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[Karl E. H. Seigfried is one of our talented monthly columnists. On the fourth Saturday, he brings you insight and analysis about issues coming from within or affecting our collective communities. If you enjoy his work, consider donating to our fall fund drive today. You make it possible for The Wild Hunt to continue featuring great writers, unique voices, and news reports every day. Every dollar counts. Please donate today and share the campaign. Thank you.]
Heathens in Politics
Heathenry and politics have not always been happy bedfellows, yet there have been Heathens around the world who have campaigned for public office. Some have even won elections. The thumbnail portraits below feature four Heathens from four countries who have four very different stories of engagement with and disengagement from public life.
In Iceland, Liberal Party co-founder Sigurjón Þórðarson was elected in 2003 to represent the Northwest Constituency in the Alþgingi, the national assembly. The parliament was founded in 930, seventy years before the nation converted to Christianity. At the time of his election, Sigurjón was a goði (Heathen priest) in the Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship), the organization that began the modern revival of Old Norse religion in 1972. His election made him the first goði with a seat in the Alþgingi since the fourteenth century.When asked by Reykjavík Grapevine how other members of parliament reacted to his religion, he said, “I don’t think my faith matters to them. If anything, I think I get respect for that.” As the land that did the most to preserve Norse mythology, Iceland is a special case, as Sigurjón acknowledged: “I think this faith has shaped Icelanders’ views on things. A lot of what we believe comes from the old beliefs, and has influenced how we are today.” After serving only one term, Sigurjón is no longer a goði, and the party he co-founded no longer exists. The fortunes of the modern goði are as unpredicatble as those of his ancient model.
Ásatrú practitioner Anika Tanck (now Petersdorf) was a 2009 candidate for the state parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, a German state so far north that the first element of its name contains a Germanized form of –vík (Old Norse for “inlet”) and the second refers to one of the pagan Saxon tribes (Holcetae, from *Holtsāton, “inhabitant of the forest”). She ran as local leader of the Piratenpartei Deutschland (Pirate Party Germany), the German division of the international confederation known as Pirate Parties International. The party program is long and detailed, with an emphasis on protecting freedoms in the wake of the digital revolution.
In the light of current U.S. media criticism of the Green presidential candidate as someone who serves as a spoiler for the Democratic one by peeling away millennial voters, it’s interesting that German newspaper Der Spiegel used similar rhetoric against Tanck and her Pirate colleagues, “The entry into the state parliament is unlikely. But the Pirate Party competing will at least cost the Greens important votes. Typical Pirate supporters include young people – an age group whose election turnout is chronically below average. Quite possibly, more otherwise apolitical people will go to vote.” Tanck won 2.2% of the vote, almost exactly the percentage Jill Stein receives in current polls. Seven years later, she told me, “I’m not anymore in politics. I now own a store for organic food.”Canadian Heathen Robert Rudachyk serves as vice-president for the Saskatoon-West Riding Association of the Liberal Party. When he ran for Member of Parliament in 2014 and was edged out for the party nomination by Lisa Abbott, he worked for the greater good by joining her and volunteering as her Deputy Campaign Manager. After the election, he was invited to a small gathering with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and thanked for his work in the Liberal Party. Earlier this year, he was also a candidate for the provincial legislature. When I asked Rudachyk what role his religious beliefs play in his dedication to political action, he said:
I strongly believe that, if we as a faith wish to be taken seriously by society, we need to participate in society. If we want our worldview to be accepted, we need to incorporate it into society by taking a leadership role so that we can be understood and accepted.
He also emphasized the importance of representing Heathenry well as a public figure:
Because we are still on the fringes of society, those of us who choose to take on a leadership role must represent the best of what we have to offer society. We must show honesty, integrity and honor that is above reproach. If we do this solely to enrich ourselves or to preach an agenda of racial hatred, then we will destroy the credibility of all heathens in society for generations to come.
Unfortunately, the highest-profile Heathen in U.S. politics failed to live up to any part of this standard.
In 2009, Daniel Halloran was elected to the 19th City Council District in Queens, New York as a Tea Party Republican. A practitioner and leader of Theodism, Halloran became “the first openly elected heathen in the nation.” Despite his religion being widely known, he stressed his Roman Catholic upbringing during the campaign in an article for the Queens Chronicle called “I believe in God,” never once mentioning Theodism, Heathenry, or polytheism. The campaign of Kevin Kim, his Korean-American rival for the council seat, stated that political supporters of Halloran made racist statements to Kim’s followers. A Halloran volunteer publicly portrayed the election as “white faces” versus Koreans, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund stated that the contest was “marred by racial harassment and anti-Asian slurs.”
Two years later, Halloran appeared in a video documenting “The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks,” an event sponsored by a group calling itself Stop Islamization for America. He was lauded by the group’s supporters as “the only member of the City Council willing to speak out against the Ground Zero mosque.” In 2013, Halloran was arrested and charged with brokering a $200,000 attempt to bribe Republican county leaders and fix the race for mayor of New York City. Unluckily for Halloran, the multiple payoff meetings were held with an undercover FBI agent. Halloran remains incarcerated after his insanity defense and appeal for reversal of his ten-year prison sentence were rejected. The court stated, “We have considered all of Halloran’s remaining arguments, and find them without merit.”
Politicians and Heathens
Despite the relatively small size of the Pagan and Heathen communities, there have been two U.S. presidential candidates who have been willing to engage with practitioners.
In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson held a Google+ Hangout with journalists from the Hellenic, Hindu, Wiccan and Witch communities. The hosts of a Heathen podcast were invited to join, but declined to participate. The lack of any voice from the Heathen community is regrettable, as there seems to be a great interest from Heathens in Johnson’s current presidential run as a Libertarian.However, Chuck Hudson – New Mexico Heathen, host of the popular Heathen broadcast Raven Radio, and creator of the Pagans for Gary Johnson Facebook page – recently told me that, in his personal conversations with the candidate, Johnson “had nothing to say about Heathens or other Pagans.” Regardless, the most recent public post by the administrator of the Pagan page is in reaction to an article reporting on Johnson calling radical Islam’s threat “overblown” and shows a sharp turn away from supporting the candidate. Hudson writes, “After being a Libertarian since the late 80s, I’m done. This is the last straw. I am officially voting for my dog.”
In the Google+ Hangout, the questions relating to religion dealt with general Pagan and Wiccan issues, and Johnson seems to not have made any public statements directly relating to Heathenry. At the time of the 2012 election, there were issues that some segments of the Heathen community were definitely working on. The push to have the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approve Thor’s hammer a religious emblem allowed on government headstones was still underway; it was not approved until after the election, in 2013. The lack of Pagan chaplains in the U.S. military – a subject also of interest to Heathens – was brought up in the Hangout, but Johnson’s answer appears a bit confused in the transcript:
I guess I’m gonna be in the camp … why are there any chaplains in the military and if there are chaplains in the military why are there then not Rabbis in the military and I didn’t realize there was a Pagan chaplain but you can see that that’s obviously part of the equality equation here.
There have, in fact, been rabbis serving as military chaplains in the United States since Rabbi Jacob Frinkel was commissioned in 1862, and there is still no official chaplain of any type of Paganism in any branch of the U.S. military – although progress has recently been made.
The military situation is a bit different for Heathens than it is for other Pagans. Although Wicca has been recognized as “a nontraditional faith” by the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps since 1978, the status of Ásatrú and Heathen soldiers in the army remains in limbo. After seven years of soldiers, veterans, and allies working to have Ásatrú and Heathenry added to the U.S. Army’s religious preference list as a faith option for soldiers, the administration continues to delay making the change, despite a letter-writing campaign, a Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains being submitted to the Department of Defense, and the announcement and retraction of the addition being approved.
The obstinate and years-long resistance of the U.S. Army was thrown into relief by the success of Master Sergeant (MSgt) Matt Walters, who simply made a formal request to the Air Force Chaplains Office and was quickly successful in having Ásatrú and Heathenry added to the Air Force’s religious preference list. Why the U.S. Army Chaplains Corp has been so determined to block the addition for its own branch of the military remains a mystery.
On September 9, the day after taking members of Thor’s Oak Kindred to see Dr. Jill Stein speak at her Chicago rally, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with the Green Party presidential candidate. This was the first time a presidential candidate spoke on the record with a Heathen journalist and made a public statement in support of equal religious rights for Heathens in the military. I had been attempting to get Stein to address this issue for a while, but had not had much luck getting directly to her via her social media accounts. When she came to town for her rally, I figured out the proper contact person and was immediately scheduled for a private interview.After speaking with Stein about her family history, religious background, support for protecting sacred land, and engagement with minority religions, I asked her what message she would send to U.S. Army chaplains on their denial of equal rights to Heathen soldiers who serve their country at home and abroad. After comparing their situation to that of others “who do not subscribe to the certified list of religions,” Stein said of the Heathen soldiers,
It’s really unfair, unjust, and undemocratic in this democracy that they are defending for their human rights not to be respected. I would strongly urge that all religions – whether they are Judeo-Christian or not – all religions should be given the seal of approval there, in order to sustain those people who have put their lives on the line for our country.
They deserve the benefits of real democracy, and real democracy means we do not discriminate according to religion, creed, race, ethnic background, or gender. Period.
Whatever the political allegiances of a given Heathen, this should be recognized as a positive moment. Given the many attempts and limited success of Heathens seeking to enter the political world as officeholders, it is a small step in the right direction to have a presidential candidate on the national stage acknowledge the issues facing Heathens and publicly draw attention to the need for discrimination to end.
I am under no illusion that Stein will power through to the White House, wave a seiðr staff, and make every Heathen’s personal wish list materialize in a powdery puff of sandalwood smoke. However, I do believe that each good action taken makes another connection in the web of wyrd, and – when there enough actions taken and connections made – change will come. Mounting public pressure may finally lead to official recognition of Heathenry by the U.S. Army. That recognition may lead to the appointment of Heathen chaplains. That appointment may lead to more acceptance of Heathens in other professions. That acceptance may lead to positive changes in your own life. Wyrd bið full āræd– wyrd is fully inexorable.
Note: The full text of the Jill Stein interview can be read at The Norse Mythology Blog.* * * The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.
[Alley Valkyire is one of our talented monthly columnists. On the fourth Friday, she brings you insight and analysis about issues coming from within or affecting our collective communities. If you enjoy her work, consider donating to our fall fund drive today. It is your dollars and your support that make it possible for Alley and our columnists to continue their dedicated work, and for us to bring on more talented monthly voices. Please donate today and share the campaign! Thank you.]I. The Discovery
A few weeks ago, it was announced that the wreck of the HMS Terror, one of two ships that comprised the long-lost Franklin expedition, was found on the ocean floor southwest of King William Island in what is now known as Terror Bay.
This discovery comes almost exactly two years after Franklin’s other ship, the HMS Erebus, was found farther southward in the same general area. Both were found by exploration teams that were financed by the Canadian government.
Many major news outlets in both North America and Europe have covered the story of both “discoveries” and to some degree have mentioned the history that has led to this point, but overall these media sources have failed to highlight the fact that the location of the shipwrecks have been known to local Inuit communities since the time of the exploration’s disappearance in 1848. Instead, the focus of the stories have mostly been on modern technology and due diligence, with only a few articles even briefly mentioning the Inuit.
Native and alternative media sources, on the other hand, have been stressing this crucial aspect of the story that Eurocentric media sources have summarily ignored: that the discoveries validate over 150 years’ worth of Inuit accounts, of orally-passed folklore concerning the fate of the Franklin expedition, accounts that were dismissed and ignored countless times by generations’ worth of European explorers and researchers. While European-descended Canadian explorers celebrate their “discovery” of the ships, indigenous voices are pointing out that “the Inuit were right”, a fact that mass media as a whole has failed to note.II. The Officer
When Sir John Franklin of the British Royal Navy set off in search of a navigable route through the Arctic Circle, he was following in the footsteps of over 350 years’ worth of exploration attempts to secure a “Northwest Passage” for the purposes of trade between Europe and China.
Franklin sailed from England with two ships and 135 men in the spring of 1845, first traveling to Scotland and then to Greenland, where the exploration then sailed west through Baffin Bay. The last European sighting of the expedition was in July of 1845, when a whaling ship spotted the Erebus and Terror moored off an iceberg in Baffin Bay, south of what is now called Devon Island.
The expedition spent the winter of 1845-6 in an encampment on the western coast of Devon Island and attempted to sail on further in the summer of 1846, but the ships became trapped in ice off the coast of King William Island in Sept., 1846.The only written clue as to what had transpired from that point on came in the form of a note dated April 25, 1848, which was found in a pile of cairns on the north coast of King William Island 11 years later by an explorer searching for the lost expedition. The note stated that the crews of the Erebus and Terror had abandoned the ships in the ice just north of the island after being stuck for two years, and that 24 men had perished at that point, including Franklin in the summer of 1847. The note went on to say that the rest of the crew were going to follow the “Back’s Fish River” south, where a trading post was located.
None of the crew members ever made it to the trading post, and the most widespread and accepted theory from the time the note was found has been that both ships had sunk off the north coast of King William Island and Franklin’s crew died on foot en route to the trading post. For this reason, countless searches and rescue missions have been focused on the Victoria Strait and the northern part of King William Island.
But from the very beginning and for decades thereafter, that version of the story conflicted with numerous stories from the Inuit people, who relayed a different version of the fate of Franklin’s crew that was dismissed time and time again by those searching for the exploration.
Over 50 searches for Franklin and his crew were conducted in the decades after the disappearance of the ships and crew. Over time, more explorers and ships were lost in search of the Franklin expedition than the original casualty count of the Franklin expedition itself.
A route through the Arctic wouldn’t be discovered for nearly 60 years after Franklin’s attempt, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully navigated the passage between 1903 and 1906.III. The Lady
By all accounts, Lady Jane Franklin, the explorer’s wife, was a woman well ahead of her time. An famed explorer in her own right, she first gained attention for her travels through Australia while her husband was the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s, and became a popular figure amongst the citizens of the colonies, noted for charitable actions and kindness. She was instrumental in founding early schools throughout the Australian settlements. She was also an early advocate concerning the conditions female convicts in Tasmania, and had corresponded with famed prison reformer Elizabeth Fry about their plight. Lady Franklin also was deeply involved in her husband’s career, with accounts detailing how she significantly managed his affairs and advised his career behind the scenes.
After her husband’s expedition was confirmed as missing in 1849, Lady Franklin devoted the rest of her life and much of her personal fortune towards finding what became of the it. She sponsored seven search parties to the Arctic between the time of the disappearance and her death in 1875, and used her social status and wealth to consistently bring attention to the unknown fate of her husband. She offered sizable cash rewards for information, and worked diligently to keep the story in the public eye and a matter of national interest.However, she was fiercely protective of her husband’s image and legacy to a fault, and when explorers returned with information that she disapproved of or disbelieved, she also worked tirelessly to discredit such stories and in one case went to great lengths to discredit the explorer himself. IV. The Search Parties
Scottish explorer John Rae was one of the first tasked with searching for the Franklin expedition under the authority of Lady Franklin, and he made three journeys through the Arctic from 1849 to 1854. In 1851, during an attempt to cross Victoria Strait towards King William Island, Rae described finding pieces of wood in the strait that had come from a European ship.
Three years later, while exploring the Boothia Peninsula, Rae came across local Inuit tribes who saw two ships trapped in the ice when they passed through in the fall on their way south. When they had come back through the area the following spring, they found multiple corpses and evidence of cannibalism.
When Rae relayed this information upon his return to England, he was initially credited with solving the mystery of the Franklin expedition and was granted the promised reward. Lady Franklin, however, reacted in horror, and many in the British press and upper classes, including writer Charles Dickens, shunned and publicly condemned Rae for suggesting that the crew would resort to cannibalism.
A few years later, in 1859, when Sir Leopold McClintock of the British Navy was searching for the Franklin expedition, a group of Inuit shared similar accounts of the fate of the missing ships with the explorer and his crew. They claimed that one ship sunk and another became trapped in the ice in an area they described as “Ootloo-lik.” During that same search expedition, McClintock’s team found the note left by Franklin’s men, describing ships trapped in the ice in Victoria Strait and the death of Franklin. When McClintock returned with this information, Lady Franklin apparently initially dismissed it, still convinced that Franklin was alive.
Five years after McClintock’s expedition, in 1864, American explorer Charles Hall was also searching for the Franklin expedition when he also encountered Inuit from the same region, who told him that they had stripped wood and metal from an abandoned ship that had been stranded in and crushed by the ice off the southern coast of King William Island. The ship had been found while seal hunting, there had been evidence that it had been recently inhabited, and a decomposing body had been found on board. They had also seen footprints leading to shore that were not made by Inuit.
These accounts contradicted the theory that was based on the note that McClintock found, that both ships had sunk off the northern coast of the island. The Inuit stories suggested that instead of following the river to their death, some of the crew members re-boarded the second ship and attempted to sail south, only to once again become stuck near the southern coast where they eventually perished.
And again in 1878-9, when explorer Frederick Schwatka and journalist William Henry Gilder searched for the expedition, they were told stories by local Inuits of skeletons found on the southern part of the island, and of compasses and watches and human remains found on the trapped ship. Once again signs of cannibalism were mentioned, of bones that looked as though they had been sawed off.
Lady Franklin had died a few years earlier, and could not personally refute these new claims as she had in the past, but nonetheless the claims were overall discredited and dismissed, in part because they contradicted the heroic narrative that had developed in the decades after Franklin’s disappearance.V. The Legend
The disappearance of the Franklin expedition created a sensation throughout Victorian England. Franklin and his crew were quickly cast as romantic heroes and cultural icons in the eyes of the public, and Franklin was memorialized in countless ways, from statues erected to stories and plays and musical compositions written in his honor.
One of the earliest tributes to Franklin is arguably also one of the most lasting and well known testaments to his heroic status. The folk ballad “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” which first appeared around 1850, tells of the disappearance of Franklin and the subsequent heartache of his wife from the fictional point of view of a sailor who had a dream about Franklin. Countless versions and recordings of the song have been published over the years, more recently and famously by artists such as Pentangle and Sinead O’Connor.
