesting. There’s such a strong tradition of civil disobedience here, and many of the veterans of the Civil Rights movement are still around, still doing work in their communities in and out of politics. When John Lewis is the senior member of your Congressional delegation, it changes things.
“The Friday afternoon march started as the Center for Civil and Human Rights which is also an Atlanta tourist attraction, and my Congressman, Hank Johnson, was marching in it. I was there with my boyfriend, who is a political candidate. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some antagonism, but it’s more passive-aggressive, like Mayor Reed claiming that Martin Luther King, Jr. would never have blocked a highway, which if you ask me is a patently ridiculous statement.“But the protests here almost never get ugly and can often be quite celebratory, even with all of the typical confusion, police, flashing lights, and helicopters. The Thursday night march was more somber but Friday night people were drumming, singing, dancing down the street. There were all ages and races and backgrounds there, but the majority of them were African-American and many of them were quite young. When I look at them they look like my students…some of them clearly were students, from Georgia State, Emory, Spelman, Agnes Scott, Morehouse, etc. They were bantering back and forth about Rosa Parks and Zora Neale Hurston. They were cheerful, funny, ebullient even. Bystanders were also very supportive, waving and honking their horns even as we were keeping them from getting where they were going.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was tense at times. The police were present with AR-14s (sic), though I assume that was in fear of a copycat of Dallas. I heard they had tear gas though I didn’t personally see it. And after the stand-off on the Williams St. exit had gone on for a while it looked like they were going to try to box us in. The response was to peel off a large group and march around the city for about an hour and a half, singing and picking up more people as we went.
“My boyfriend and I finally left before the trains stopped running. We passed someone who had parked his car and had it cranked up playing ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.’ Then argued politics with people on the train on the way home; another thing about Atlanta is that people talk to each other, in the street, on the train. It’s a very human city, like an overgrown small town.”
Elizabeth said: “I don’t prescribe to a specific type of Paganism. I practice goddess worship, acceptance, kindness, peace, love, feminism, and social justice.”
“I went to the Shut It Down protest in Oakland, CA this past Thursday as white ally and witch. The crowd was extremely diverse. There were all different religions races and creeds. Children, families, teens, young adults, middle aged adults, elderly adults. The protesters were culturally diverse, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian […] What I saw with my heart was my community coming together in support of Black Lives Matter.
“I attended the protest with my Hive Sister from CAYA Coven and we were burning sage and walked the perimeter of the rally with our focus and intentions on maintaining a shield of protection around us (protesters) from violence and police brutality and boosting the signal that Black Lives Matter.”
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Morpheus Ravenna is a Celtic polytheist Pagan, and Lore Chieftain of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. Ravenna said:
“I attended the rally because I must. I value justice, sovereignty, the kinship of humanity, and I can’t stand by and claim to care about those things but not act to do something about the horrific injustices that I see perpetrated by our institutions against People of Color. There are plenty of other ways to make a difference; but for me as a practitioner of a warrior tradition and a dedicant of the Morrígan, I’m called to act by joining the Black community in the streets and participating in direct action and resistance.”Ravenna continued, “The mood of the crowd was passionate that night. News of the extrajudicial killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had just landed in the community on top of weeks of awful revelations about the OPD and several other local police forces in a truly reprehensible sex trafficking conspiracy. There was a feeling of outrage, grief and frustration. You had this sense that this crowd was not going to be stopped. The march moved very quickly from the plaza to OPD headquarters, and then in a matter of moments was cascading across the highway, shutting it down completely and holding it for over four hours.
“I saw fierce chanting, outpourings of rage and grief, revolutionary speeches; and I also saw celebratory music and dancing, spontaneous outbursts of jubilation. When the front of the march crested the on-ramp and took the highway, someone let off a few firecrackers overhead and there was victorious cheering. People took care of each other, sharing food around as the night grew later. When someone in the crowd had a seizure, street medics stepped up, and a doctor whose vehicle was stuck in the shutdown even came and helped out.
There was a lot of good feeling. But also, as all this was going on the news about the Dallas sniper started going around the crowd, and people were very nervous that the police would come down hard on us because of it. We were working with other clergy people at the march, preparing to place ourselves as shields between police and Black activists if the situation called for it. Thankfully, we saw no violence that night.”
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Brennos Agrocunos, is a Celtic polytheist Pagan and the acting Chief of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. Agrocunos said:
“I attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland California on July 7 in order to support the Black community, stand alongside Black clergy, and work as a street medic during the event. As a part of my commitments and oaths to my Gods and ancestors I work to serve my community in the best way that I can. In Oakland, violence from the police against the Black community is a significant and deadly problem. Providing support for People of Color in our community during a time of crisis is the morally correct thing to do, and as a human I’m compelled by my conscious and as a priest I’m compelled by my oaths to my Gods to act.”
Newark, New Jersey
Queen Mother Imakhu, is a Shenu-Khametic, a branch of Ancient Egyptian spirituality, and Pastor and Leader of the Sharaym Shenu Khametic Temple. Queen Mother Imakhu said:
“I was walking to my bus stop, on my way home from the Farmers Market. There was no difficulty in catching it, because it was stuck at the intersection, along with a long line of buses and cars. Traffic was at a standstill because grassroots protesters had taken over the major intersection of Newark. We sat there for an hour. Our bus driver was in solidarity, and shut the bus off. He said he wasn’t going to attempt to move until the protesters allowed passage. Other drivers followed suit. Some tried to push through, but got nowhere. I jumped off the bus to grab photos with my phone, then reboarded.”She added, “What was disappointing was hearing folks complaining about how the protestors were an inconvenience. Others complained about getting to work. They missed the point about the economic shut down. Business in downtown Newark was disrupted. And these were Black folks complaining.
“My driver happened to be a colleague: a Kemetic High Priest. Our faith calls for making a difference through actions. The spiritually awakened Khamite/Kemite stays calm, but stands on the side if truth. While others in the bus were screaming and complaining, we both maintained our cool, and affirmed our support for the protestors. He took a lot of heat too. He was calm, dignified, resolute, smiling.
“I was happy to see how my personal influence of teaching and demonstrating Activism has positively influenced our community overall. Kemite used to be ostriches. Our faith demands activism. I’ve posted events I’ve protested at in order to educate about being involved. That’s why.”
New York, New York
Courtney Weber is a Progressive Wiccan, Priestess and author. Weber said:
“As a Priestess in a diverse, urban community, I’m terrified that one morning I’ll wake up to see that the next victim of police violence was one of my students, community members, or friends–or one of their children. I won’t be neutral. I won’t be quiet.
“The rally was big, tight, and peaceful. We streamed into and blocked traffic up 5th Avenue to and along 34th street, then up to 42nd street, blocking Times Square. Some drivers were losing it at their wheels. Others honked or raised fists in solidarity. Whole buses had to sit and wait. I hoped passengers would get off and join us. Maybe some did. The sit-in in Times Square was the most peaceful part. We sang, but most people sat in silence. It’s was the most calm and quiet I’ve ever seen in that space.”
T. Thorn Coyle, is a magic worker, author, spiritual director and agitator for justice. Coyle said:
“I could call upon Pagan ethics, and my Goddesses and Gods, as reasons for activism, but frankly, during these times to not stand up against injustice? That would be a slap in the face to my very humanity. I do this simply because I feel in my bones that it is the right thing to do. I cannot do otherwise.”Coyle wrote a personal account of her experience at the Portland rally in an essay titled “To Run In, Freeze or Flee.” Briefly she said:
“Around 45 minutes into tonight’s gathering in Portland, a man pulled a gun on us. It turns out he is a Trump supporter and right-wing agitator. I was right near him, saw the gun, saw him unsnap the holster, and turned to get some children to back up. Once the kids were safely taken by some other adults, I was still close to him, trying to decide if I was needed. Then the ‘hit the ground’ call went up.
“I am grateful to the level headed people who just kept walking toward him, getting him away from the crowd. As the small group walked him further off, others of us were asked to form a cordon around the protest. We did.
“As the Black man who asked us to said, ‘I don’t want to get killed keeping you safe. I’m willing to die for you, but it’s your job to hold this line.’