The lyrics of the ballad beautifully capture the sentiments of the time:
We were homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew
With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek a passage around the pole
Where we poor sailors do sometimes go
Through cruel hardships they vainly strove
Their ships on mountains of ice were drove
Only the Eskimo with his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through
In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell
And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long-lost Franklin I would cross the main
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To know on earth, that my Franklin do live
Such sentiments, however, and the public image of Franklin that inspired such material, came up against many conflicts over the years as explorers brought back more and more information about the fate of the expedition, most notably the numerous Inuit accounts regarding cannibalism. From Lady Franklin’s public evisceration of John Rae to the subsequent dismissals of Inuit lore regarding the fate of the expedition, much of the denial of these stories was driven by the need to protect the public image of Franklin and his crew. The idea that the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive was highly offensive to Victorian-era sensibilities, as such heroic Englishmen would obviously never resort to such “barbaric” acts.VI. The Bones
Searches for the Franklin expedition continued throughout the early part of the 20th century, but tapered off after the 1930s. The last notable expedition of that era was in 1931, when a manager for the Hudson’s Bay Company named William Gibson retraced the assumed route of the expedition on land and found several skeletons as well as pieces of naval cloth and wood from the ships.
Fifty years went by after Gibson’s finds without any other significant developments. Then in 1981, a forensic anthropology project backed by the University of Alberta started to search for remains of the expedition on the west coast of King William Island. Researchers found extensive skeletal remains, and they had the bone matter tested. The results showed that the crew members of the Franklin expedition likely died of vitamin C deficiency and/or lead poisoning.
Later excavations throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s yielded bones with distinctive cut marks. Scientists then determined the cuts were likely the result of cannibalism, thus validating the various Inuit accounts as well as the reports from John Rae, whose name and career had been essentially destroyed as a result of accurately relaying what he had been told.VII. The Discovery
In 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper initiated a new round of searches for the Franklin expedition, although it has been steadily argued that his intent was not to solve the mystery of the expedition as much as it was to assert dominance over the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Circle as a whole for the purposes of trade and profit.
Due to the increased melting of the polar ice caps, the Northwest Passage has become more easily navigable and for a longer portion of the year than it has ever been in the history of maritime exploration. This “development,” courtesy of climate change, has significant consequences for international trade as the “ownership” of those waters has long been in dispute. Canada claims sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic based on the British Empire ceding their claims to Canada in the 1880s, but the United States and many other countries consider the Northwest Passage to be international waters.
Additionally, the melting ice is also creating countless new opportunities for offshore drilling and mineral exploration, and the Canadian government has a significant interest in securing and asserting the rights to such explorations. Canada’s claim on the Northwest Passage has been framed as a matter of national interest, a message which has been specifically aimed towards Inuit communities in the Arctic Circle despite the fact that climate change and offshore drilling threatens the livelihood of those very communities.
Uncovering the wrecks of Franklin’s ships also factored prominently into the nationalist ideals that Harper’s government had promoted since taking power. The Franklin expedition was a key moment in the early history of Canada, and discovering the remains of the expedition would not only potentially legitimize Canada’s claims to the Arctic, but it would also inevitably strengthen the narrative that romanticizes the Arctic Circle as the birthplace of Canada as a nation.
For seven summers, Canadian anthropologists searched the northern, western, and southern shores of King William Island, uncovering numerous artifacts related to the expedition. They also conducted underwater searches both in the northern location where the note stated that the ships had become trapped as well as the more southward locations where Inuit lore claimed one of the ships had sailed before becoming permanently trapped.
In September of 2014, Harper announced that one of the ships had been found south of King William Island. At the time of the initial announcement, archaeologists had yet to determine which ship it was, but a month later it was reported that the find was the remains of the HMS Erebus, the ship that Franklin himself was thought to have died on.But despite the fact that it was found in an area that matched the Inuit accounts of where it had sank, Harper’s public statement failed to mention those accounts and their importance in the discovery, instead lavishing credit onto various military and governmental entities before giving unspecified thanks to the government of Nunavut for their “tireless efforts.” Additionally, Harper’s government excluded representatives from Inuit communities from discussions and negotiations concerning the ownership of the finds, despite a legal agreement which grants 50% of archaeological finds in Nunavut to the Inuit people.
Then in September 2016, it was announced that the “perfectly preserved” remains of the HMS Terror was found on the southwest coast of King William Island, north of where the Erebus was found but still 60 miles south of where the ships were assumed by Europeans to have been abandoned in the ice. Not only was it also found in an area that the Inuit had been mentioning for over 150 years, but the sunken positions of both ships in relation to where they were assumed to have abandoned also matches up with Inuit accounts.
Additionally, it is of note that the only reason that the search team was searching that specific area in the first place was due to hearing a story from a young Inuit crewman on their ship. He stated that he had seen a wooden mast sticking out of the ice in Terror Bay off the southwest coast of King William Island while on a fishing trip six years earlier. The search team was initially set to search in area described by the note found in the cairns, but after hearing the story from their fellow crewman, the ship decided to break with historical tendencies and for once a search party did not dismiss the story they had been told by a local. The ship then headed towards the location where the wreck was finally found.
But once again, the Inuit are fighting for a voice in the upcoming discussions concerning what is to become of the artifacts.
* * *
If there is any one consistent theme that defines the Franklin story from the very beginning to the present events, it is the belief in European superiority. From the earliest dismissals and outrage over Inuit accounts of the crew’s fate to the current denial of Inuit rights to the artifacts from the wreckage, its clear that overall the attitudes and actions on the part of those in positions of power have not changed much in over 150 years.
It is also that superiority which has fueled the relentless pursuits of strategic dominance that set the stage for both the beginning and the eventual ending of the Franklin story. The fact that the remains of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were only ever recovered in concert with Canada’s attempt to exert control over the very same route that Franklin died attempting to navigate is a notable synchronicity to say the very least. And its a connection that occurred as a continuation of the same imperialist and economic intentions that prompted the initial wave of European exploration through the Arctic in the first place.
As Inuit representative Cathy Towtongie told the Guardian:
If Inuit had been consulted 200 years ago and asked for their traditional knowledge – this is our backyard – those two wrecks would have been found, lives would have been saved. I’m confident of that.
But they believed their civilization was superior and that was their undoing.
* * *
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.
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TWH – English Magic Tarot is a deck devised by magician and comic book artist Rex Van Ryn, painter Steve Dooley and Pagan writer and musician Andy Letcher. With a foreword by Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids Philip Carr Gomm, the new deck deftly entwines all aspects of English Magic.
As Philip Carr-Gomm states: “With this deck and book, you have the chance to explore the world of English magic directly, engaging with its peculiar charms and eccentricities. And with what excellent guides!”Drawing on High Magical Traditions represented by organizations such as Order of the Golden Dawn and embodied by the likes of Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and Austin Osman Spare, the deck is replete with Hermetic symbolism. It also acknowledges the low magic path of the cunning folk and how the tarot has been used in that tradition. As Andy Letcher notes: “We regard the tarot as a kind of distillation of Western wisdom.”
The deck is set in the Tudor and Stuart periods, beginning with the reign of Henry VIII (although the Tudor period began earlier), through the upheaval of the Stuarts.This was a time of radical change in England.
The Elizabethan part of the Tudor period and the subsequent Stuart age almost fall into two distinct halves in terms of differences in culture and attitude, and the outlooks towards religion and magic going a long way to define each period.
The Tudor period featured the Reformation and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries, which resulted in conflict with Europe that culminated in the Spanish Armada. It was also in this period that the Enclosure Act restricted the use of common land, having a huge impact on poorer people. But under Elizabeth, this was also a time of relative freedom in religion and the arts flourished as a result.
As Matt Sutherland for Foreword Reviews notes: “The mysticism, mysteries, rituals, and lore of Elizabethan-era England (were) perhaps history’s most fervent period and place for the magic arts.”
Elizabeth was much more tolerant of religious differences than any of her other family members and her successors – James I, instigator of the witch trials, being the most notable example. She also employed Dr John Dee, astrologer and occultist, as one of her courtiers and spies during her reign. His interest in the esoteric as well as alchemical and magical practices paved the way for later luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.The English Magic Tarot acknowledges this overlooked period of magical tradition and celebrates the spirit of possibility and exploration synonymous with the Elizabethan age. In Europe, this period, as well as overseeing the Renaissance, saw the birth of the tarot and its establishment as an essential tool in high and low magical traditions. One cannot help but wonder what kind of world we would be living in if the alchemical traditions celebrated in the deck had been developed and explored to their fullest capacity.
Another aspect of this deck worth mentioning is the emphasis on storytelling and how important this was in the Elizabethan age, evidenced by the growth of the arts during this time, the theatre in particular. The cards themselves are awash with riddles and symbols inspired by the Elizabethan era.
As Letcher confirms: “There are indeed riddles, references and lore scattered through every card. All these are significant and have been placed there deliberately. On one level, they are there simply to encourage readers to look more closely at the cards and to entice them into a deeper understanding of English magic. But we also wanted there to be an overarching theme to the cards, something that ran through them all and bound them together. The riddles do all point to something. It’s a kind of treasure hunt, if you will, and there is an actual answer at the end.”
Each card feels like a story in itself and the entire deck appears to be telling its own tale of some kind. The companion booklet discusses at length the growth of the arts during this period – theatre in particular – and the magical, transformational aspects of that process.
Letcher says: “Our storytelling approach to the tarot means we encourage people to use the cards as a device to help them discover, and take control of the stories they tell about themselves and their lives.”
The set also gives the reader some unique techniques for using the cards, which are inspired by the Art of Memory tradition. This technique utilises concepts such as the alchemy of theatre and art in general, which only add to the depth and mystery of this deck.The visual impact of the deck cannot to be ignored. It’s rootedness in the comic book genre via Rex Van Ryn’s work gives it a contemporary edge and vitality but it clearly acknowledges the classic Waite-Smith deck and salutes the contribution of Pamela Colman Smith’s work as an artist, and how art can be magical and transformative.
As Van Ryn explained, the imagery of the deck was conceived in a very magical way. “I meditated on the cards’ meaning using a drum beat to induce a trance state, sometimes dancing, sometimes prone. When I had imagined the ‘image’, I broke my trance and drew what was in my mind.”
Dooley’s colouring work added to this process. He says: “At no point did Van Ryn say how I should colour the cards. He had faith. I devised an entire palette purely on instinct. It had to work for me on many levels. Each card had to work as an individual image, yet they also had to work together. I wanted them to be earthy yet bright, old but relative to today.”
Obviously, the artistic and magical backgrounds of both Van Ryn and Dooley would ensure that the visual impact of the deck and the significance of art as a transformational tool would come to the fore. As a result, the deck is a rich, with every card layered with symbolism and meaning.
It is interesting that the English Magic Tarot has emerged from the collective unconscious at this time. As stated earlier, the Tudor and Stuart periods were a turbulent time in English history, with a great deal of social and religious change. Given the upheaval across the world at present, it is no surprise that this period should emerge and remind us of how the use of magical practices and the occult helped to temper seismic upheavals in previous eras.
As author John Matthews, co-creator of The Wildwood Tarot and other decks, states: “Its clear (they’re) tapping into the national psyche, and with all that’s going on since Brexit that can be quite lot.”
The English Magic Tarot comes with a companion booklet that has a wealth of information about period and its magical practices. The deck stays true to the classical format of the period from which tarot emerged and consists of a 22 major arcana deck and a minor arcana of four suits of cups, wands, coins and swords. The booklet gives some very interesting techniques of how to use the cards, not only giving spreads but also going into great detail about the art of memory technique employed by alchemists during this period. This is a fascinating technique, invoking the literal magic of theatre into the process.
There is also a description of the use of archetypes and how they were used by the flourishing theatre movement during the Elizabethan age, which used many neo-Platonic techniques (this is why the famous theatre was called the Globe).
This is a great tarot deck, lovingly crafted and which gives respect and acknowledgement on many levels to the tarot and those who have shaped its development, yet with an edgy and fresh style.
TWH – This year, the autumnal equinox falls on Sept. 22 at 14:21 UTC in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the moment that officially signals the start of fall. At this time, there will be an equal amount of light and dark, after which the nights slowly grow longer as we head toward winter. Outside of religious life, this season is very well celebrated. It is punctuated by harvests, craft, and art festivals, outdoors sports, pumpkin picking, scarecrow contests, and the aromas of spice and apple cider.
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” – Albert CamusIn many modern Pagan traditions, this is the second of three harvest festivals, with the first being Lughnasadh and the third being Samhain. Autumn equinox holidays have many names. For Wiccans and Witches, it is sometimes called “Harvest Home” or “Mabon.” In Druidic and Celtic-oriented Pagan groups, it can be called “Mid-Harvest,” “Foghar,” or “Alban Elfed.” In modern Asatru, it is sometimes called “Winter Finding.” The Greek term for it is “Phthinopohriní Isimæría.” In Old English it was called “efnniht.” In addition, there are those who just simply prefer to use “autumn equinox” or “fall.”
At the same time, our friends and family living in the Southern Hemisphere begin the journey to summer. Sept. 22 will mark their vernal equinox and the beginning of spring. The days will begin to lengthen and become warmer as light triumphs over dark and the Earth reawakens from its winter slumber.
Here are some thoughts on this seasonal holiday:
“In the Wheel of the Year mythos that I enjoy, at Mabon the god and goddess become the Sage and Crone, and with experience, comes the inner vision to see deeply into both the past and future. They know the sacred order of the “perfect” complete cycle that is symbolized by the wheel; they teach us that life is sustained through death, just as death contains the promise of rebirth (at Ostara). As symbolized in the yin/yang, the key to one side of any polarity is found in the heart of its opposite. The fruits that are cut down will rise again both as the seeds planted next year, [and] by sustaining the living. As we are fed another year, the gods live on through us.” –Heron Michelle, “Mabon Feasts Serve Up a Challenge”
“At its heart, the garlanded table, groaning with food, decked with flowers, pumpkins, squash. Around it, the standing torches, the looping strings of marigolds in their harvest colors. In the old days, the period of the harvest was the most intensive work of the entire year: the hard, back-breaking labor of reaping a year’s worth of food in a few grueling days. When finally it was over, it was time, and high time, for a party.” –Steven Posch, “Crowning the Harvest”
“At this time, our ancestors saw the sun, for the first time in half a year, be unable to outshine the dark. Although he still shines with strength, his strength grows weaker as the days grow shorter. Today he holds the darkness in equal measure to the light, but he is struck in his season with the wound of time and from day to day the darkness will grow as the lord of light sinks into his age, for the wound is grievous and will not heal. This is a time of farewell and gratitude for the summer that has been. –from the Road to Kamarg blog
“In this time, we pray, honor and make blot to the Vanir and fertility gods to bless and hold the land in the coming dark and cold. We blot to the Vaettir, the Alfur and Landvaettir, to keep and hold not only ourselves and the land, but themselves as well. Winter can be cruel to many forms of life. Blot to whomever you feel should be honored at this time. Traditionally the Vanir are honored above all at this time, for it is their gifts and sacrifices that make the land fertile, and survive the coming dark. Frey, and his twin Freya are especially honored.” –“Winter Finding, theasatrucommunity.org
Happy harvest to all of those celebrating, and a very merry spring to our friends in the south.
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It’s a situation that’s becoming increasingly common on social media. You’re scrolling through your feed and come across a post from a friend who appears to making a threat of suicide. For most of us, there are only moral questions we face in deciding what to do next. Should you try to contact your friend, or your friend’s family or local friends? Report it to the police and ask for a health and welfare check? For Pagans who claim the title of clergy, there are ethical and legal layers to this decision, as well. Are they considered Mandatory Reporters, and do they have a legal requirement to report possible suicide attempts? If they are ordained, does their governing body require them to report or ask that they maintain confidentiality, even outside of a counselling setting?
The person is safe, but deeply unhappy with Rev. Davis’ actions. Others, including some who self-identified as Pagan clergy, were also critical of reporting a possible suicide attempt to police. They felt Pagan ministers don’t have the same obligations as Christian ministers. Others felt that friends don’t “snitch” on friends, and Davis should have stayed in the role of friend, rather than minister.
“The person I reported had a history of trauma and has a suicide plan in place that they shared at other times in their life. On the occasion of a personal trauma, they intimated that they no longer wished to live on in face of a loss. Due to previous episodes, and the depth of the loss, I felt the words that this person shared with me held the gravity that merited a call to ensure this person’s safety,” said Rev. Davis. She added that she remains convinced the person was seriously contemplating carrying out a suicide attempt.
What are the moral, ethical, and legal issues Pagan clergy may face in situations such as this? What training do they receive and what value does that training have for the greater Pagan community? What do we mean when we talk about Pagan clergy and how is that different, if it is, from mainstream religions’ clergy?
At its most basic, clergy are the formal leaders of any religious group. In the United States, our views of clergy, and how clergy interact with the State, have been modeled on the Christian concept. Clergy marry, bury, and carry (counsel persons or carry the burden of counseling).
Are Pagan clergy members the same as mainstream clergy? The answer appears to be both yes and no.
Some Pagan clergy don’t minister to persons, but instead maintain a temple dedicated to a particular God or Goddess. Others lead religious services, but do not counsel members and are not part of a specific group. Then there is the controversy playing out in city council chambers and courtrooms whether tarot reading is entertainment or a religiously-protected counseling practice. Although there are no official studies to definitively claim one way or another, Pagans appear to have a higher number of lay clergy (or those not ordained by a State but recognized by a religious organization) than other more mainstream religions.
Yet Pagan clergy are performing legal marriages, presiding over burial ceremonies, and counseling members. They are also pushing for greater acceptance within societal constructs, such as the military, hospitals, and prisons. They want the respect that is granted by default to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy.
Rev. Davis says a fellow Pagan clergyperson told her if a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim person tells the public they are clergy, and their community accepts them as such, and their traditions accept them as such, there is no question. However, if a Pagan tells the state they are a priest or a reverend, the state demands proof of by a church body in order to accept them. She believes it’s unfair that a church organization can ordain a pastor, but a coven cannot ordain a priestess or reverend without being double checked.
While much of this attitude is part of a systemic problem of privilege by dominant religions toward those in the minority, she believes part of this is also because some Pagan clergy aren’t serious about their responsibility and are too casual about seeking out formal training.
“All clergy should know the laws of their state, and their articles of belief. Training in safeTALK, Mental Health First Aid, and other programs should be an ongoing learning,” said Davis. She believes that all Pagans who wish to take on the role of clergy need to be ready to assume all the duties and responsibilities of that role and that means being properly trained.
Responsibility and Training
Pagan clergy training runs the gamut from no training at all, self-training, and formal training by an organization. They may be ordained by a religious group or may not feel this is necessary for the duties they perform.
What training options are open to Pagans seeking to become clergy?
One of the only Pagan seminary currently operating is Cherry Hill Seminary. They offer a Masters in Pastoral Counseling, a Chaplaincy Master of Pagan Ministry, and A Community Ministry Certificate. The Community Ministry Certificate can then be used to apply for credentials through Sacred Well Congregation, an organization who recently became an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Organization for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Yet Pagans are taking other routes to becoming clergy.
Davis studied at Family Life Education at Spring Arbor College before she received her ordination through Universal Life Church. Neither the college nor the religious group through which she received her ordination are Pagan. She said there weren’t as many options back when she sought ordination.
Oberon Osiris went the self taught route, “My training was in the School of Experience, I learned by doing.” He said he began his counseling over 40 years ago as a tarot reader. After performing a few marriages, he began seeking out books specifically on counseling skills in the marriage and relationship field.
“Most couples I’ve married get that counseling and some work-ups and exercises on relationships as part of the package. I refuse to marry anyone I don’t know well enough to see how their relationship works.” Osiris said that he doesn’t often marry people anymore, but still keeps his credentials up to date and continues his self study.
Pagans wishing to become clergy can also take classes from programs such as Circle Sanctuary’s Ministry Training Program. This program takes a minimum of three years and includes distance training by telephone conference calls, online group discussions, one-on-one mentoring face-to-face, and more traditional classes at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve and Pagan Spirit Gathering. After students complete training they can then apply for ordination through Circle Sanctuary.
Rev. Selena Fox, Founder of Circle Sanctuary, highlights that Circle Sanctuary’s clergy training includes teaching about Mandatory Reporting. Fox said that Rev. Dr. Paul Larson, psychologist and professor with The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, is among their Ministers who train students in this area.Legal Considerations
Although state law can vary widely, in most states clergy of all types are considered mandatory reporters. Mandatory reporters are selected classes of people legally required to report suspected cases of abuse to government authorities.
Clergy are a special class of mandatory reporters. While most states do require them to report cases of suspected child abuse or suicidal behavior, the laws vary on if they are required to report suspected abuse of adults or self harm and possible suicide attempts by adults. Clergy are shielded in most states from lawsuits stemming from breaking confidentiality if they choose to report abuse or self harm, so guidelines will sometimes tell clergy “when in doubt, error on the side of reporting.” Knowing your state’s laws is vital.
Clergy are also always considered to be clergy. They are never considered regular citizens or just a friend or not on the clock. Persons don’t need to be in a recognized counselling session for their conversation to be protected by confidentiality laws and for the clergy member to under mandatory reporting laws.
Ethics of Profession
In Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: a Clergy Dilemma?, Rev. Marie M. Fortune explains that the profession is torn between the ethics of protecting people and the expectation of confidentiality in a spiritual setting.
But there is another set of ethical principles which enter into this discussion from a faith perspective. They have to do with one’s professional responsibility to victims of abuse. Within both Jewish and Christian traditions, there is the responsibility of the community to protect those in its midst who are vulnerable to harm.
Although this is usually talked about in the context of abuse, self harm can also be considered abuse within clergy circles and those experiencing suicidal thoughts may be categorized as vulnerable.
In the situation Rev. Davis encountered, Osiris said that he would have felt obligated to act, “I certainly would want to find out if they are being helped and by whom.” He stopped short of saying that he would have reported the situation to police.
Davis added that she feels saddened by having to execute what she felt was her duty. She said that while she is trained clergy she’s not a licensed counselor and felt proper authorities needed to assess the situation, “I think, no I know, that that is what I am supposed to be about. That, and being in the service of the Ones I committed to serve.”
Aside from the legal or ethical requirements of clergy, how are people to react when they see what appears to be a suicidal post on social media?
Experts suggest that you think the person is in imminent danger, dial 911. Have as much information about the person’s location as possible.
If the threat seems more vague, respond immediately with a brief, clear statement that offers help, such as the number to a suicide hotline. Then report the post to the social media platform. On Facebook, such a report alerts the Facebook’s safety team, which immediately sends an email to the user and starts a confidential online chat with a crisis worker. Your name won’t be shared with the user.
Experts also say to take every post that sounds suicidal seriously. Davis agrees, “I would rather have the hatred and derision of a living former friend than the good esteem of a dead one.”
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) has announced the launch of a new Community Ministry Certificate. In partnership with the Sacred Well Congregation, the new 15-month program is designed to lead to ministerial credentials. The program covers such topics as ethics, leading ritual, diversity understanding, family dynamics, addiction and more.
As we previously reported, CHS has recently found itself at a crossroads. Director Holli Emore has said, “Unpredictable cash flow has compromised our ability to be sustainable. The nature of the extended Pagan community, the economy, and even the very face of higher education have all changed dramatically in the past decade.”
Despite that struggle, the organization is continuing operation, keeping its commitment to students. The new ministerial program is part of that work. In a press release, CHS notes that they never offered this type of training before because, as they explain, times were different: “Most people belonged to covens, and some of those leaders advised CHS founders of a concern that students would leave their home group if they got training elsewhere. Now a large percentage of Pagans surveyed say that they are either solitary by choice or unaffiliated with a group for other reasons. Finally, most tradition training does not cover the topics taught at a seminary.”
Registration for the new program begins in November. In meantime, CHS has just launched a new survey to help gather input “in planning [their] programs so that they can best meet [the community’s] needs.”
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va — It was announced that the city council of Parkersburg had a change of heart and has lifted the ban on fortune telling. The reversal to the July decision came Tuesday, surprising many locals. Heather Cooper, who had initially challenged the law, was there to witness the vote, and told a local journalist, “I figured it would be passed, but when they finally said it was passed we weren’t really sure that it was passed. We figured there would be a lot more to it. So we were like what?”
As we previously reported in June, Cooper had discovered that fortune telling was banned in the city. As a result, she was unable to fully operate Hawthorn, her new metaphysical store that focused primarily on tarot reading. When she challenged the old code, the city council upheld the ban. At the time, Cooper pledged to fight, launching a GoFundMe campaign that ended up raising $500 to cover legal retaining fees.
Then, this past Tuesday, the ban was dropped. We caught up with Cooper, and she briefly explained what happened to change the city’s mind. “The ACLU wrote them a letter, telling them it was unconstitutional. Parkersburg lost a lawsuit the last time the ACLU was involved over panhandlers. [The city] lost $80,000. The city attorney told them they had to pass it.”
Cooper added that it helped that she had already hired a lawyer, saying, “[My lawyer] was also talking to other city council members. City councilman Brown decided to change his vote from no to yes, which got the ordinance back on the agenda. From there the ACLU did the rest of the convincing. Sounds like they can be quite persuasive.”
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TWH – The Wild Hunt has begun its annual Fall Fund Drive. Since 2004, The Wild Hunt has been serving its global readership with modern Pagan news and commentary. What began as an informative, community-minded blog has slowly and steadily grown into one of the most widely-read nonprofit online news magazines for modern Pagans, Witches, Polytheists, and Heathens in the world. Today, our reliable, independent news agency is made up of a 16-member team of reporters, columnists, and editorial staff, all of whom make sure that you receive relevant, well-crafted, original content every day of the week.
During our annual Fall Fund Drive, we ask that you help us continue to do that; to continue to be here for you every single day. We are grateful for the support you have already shown that has allowed us to come as far as we have. With your continued support, we’ll do our best to repay your generosity by expanding and growing our delivery.
For more on our fall campaign, the exciting perks, our future goals, and other fun TWH facts, go to our newly launched IndieGoGo campaign. And, while you are there, consider donating today and sharing the link. Support independent, nonprofit, Pagan journalism!
In Other News:
- Norse Mythology blogger Karl E. H. Seigfried recently sat down with Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. In that interview, Seigfried and Stein discuss a number of very current issues, one of which is her awareness of non-Abrahamic religions. In response to one question, she said, in part, that one of our contemporary challenges is”to find our common humanity and overcome the sense of fear, otherness, and divisions by embracing each other as members of the same human family. We may tell different stories, but that’s okay. Different stories are enriching the traditions of us all.” The entire interview is published on The Norse Mythology Blog.
- The California-based Academy of Arcana, launched last year by Oberon Zell and several colleagues, is continuing its quest for more funding. In recent letter, board member Emrys Dragonseye said, “I pen this letter to you with a heavy mind, for there comes a time in all our lives when we reflect back upon the path that has led us to where we are today […] Sadly, we have seen too many of our revered elders pass through the veil in recent years as age and its accompanying trials continue to erode their mortality.” Dragonseye goes on to say that the Academy of Arcana’s new board is working “toward the goal of seeking out a means by which to preserve the Zell’s museum and library collections of Pagan archives and artifacts.” The board is calling to the Pagan community for assistance. In a second letter directly to The Wild Hunt, Dragonseye confirmed that this call to action has nothing to do with Zell’s own health. He said that Zell “is doing fine,” and only “a bit disheartened at watching so many of loved ones, friends, and close associates pass away.”
- The New Mexico-based Ardantane Learning Center will be hosting a “Hate Crimes” two-part lecture series featuring Kerr Cuhulain. The event page explains, “People use misinformation to paint ugly and slanderous pictures of others to further their pursuit of power, influence, and prosperity. Kerr shares the lessons he learned dealing with hate crimes during the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s and his experiences with educating law enforcement and other public agencies about Pagan religions. This course is based on Kerr’s 25 years as a hate crimes investigator.” The two classes will be available online Oct. 16 and 23.
- Rev. Patrick McCollum and his work were recently featured in The Interfaith Observer. Written by Ruth Boyde Sharone, the article is titled, “An Instrument of Thy Peace” and focuses on his violin in advance of the upcoming UN International Day of Peace, Sept. 21. McCollum told The Wild Hunt, “I am so honored to have my work selected to represent this momentous occasion, and I hope to continue to shift the consciousness of the world to a new meta-narrative that promotes the truth that we are all family and that there isn’t an us versus them, there is only us.”
- The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, located in Boscastle, England, will reportedly appear in a future episode of “Antiques Roadshow.” Museum managers Judith and Peter Hewitt took one of the artifacts to the show’s nearby filming event in hopes of it being used for the “Enigma Game.” The item was chosen and filmed for reportedly five minutes with the Hewitts in the background. The museum has posted several photos and more about that experience on its site.
- In response to the continued actions and support for the Great Sioux Nation and the Standing Rock protests, blogger Melissa Hill felt compelled to publish her thoughts about the place of magic and meditation in this work. In Singing the Cricket Song for Standing Rock Tribe, Hill wrote, “[Magic] in no way replaces the physical work of the protesters. It doesn’t replace sending money and supplies, or contacting your governmental representatives, or signing petitions. But it does have a place.”
If you have news tips, events, or story suggestions, contact us.
TWH – In 1994, three student filmmakers walked off into the dense woods near Burkettsville, Maryland in hopes of a discovering the truth behind a local legend. They were never heard from again. One year later, their equipment was found, and the footage became the film The Blair Witch Project (1999). This weekend, the story continues in a new film, with the brother of one of the lost filmmakers traveling to the mysterious Black Hills of Maryland in hopes of learning exactly what happened 22 years ago.
Or so the story goes.
While the Blair Witch project did begin in earnest 1994, the entire film venture is manufactured, including the plot, the legend, the town, the footage, and even the made-for-television, promotional mockumentary, titled Curse of the Blair Witch (1999). Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project was an indie success, a technical novelty, and a marker of its time. According to a Fortune magazine article, the film cost $60,000 to make, and earned $1.5 million at the box office on the first weekend, while only in 27 theaters. [i]
Outside of the early buzz created by the SyFy Channel’s pre-release of the mockumentry, The Blair Witch Project captured the imagination of a viewership already engrossed with supernatural or paranormal entertainment vehicles (e.g., X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, So Weird, Ancient Mysteries). In addition, new technology was quickly eliminating barriers to indie filmmaking, making the film’s concept very possible.
This new digital medium, far more than its analog counterpart, also increasingly allowed for the construction and the reconstruction of recorded reality, leaving much room for the manipulation of our nonfictional storytelling. What is real and what has been falsified? Can we trust what we see in photos and film? In that way, The Blair Witch Project at its very essence captured not only its own time, but also what was to come. It seemed to be a doorway into the new millennium of how we tell our stories.
The breakout success of the original Blair Witch Project led to a 2000 sequel, titled Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which was directed by Joe Berlinger. However, the sequel, costing $10 million, was unsuccessful, failing to capture the original’s grit or poignancy. Hard-core fans and reviewers often remark that they would simply like to forget that the second film even happened. In 2000, New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden had some kinder words for the film, but added, “For all its clever notions, ‘Book of Shadows’ often seems more like a montage of pasted-together images than a coherent horror story.” [ii]
With the end of the witch film cycle at hand and the poor showing of the second film, this seemed to be the end for The Blair Witch Project. However, in 2016, as witch films have made a return to the screen, so has the Blair Witch.
Before going forward, this review will discuss some, not all, details of the new film. If you haven’t seen it, you can stop here. However, with that said, neither The Blair Witch Project nor Blair Witch are heavily dependent on plot elements for enjoyment. In other words, even if you know what is going to happen, your viewing experience won’t necessarily be spoiled. Both films operate as journeys, and the tension is created in the process and not the story itself. It is analogous to riding a roller coaster. No matter how many times, or in what detail, a friend tells you about roller coaster, the experience of riding can never be spoiled. That is how both The Blair Witch Project and Blair Witch work.
In this new film, Jason, the brother of lost filmmaker Heather, seeks to find the truth of what happened in 1994. He is accompanied by a friend and indie filmmaker Lisa, his best friend Peter and Peter’s girlfriend, Ashley. When arriving in Burkettsville, Maryland, the group meets up with locals Lane and Talia, who accompany them into the woods. From there the search begins.
Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, Blair Witch (2016) is structured identically to the original. It is more of the same, from character introductions, through equipment gathering and travel, to the trek into the woods. Once in the Black Hills, like its predecessor, the film progresses through a slow buildup of a tension, making use of the film’s medium and documentary approach (e.g., extreme close-ups, quick cuts, movement, and point of view).
In many ways, it’s a repeat with new characters and contemporary technology. And like the original, we are trapped in the cameras, which for this film have been increased in number. This visual claustrophobia mirrors the characters’ mounting fears. You might find yourself frustrated and tense, asking, “What is going on?” While it serves the purpose well for most of the film, there are points where it becomes a detriment.
But as much as Blair Witch mirrors its parent, the two are not the same. The new film spends less time focused on the investigation, or legend-tripping, and more time enjoying the horror. The original film worked through a slow buildup to its end. The new film jumps quickly into its terror points, moving ever faster from one to other and slowing down only to enjoy itself once there. For example, the narrative stops fully to indulge in the removal of a wound’s bandage, emphasizing the experience of disgust with the heightened sound of what seems to be wound and ooze.
Additionally, Blair Witch makes a few interesting attempts at layered characterizations, moreso than the original. For example, when the four friends enter Lane and Talia’s living room, they find a confederate flag hangs on the wall. From presumably Jason’s camera view, we watch Peter, who is black, look at the flag and then turn back to the camera. His disgusted expression is poignant and unmistakable. Minutes later the four are outside and Jason asks whether they should take Lane and Talia on the trek. Without a pause, Peter says emphatically, “No,” and his facial expression once again says it all. Unfortunately, the film abandons these clever indulgences in characterization as soon as it takes up its horror role.
But what about the Blair Witch herself? This is another point where the film deviates from its parent. As noted earlier, the original narrative was presented as a legend-tripping experience, with the object of fear being only an archetype that lives within our collective culture consciousness. She is the Baba Yaga figure, the monster in the woods. But is she real? The first film leaves that answer to the imagination.
Blair Witch moves in a different direction, offering viewers an answer to that very question. There is in fact an object. There is a monster. Although it is not visually made clear, this thing in the woods is called the Blair Witch and gendered as female. “Don’t look at her directly and she won’t hurt you,” says Lisa. With that definition, the monster becomes, in earnest, the old woman in the woods, a symbol of primal fear and that which is unattainable and wild. The new film leaves no question as to the existence of the monster.
This age-old archetype of Baba Yaga or the wild woman in the woods pervades American witch films across the decades. Woman’s power is equated to that which is naturally wild and uncontrollably dangerous. In Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), the influence of the weird sisters and that Lady Macbeth are visually juxtaposed to leafless trees, storms, rocks and night sky. In the 1987 film, The Witches of Eastwick (1987), the devil, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, angrily asks a congregation if God made a mistake when creating woman. Then he says, “When we make a mistake, it’s called evil. When God makes a mistake it’s called nature.” But even more recently, Roger Eggers’ The Witch uses the very Baba Yaga archetype found in Blair Witch as a counter to the severity of social control present in early Puritan America. In these examples, woman is nature, and nature is magic, and it is all uncontrollable.
While the story is pervasive in western society, it doesn’t always sit well with modern Witchcraft practitioners due chiefly to the religious implications placed on it by Christian theology. In fact, Berlinger’s Book of Shadows included Erica, a Wiccan character who was unhappy with the first film’s portrayal of the witch.