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Alley Valkyrie, a Feri initiate, radical polytheist, columnist for The Wild Hunt. was at that same rally. Valkyrie said:
“I went to the rally for many reasons. I consider it my responsibility as someone who benefits from white supremacy and colonialism to speak up against oppression and state violence against Black folks, I knew many of the folks who had organized the rally, and its very much a community issue as well as a national issue given the racist history of Portland and the history of racist violence that our local police department has engaged in over the years. I have close friends in town who are afraid for themselves and their children due to police violence and I wanted to support them and stand beside them. I also have specific orders from the gods I worship to stand up against oppression and white supremacy, and going to the march fit right in with those orders.”Valkyrie added, “The rally started out real well. Several hundred people gathered in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, several leaders from the Black community spoke and engaged the crowd, and then we took the streets and marched through downtown, blocking traffic (most folks in cars were supportive), and eventually pausing at in front of the police headquarters where more folks started to speak again.
“And then out of nowhere a well-known right-wing agitator named Michael Strickland pulled a gun on the crowd and waved it around several times in a threatening manner. He was agitated because folks asked him to leave, as he was filming the crowd for malicious reasons. He runs a right-wing youtube station that he uses as a platform for harassing local activists, and has allied himself with self-proclaimed fascists who doxx local activists.
“I was nearby but blocked from sight of the gunman, but my partner was right in front of Strickland and had a gun pointed and brandished at him. Despite the fact that this occurred right across the street from the police station and there was heavy police presence at the march, it took the police around 20 minutes to arrest Strickland. Once he was arrested, the march continued through downtown, blocking the streets for another few hours. I went home at that point due to back pain, but the march then proceeded to block off the Morrison Bridge for over an hour.”
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The Wild Hunt will have continuing coverage of the protests in the days ahead.
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Note: Michael Strickland, the man accused of brandishing a weapon at the rally, has been charged with two class A felonies after being arrested and released Friday morning on his own recognizance without bail.
[The Wild Hunt is pleased to welcome Tim Titus to our monthly team. Titus’ column will appear on the first Saturday of every month, beginning in August. He will be sharing his own perspective on life, community and religion. Check out his full bio for more on his work and interests.]
The notions of freedom and personal spiritual authority are driving factors that bring people into the practice of a Pagan religion. Many modern Pagan practitioners are fleeing the older, more dogmatic and hierarchical forms of religion offered by the mainstream in favor of seeking a spiritual practice that speaks to them and is controlled by them.
In Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler specifically cites “freedom” as one of the major attractions that a Pagan path holds for modern people, writing that people often become Pagan “because they could be themselves and act as they choose, without what they felt were the medieval notions of sin and guilt” as well as a refusal to honor “rigid hierarchies and institutionalization” (23). In Paganism: An introduction to Earth-centered spirituality, authors Joyce and River Higginbotham specifically list “A pronounced religious individualism” (4) as a major tenet of their Pagan religion. Pagans, it would seem, seek their own paths rather than membership in any leader’s flock.
Yet leadership is still necessary, even for such an individualistic group of people. Although Pagans may not follow a shepherd’s crook as their ultimate beacon of hope nor any one sacred text as an infallible set of rules, we still look to those who have blazed trails to help us down the path that best suits our needs. If everyone hacked their own way through the woods, all the trees would be dead and the underbrush trampled.Druid and Patheos blogger John Beckett cites a number of roles that leadership still plays for the Pagan community. First, writes Beckett, is the more mainstream idea of “leaders as decision makers.” While there is no ultimate authority, “decisions have to be made based on an understanding of what the group wants to do.” This can be done through consensus or democratic process rather than an authoritarian style, but, “knowing which method to use for decisions is a key part of leadership,” explains Beckett.
Beyond that traditional leadership role, Beckett also sees Pagan leaders as teachers, managers, and visionaries. In the role of teacher, he emphasizes the necessity of strong communication skills. And, the role of manager is necessary because, while any group has a set of goals that drive it, “someone has to make sure all this gets done.” In the visionary role, leaders are needed to “articulate a vision and inspire people to do what’s necessary to make it a reality.”