In reality, modern Witches have had a mixed response to the Blair Witch films, as often is the case. In 1999, blogger Peg Aloi spoke with directors Myrick and Sánchez about the archetype. Myrick said, “We never meant to say anything bad about Witches in general.” The use of the witch was just a reason to “get the kids out there.” It was a plot device or what Myrick called “a triggering mechanism.” The original film was essentially mimicking the popular teenage legend-tripping experience, which can be horrifying in and of itself. As Sanchez remarks, “It has nothing to do with witches.”[iii]
The original directors were, in fact, very conscious of modern Paganism. They included a bit on Wicca in their promotional mockumentary. Among the other “footage,” they inter-spliced segments from a fake 1971 film called “Mystic Experiences.” Aside from its use of the term Wiccanism as a name for the religion, this segment, which allegedly featured a real Witch, is as authentic feeling as any other piece of the mockumentary.
However, as noted earlier, the new Blair Witch takes the archetype into a different place, well beyond the surreal experience of legends, ghost stories, and the imagination. Here, although mostly visually obscured, “the witch” is a real object of some kind. This monster is not derived simply in the mind, from centuries of legends and a collective fear of the woods. It is there. It is real, and it is described to us, through the characters and their collective cultural understanding, as being female.
While the film’s many embedded traditional horror elements, like this manifested monster, may bother some fans, the new film could not have functioned in the same way as the original. Part of its success was in the confusion as to what aspects of the story were real, and what were constructed. The suggestion of reality added to the original’s terror.
Plus, we already know the story.
For a successful 2016 reboot, Blair Witch needed to find a new terror device to take the place of that tension. It chose classic visual and audible horror tropes, like jump-moments, bodies, intense sounds, thunderstorms, tight shots, obscured imagery, and a very classic manifested horror monster.
Now, the story is about the witch, and it will continue to be so if there is another journey. The franchise has no choice…for better or worse.
While the many classic horror details are not, in and of themselves, disappointing or distracting, they do give Blair Witch a different feel and speed than the original film. Hard core fans, as noted earlier, might be disappointed with that shift. For others, it may be a plus.
No, Blair Witch does not (and could not) have the technological ingenuity of the original, and it will not hold the same cultural significance. However, despite any flaws and differences, it is a well-structured horror film that moves through its thin story and delivers on entertainment. Many viewers will enjoy going back to the Black Hills again in search for the truth, which in the end is apparently out there.
* * *
[i] Carvell, Tim. “How The Blair Witch Project Built Up So Much Buzz Movie Moguldom on a Shoestring.” Fortune Magazine. (Aug. 16, 1999)
[ii] Holden, Stephen. “Burkittsville Revisited, With More Mind Games.” Rev. of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Dir. Joe Berlinger. New York Times (Oct 27, 2000)
[iii] Aloi, Peg. “Blair Witch Project: an interview with directors.” Witchvox, (July 11, 1999)
Twenty years ago, on Sept. 7, 1996, the rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur was shot in Las Vegas at the age of 25. He is reported to have died in the hospital six days later, on Sept. 13. Conspiracy theories abound that his death was staged and that he is still alive and in hiding. But while the line between death and life may seem absolute to secularists, death doesn’t mean the same thing to polytheists and spirit workers, for whom “there is no death, only a change of worlds.”¹
Whether or not he is currently embodied, Tupac’s legacy is undeniable. From Los Angeles to Rio De Janeiro, he is honored as an ancestor. For ancestry is not merely biological, but relational: one becomes an ancestor by being honored by one’s descendants.To better understand Tupac as an ancestor, it is instructive to look at the lineages that he is a descendant of. We start not with his parents, but with his name. Many cultures recognize the power of names, from the Egyptian myth of Isis and Ra to the German fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. There is, moreover, a particular power in the passing down of names from generation to generation.
Two examples from Icelandic sagas are particularly striking in this regard. In Svarfdaela Saga, H. Lauer writes, “Thorolfr promises to pass his good hamingja (luck or power) on to any son of his brother who should be named Thorolfr; it is this or else Thorolfr’s name risks passing ‘out of use like withered grass.’”² In Vatnsdaela Saga, the desire to pass one’s name down is not limited to one’s own family, but even extended into the family of one’s enemy. The warrior Jokull lies dying on the battlefield, and asks a final boon from his killer: “not to let my name pass away…if a son be granted to you or to your son.”³ While every tradition is different, the name “Tupac Amaru” contains an especially rich history of being passed down through the centuries.Túpac Amaru: I Feel Like Pac For Real
The first Túpac Amaru was the last of the Incan emperors. His brother submitted to Catholic baptism and Spanish rule, but Túpac Amaru refused to do so, and was beheaded by the Spanish in 1573. Túpac Amaru II claimed to be a descendant of Túpac Amaru and adopted that name when he led an indigenous revolt in Peru in 1780. He, too, was drawn, quartered and beheaded. In the twentieth century, several South American leftist guerrilla groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay (founded 1963) and the MRTA in Peru (founded 1983) named themselves after Túpac Amaru II.
A similar thread can be found in Chinese history, where several millenarian Daoist movements claimed to be led by reincarnations of Li Hong:
A great many charismatic leaders came from the Li family, and certain of them claimed to be the god Laozi returned to earth; a sage of western China, Li Hong, who had actually lived during the 1st century BCE, became the favourite recurrent figure of later would-be messiahs. […] The last recorded Li Hong was executed in 1112.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to Latin America and China. This year, after the police killing of Alton Sterling, the rapper Young Buck released a song entitled “Riot,” which begins with a vocal sample from Tupac: “I would rather tell a young black male to educate his mind, arm yourself and be free and defend yourself, than you know, just sit there and turn the other cheek. So whatever message that sends out, that’s the kinda message it is.” Young Buck then says, “I mean I feel like Pac for real in this bitch today bruh.” And on the song, “Fuck Donald Trump,” Nipsey Hu$$le directly quotes Tupac’s “To Live & Die in L.A.,” rapping in favor of brown and black unity, “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans […] Black love, brown pride and the sets again.” Tupac Shakur thus acts in today’s struggles in the United States in a similar fashion as Li Hong did in the first millennium CE, Túpac Amaru I did in the 1780s, and Túpac Amaru II did in the late 20th century.
Tupac’s first and middle names tie him to a lineage of remembrance and revolt in the Western Hemisphere. But why was he given these names in the first place?Shakur: It Goes Down my Family Tree
Tupac was born to a family of militant black revolutionaries, the Shakurs or “thankful ones.” In an interview, Tupac stated that “I like to think that at every opportunity I’ve ever been threatened with resistance, it’s been met with resistance. And not only me but it goes down my family tree. You know what I’m saying, it’s in my veins to fight back.”4 He was not exaggerating when he spoke these words.
Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, was a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther party. While pregnant with Tupac in 1969, she was a defendant in the Panther 21 case, in which twenty-one Black Panther party members were accused of conspiring to assassinate police officers and blow up buildings including police stations. In 1971, the Panther 21 were acquitted of all charges.
In 1982, when Tupac was ten years old, his stepfather Mutulu Shakur was indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) law on charges relating to “participation in a clandestine paramilitary unit that carried out actual and attempted expropriations from several banks” between December 1976 and October 1981 including a 1981 Brink’s armored truck robbery as well as the 1979 prison break of Assata Shakur. Mutulu went underground for nearly five years, was captured in 1986, convicted in 1988, and is still serving a 60-year sentence. Tupac’s song “White Man’s World” was “dedicated to my motherfuckin teachers Mutulu Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, Mumia Abu Jamal, Sekou Odinga, all the real O.G.’s.”
Assata Shakur is Tupac’s godmother. She was imprisoned for the 1973 killing of a police officer, but escaped in 1979 and moved to Cuba. Sekou Odinga, who was also part of the Panther 21 case along with Afeni, and who, like Mutulu, was convicted of RICO charges relating to the Brink’s robbery and Assata’s liberation, is the father of Yaki Akiyele Fula. Yaki rapped as Kadafi in the the Outlawz, the rap group founded by Tupac in 1995.
The dedication of “White Man’s World” shows that these family connections and relationships were important to Tupac, and that adoptive kinship was just as important as biological. The political consciousness of his elders is also apparent in Tupac’s lyrics, in which he raps such lines as, “‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said/Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead” (Changes) and “Malcolm X or Bobby Hutton died for nothin'” (Ghetto Gospel). These lines, of course, reflect the pessimism of Tupac’s generation regarding the failed efforts of their predecessors. Therein lies an inescapable truth: we are all shaped and molded by our parents and ancestors, but we all have our own paths to forge, and we choose how to carry our lineages forward. Tupac’s deliberate choice to honor his Shakur family legacy was an integral part of his path.That’s Why We Go to Thug Mansion
Given the complex web of ancestry that any individual is descended from and comprised of, it makes sense for that complexity to be retained after death. Tupac’s lyrics posit quite a few possible afterlives. In “Only God Can Judge Me,” Tupac raps, “My only fear of death/Is comin’ back to this bitch reincarnated.” In “Thugz Mansion” he speculates that “Ain’t no heaven for a thug nigga/That’s why we go to thug mansion,” a place reminiscent of the ancient Greek Isle of the Blessed, where one can enjoy the company of such individuals as Billie Holiday, Malcolm X and Latasha Harlins. On the cover of his final album recorded before his shooting, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, Tupac, now rapping under the name Makaveli, depicts himself crucified like Jesus.
To some, these may seem like irreconcilable possibilities. Many polytheist and animist traditions, however, believe in multiple souls or in the multi-part soul. Chinese tradition, for example, contains the concepts of the shén (神), the hún (魂, which itself may be three entities) and the pò (魄, which may be seven entities), all of which are distinct from concepts such as jīng (精) and qì (气). The ancient Egyptians conceived of people being comprised of multiple parts as well: “the main constituents were the body, its ka, and its name which remained always in close proximity to each other even in the tomb, and the shadow, the ba, sahu and akh.”
Furthermore, in the realm of practice, multiple eschatologies can coexist simultaneously. In China, for example, Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation have coexisted with traditional ancestor veneration practices for millennia. The multiple-soul theory provides one possible explanation for how this may work on the other side. Even within ancestor veneration, the existence of both grave-tending and ancestor shrines and temples suggest that a distinction is made between the soul attached to the physical body and the ancestral soul. We see in Tupac’s lyrics the possibilities of a soul that is reincarnated (which in some traditions is seen as a neutral fact, in others as something to transcend), one that dwells in the heroic paradise known as Thug Mansion, and perhaps even one that undergoes resurrection and apotheosis. There is also the aforementioned name of Tupac Amaru, which in Icelandic tradition would be linked with the hamingja of Túpac Amaru I, and the familial Shakur ancestral soul.
For a poet like Tupac, there is always the poetic immortality that one finds in the “everlasting glory” promised to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, in Catullus, and in Shakespeare. In Kendrick Lamar’s song “Mortal Man,” he carefully alternates quotes from Tupac’s interviews with his own words, creating through bricolage a conversation between himself and Tupac. As he speaks to Tupac, Kendrick identifies himself as “one of your offspring of the legacy you left behind.” In another song, “Black Friday,” Kendrick declares that he will personally “make sure [Tupac] lives on.” Poetry brings another level of elevation to the dead altogether.We Just Letting our Dead Homies Tell Stories
Tupac is most famous for his musical career, but in his own words, rapping was always a spirit-guided act: “Because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.”5 And in “Ghetto Gospel,” he rapped, “God isn’t finished with me yet/I feel His hand on my brain/When I write rhymes I go blind and let the Lord do his thing.”
In his essay “The Head of Orpheus,” published in Scarlet Imprint’s Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis, Michael Routery writes that like Hesiod receiving the breath of inspiration from the Muses on Mount Helicon, in traditional societies “around the world poets were seen as inspired by gods, spirits and the dead, and conduits of a world of transpersonal memory, and prophecy.” Clearly, Tupac’s quotes fit well into this framework of spirit-inspired poetry, and songs like “Pour Out a Little Liquor” exist within a much more widespread street culture of remembering and libating the dead.
Routery’s naming of both memory and prophecy as poetic functions is deliberate, for “among many primal, archaic and indigenous peoples the poet and prophet were combined, or perhaps better to say unseparated.” Some of Tupac’s words have a prophetic ring to them as well, though as P.E. Easterling writes in her introduction to Sophocles’s Trachiniae, “the special characteristic of oracles” is that “they represent a glimpse of the truth which can only be properly understood when the events they foretell take place” (3).
In an interview, for example, Tupac predicted black insurgencies paralleling that led by Nat Turner:
I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, uh, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think American think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka.6
Whether this prophecy will be fulfilled or not remains to be seen, but for now, his words serve merely as a “glimpse of the truth” that cannot yet be properly understood.T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.
Tupac is also known for promulgating a standard of behavior for gangsters known as the Code of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E., which his step-father Mutulu Shakur is said to have helped write. The code sought to mitigate the effects of drug dealing with prohibitions on selling drugs to children and pregnant women and to reduce violence towards those not involved in criminal activity. At the same time, it was an attempt to embrace the derogatory word “thug” in a manner similar to religious and spiritual practitioners’ reclamations of the terms “Witch,” “Pagan,” and “Heathen.”
The term “thug” is derived from the Hindi “thag,” which literally means “to cheat,” but according to Kim Wagner’s article “The Deconstructed Stranglers: A Reassessment of Thuggee,” it could mean either a conman or a violent robber in precolonial India (943). Under British colonial rule in the 1830s, the term “thuggee” was used to specifically describe a particular form of robbery in which bandits “attacked travelers on the high road using trickery or deception” and in which the victims were strangled (942), and a campaign was launched to suppress thuggee. Thuggee was also said to be a form of Kali worship, and the murders by strangulation were allegedly carried out as human sacrifices.
Wagner casts doubt upon this narrative on the grounds that “there is no mention whatsoever of thuggee as a religious practice in the material predating […] the campaign to eradicate thuggee,” and argues that “ordinary dacoits in 19th century India, who were never assumed to be motivated by religious fervor, would also hold a ceremony or puja after a successful robbery and make votive offerings to a deity” (953). While her article is focused on deconstructing and reassessing the image of the thug constructed by the British, this particular quote also suggests that religious offerings were indeed the norm for bandits, which is in and of itself and interesting area of study.
Wagner suggests that the conflation of thuggee with extreme religious devotion was an example of confirmation bias, and also of a deliberate legitimization of thuggee on those interrogated by the British who may have been sympathetic to thuggee:
The extreme interest in the subject exhibited by the British prompted the informers to rethink their religious identity. When the approvers promulgated thuggee as a religious practice in worship of Devi they were legitimizing their actions and practices, which conferred a higher moral and social status to the thugs, setting them aside from ‘ordinary’ criminals. (954)
Interestingly, Tupac’s Code of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. essentially sought to do the same thing, to distinguish thugs from “ordinary criminals.” Tupac said in an interview: “Yes, I am gonna say that I’m a thug. That’s because I came from the gutter and I’m still here. I’m not saying I’m a thug because I wanna rob you and rape people.”Problematic Ancestors
Unfortunately, despite being one of the few rappers to express moderately pro-feminist sentiments in his songs and interviews, Tupac himself fell far short of his claims. In 1995, he was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse.
Let us be clear about this. Rape, abuse, and all apologia for and minimization of such acts are categorically unacceptable.
The practice of ancestor veneration does not change that position in the slightest. But the question of problematic ancestors must nevertheless be confronted. When Tupac declared, “only God can judge me now,” was he ready for his god to call his bluff?
The concept of multiple souls allows for the possibility that there are souls that undergo judgment of some sort and then receive the consequences of their actions. In the Egyptian conception of multiple souls, for example, the heart (, jb) is weighed after death by Anubis against the feather of Ma’at. If too heavy, it is devoured by Ammit. Furthermore, in the case of particularly hated individuals such as the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaton, human descendants would destroy inscriptions containing that individual’s name and their very memory. The Roman senate is also known to have enacted similar decrees against despised emperors and would-be emperors, a practice that in modern times was given the name damnatio memoriae. And if one honors one’s ancestors as collectives, it may well be that particularly problematic individuals have been removed from that collective by its other members.
Not all conceptions of afterlife judgment and punishment are the same. In Chinese Buddhism, when souls go to Dìyù (地獄), they are tortured for their crimes by the Ten Kings (十王, shíwáng), but the tenth and final king “turns the wheel of transmigration that carries the dead to their new existences as either gods, human beings on earth or in hell, good or bad demons, or animals.” In other words, in this particular tradition, the torture is not an eternal punishment, but a form of purification akin to Catholic purgatory.
Just as Catholics perform masses for the dead in order to “help the departed souls undergoing purification” in purgatory, so can ancestor work be done to help the dead within polytheist and animist traditions. The particular details of how this works vary greatly from tradition to tradition. Within the hypothesis of multiple souls, it may be the ancestral soul that is uplifted and elevated by ancestor work, while other souls or soul-parts are affected to differing degrees. There may be purifications or retributions that must be undergone and cannot be affected by the living at all. None of this should be taken to “cancel out” or minimize the effects of harm caused to others during one’s lifetime. Once the stone has been cast into the water, sticking one’s hand in the water to stop the ripples and pretend the stone was never thrown is impossible.
On the other hand, in “The Fire Is Here,” I quoted James Baldwin about “the crime that is committed until it is accepted that it was committed.” Like the curse on the descendants of Tantalos, which manifested as kinslaying in successive generations from the fratricide of Atreus to the matricide of Orestes, the crimes committed by one’s ancestors weigh upon the descendants and seek, vampire-like, to be recommitted and brought into the world in yet another incarnation. In these cases, the best form of ancestor work is to “put the souls of your ancestors at peace,” as the Chinese god Guan Sheng Di Jun advises, “by doing good.” In other words, to break the cycle in one’s own generation.
In “Tupac’s Law: Incarceration and the Crisis of Black Masculinity,” Seneca Vaught wrote that one of Tupac’s “greatest personal shortcomings was the inability to leave the “plantation of maleness,” a mentality that clinical psychologist Na’im Akbar (1991) characterized in Visions For Black Men” (89). Tupac Shakur’s descendants can never erase his shortcomings, but they can try to overcome those shortcomings in themselves, to themselves escape and destroy the “plantation of maleness.”Endnotes
The Polytheist community is vast. Cultures around the world celebrate versions of polytheistic worship and commune with the Gods as a way of life. Modern polytheistic practices are just as wide of a range as in any other time in history. There are many contextual differences, nuances, cultures, beliefs, stories, and practices that fall under a very large umbrella of Polytheism.The strength of any community is enhanced and yet challenged by the variety of diversity it faces. How we see worship, who we worship, how we engage in community worship, how we are inspired to worship; all things that can encapsulate the myriad differences that play a role within any snapshot of the Polytheistic community.