Without leaders, our vision of the future can be difficult to see and even more difficult to attain. It is vital to the health of Pagan communities to produce strong, ethical people who are willing and able to perform these leadership functions.Now, it can be a daunting task to step out from the comfort of your own private spiritual practice and into the more public world of community leadership. However, many Pagan leaders have found it rewarding both personally and spiritually. To take those first steps into a new role, author and blogger Shauna Aura Knight advises a “model of apprenticeship and increasing responsibility” to help new community leaders get their feet wet. Knight regularly blogs and teaches a variety of leadership skills in the Chicago area. She further explains that this apprenticeship model can apply to anything from ritual facilitation to “event planning, leading meetings, and many other aspects” by “building the emerging leader’s confidence.”
Christopher Penczak, author and co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, says that this is how he became involved in leadership. “Each time I got the call to take on a little more responsibility,” he writes, “I thought that would be as far as it would go. Yet every few years, the call to go deeper would happen.” Although he did not seek a leadership role, “each time there was a need, and I found myself asked to step into a new and uncomfortable role.”
Penczak states that communication skills are indispensable. “While you can’t please everyone all the time, and really can’t even try,” he says, “you have to understand what people are saying to you and be able to convey what you can and cannot do, and why.” Alix Wright, the Lead Pisces Minister in the Temple of Witchcraft, agrees, noting that, “You can’t expect people to do what needs to be done, if you can’t tell them in a manner that they understand.” Wright adds that, “Since everybody hears and understands in different ways, you have to be able to communicate in a style and manner that matches each person you’re working with.”
Knight also recommends “the ability to hold paradox.” She writes, “Some issues are not just the binary of black and white, good or bad,” and explains that, “many leaders get stuck in being a know-it-all obsessed with being right, and that causes a lot of conflicts.” Salisbury echoes this when he advises young leaders to “remain humble and open to listening to your community.”There are always issues that can hold a new leader back. “Fear,” states Penczak, “is the biggest problem with new leaders.” This includes “Fear of losing control. Fear of not getting something done. Fear of not being worthy, and an effort to hide all these fears rather than acknowledge the process.”
Wright and Salisbury agree that doing too much at once is a major obstacle for new leaders. Wright emphasizes that, “One of the lessons I needed to learn was that it’s okay to say no, and when I do say yes, then it’s okay to ask for help and delegate.” Salisbury cautions against “trying to be everything to everyone all at once” because “burnout is a major leader-killer.”
Knight fears that, when new groups or events begin to form, those in charge “never stop to talk about what their goals are,” and she warns that, “most conflicts come from assumptions.” She advises “direct communication” to unravel those conflicts.
She also warns against another pitfall of leadership: “egotism.” “Many leaders desperately want to be ‘the person with the good idea,’ or ‘the one who’s right’ or, more broadly, ‘the savior.’ ” This, she says, leads to poor boundaries and poor choices, and it brings her back to stating her top quality for leadership: self-reflection.
Perhaps this ancient wisdom is the single best piece of advice. As John Beckett stresses, in the end “leaders are servants.” Leaders serve those whom they lead, providing them with spiritual experiences and practical direction, sometimes at their own expense. “Good leaders do that work,” concludes Beckett, “because they want to serve the Gods, their groups, the Pagan community, and the world at large.”
I first met Beowulf on a field trip. My grade school class had a special engagement to see a stage version of the story, performed – I think – by St. Louis’ Metro Theater Company. The spare production featured only a few actors and a set of props that, like those of The Fantasticks, were few enough that they could have been brought on stage in a gunnysack. A central platform at the center of the stage doubled as all the locations of the poem – the darkened hall of Heorot, the haunted mere, the dragon’s cave. A long pole served for almost everything else; it became swords, treasure, and, most memorably, the arm of Grendel, which Beowulf tears from him in their famous wrestling match.I recall feeling disappointed. Being a child, I had no real understanding of theatre or literature, and so I did not understand theatrical minimalism, or that there might be good reasons to tell the story in this way besides a lack of money. One of the actors explained that they did not want to show us Grendel as a latex-and-animatronics spectacle, and I remember thinking that was exactly what I wanted. Oh, well; children’s theater is wasted on children. I’d give anything to see that play again today, with adult eyes, if only to see their dragon again – a man perched atop the platform in cloak of red and gold, which he swirled around his body to create the image of flame.
Some twenty years on, I have spent the past three weeks standing deep in the poem, working with a number of scholars in a summer institute about Beowulf and its relationship to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Much of this has focused on some very specific textual echoes: Beowulf fights monsters in a king’s hall and a watery mere; Grettir Asmundarson, the hero of the Icelandic Grettis saga, fights a similar pair of trolls in a farmer’s hall and a waterfall cave. Bodvarr Bjarki, a character in Hrolfs saga Kraka, can be read as an Icelandic equivalent to the hero, and even serves a king whose name is cognate to a relative of Beowulf’s King Hrothgar. But beyond these textual correspondences – and the arguments for whether they are mere coincidence or represent evolutions of a common source – much of our discussions have focused on how Beowulf fits into the broader picture of the medieval north, and indeed, just what we know about those societies.
The central, seemingly inescapable question of Beowulf is the poem’s relationship to paganism. The poem, which survives in a single monastery-produced manuscript, clearly survives because of Christian literary practice; just as clearly, its story looks back to the heathen past and the heroic mode. Though every character in Beowulf is, logically, a heathen, the language itself is suffused with Christianity. Critical opinion has ranged from the notion that the poem is largely an oral heathen epic with a veneer of Christian commentary layered over it to reading it as an entirely Christian document that serves to criticize the ethical failures of the past.
The picture isn’t any clearer for other documents from the medieval north, either. The problems with Snorri Sturluson’s Edda are well known, being a prose synthesis of a pagan mythos several centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. But even a poem like Völuspá, which underpins so much of what we think we know about Norse mythology, often gets read as a Christian reflex, perhaps a systematizing of the heathen ways in the face of Christianity. Pick a feature of the literature and you can find a critic who will argue for its Christian influences.
Although I do my best to keep myself objective when I’m in a scholarly context, I admit that I struggle with this. In part I grumble because I feel that medieval studies, across the time period and the discipline, overemphasizes Christianity; while the religion clearly had more social influence than just about any other institution in the period, medievalists seem to interpret everything as though all people living in the middle ages were fanatically devoted, which simply seems unlikely to me. But these interpretations also go against my personal attractions to the literature. I read Beowulf and its Old Norse analogues, ultimately, because it’s the literature that’s shaped me, in ways obvious and not. It’s bound up with my Paganism, and therefore with my sense of self.
That means I want to see the pagan core to the poetry, and I want to see the coherent system of the cosmology. I want to read about Beowulf’s Geats pleaing to their gods for aid against Grendel and ignore the narrator’s snide commentary on their beliefs. I want to read Völuspá as a history that was complete before the Scandinavians ever heard of Christ. Above all, I suppose I want to read the texts with the comfortable sense of understanding they had when I first read them, even though I realize that is an impossibility.
Our modern Paganisms depend in large part on the institutions that study the ancient paganisms from which we draw our inspiration. While we come to our own individual understandings of our sources – and some of us even do excellent research of our own – ultimately, there are matters of expertise and access that underpin our understanding of the past that go beyond the average person’s resources. But that scholarship too is precarious, and often as not reflects assumptions and desires alien to those of the religionist.
Earlier in the Beowulf institute, I had a friendly disagreement with a religion scholar, whose position was that it was wrong, conceptually, to think of ancient Scandinavian paganism as a “religion.” To him, the word betrayed too many modern assumptions, too many Christian influences. For me, it was exactly the opposite: the idea that a “religion” can only refer to an Abrahamic-style proselytizing system seemed to demonstrate the exact kind of bias that he was trying to avoid. I absolutely wanted to think of Norse paganism as “religion,” because religion implies a degree of legitimacy that no other English word contains.
I don’t think either of us quite understood the importance of the others’ framing of the question, what is a religion. It was as if we were both children in the theater, watching the man in the cloak of flame, neither of us quite sure as to the shape of a dragon.
EGANVILLE, Ont. – Canada’s only public place of worship dedicated to honouring the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Germanic gods, has just been rebuilt and enlarged to accommodate growing numbers of visitors. Known as a Vé, this open-air holy site is located in a grove-like clearing amid a mixed forest of deciduous and coniferous trees. It consists of nine posts in a squared formation with a portico at its lowest point. The entrance faces high ground where god-poles, dedicated to Freyja, Frigg, Odin, Freyr and most recently, Thor are located. A low, natural stone altar is set in front of the god-poles. The area is enclosed by the Vé-bond rope, which is ritually hung from the posts. The land is part of Raven’s Knoll, a 100-acre Pagan-owned and -operated campground near Eganville, Ontario, along the Bonnechere River.The Vé needed repair because some of its posts had rotted and fallen over. Earlier this spring, campground staff noted that another post had been broken and pulled from the ground and that the Vé-bond rope had been pulled to one side.