The complexity and variety of practice is what brought the My Polytheism project to creation. Writer and polytheist Jolene Dawe started working on this project in August of this year, which has unfolded to include many different writings and reflections from people within the Polytheist community that are speaking about their personal version of Polytheism.
I was quite drawn in by the creativity and variety of the posts on the site because they showed so many different interpretations and practices within this community. The myriad nuances that can be rooted within any practice create a vital context to the very connection one has with the Gods, their practice, community, and their place within it. I can relate to this concept because of the many different aspects in my own practice that are outside of the “norm” within greater community expectations. My personal culture plays a big role in my own brand of Polytheism.
There have always been many attempts, whether over the internet or in person at festivals, to clarify what acceptable Polytheism is. The ongoing desire to define modern Paganism and Polytheism is nothing new, and sometimes that is accompanied by judgement and the creation of normative values focusing on who fits inside of the circle and who does not. Communities often focus on differences as a way to identify parameters and cultivate shared social standards. These very differences and nuances also push people into the margins of a community and can lead to ridicule, feelings of isolation, and additional challenges that come with being right outside of the lines of acceptable culture.
And for all of these reasons, I decided to turn to Jolene Dawe and speak with her about the motivation and drive to create what has become #MyPolytheism.
Crystal Blanton: In creating the My Polytheism site and concept, did you think that it would call to so many people?
Jolene Dawe: I cannot emphasis ‘no’ enough, here. The site started as a place for me to gather links that I didn’t want to lose, when people started writing their own #mypolytheism posts in response/inspired by mine. One day, someone was wrong on the internet, and I got annoyed. Those responses were heartening.
I’ve been blogging about my path for awhile, and I do get people reaching out to me regularly, who are put off by the debate style that passes for community building in the louder section of the Pagan blogosphere, who don’t want their paths or experiences picked apart, who are tired of hearing that they’re wrong somehow. As there’s been more and more talk about this so-called Polytheist Movement, I realized that, you know, phrasing it like that, as if there’s some collective movement around whose tenets people agree, is misleading.
Because My Polytheism has zero interest in deciding if others are ‘doing polytheism right.’ The idea of there being some homogeneous polytheism tradition, where one must approach the gods through appropriate people, really turns me off. The looking back to how ancient polytheism was, with some rose colored glasses, as if that’s something to bring forward . . . no, thank you, but no. I don’t want a state-sanctioned polytheist approach. I’m female; would I have been allowed to devote myself to Poseidon for life, if we existed under a polytheist world since antiquity? Because, I doubt it.
So, My Polytheism came about in part because of that — can we maybe stop arguing about who’s ‘doing it wrong’ and instead maybe share what it is that we’re doing? Can we move away from wanting contemporary polytheism to be rooted in sameness — in where we hold the gods in the ordering of society, in how we think of them, in how we worship — and instead maybe root it in hospitality? I’m weary of it being acceptable to tear into people online, because “they’re nice in person” — which is a refrain I heard all the time during my years interacting with heathens on the east coast, in person. Can we be kind to one another? Can we stop pretending that personal attacks because you don’t agree with someone is acceptable? Can we admit that the perennial debates are going to keep happening, and not everyone needs to be a theologian, or a scholar, or even just want to debate. Can we please, please, move beyond this stage?
I did not know My Polytheism was going to become a project, when it went live. It was really supposed to be this depository of links, for my own ease of reference. Clearly, I was wrong.
CB: What do you feel that My Polytheism adds to the idea of community and the culture of modern Polytheism?JD: Off the top of my head? A safe space to share, where the authors of the various essays/blog posts get to determine how they engage with others. It’s been criticized that because My Polytheism does not allow debate on the site, that it’s anti-debate. It’s not. I’m not. What I am, though, is against the idea that people are obligated to participate in debates, that they somehow owe anyone else an explanation as to why their experiences are as they are. I’m not going to provide one more space for people to attack someone. If you want to talk to one of the contributors about what they have to say, you need to go to their blogs and comment to them directly. They then get to decide if they want to engage with you or not. It’s completely up to them.
I think My Polytheism also increases visibility of the diversity with contemporary polytheism. I want it to. I hope it does. I do know that already people have found others whose work they may not have found otherwise — I’ve ‘met’ a ton of new people I didn’t know of before, that’s for sure. There are so many people who have felt alone, or in the minority, and I think My Polytheism is helping to challenge that. Certainly, having examples of the different ways a polytheist life might look is a positive thing.
Another thing about My Polytheism is that — yeah, I’m the curator of sorts, in that I’m maintaining the space — but it is nothing without the contributions of other polytheists. In that way. it’s a collective effort. My Polytheism is ours. It wouldn’t work any other way, because I really do not care about telling people how to be. I want to share what I do, and I want to know what you do, because I’m nosey, and because I’m curious, and because I find this all fascinating, and because I find it inspiring. I like stories. I want to hear yours. You know?
CB: Sometimes bridge work can be difficult in any community. What would you want to emphasize about My Polytheism to those may not understand the need for safe space within the modern Polytheism community?
JD: I’d like them to pause and consider that, if they don’t feel a need for a safe space within the modern Polytheism community, it might be because they have the privilege of not needing it, and that this does not mean others do not. I know ‘privilege’ is something of a buzzword these days, but it’s necessary to confront this: people want safe spaces. I’d argue that they need them. Not everyone can tackle issues in the same manner, whatever those issues are, and they shouldn’t be expected to.
I want community, I even want in-person community, but I don’t want just anyone. I want the people that are going to nourish me, who are going to encourage me. Beyond that, I don’t want people to feel they cannot approach their gods because of whatever reason. Because they can’t leave their houses, because they don’t *want* to leave their houses, because they’re not able-bodied, because they’re not comfortable in their skin, because their would-be communities are intent on telling them why they can’t be involved with the powers they’re involved with, because of their skin color or their gender orientation or their sexual preference, or a host of other reasons. We need safe space within the modern Polytheism community because modern polytheists are asking for it, are responding to it. You don’t have to understand. You don’t have to want to contribute to it — but you don’t get to decide what other people want or need .You do not get to decide how other people want to build community.
My Polytheism is not a place for everyone, and it’s not trying to be. There is the whole of the Internet to debate and attack and criticize. If that’s all you’re after, in community building, you’re going to have to go elsewhere. And, because I know there are those out there who love to send hateful and abusive private messages and emails, I’ve also made it clear that any sent my way about this topic are to be considered submissions for publication, because they will go live. So far, I haven’t gotten any. Which maybe isn’t the best way to build bridges, but I’m not interested in building bridges with people who only want to tear others down.
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When reaching out to Jolene about this project and its subsequent impact, I also decided to reach out to several of the people whose pieces were published on the website. What motivated them to write about their brand of Polytheism? What inspires their reflection of Polytheism? What hope did they have in sharing this with others?
Their answers are just as diverse and layered as the makeup of our community.
I was motivated to write an entry for #mypolytheism because I know I’m deviating from the “mainstream” ideas of Paganism and Polytheism with my practice. There’s a lot of gatekeeping in the wider online community, ideas of how things should be done in order to be correct, which can be demoralizing for those of us who can’t seem to find a home in the established Pagan and Polytheist religions. Personally, I take the stance of a Chaos Magician, in that what is correct… is what works. And that may not be the same for everyone; each person needs to experiment and see what works for them. And it’s likely to be a continuing work in progress.
I wanted to be part of something that strives to show everyone who is doing things a little different that we’re not alone. And I wanted to be part of showing the gatekeepers that we are just as valid and active as they are, no lectures required. We’re all doing our own thing, and it’s beautiful, and awesome, and amazing. By being able to share what we’re doing with each other, we’re sharing ideas, and helping each other.
Maybe someone in Russia is doing something really interesting someone in California might like to try out. Maybe new and more dynamic and inclusive religions and traditions can grow out of solitaries sharing information, and maybe not. I know there’s already a new community of support that’s grown out of the movement, for Pagan and Polytheist monastics, and it’s so exciting to see everyone talking, and so many people saying “I’ve been interested in this for *years* and never knew anyone else was interested!” It’s wonderful to see so many people connecting and sharing ideas. I don’t know if that would have happened without #mypolytheism. – Celestine
I was motivated on two levels. One was the increasingly rigid definitions that were being put out there by self-styled “leaders” about what polytheism is and isn’t supposed to be. I felt that those ideas were very limiting and excluding of many people and practices, and that they failed to accurately capture the diversity of ideas and ways within polytheism.
The other motivation was those who had already put their reflections out under the #mypolytheism hashtag. It was quickly obvious to me that so many of us had been feeling the same thing and they idea of putting out our own thoughts became quite contagious.I hope that from this sharing that others who are either on the edge looking in or have felt excluded by the rigid definitions of the past realize that there is a place for their practices and style of worship within polytheism, and that there is no “one true way” of being a polytheist.
I envision a community where folks are free to share their ideas and experiences without being told that they are “doing it wrong”, and that they can take inspiration from others who are putting their experiences out there. – Alley Valkyrie
As I understand it, My Polytheism was started in order to highlight the many diverse ways of being a polytheist. It has already shown that people are building community in ways that are unique and valuable, such as polytheist monasticism (the kind of monasticism that serves a wider community). It has created a safe space where people can share their feelings about their relationship with the gods.
Some people have complained about it not being a space for debate. As I see it, there are two ways to arrive at knowledge – (1) by debating and trying to eliminate the “incorrect” point of view; (2) by sharing experience & feelings and building up a richly textured view of reality. Since religion is largely about feelings and experiences, the debating approach won’t help much. My Polytheism is clearly about sharing feelings and experiences. And frankly I don’t want my heartfelt experiences to be a matter for debate. You can debate theology all you want, but ultimately the nature of the gods is a mystery and one that we all perceive in different ways.
There is so much debate everywhere else on the Internet – it’s lovely to have a space that is more like a sharing space where people can post their thoughts & feelings and not get shot down in flames for it. – Yvonne Aburrow
It was the tag line on the Facebook page that first caught my interest: “Visible. Vocal. Diverse.” That’s well aligned with my values. I want folks to hear from polytheists who celebrate diversity in polytheism. There are plenty of people who will tell you you’re doing it wrong, or assert that you’re not really a polytheist. There are plenty of places that attract attention by courting controversy and heated debate. But there are precious few places where I can set aside that sort of discourse entirely, and simply be heard on my own terms in a space of sacred hospitality. Magic happens in those places, and I want to contribute to that magic!
As a member of a minority religion, it takes courage for me to share details of my devotional and contemplative practice publicly. There are risks involved in doing so, especially given that sincere religious devotion in a polytheist context is often dismissed as “crazy” or “backward” in the dominant cultural milieu. If I fear my personal religious experience might be debated or insensitively picked apart by bullies – people who don’t know me or the challenges I deal with, and aren’t even peripherally involved in my relationships with the deities I venerate – I’m far less likely to share these things.
By providing a welcoming space for marginalized voices, and relief from the constant worry about being dragged into the kind of debate-driven discourse that is so prevalent elsewhere, My Polytheism emboldened me to speak up and contribute.
I hope it will amplify the voices of polytheists who are marginalized – voices that might not have been on our radar otherwise, yet have much to contribute to modern polytheism. I hope the project reaches people who feel underrepresented or unwelcome in polytheism, and brings them comfort, camaraderie, and the reassurance that they’re not alone. And finally, I hope it drives home the importance of creating spaces with clear and well-defined boundaries, in which voices that often go unheard are given a platform to address their communities on their own terms. I’m a co-administrator of a new discussion group on Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism, and our guidelines were inspired by those of My Polytheism, so the project’s influence is already expanding! – Danica SwansonThis project, while drawing some criticism, has come at a time when many people are looking for a place to celebrate their differences and similarities with others in spiritual community. It is also very relevant that many are actively in search of a safe place within the world; our spiritual communities are not void of this need.
As our communities grow and expand, we see more glimpses of what gaps exist and what needs go unfilled within the larger communal sphere. Acknowledging the needs of those within the margins can be a vital and healthy piece of the much larger picture of any group of people. How do we embrace the sharing of those same perspectives as the gifts that come from the diversity of different practices, experiences and stories?
It brings back into focus many of the questions that communities ask when they are in a process of growth and formation. How can we embrace differences? What is the value of holding space for those who outside of the norm of overculture? How do we welcome diversity? What is the benefit of stretching our own understanding about the practices and needs of others? How is safe space for the nuances of culture intersect with our ability to create healthy community? How does the desire to formulate a common framework for Polytheism limit our ability to learn and grow through the myriad of practices and beliefs we encounter?
While some of the concepts that communities explore in the development of culture are large and require much contemplation, others are rather simple. Our collective community is just as varied as the Gods who are worshiped around the world. We often forget inside of modern depictions of polytheistic practices, that we are but one segment of a much larger system of worship that spans time and physical spaces And what we have to gain from exploring the many different interpretations of personal practice is much greater than what we could ever lose.
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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.The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.
NEW ORLEANS, La. – Ender Darling, whose legal name is Devon Marie Machuca, is charged with several counts of trafficking in human parts and burglary of a cemetery. The charges come after a January raid on Darling’s home yielded human bones.
Darling, a practicing Witch, caught the attention of authorities after a Facebook post offering to send human bones to other Witches went viral to the point that the story got its own hashtag #bonegazi. By some accounts, Tumblr alone showed were well-over 40,000 notes and shares on a single mention.
The July arrest warrant issued stated Darling denies digging up any remains from the Holt Cemetery, but admitted to collecting bones which surfaced after rainstorms. Darling also denies selling the remains, saying that reimbursement for shipping costs was all that was requested. According to computer records seized in the raid, at least one other Witch appears to have purchased human bones from Darling.
Timeline of events
16 November: According to police reports, Darling sent messages through Facebook which indicated that they were obtaining bones from a nearby graveyard.
11 December: Darling posts on Facebook about having human bones for use in Witchcraft and offering to send bones to other Witches if they cover the cost of shipping.
12 December: Fellow New Orleans resident Desier Deja Galjour shares Darling’s post on Facebook and asks people to spread the word. They do.
14 December: Local media picks up the story
17 December: Tumblr users try to find out identity and location of Darling.
18 December: Louisiana Assistant Attorney General Ryan Seidemann says he has ordered an investigation into the possible removal of human remains from Holt Cemetery in New Orleans.
28 January: After 6 days of surveillance, Police search Darling’s home. Authorities confiscate a laptop, cellphone, and at least 11 bones and four teeth. They also issue a summons for Darling and roommates for possession of marijuana.
Early February: Darling moves away from NOLA to Florida, saying that they feared for their safety.
17 June: In response to public outcry, the “Louisiana Human Remains Protection and Control Act” is signed into law. It stiffens penalties for removing human remains from cemeteries. A first-offense violation is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or a year in prison. A second offense is punishable by two years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
15 July: After a forensic lab confirms the bones removed from Darling’s home are human, an arrest warrant is issued. Darling is taken into custody Tampa, Florida.
27 July: Darling is transferred to the Orleans Justice Center
Queer and Trans youth attracted to Witchcraft
Darling’s friend, Kristy Casper-Saxon says the outrage is less over Darling picking up bones off the ground and has more to do with religion, ethnicity, alternative appearance, sexual orientation and gender. Darling identifies as a transgender genderqueer person of color.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Casper-Saxon said, “I think this is targeting a member of a racial minority and sexual minority. Everything about [Darling’s] identity questions the status quo, and that’s what we love about them.”
According to an article in VICE, there are a growing number of queer and trans youth practicing Witchcraft. A younger queer Witch told Vice “the capacity for Witchcraft to accommodate alternative expressions of gender is what makes it appealing to a new generation of Witches.”
David Salisbury, author of Teen Spirit Wicca and LGBTQ activist, believes that queer youth have been coming to Witchcraft for decades, but their expertise with social media is making it more visible. Salisbury told The Wild Hunt, “And as the old gender norms of Wicca are being reexamined by the masses, queer people are becoming more comfortable in talking about why they’re attracted to it. I think that can only grow.”
He also thinks finding a place of welcome as a trans or queer person is a fabulous reason to embrace Witchcraft, “Queer people are particularly suited for the Craft because we know what it’s like to be between or outside of the norm. Witchcraft requires that we slip into those “between” spaces to bring about change.”
Ethics of using human bones in Witchcraft
“This is where I go to find my human bones for curse work and general spells that require bone. I find human bones are easier (to) work with for me rather than animal bone. I can relate and work with the energy they carry if that makes any sense.” Darling wrote in the Facebook post that ignited the controversy.Darling’s use of human bones has had Pagans and non-Pagans alike asking why modern Witches use human bones while practicing Witchcraft and wondering what are the ethics in obtaining and using such bones.
David Salisbury said that working with bones is similar to working with stones and crystals, “My experience with bones is that, like crystals, they carry the energetic memory of their experiences. While stones carry the current of the land, bones carry the current and memory of the human experience, ancestry. Bones can help open the way for stronger contact with the spirits for that reason.”
Salisbury added that the skull is a valuable bone to work with because it holds the current of human thought and expression. He noted that it’s very rare for a Witch to use a human skull due to the cost and legal obstacles to obtaining one. Instead, he makes an accomodation, “I’ve performed many successful workings with my resin substitute.”
Darling picked up bones that were visible on the ground. In an interview with The Advocate, Darling said that they don’t think they did anything illegal or unethical, either by removing the bones from the cemetery or sending them to other Witches for their use.
“This is me passing along something I feel nature has given me,” Darling said.
Salisbury explained that the ethics around obtaining human bone use would preclude removing them from a cemetery. “I would not use found or taken bones from cemeteries. They can be purchased online from people who donated their bodies to science and art who knew that their remains would go to some type of human use,” he said.
“Cemeteries to me are resting places and I wouldn’t want to carry the ethical burden of taking something that was intended to be laid to rest.”
We were unable to reach Darling directly for comment.
Darling appeared in court Friday and was charged with burglary as well as the possession of marijuana. They pled guilty to all charges. They were fined and sentenced to five years probation on the theft charge, and “15 days on possession with credit for time served.” A probation hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11.
ENGLEWOOD, Co. — Last week came the announcement that religion site Beliefnet has acquired Patheos, the far more popular home of a wide variety of religious blogs, include a vibrant Pagan channel. While Beliefnet also once hosted Pagan bloggers, since being acquired by the Christian-focused BN Media company, those writers all eventually moved on. With the new purchase, it has been stated that plans thus far are to keep the two sites independent of each other.
A Wild Hunt investigation into BN Media buying Beliefnet in June, 2016, disclosed the company’s focus:
BN Media seems to be a different sort of owner, if their two largest initiatives, Affinity4 and Cross Bridge, are any indication. In short, it seems they are a conservative “family friendly” Christian group. All you have to do is pay attention to all the subtle buzz-words. . . . It doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of future interfaith interactions and diverse viewpoints on Beliefnet.
It’s true that, while Beliefnet no longer hosts Pagan blogs, Patheos Pagan channel editor Jason Mankey isn’t expecting any purges at Patheos. Mankey told The Wild Hunt:
There are currently no plans to change anything at Patheos and at Patheos Pagan. Patheos will continue to maintain its own brand and the sites will be run as a separate entities. As in all acquisitions, there will be some changes but we believe these changes will be in the background and focused on the technology and supporting infrastructure, and we anticipate that these changes will be about improving the experience of the reader.
I’ve spoken to many of the folks coming in from Beliefnet and genuinely believe they are excited about both Patheos in general and more specifically the Pagan Channel. Change is a part of life, and I’m looking forward to this one.
Mankey has earned the respect of people in the Pagan blogosphere since he took over as channel editor, including that of Anne Newkirk Niven, who runs one of the largest independent Pagan blog sites, pagansquare.com, who called him an “excellent administrator.”
Niven’s sentiments were echoed by those Patheos Pagan bloggers who agreed to comment for this story as well as Star Foster, who was the channel’s first editor. In her statement, she also touched upon the value of purely Pagan alternatives.
Like many people, I was sad to watch Beliefnet lose its initial luster, particularly after it was bought by Fox and then by an Evangelical organization. The purchase of Patheos by the same Evangelical organization is momentous. An acquisition means merger and all that comes with it. Resources are allocated to the segments of a company that make money, and cuts are made to increase profitability. It will be interesting to see how this acquisition affects Patheos, particularly those writers who left other platforms with whom they had become disenchanted.
For minority faiths, who cannot easily compete for resources with larger faith demographics, it may prove more fruitful to invest talent and resources in quality, homegrown religious journalism, columnists, devotional writers, and cultural analysts. Since the dawn of Beliefnet the religious internet has undergone dramatic changes, and it will be fascinating to see how it continues to evolve.
Support your Pagan media, wherever you find it to be doing good work. In anticipation of The Wild Hunt’ drive, I have already made my contribution.
Editing the Agora for Patheos Pagan is David Dashifen Kees, who agreed with Mankey’s assessment. “I’m cautiously optimistic. My understanding is that, after the purchase, Patheos will be operating essentially as it always has been. We’ll keep writing what we write and the readers will hopefully continue to visit.”
Gus DiZerega has been a presence at many major Pagan blogging sites, including Pagan Square and Patheos. He also wrote for Beliefnet, and he’s more suspicious. “The people who controlled Beliefnet acted unethically in my experience, and cannot be trusted,” he said.
After he wrote a post criticizing management, “they removed comments and when [he] objected.” He said, “They told me it was their site and they could do what they wanted, I also left. I see no reason to legitimize anything controlled by Evangelicals such as that. Perhaps the Parliament of World’s Religions could someday host a genuine interfaith site free from the imperialistic ambitions of Evangelicals.”
Druidic blogger John Beckett doesn’t think it’s the end of the world. He said:
Nothing is constant in life, much less on the internet. While I had no idea this merger was coming, I’m not the least bit surprised it happened. We’ve been told the merger will have no effect on bloggers – Patheos will remain a unique site and all the changes will be on the technical and business side. That could be helpful.
As long as Patheos stays within its mission of being a multifaith religious site, as long as Pagans continue to be treated with the same respect as everyone else, and as long as I continue to have full control over what I write, I plan to stay.
If any of that changes, I own all my content and can move at any time.
Others also see two sides to this coin. “It seems that the merger is a pretty mixed bag,” said David Pollard, who edits the UU-centric Nature’s Path group blog at Patheos Pagan. “While a lot has been made in the Pagan blogosphere about Beliefnet’s incivility towards Paganism in recent years, when they started they were able to get some very high profile Pagans like Margot Adler and Starhawk to write for them.
“The problem was, that’s where they stopped,” Pollard continued. “They never really developed a second tier of writers, which is something that Patheos through its Pagan Channel editors has really excelled at.”
Pollard said he very much hopes that Patheos bloggers will be left alone, “given how many times Beliefnet has changed owners over the past decade, who knows what their next owner will want?”
One thing that any owner of Patheos is likely to want is a profitable venture, and the main way to achieve that with a content site is through advertising sales. The ads on the site now have been the subject of criticism by Pagans over the years, including from The Wild Hunt founding editor Jason Pitzl, who entered into a partnership in 2011-12.
In announcing the relaunch of an independent Wild Hunt, he promised “zero ads endorsing Mormonism or Liberty University.” Those result from buying into pools such as ones offered by Google, which serve up ads based on a variety of factors, including one’s behavior generally on the internet and search terms used.
Quaker Pagan Reflections blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop has also been concerned about the push for profit. “It has sometimes seemed that there’s been an increasing stress on monetizing our writing, and I have wondered whether the finances were really working out: the ads have always been off-putting, not always relevant to Paganism, and so slow to load some of my friends tell me they can’t read my blog at all. I’ve wondered if we Pagans have been a good investment for the owners, and whether the site is a good fit for us, to be honest. I guess my questions have only grown with this news.
“Patheos has been good to my blog, in that I’ve seen a big increase in readership, and I’ve been part of a conversation with other writers I really admire,” Chapin Bishop said. “Still, I’ve often wondered if it would make more sense to go it alone, or at a Pagan-owned, Pagan-run site.”
“They’re not going for direct-place ads,” agreed Newkirk Niven, who runs such a Pagan site. When she recently looked into advertising at Patheos, she was told that “they don’t even talk to people who aren’t able to spend a grand a month. I think we’re operating in a different universe.”
For most Pagan advertisers, she said, $12,000 is impossible; even $100 a month can be a challenge from owners of businesses the size she works with, she said.
For now, Patheos remains independent, but it’s likely that the new owners will seek to find ways to use this property to improve Beliefnet and other sites. As of this writing, Patheos is ranked 1,922 by site-ranking service Alexa, while Beliefnet stands at 12,451. It’s a question of when and how, rather than if or why the Patheos traffic will be captured. The Wild Hunt will cover developments as those changes unfold.
CANNONBALL, N.D — Friday marked a significant victory for the Standing Rock Sioux’s protest against the Dakota Access pipeline being constructed near their territory and through their watershed.
In the weeks since The Wild Hunt’s last update on the Standing Rock Sioux protest, national attention on the issue spread, attracting support from commentators and even celebrities, to the chagrin of some involved.
Pagan support and involvement has also expanded dramatically, since that report. Donations have been collected by groups like Ár nDraíocht Féin, Solar Cross Temple and more, an active petition was set out by the Reclaiming Tradition and a number of Pagans showed up at the protest to act as witnesses and support the action.
As noted in our original story, Linda Black Elk, an ecologist and teaches ethnobotany at Sitting Bull College, told us, “It doesn’t matter what spirituality you practice, it doesn’t matter what culture or race, everyone is welcome because this really is about all of us. As we come to the end of the fossil fuel age, they get more and more desperate to take the last bit of blood they can from our mother. We need that unity and we need people here with us.”
But, troubling events happened as well. A security firm allegedly hired by Dakota Access LLC, the company building the pipeline, tried to provoke a violent response from protesters after they attempted to prevent construction vehicles from excavating. On September 3, using dogs and pepper spray, security officers attacked many of the protesters and several of their horses. At least six protesters, including a pregnant woman and a child were bitten by dogs and many more were hit with pepper spray before the security team fled.
The construction that protesters failed to halt ended up going through several sacred sites. According to a news release from Tribal Chairman David Archambault II, “sacred places containing ancient burial sites, places of prayer and other significant cultural artifacts of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were destroyed Saturday by Energy Transfer Partners.”
“This demolition is devastating,” Archambault said in the release. “These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground.”
The following week, and prior to the September 9 decision on the tribe’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt construction, the governor of North Dakota moved the National Guard in, near the site of the protest. It was beginning to look like things were not going to turn out well for the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies.
And to follow, on Sept 9, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg denied the Sioux request.However, minutes after the court’s decision was announced, an unprecedented joint statement was issued by the Department of State, Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior, at the behest of the Obama administration stating, “we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
The statement also created a framework for “formal, government-to-government consultations,” between United States and tribal governments, for future infrastructure projects and protection of tribal lands, and whether or not to propose new legislation to ensure those goals.
Activists and leaders across the Pagan community have shared their opinions and, while the mood is generally positive, there is a definite note of caution as well. What follows are a collection of statements among the many that were issued directly to The Wild Hunt or publicly.
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Mathew Sydney, a Florida activist and founder of the Pagan Environment Alliance
This is an exciting moment but construction has only been stopped temporarily. We must continue pressuring the government and also the banks and businesses that are invested in this project. We must transform the way we relate to our land. This is just the beginning. Please donate goods to the water protectors. Please continue to talk about this issue. Yes, the native peoples are on the front lines. Yes, their lands are being threatened but this project threatens the water that sustains ALL of us: native and non-native alike. We must be as brothers now. We must stand together against ignorance and greed. We are all related.
Colleen Cook, a witch of the Reclaiming Tradition and Sacred Stone camp volunteer
While I am glad that the court order (to allow the pipeline construction) was halted, victory for the water is not yet won. The pipeline company is being asked to voluntarily pause while “further consideration” can happen. We need to not let this pause in pipeline construction make us complacent in our ongoing support. People are still coming together and the ongoing prayers for the water are as important now as ever. Sometimes these pauses are tactics to calm the power of the protectors. I for one, will continue to do my part to ensure that the world keeps watching.Ivo Dominguez, Jr., author, teacher
I am speaking as an individual rather than as a representative of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, because we have a process for making group statements and our next meeting is in December. That said, many of our members have already taken action as individuals in support of the Standing Rock Sioux and all the Indigenous Peoples being affected by this crime against them and the Earth. I have given money, signed petitions, called legislators, worked at my altar, and boosted the signal on social media. I will do more and have encouraged others to do the same, but this is not the first nor the last struggle.
Perhaps the greater challenge will be to remain connected and vigilant after this has resolved or receded in the stack of issues of the moment. Many of our related Pagan, Heathen, and Polytheist communities are late to enter into awareness or action in this matter because there is a gulf of communication and cooperation with the First Nations. I admit to being distracted by trying to follow too many issues, and that is not an excuse, it is a description. It is neither easy nor painless, but it is my hope that we will work to educate ourselves and reach out often enough so that trust will be built and true alliances forged for all that is ahead. We are the ones that need to be proactive. Alliances between people that know each other last; alliances built on agreements on issues and ideology are fragile and tenuous.
T. Thorn Coyle, Solar Cross
The temporary halt on pipeline construction called for by the Departments of the Interior, Justice, and Army is a good thing, and hopefully offers some measure of breathing room for the protectors gathered at Sacred Stone Camp.
That said, it is only a stay of construction on 20 miles of the pipeline, not a total work stoppage, and therefore, is not enough. Fracking, drilling, oil pipelines, and mountain top removal continue on the Dakota Access Pipeline and throughout the U.S., destroying sacred land, poisoning water, decimating communities of animals, plants, and people, and causing earthquakes where there were none before.
As a nation, we must re-evaluate our values, and start making harder choices around resource consumption and distribution of wealth. Those who have little, are taken from. Those who have much, take more. This is out of balance. Solar Cross continues to stand with Standing Rock and all the nations gathered at Sacred Stone Camp. We will continue to organize to send supplies until the pipeline project is stopped completely.
Those of us who were not calling victory were unfortunately correct to be cautious, as arrests are now being made. From Unicorn Riot: “There are multiple lockdowns at two Dakota Access Pipeline construction sites. All work has stopped. A surveillance plane and helicopter are circling overhead. Police have blocked all road access to both sites. Approx 100 riot police have arrived, to at least one site, armed with assault rifles and less-lethal weapons. Arrests underway, and Facebook is censoring our live video stream.” #NoDAPL
The Coalition of Earth Religions for Education and Support (CERES) and Mother Grove Goddess Temple, Asheville, North Carolina
Earth my body. Water my blood. Air my breath. And Fire my spirit. We also are people of the Earth and people of the stones. The great circles of Neolithic Europe were the work of our beloved Ancestors, the Forebears we honor during the season of Samhain, which is upcoming. Those ancient stone monuments are sacred to Pagan peoples throughout the world. And here in the southern highlands of the Appalachian mountains, our growing community often conducts ceremony on the banks of the third oldest river in the world—the French Broad. The elemental chant above (from the late Nicole Sangsuree) highlights our spiritual community’s deep ties to the classical elements and the whole of the natural world.
From the Standing Rock website: “A broad multi-state coalition of tribes, landowners and environmental groups issued a statement in support of the tribal lawsuits and speaking out against the project. The coalition called the USACE process “an egregious violation of the relevant federal environmental laws and the 1851 and 1868 treaties between the US and the L/D/Nakota Nations, which remain the supreme law of the land.”
These strong and passionate people have had enough. These People—like all people–are not expendable. Mother Grove Goddess Temple and CERES stand with our sisters and brothers as they protect their sacred lands, our sacred lands. We join as the ragged remnants of the once-proud European tribes to stand with the People. May our voices be heard, may our Ancestors and our Divine Protectors join with us in this important work. May our relationship with the Earth be healed and acknowledged in its sanctity once more. Water is life. We are water.
Reclaiming Tradition: A letter of support (authors include: Zay Eleanor Watersong, Starhawk, Deborah Oak, Rev. Claire Chuck Bohman
Dear Standing Rock Sioux and all protectors of water and sacred sites at the camps:
Following the day of global prayer in support of your water and sacred sites, we wish to convey this statement of support, attached below.
This statement has been signed in the past four days by 85 different groups located across the US and Canada, Great Britain, German, Austria, Switzerland, South Africa, and Israel.
It has been signed by over 3,400 individuals who identify as Pagan or following an earth-based spirituality.
Signatories can be viewed here. We fully expect more signatures to be added in the coming days and weeks, and are encouraging people to visit your site as well for up-to-date information on how they can help, knowing that the situation is changing from minute to minute. We were horrified to hear of the destruction of your sacred site and the use of violence against the defenders and pray that the sacrifice not be in vain, but sparks the necessary collective outrage among the American people to stop this pipeline once and for all.
May the strength of the people, the earth, the waters overcome those who seek to destroy them. We stand with you.
We will continue to follow the story as it develops.
In the early morning hours Sunday, Wiccan priest, teacher, and author Gavin Frost died after enduring significant pain from numerous internal physical problems. Gavin had surgery scheduled for late September, but his physical condition worsened making the operation impossible. As early as July, he told his daughter Jo that “he was ready — if he got really sick again to let him go.”
“Blessed Be those who seek” – Gavin Frost
Gavin Frost was born in Aldridge, Staffordshire, England, Nov. 20, 1930. According to Raymond Buckland, Gavin was “raised in a tight-knit family group ruled by his hard-working, hard-drinking Welshman grandfather.” But in 1936 after his grandfather died, Gavin’s family moved way from the area to the southwestern coast of England. His daughter Jo said that, as a little boy, he was fond of watching the busy planes and trains moving about the region.
Earlier than most, Gavin was enrolled in boarding school and, after completion, he began his studies at the University of London, King’s College. There, Gavin developed an interest in math and physics, graduating in 1952 with a Bachelor’s of Science in math. He eventually went on to earn a doctorate in physics and mathematics, finishing his dissertation work with the Department of Atomic Energy in Cumbria, England.
In the meantime, Gavin also was developing an interest in the occult. Along with the sciences, Gavin studied the history and mythology of the U.K. and the people that had lived there. In 1948, he was initiated into the coven of Boskednan, based in Cornwall. In a blog post, he wrote, “At that time the young people in college and returning from World War II were all into new lifestyles and religions.” Just as he was finishing college himself, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was repealed and Gardner and other occult figures were becoming more public in the country.
During the following decade, Gavin pursued a successful career with the aerospace industry, married his first wife Dorothy and moved and traveled around the world. He lived in Canada, England, the U.S. and Germany, eventually settling in Southern California. In 1966, he met his Yvonne Wilson, who was also working in the aerospace industry. She would eventually become second wife and partner in religious work.
In 1968, after Gavin and Yvonne married and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, they formed their first coven, using the correspondence course method. This became the Church and School of Wicca, which still exists today. In 1972, the church received tax-exempt status, making it the second U.S. Pagan church, behind the Church of All Worlds, to receive that coveted status. Additionally, Gavin and Yvonne were members of the first American Council of Witches, which met in 1974 at Witchmoot in Minneapolis.
At the same time, Gavin and Yvonne began writing books and attending events. Their very first book proved to be their most controversial: The Witch’s Bible: How to Practice the Oldest Religion was published in 1972. It was followed by The Magic Power of Witchcraft in 1976 and many more over the next forty years.
In addition, their work, specifically their writing, was instrumental in helping the Craft increase public legal recognition in the 1980s. Their teachings were cited in the Dettmer v. Landon case in Virginia, in which the judge eventually ruled that Wicca was indeed a true religion. This was one of the many such cases being heard over that decade.