The perpetrator of this vandalism is believed to be a young and gangly moose who had been hanging around the property at the time. The damage provided opportunity to make the Vé larger, as the numbers of folk attending rituals and ceremonies at the site are growing. The Vé was getting stretched to capacity.
Raven’s Knoll steward and gothi Austin Lawrence is the primary caretaker of the Vé. In a recent interview with The Wild Hunt, he explained how the Vé is used, and who uses it. Lawrence said:
The Vé was created for the worship of gods and goddesses of the pre-Christian religious traditions of the Old Norse and Germanic peoples. In particular, the Vé is a powerful and sacred place to interact with their power directly and intimately. This is done in large group rituals, such as blóts at the Hail and Horn Gathering, or through individual worship throughout the Spring, Summer and Fall when the campground is open. Some people spend time in the Vé to meditate, to read omens, to do personal rituals such as dedications or to speak marriage vows.
The Vé is open to anyone that makes the oath required to enter the Vé and follows the rules and taboos of that oath. To enter and participate in any ritual taking place in the Raven’s Knoll Vé, three basic rules should be strictly followed as a sign of respect for the holy powers and to ensure one’s own continued good fortune. These rules are to: 1) honour only the Æsir and their close allies; 2) keep frith and maintain good relations; and, 3) maintain sacral cleanliness, keeping the Vé holy and undefiled.
Most people prefer to make that oath to a gothi or gythia or other ring-bearer who has done ritual in that place at the Hail and Horn Gathering. However, anyone who has previously been oathed into the Vé can administer the oath. It does not matter, one bit, what biological ancestry, sexual or gender identity, class background, nationality, creed or other similar factor someone has. Anyone can enter the Vé, so long as they follow the rules and taboos.
Lawrence went on to explain where the original inspiration came from to create the Vé. He said:
We were originally inspired to create the Vé at Raven’s Knoll after reading the “risala” of Ibn Fadlan, ambassador of the Caliph of Bagdad to the King of the Bulgars, from the year 921 C.E. This account is one of the few first person accounts of how Heathen Scandinavians practiced their religion.
As modern Heathens with a passion for reconstructing the religions tradition of our ancestors, our goal is to create an accessible, publicly accessible place to worship the Aesir in the manner of the ancients. We have found that this allows for some of the most intense and close spiritual experiences possible in the various Heathen religious traditions. We simply want to share our love and experience of the gods with others.
One of the many co-creators of this sacred space is Erik Lacharity. He shared how it feels to be a part of constructing such a special place. He said, “It means that I am inextricably tied to the place. My deeds, my words are bound as much to the Vé as are the poles that stand within it. When I think back to the efforts I have exerted there, I feel that I have lived. I cannot imagine having gone through life and not been involved in the development and establishment of such a grand holy site.”
Lacharity explained how the Vé, as well as Raven’s Knoll and its growing community have all taken on a special role in his life:
As a person, I chose to live my life mythically. That is, I immerse large segments of my reality into what I perceive as a cosmic tapestry that is influenced by, at once my own deeds and the whims of the gods and ancestors. Raven’s Knoll gives me a place that I can live such a mythic life among others who value the experiences shared there to a similar degree. In such a small place in a rural town in Ontario of all places, I can strive to become as the “big men” who came before me and leave a lasting impression on those yet to come. It is here that I, and many others can be “all that we can be”.
Rebuilding the Vé and acquiring the resources needed was a large project, involving many of the folk from the local area. New posts needed to be sourced. The original red pine ones, which came from the surrounding forest, rotted quickly.
Local Heathen farmers, Kristoff Loki Wodinson and his partner Yitka Wodinson were able to donate new, more durable, cedar posts to the project. The ritual elements necessary for setting the posts were contributed by Lacharity, Lawrence and Juniper Jeni Birch. The hard physical labour of setting up the space, was shared by many hands.