In May 2016, Gavin told The Wild Hunt*, “To be clear on that topic: The prisoners in Virginia who started the case which got the ruling should be credited with having a great intestinal fortitude and causing the judge to rule in our favor. Yes, we wrote the letters; yes, we published a book. But we did not actually bring the case before the court.”
Through the 1990s and 2000s, Gavin, along with Yvonne, continued to teach on the festival circuit, to write, and to act as clergy through their church. They took a vow of poverty, and eventually moved from Missouri to New Bern, North Carolina and then to Charleston, West Virginia. They also appeared on radio and television and, despite their disinterest in using email, they eventually began hosting a blog called “The Dancing Wiccans.”
Jo recalls, “[Gavin] was a loving, if not always present parent, putting the Church of Wicca as his first priority — a journey he and Yvonne shared […] Part of the joy of the Church of Wicca for him was challenging people to see if they lived up to their aspirations for themselves, something he also struggled to do. He searched his whole life for wisdom, sharing what he knew along the way.”
But Gavin’s life was not without controversy. Speaking on a personal level, Jo said, “Most of what people do not like about Gavin had to do with how he challenged them […] They would leave a conversation angry and then try to make that fit their paradigm, but he challenged himself as much as, or more than, he challenged others around him. I think that is an inherent part of who he was — are you facing your demons? What do you see there? […] He was not an easy person to know.”
Beyond the personal, Gavin, along with Yvonne, were continually at the center of public controversy surrounding their 1972 book The Witch’s Bible: How to Practice the Oldest religion. It was considered highly controversial from the day it was released, as noted by Gavin himself, and has been openly rejected by many ever since. According to several accounts, the book allegedly almost led to a court case in 1974, only two years after its publication. By Gavin’s account, the problem was over its title, not its content. However, others remember differently.
Regardless, as time went by, it was not the title that continued to ignite outrage; it was, in fact, the book’s contents, specifically those pages describing child initiations. Protests over that content have erupted as recently as this past spring. When the book was re-released in 1993, it reportedly was altered, including a note that addresses the offending sections. It was also renamed the Good Witch’s Bible. Gavin said that the book was edited again for a 2014 reissue. He said that this later edit was done in the wake of that year’s protests and at the “urging of other Wiccans.”Over the past several years, Gavin began making fewer and fewer appearances at festivals. Part of that was directly due to the enduring controversy with fewer venues wanting the couple to present. When asked about his decreased attendance, Gavin told The Wild Hunt that, in addition to the community backlash, “We’re not sure that we have anything new to say to festival attendees.”
He also added, “We are getting older; travel is becoming more and more stressful.” Jo agreed, saying that her father had been slowing down over the past four years. During the 2016 FPG event, Gavin had to be taken to the hospital.
Doctors eventually discovered a tear in Gavin’s intestine, which was causing significant discomfort. Surgery was scheduled for late September. However the tear worsened, causing more damage, internal infection, and severe pain. He was rushed to the hospital Sept. 5, and admitted to the ICU. Jo said, “There are no words for his experience. His nurses would cry because they felt so sorry for him and there was so little they could do besides manage his pain and try to rebuild his strength. His body released him early [Sunday] morning allowing him to cross over and to be free of the pain.”
Gavin Frost was one and will remain one of the most controversial figures in the modern American Witchcraft movement. With that said, there are still many people who continue to be devoted to the Frosts, the Church and School of Wicca, and its teachings. There are also just as many who will continue to speak out against that work and writings.
A memorial is being held Sept. 25, at 2 p.m. at the New River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Beckley, West Virginia. During the service, there will be an opportunity for those that wish to speak in remembrance. Jo said, “We wish for this to be a celebration. We are all so very grateful for everyone’s kind words and thoughts.”
What is remembered, lives.
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[Editor’s Note: After the most recent controversy, The Wild Hunt reached out to the Frosts for an interview on the book and the issues. Due to Gavin’s illness and their use of snail mail, the response was not immediate. However, they did eventually respond, answering all the questions. The quoted conversations made to the Wild Hunt in this article are taken from that letter.]
NORFOLK, Vir. — It was announced that Patheos, one of the most popular religion-based websites, has been purchased by BN Media Associates, LLC, the owners of BeliefNet. According to the announcement, “The joining of the two web sites under one umbrella will open up further opportunities to foster the faith and spirituality discussion in a real and honest way. Combined, the websites reach 15 million unique visitors and generate more than 50 million page views each month.”
BN Media Associates, a holding company which is known to have had an evangelical focus, purchased BeliefNet in 2010. What does this new acquisition mean for Patheos and, more specifically, the Patheos Pagan Channel? Jason Mankey, channel manager, told The Wild Hunt that there are “no plans to change anything at Patheos and at Patheos Pagan.” Mankey added, in part, “As in all acquisitions, there will be some changes but we believe these changes will be in the background and focused on the technology and supporting infrastructure, and we anticipate that these changes will be about improving the experience of the reader.” We will have more on this story in the coming days.
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TWH – When news broke that the Asatru Folk Assembly had lost its fall festival space, accusations began to circulate as to who was behind that action leading to the cancellation. As we reported last week, it appeared that secular anti-fascist activist groups, like Conflict MN and Antifa, were that driving force. However, the reported proof was not enough for Xander Folmer of Huginn’s Heathen Hoff. “After the Troth cited the two Twitter posts from @ConflictMN, we thought that would be the end of it, ” said Folmer. “The story seemed cut and [dried], but we were still seeing dozens of posts and messages, both on our page and others, from staunch AFA advocates claiming that this was the work of some ‘Universalist’ Heathen group.”
When asked why he decided to dig around further, Folmer said that at first he was just going to “get a statement from the group that started the campaign. We wanted something that could shut down the conspiracy theories that were being used by the AFA’s proponents to redirect the conversation away from the actual issues.” But when he opened the proverbial door and looked around, the simple research spiraled into an entire investigative campaign, resulting in a published article on his blog.
After printing the article “The Real Story Behind Camp Courage,” it was shared extensively. Folmer said that he and his group haven’t received much in the way of backlash, before or after, adding “Overall we haven’t received anywhere near the level of harassment that the Troth or H.U.A.R. has, and their only involvement with the story was sharing the Tribune article after it was all over. If anything, the response thus far has been far more subdued than we expected.”
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HINTON, W.V. – It was announced publicly by his daughter Jo Frost that Wiccan Priest and author Gavin Frost died Sunday, after suffering from an internal infection and prolonged pain. Jo wrote, “In our family, we do not believe in grieving too much, so today, raise a glass, a brandy alexander, a glass of mead, but a spirited glass, have a good conversation with a friend, be a little risqué (or a lot), dance a tango, tell someone you love them that you might not have said this to lately.”
Gavin, along with wife Yvonne, have long been regular teachers, personalities, and lecturers on the Pagan festival circuit. Together the couple founded the Church and School of Wicca in 1968 and, since that point, they also coauthored many books and recorded teaching videos. However, Gavin’s life has not been without controversy.The Witch’s Bible, originally published in 1972, continues to generate disputes and friction. We will have more on Gavin Frost’s life and work, both the public and the personal. What is remembered, lives.
Upcoming Stories on The Wild Hunt …
Since our last report, Pagan support for Standing Rock continues to grow. We will be updating that story along with reactions to the court’s ruling and the subsequent joint statement from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior.
In Other News …
- This weekend marked the eighth annual Esoteric Book Conference, which is held in Seattle on the University of Washington campus. The conference is a “annual international event to bring together authors, artists, publishers and bookmakers working in the field of esotericism.” The Seattle Weekly published a story, focusing on the local event. The article begins, “One unique aspect of life in Seattle is the number of practicing witches, sorcerers, pagans, warlocks, faeries, alchemists, and other magical folk who call it home.” Although local in nature, the Esoteric Book Conference attracts attendees and speakers from all over the world.
- The Mountain Ancestors Grove – ADF, located in Boulder Colorado, will be hosting its fall symposium Sept 16-17. For this year, organizers announced that the event’s focus will be on the “exploration of othering and the people that have been pushed outside of mainstream American culture.” As noted in a press release, organizers said, “Whether they are prisoners, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, the elderly or the disabled, MAG will discuss these groups and their relationships, obligations and connections as devotional polytheists and pagans.” The keynote speaker is Robyn Chauvin; other presenters include Jane Kelly, Piper Perry, and Rev. Missy Burchfield.
- Another upcoming event is the first annual All Hands Together in Hazel Park, Michigan. This will be hosted by the Ancient Faiths Alliance and held in Green Acres Park. Along with harvest festivities, the day-long event will offer an art show and performances by Blackmail, DJ Brutal Entertainment, The Doppleganger Circus, Sideshow, and Day Oshee Maatin. There will also be a fundraiser to benefit Hazel Park Promise College Scholarship.
- For those interested in Paganism and other similar traditions in eastern Europe, Pagan Federation International Poland has now joined Facebook. They join a number of the Pagan Federation International’s regional groups in the social media world.
- Last year, the organizers of Paganicon, a Minneapolis-based indoor Pagan conference, decided to add a Friday night concert to its offerings beginning with 2017. They have just announced that the musician performing that first Friday night concert will be Australian singer/songwriter Wendy Rule. “Wild, wise and empowering, Wendy’s live performances honor her deep spiritual and magical connection to Nature. Her extraordinary voice and beautiful lyrics, combined with her passionate storytelling, invite us to celebrate and connect with our own deep Magic.” Paganicon is held every March at the DoubleTree Hotel Park Place in the Twin Cities.
- Lastly, The Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive is just around the corner. The annual fundraising event, which makes it possible for us to bring you news and commentary every day, begins Mon, Sept. 19.
“TV can be art. TV can be revolutionary. TV can be popular entertainment AND incite critical dialogue. Audiences are hungry and intelligent enough for challenging work. This describes the philosophy behind BRUJOS…” – from BRUJOS
CHICAGO — There is no doubt that the power held by visual narrative media, from film to television to fine art, is unmatched and only increasing in our contemporary digitally-infected world. Going back in time, American filmmakers alone have been entertaining, guiding, and challenging the opinions of viewers for nearly 120 years. From mainstream blockbusters to art house projects, visual narrative media has a natural way of digging into our psyche and holding on. It can give us what we want and soothe us to complacency, or it can give us what we perceptibly need and provoke us into action.
While most of us are familiar with the mainstream servings of visual narrative media, there are many artists who consciously reject the conventional modes of film or television operations, including technical methodologies, themes, visual language, and canned plots. These artists seek new ways of using their medium to capture and express ideas without the seemingly inherent presence of showmanship or the expectations of normative society. They want to use the medium’s incredible power to break traditional story telling barriers, challenge audiences, and perhaps make people a bit uncomfortable through a confrontation with a new reality.
Ricardo Gamboa, a Chicago-based artist, performer and filmmaker, is attempting to do just that. He is currently the driving force behind an upcoming web series called BRUJOS. As stated on the website, “BRUJOS is a queer-of-color web series that follows four gay Latino grad students that are also witches as they try and survive the school semester and a witch hunt led by the wealthy, white, male and heteronormative descendants of the first New World colonizers.”
Gamboa has a masters degree in Arts Politics from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is currently finishing up his doctorate in American Studies at NYU, where he is also a Critical Collaborations Fellow. Gamboa was also a fellow of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, and has a long list of art credits and awards to his name. He was a finalist for Sundance Film Festival Latino Film Fellowship, and his short film The Southside Has Many Beauty Queens was winner of the Best Short at Chicago Latino Film Festival, to name only two.
The Wild Hunt had the opportunity to speak with Gamboa about his background, his motivation, the practice of Witchcraft, and the upcoming series itself.
The Wild Hunt: When did you become interest in art, and more specifically filmmaking?
Ricardo Gamboa: I’ve always made art as a kid: made construction paper sculptures, wrote puppet shows with my sister, memorized and acted out cartoons and comic books, etc. I also have always been invested in the world around me and sociopolitical issues. These two interests have always been braided together. I’ve been doing “art activism” since before the term existed.
TWH: Will you share your personal experience and background that led to you to becoming an activist artist and how or when the two merged?
RG: It was a way to talk back to power without getting killed. The reality is we live in a world of discipline and punish and control. My personal biography is dotted with an assassinated activist, gang members, and people who have resigned to quiet existences. I don’t want to go quietly. I don’t want to die. Art and art-making can provide a wormhole in time-space and from oppressive systems to experience or imagine new things and ways of being.
I started acting and was unable to find work that was in line with my politics or what I thought performance could and should be doing. So, I started writing my own work.TWH: On the website, you wrote, “Grassroots filmmaking that focuses on community building further underline that Brujos is not just about artistic conceit, but also social mission.” Can you define “grassroots” filmmaking and how it functions within a social mission?
RG: There’s this fantasy of filmmaking as some democratic medium, but it’s not. It’s actually a very inaccessible medium because of how much it costs to make films and how the culture/film industry marginalizes people of color, women, etc. So, with my work, I try to create work that bypasses all that and articulates an alternative to big budget filmmaking. It relies on thinking about filmmaking more like community organizing and rather than making a product for the arts or culture economy, thinking about how process can condition a cultural ecology.
So, my filmmaking process sows community into the process at various points: the writing and development, as actors, etc. So, amending the filmmaking process can model alternative forms of being, relating, etc. as well.
TWH: Are any of the BRUJOS characters or depicted events directly reflective of things that happened to you personally or to people you knew?
RG: A lot of BRUJOS draws from my personal experience and people I know. But, what I think is more important is how many viewers will say, “Me too.” That’s what matters to me. And the overarching premise of the show, of racialized gendered subjects living in a world of Western domination or white supremacist, heteropatriarchy is a fact of existence for all of us. So, maybe BRUJOS isn’t fantasy or autobiographically-inspired, just a documentary.
TWH: You also discuss how many groups of marginalized people are “absent in media representation.” Would you say this representation has been getting worse, better or the same?
RG: I don’t know if it’s getting “worse.” There is more “diverse representation” in media than ever before. But I don’t know what it is doing. There’s a difference between representational achievements and revolutionary achievements. “Looking” is a representational achievement, not a revolutionary one.
I’m not interested in creating work that just “portrays” marginalized subjects (queer people, people of color, etc.). I’m interested in making work that gives marginalized subjects the tools to diagnose our media representation and social realities and that invites them to begin thinking of another world. BRUJOS isn’t about people of color or queer people succeeding or finding love in the normative world. It’s about them taking that world down and living their lives effectively in the anti-matter of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, etc.
TWH: As a child or teen watching movies and television were you acutely aware of the lack of brown and black bodies in film, and then eventually the limited representation of LGBTQ? If so, will you talk about how any of that felt?
RG: I was very aware of it, and it is violence. That’s all we need to know. It is an attempt to deprive people of affirmative images so that they cannot visualize themselves as actors in their own biography and society. Media representation is about giving people a referent. A dream to pursue, a way to be, things to want. But depriving people of affirmative images or an array of desires, lifestyles, etc. is a way to make them negate themselves and limit their horizons of conceptualization.TWH: Now let’s talk about the series itself. Let’s talk witches. These “non-normative characters” practice magic. As far as we can tell from the trailer, the movie’s coven of witches is all men and all queer. Is that correct? And, do you conceive of these four witches as being humans with supernatural powers (e.g. The Craft, 1996) or non-human (e.g. Bewitched, 1964-)?
RG: Yes, they are queer men. I guess. But, I don’t know. “Human” itself is a contract, and the notion of the “human” as we understand it has a very specific genealogy that is tied to colonization, western ideation, etc. Human and non-human isn’t so much of how I think about it. What I’ll say is that the characters in BRUJOS are alive; they’re struggling to be alive.
TWH: Can you clarify this point?
RG: I would say the BRUJOS are people, they are also racialized and gendered subjects. Their humanity is always in question. That is a reality for people like the characters in BRUJOS–on and off the screen. When Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown, he referred to him as “demon.” This country calls undocumented Mexican (and other Latin American) immigrants “aliens.” Gay sex is constantly referred to as “unnatural.”
To be honest, I don’t know what human is; I don’t know what constitutes humanity; I just know we haven’t really seen it. What is fantasy and fiction and what is real, especially when it comes to defining or outlining what or who is “human” is really fuzzy territory. I’m not saying this to be philosophically pretentious. I really mean this. So, it’s hard for me to answer this question. So, I could say, “yes, they’re human” but I’m not really sure.
TWH: Getting back to the film’s witchcraft, are you or any of your crew familiar with or practitioners of modern Witchcraft, conjure, hoodoo, magic, or something similar? If not, do you have a consultant that is working with you on that aspect of the show?
RG: Yes, I’m familiar with it. Certain aspects of brujeria have always been a part of my life. There are ways in which brujeria is part of quotidian culture for Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and other Latin American peoples. It was something that I grew up around. But, I would say that I was going through some hard times that caused me to seek answers, help from alternative forms of knowledge and that opened me up more to magic, witchcraft, etc. My own connection to brujeria and psychic abilities deepened.
For the show, I have and still do talk to people about magic, ritual … We are careful how it’s all represented in the show. In various moments, BRUJOS draws from brujeria, Santeria, hoodoo, witchcraft, etc. But, I’m not interested in providing an ethnographic or voyeuristic window into those practices. Instead, I obscure the actual practices or spells. It’s not my place to represent “factually” any of that. I’m not trying to expose or give people a how-to manual. Many of those practices have survived and thrived (and had to do so) in secret and I’ve always been good at keeping secrets. Power can’t touch what it can’t see.
And, again, I don’t want BRUJOS to boil down to a representative project; it’s a political project, and one that is invested in political imagination and thinking of different ways to imagine politics and power. Magic, superpowers, etc. are a conduit for that.
TWH: You write that supernatural has two meanings: the actual practice of magic and the going beyond what is considered socially normative. Can you explain this concept?
RG: Supernatural also refers to our characters –queers of color, women of color, etc– where supernatural also refers to their ability to survive oppressive systems and find ways to love and understand their selves and other.
TWH:The visuals in the short trailer are striking and rich. At the same time, the trailer has moments that are unsettling and startling. Is this what we can expect to see more of in the show?
TWH: Can the show be classified as fantasy, drama, horror, crime? What would you say?