Gypsy Birch, one of these workers, described the process:
For the past couple months, I have taken over the general maintenance of the Vé in terms of cutting the grass, the pushing back of overgrowth, and general upkeep. Many people seem to forget how much work goes into maintaining a sacred space, and part of my personal path is to allow people of other faiths to focus on their personal spirituality without worrying about the details. The act of repairing the two broken posts and the subsequent expansion of the Vé space is not something that was done in a day. There was much coordination required in order to clear the undergrowth, accurately measure the new space, source the new posts, cut and transport the new posts, remove the old posts, fill in the old holes, dig the new holes, and place the new poles.
This does not even take into account the ritual requirements of many of these tasks. James and I worked hard to coordinate a lot of these behind-the-scenes tasks, but admittedly, his work at getting the posts measured, cut, and delivered from Loki and Yitka’s farm, and then sitting in the sun for hours to skin the posts of their bark was by far the most labour-intensive part of the process. Of all the work that was done and the hours of sweat put into building the physical space, my personal spiritual growth comes from knowing that I have helped remove the burden of labour from others.
Last weekend, during Hail and Horn Gathering (HHG), a new god-pole was created and erected as the main ritual. Each year at this event, a Norse god is highlighted, and a god-pole dedicated to them and added to the Vé. Next year’s HHG will be held June 30 through July 3, and will feature two deities: Heimdall and Syn.
POLAND — This European Union member state is a bastion of Roman Catholicism, with as many as 37 million adherents (87.5% of the total population) today. Yet, even in Poland, one of the most Christianized European countries, Pagan religions are growing within the shadow of the Church. Today, that population is still dwarfed by its Catholic counterpart, but its loyal practitioners continue to cultivate a Pagan thriving subculture.
With the help of several Polish Pagans, we examine the diversity of Pagan practice found within the country.According to Wiccan priestess Agni Keeling, Wicca is a growing, but still quite a small, Pagan path in Poland. To her knowledge, there are only about 50 initiates in the entire country. She herself has initiated people from her native land by first requiring them to travel to England, where she has lived for some years. It is difficult to find reliable sources about Wicca in Poland, although Keeling said that some books by Vivianne Crowley are being translated. The three Wiccans who spoke to The Wild Hunt demonstrated a real excitement about helping their religion expand.
The most popular Pagan path practiced in Poland is Rodzimowierstwo (“native faith”), an indigenous form of Slavic polytheism. Adherents tend to use a reconstructionist methodology to rebuild their native faith, which has not spread through the English-speaking world as widely as some other European-based Heathen religions.
Tomasz Rogalinski is one such practitioner. He first encountered the tradition in 1978, before it had acquired the standardized name. He was attracted to it because of his extensive historical knowledge of the Slavs.
Rogalinski explained more of the tenets of this native religion, which varies depending upon the source material. Binding all the traditions together are the beliefs in native Slavic gods, the offerings of mead and food (traditionally groats, white cheese, and bread), a code based on principles of honor, responsibility, and courage, and the “circles of responsibility,” which centers on family and widens to include community.
“The circles are a challenge [to be] understood in a positive way, not a negative one,” Rogalinski acknowledged. “It is looking for similarities and helping those who are nearest to us, it is not about fighting other people.”
As with Wicca, the resources for those interested in Rodzimowierstwo can be a mixed bag. Gniazdo is a magazine created by the Rodzimowiercy, but there are other publications that, according to Rogalinksi, mix traditional and New Age beliefs without providing any context.
He further explained that the tenets of Rodzimowierstwo “exclude creating religious mix or joining different faiths (in a way of joining patheons or following many paths). It does not mean that there is no possibility of conducting one’s life according to the rules taken from the other faiths (unless they’re contradictory to Rodzimowierstwo), fascination by the other culture or having friends, family or know the people who have the other dominant faith.”
Along with the practice of Wicca and Rodzimowierstwo, age-old folk magic traditions continue to be practiced in Poland. Verm, one of our interviewees, was taught folk Witchcraft by a grandmother and an aunt.Many of these practices are somewhat tolerated in this largely Catholic nation, but that might be because no one has noticed them yet. According to Sheila, who is a second degree Gardnerian Wiccan, there are those who worry that, as the population of Pagans grow, this might change.
Sheila said, “Polish people (in general) are not very good in being understandable and tolerant. Most of us live in safe environment – with loving families and thoughtful friends, being quite anonymous while living in the big cities,” organizing largely through social media.
One result of Church domination is a form of syncretic polytheism. “The native religion of Poland could be a mixture of Catholicism with the old, Pagan customs and practices, including the magical ones,” said Verm. “It can be classified as polytheism, but instead of gods, there are Christian saints who had replaced gods and taken over their qualities. The interest in such practices is marginal, but is becoming bigger.”
Laszka shared a narrative that is common in other parts of the world where Christian traditions draw upon Pagan practices.
People bless the eggs on Easter, they decorate the table with green, they have a Christmas tree, they eat the meals that are traditionally connected with Winter Solstice, they hang mistletoe, they celebrate Pagan Dziady (the festival connected to death) and they have to add some invented holidays (e.g. Candlemas in the term when we have Weles’ festival, Saint John’s festival on Kupała, etc.). They just needed something to be at the same time of the year, because of the fact that Pagan festivals and traditions were preserved even despite the Christianisation.
Verm also is familiar with cases in which being public didn’t serve the individual well, highlighting a difference between the urban and rural experience. “I know some cases when people following other than Catholic paths are discriminated, especially in smaller places and in the villages where people point the finger at those who do not attend mass. Very often, those people have problems with finding or maintaining their jobs. I know the case of a girl who was diagnosed as mentally ill by a Catholic psychiatrist, because she wasn’t Catholic and believed in polytheism.”
“I don’t see persecutions preserved in the people’s minds,” observed Laszka. “There are some clashes, but it is more connected to political rather than religious reasons. Fortunately, in Poland there were no such cases as in the Ukraine, where the statues were destroyed on Włodzimierzowe Wzgórze/Starokijewska Góra.”
Rogalinksi said that, while there are “aggressive speeches of clergy” condemning minority faiths, it is not generally talked about by others. “Religion is not the subject of discussion; it is not discussed because of its personal character.”
Religious freedom is a right in Poland, and a group of 100 people can form a church, carrying with it lower taxes and the ability to teach the religion in a school setting. According to Rogalinski, Rodzimowierstwo has three of these formally organized groups.
However, in the view of Nefrestim, who is a second-generation Wiccan, the current government’s conservative bent does make practicing openly uncomfortable.Estimates of the number of Pagans vary widely. The 2011 Poland census asked specifically about Rodzimowiercy, but not other Pagan paths. According to Sheila, many Poles shy away from the word “Pagan” even if they do follow such a path, but she believes that they number in the thousands.
Rogalinski downplays the official number of Rodzimowiercy (4-5,000 people); his own figure of up to 2,000 is based in part on activity, not just on self-identification. Laszka, who also practices Rodzimowierstwo, thinks the total number following the tradition is 10,000. Many of the Pagans are solitary, making their numbers difficult to estimate, but they appear to be concentrated in the cities.
Whatever the number, it’s small, and that carries with it certain limitations. Lacking reliable resources for many Pagan paths on paper or online, the alternative — seeking a teacher in person — can also be difficult, due to the low density of Pagans overall. According to Nefrestim, the city of Poznań hosts two esoteric shops. As it is in other countries, these businesses have the potential to become networking hubs as the Pagan population grows. Still, the client base has not grown large enough to support many such businesses yet; online shops fill that gap, especially for Pagans who don’t live in the larger cities.
Another issue with the small number of Pagans is that they tend to know each other, like residents of a small town, which is fine, until it isn’t. Verm said that long-standing disputes can make it difficult for Pagans to cooperate at times. Rogalinski laments that the only agreed-upon sites of worship tend to be cultural or archaeological monuments that can’t be used. He believes, this type of sacred place could bring Pagans together despite their low numbers.
Putting a different spin on that idea, Laszka said that Pagans can buy their own land for worship. “The main obstacle is that there is no possibility to have a traditional burial. Polish law does not provide it. We have been struggling for it for ages (our judiciary system is very slow and the case may even require the changing of the law).”
All told, while laws and aspects of the culture present very real obstacles for Polish Pagans, the small community does enjoy the freedom to practice and continues to eagerly expand despite the very large shadow of the country’s dominant religion.