RG: I am deeply invested in defying genre boundaries and conventions. Genre is about leading the viewer, contextualizing their experience, providing them expectations. It is part of a larger project of normalizing sensation. BRUJOS mixes genres: telenovela, sitcom, fantasy, drama, noir, horror, etc. We live lives that are mixed genres; BRUJOS mirrors that.TWH: Can you site your inspirations that led you to this point of artistic discovery and process?
RG: I really want to live. I really want people around me, people from the communities to which I belong, to be able to live. I am so exhausted from seeing people die and being devalued. I would say the people I love, the people I see struggling to stay alive, to be alive are my inspiration.
I can cite comics, supernatural film, queer directors or pulp magazines, talk about Fanon or Mignolo–but that’s just grammar, syllables, etc. What makes me speak and what motivated BRUJOS and what is the impetus of BRUJOS isn’t other art or ideas, but social realities and personal biographies. The politics is the art.
TWH: You say “get involved.” If people want to help or support this effort, what can they do?
RG: Visit our website and contact us. Share the site and trailer. We’re definitely looking for more financial support and will be launching a crowd-funding campaign. But, beyond that, I’ve been thinking about ways to make the series more “interactive” and including our audience more thoroughly.
TWH: Beyond BRUJOS, where else can we find your own work?
RG: I don’t have a website. I’m not commodifying myself. I hope that my web presence is created for me because people engage my work. I have films and performance art pieces littered over the internet. But, a lot of my work is theater, mostly in Chicago in the communities to which I belong.
The thing that I’m most proud of is my work with The Young Fugitives at Free Street Theater. The Fugitives are a radically politicized youth of color ensemble that creates really provocative plays. I’ve been working with the members of that group since they were graduating middle school and now they’re well into college. Another project of mine that’s really important to me is The Southside Ignoramus Quartet (SIQ). SIQ is a brown comedic ensemble that performs in a tent in a backyard to deliver affordable and politicized comedy for the hood in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that our members grew up in. We also have a web series coming out this winter.
BRUJOS will debut on Jan. 20, 2017 on OpenTV (Beta), “a platform for television by queer, trans, cis-women or artists of color” founded by Northwestern professor Aymar Jean Christian. Gamboa, who wrote the script, will be joined by co-director Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke, producer Stephanie Jeter, graphic designer May Cat, and director of photography Ben. The preview can be found on Vimeo, OpenTV(beta) and Brujos TV.
The Wild Hunt is taking this moment to pay tribute to the many people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001; to the brave who stepped forward and not back; and to the families who still grieve. In memory of the victims and acknowledgement of the survivors, we offer the words often spoken here:
What is Remembered, Lives.
For more thoughts from our writers, past and present:
Fear of a Blue Sky by Alley Valkyrie
“For the rest of the week, I spent my afternoons in Union Square, praying and making offerings for the dead. The screaming only started to fade a few months later as the fire finally went out, but I heard the screams in traces for the next several years.”
Personal Thoughts on 9/11 by Cara Schulz (originally posted on PNC Minnesota)
“I lost one of my best friends, and Air Force buddy and matron of honor at my wedding. I didn’t know she was in one of the towers while I sat in stalled traffic on 394 that morning … I was horrified hearing the radio news report that a second plane had hit a tower and, judging by how the traffic slowed and then stopped as people lost focus on driving, the other drivers shared my horror. Traffic stopped. And it felt like the world stopped. Each year the world should stop again and it doesn’t and that feels wrong.”
The Sacred Void: the 9/11 Memorial: by Heather Greene
“I can’t pretend to know what the 9/11 Memorial means to others – specifically to those who directly lost loved ones in the attacks. For me the memorial was not what I expected. I had hoped to find a place of calm where I could process my own lingering sadness. But I didn’t. I wanted the memorial to fill me with comfort and pride in my country. But it didn’t.”
Existing in a Changed World: Pagan Reflections on 9/11 by Jason Pitzl-Waters
“September 11th was one of the things that started me on the path towards Pagan blogging and journalism. Years before The Wild Hunt I had a small proto-blog called MythWorks where I tried to find Pagan reactions to the madness that had just occurred. The 9/11 attacks awoke a need within me to find the stories we were ignoring or overlooking, to stop sitting on the sidelines of my faith community and become an active participant.”
ATLANTA, Ga. – Over the past 30 years during Labor Day weekend, fans from around the world descend on Atlanta for the pop culture convention DragonCon. The sprawling event, which began in 1987, offers its thousands of enthusiastic attendees four days of programming exploring a wide-range of pop culture fandom. From lectures and workshops to cosplay, gaming, and the famous parade, Dragon Con has become one of the largest fan-based conventions of its kind. This year, Dragon Con reported a record 77,000 attendees over a four-day period, and its parade was broadcast for the first time on local television.Since its inception DragonCon has been regularly attended by celebrities, artists, writers, gamers, cosplay experts, and an incredible diversity of pop culture fans from all over the world. Within that crowd, at any given point, one can easily find a group of Pagans, Heathens or polytheists. Although there are no official statistics on just how many such people attend, it is safe to assume from casual observation that the percent population of Pagans, Heathens and polytheists attending DragonCon is higher than the same measure in the general population.
In an attempt to roughly gauge that number, The Wild Hunt queried groups of random people throughout the weekend at various points. From that highly non-scientific method, we have extrapolated that the percent population of Pagans, Heathens, polytheists and the like stands at 9% of the total population of attendees at DragonCon.
Regardless of any data, the DragonCon fandom world does seem to intersect comfortably with Pagan, Heathen and polytheist cultures. In fact, DragonCon featured three openly Pagan musicians and groups, including Tuatha Dea, S.J. Tucker and Emerald Rose. In addition, author Kathryn Hinds, occultist Michelle Belanger, and artist Laura Tempest Zakroff offered presentations in their fields of expertise. Beyond that, in the extensive vendor spaces, it was easy to find jewelry and other products decorated with pentacles, Thor’s hammers, and other common symbols found within Pagan, Heathen and polytheist practices.
“There is a large overlap between Pagandom and geekdom,” explains singer and song writer Arthur Hinds. “It has to do with the power of imagination, the building of thought forms.”Hinds has been attending DragonCon for years, performing with the band Emerald Rose. The oddness commonly associated with what he called “geekdom” doesn’t matter as much to Pagans because, as he explained, “There is a willingness to accept that you are already on the fringe of normal society.”
This particular DragonCon was bittersweet for Hinds and the other members of the Atlanta-based band. This year marks their final appearance at the con as a group. Band member Logan said, “We’ve had a blast. This is one of the most significant [crowds] we have ever played for, because there is such a wealth of creativity and camaraderie.”
Logan added that performing at DragonCon has been a “great ride” and one of the “most fun things [he’s] done in [his] life.”
Members of Tennessee-based band Tuatha Dea agreed with Hinds and Logan, saying that there wasn’t much difference in playing to DragonCon or Pagan crowds. Contrary to Emerald Rose, Tuatha Dea was making its debut appearance at the con, and their excitement was infectious. Not only did the group perform several shows, one of which was on the main stage, but they also offered a “Facilitated Rhythm Event,” and could be found sharing their drumming energy with the dense crowds passing by their table in Marriott hotel.Another Pagan musician found at DragonCon was singer/songwriter S.J. Tucker. She said, “My first crowd is the Pagan crowd obviously, so I’m use to people being able to groove to whatever you bring to the table. The Pagan crowd is extremely good at that. They know how to listen. They know how to respond … I am spoiled.”
Tucker equated that comfort level to performing within the filk community, which is represented at DragonCon with its very own track. She said, “It is the only other thing that comes close” to what she experiences with performing for Pagans.
“[The filk programing] is where you can bring your song, no matter what it’s about, if it’s your song that you wrote, or someone else’s song that you really want to sing, everyone will listen and everyone will applaud when you are finished, no matter what happens.”Tucker is a regular at Pagan and non-Pagan conferences, including big festivals like Burning Man. This was not her first time at DragonCon and, along with her performances, she offered a singing workshop where she told the small group of singers to be themselves. “There is only one you. Don’t worry about sounding like someone else,” she encouraged.
It is this very spirit that Tucker finds expressed at DragonCon as a whole. She said there “is call to come and be welcome. No matter who you are.”
Tucker added that the only real difference in performing at DragonCon and Pagan events is the size of the convention itself and the competition for the attendee attention. She stressed that this point is not necessarily a negative, just a reality. However, over time, she has learned to keeps things in perspective, focusing on the people that do make the effort to show up at her classes or shows, and not on those seats left empty by people who decided to attend something different.
Outside of the music world, artist and performer Laura Tempest Zakroff traveled from Seattle to present and display her work in the Dragon Con art show. She has been attending the con since 2012, first performing with her partner Nathaniel and the Nathaniel Johnstone Band, or performing with other friends’ bands (e.g. Ego Likeness, Frenchy and The Punk, The Cog Is Dead, Voltaire, The Ghosts Project). Then, in 2014, she began showing in the con’s extensive art gallery.
Zakroff said, “The fandom crowd tends to be more free-thinking, and open to new ideas than most people, which makes sense when you think about what the sci-fi/fantasy genres represent in terms of imagination and society. So much of science fiction and fantasy is about re-imagining our culture and challenging ideas, couched in a veil of fiction. Some of the most popular films and books are about overcoming the issues that plague our society, and envisioning a future/world that is more respectful, healthy, balanced, fair, and communicative.” She believe that the overlap between “Pagandom” and fandom makes perfect sense.Along with showcasing her art and performing, Tempest offered two classes that touched on occult topics, including “The Power of Line and Symbol: The Art of Sigil Magick” and “Visual Alchemy: Where Art & Magick Meet.”
When asked about the difference in presenting or teaching to the Pagan crowd versus the DragonCon crowd, Zakroff said, “At Pagan events, I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of the attendees have a basic understanding in metaphysics and P-word paths, but I never really know what to expect when I present at other kinds of events. I tend to brace myself for getting some static, but (knock on wood), it hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps it’s self-selection; that if you’re interested or intrigued by the topic, then you’re probably going to be somewhat familiar with it, or at least respectful in finding out more.”
Zakroff said the feedback is mostly positive, and people are often “pleasantly surprised, comforted, and excited” about her workshop topics. She added, “They’re finding out that ideas they’ve had [or] thought aren’t crazy, and that there are more avenues for them to explore in terms of art, religion, and spirituality.”
While some attendees engage, perform, or present openly as Pagan or Heathen, such as Zakroff or Tucker, others are there strictly for learning, fun, and for the “epic” fandom experience provided by the highly creative, secular DragonCon environment.
Author, poet and English professor Kathryn Hinds enjoys the many aspects of the con, and presents on various non-Pagan specific writing topics on various tracks. She said, “Both of [the Pagan and geekdom] realms allow people to explore parts of themselves that they cannot explore very often or actualize in their everyday lives, which is why people will spend a year planning their costumes for DragonCon. Like they spend all year looking forward to [Pagan Spirit Gathering].”
This year, Hinds participated on two panels, “Gender Roles in Young Adult Literature” and “Author Roundtable: Avoiding Historical Mistakes.” One was on the Young Adult Fiction track, and the other on the Alternative History track.
One her favorite aspects of the con is the cosplay, and she is not alone. People-watching is an activity in and of itself, and it is what fuels the popularity of its famous parade.In consideration of the overlap of religious practice and fandom, Hinds said that for those people working in a “tradition where you invoke deity, draw down the Goddess or the God, [you are] opening yourself up to other identities.”
“I think in cosplay people do that a lot that,” she continued, adding that she often likes to speculate why someone chose a particular costume: was it just fun, or does it draw out a part of their spirit that is otherwise unexpressed in their daily lives?
When asked how comfortable she is as a Pagan at DragonCon, she said very comfortable, adding, “You have so many flavors of geek here […] and Pagan is just one more. You are not singling yourself out.” Hinds said that there are very few public, secular conventions where she feels open about being Pagan. DragonCon is one of them.
Meghan Harker, a Victorian spiritualist, agreed, saying “People are more open-minded here. I have never been accosted for being a spiritualist or dressing like this.” Harker enjoys the Victorian Gothic aesthetic. However, Harker did add that she would like to see a better representation of this niche genre in panel discussions at the con.
For those of any particular religion, Pagan or not, the interest in fandom might speak directly to their religious beliefs, and even support them. Yet, for those people without religious affiliations, such as atheists, secularists, or “nones,” fandom and the mythologies resident in their worlds might provide a place to connect to deeper meanings, philosophy, and one’s own spirit. In that way, the con itself becomes an important personal pilgrimage, bringing together people of like minds and allowing for the expression of spirit in a safe space.DragonCon is certainly not the only pop culture convention of its kind. But not all “geek conventions” are multi-genre-based, like DragonCon. Some focus on a particular medium, such as comics, manga or gaming (e.g. ComicCon or MomoCon). Others are devoted to a particular pop culture product, such as Star Trek or BronyCon. Others still are focused on the demographics of the attendees, such as Seattle’s GeekGirlCon or the new BlerDCon.
As for Atlanta’s DragonCon, the convention remains one of the biggest in the U.S. and continues to grow each year. In 1987, it was held in one hotel and attracted 1,200 fans. Today, it needs five hotels and three of Atlanta’s AmericasMart buildings in order to contain its vast programming. Aside from this year’s record crowds, DragonCon also reportedly had to enlarge its gaming space by 60% just to accommodate demand. In addition, over the four days, most of the convention hotels are completely off-limits to non-DragonCon attendees, and the downtown Atlanta area is completely transformed.
Whether the experience provided is secular or spiritual, DragonCon appears to be successfully feeding a deeper need in its attendees, and that alone keeps them coming back year after year.< > Looking up, DragonCon Hotel [© Deosil Photography]
The time is a few minutes past midnight, on the night between the seventeenth and the eighteenth of August; the place, Svinøya, an outlying island close to the town of Svolvær, the unofficial capital and most populous locale of the Arctic archipelago of Lofoten in northern Norway. I am standing by a bench on the tip of a breakwater, facing the city’s waterfront. Next to me is my colleague Heinrich, a South African who, by a succession of unlikely events has ended up, like me, working in the tourism industry of this Scandinavian nation.
Tomorrow isn’t just a normal day at work, it is the season’s last cruise ship and our employer sent us from our home of Tromsø all the way down to Lofoten; an eight hour car ride through some of the most stunning vistas there are which I have done too many time to count, but not enough not to be amazed — every single time — by the wild majesty of its landscape. The ride was in and of itself uneventful, and we got into town early, ate well (codfish pizzas, a local specialty) and looked forward to the next day’s tour. With the forecast promising fiery temperatures (21° Celsius/ 70° Fahrenheit) and continued clear skies for tomorrow, we both waited in anticipation, not only for the fat paycheck that comes with such assignments, but also to see if this beautiful summer weather might make our wealthy North American patrons loosen their purses further than usual when tipping. But until then and before going to bed, Heinrich and I have some time to kill, and we decide to go to Svinøya to hunt for the northern lights.The northern lights, or aurora borealis, have held a very special place in both my worldview and my day-to-day life all the way since I moved from the scorching shores of the Mediterranean to their comparatively more frigid Arctic counterparts. While prior to this move I certainly knew about their existence, I wasn’t especially interested in them or even really enthused about soon being able to stare at their luminous, heavenly shapes. Still, I do clearly remember the very first time I saw them, seven years or so ago.
While riding the bus back home one evening, I unaffectedly directed my gaze at the sky, to discover, to my great surprise, where grayish clouds would normally stand, a green arrow of light pierced the horizon. Upon realizing that what I was seeing wasn’t an arrow cast by Apollo’s mighty silver bow but the aurora borealis, I threw myself out of the bus and ran to a friend’s house where we spent a good hour silently gazing at greenish arches, spikes and other moving figures morphing into each other, illuminating the eastern sky.
Over the following couple of years, I became more and more involved with the northern lights, not only regularly seeing them in the winter night, but actively seeking them, informing others about the phenomena and, since 2011, professionally guiding guests to see what, in the northern lights hunter jargon we simply call, “the lights.”
As a northern lights guide, I am generally expected to, well, talk about the aurora. Most often tourists get very quickly down to business and want to know all about the practical aspects of the lights: What are they? How can we find them? Where and when is the best place/time to see them? How to photograph them, etc., but when one is expected to guide a six- to seven-hour-long tour, researching and finding extra information (“ammunition,” in the guiding jargon) can always be useful; this is how I started to look more closely into the folklore and mythology of the northern lights.
After going through the relatively limited pool of sources on the subject (an area which would benefit from further research), it appears that in many mythologies and folk belief systems, the northern lights were associated with the ancestors, the gods, and the hereafter. In the Inuit homelands, for example, the aurora was most often seen as an aerial ball game played by the spirits of the dead either with a walrus head, a human head or even stillborns’ afterbirths! In medieval Russian chronicles, the lights were described as heavenly armies fighting each other, an image that can be traced back all the way to the Roman Empire and the fourth century writer Julius Obsequies. To go back to the Arctic, the people of the Tlingit nation of southern Alaska believed that the aurora was the light of torches lit by the fallen dwelling in the heaven of Kee-wa-kow-anne to guide the souls of those who died a violent death.There is no doubt that Pagan and Polytheist peoples hold or held the northern lights in high esteem, regardless of what they believed them to be. Such a sacralization of what is, according to modern science, a chemical reaction between solar and gas particles in the high atmosphere is remarkable and even extends in some cases to Christian philosophy and mysticism. The author and Christian minister Harald Falck-Ytter, for instance, saw in the aurora a symbolic reflection of the Holy Spirit, whose at first unfathomable, yet very corporeal nature is gradually revealed to humankind as it progresses towards its destiny.
Even for non-religious people the aurora remains not just a sight to behold, but often the symbol of something greater. How many times have I witnessed guests literally losing all composure at the view of particularly well-defined northern lights? Most people, I have noticed, react to such lights in a similar manner: a mixture of awe, excitement, hysteria and frostbite.
“The northern lights are killing me,” an American tourist of mine once stated, a feeling that I can confirm, is shared by others. Indeed, every winter, thousands upon thousands of travelers are starting to head to our Arctic wasteland to pay up to several hundreds of dollars (the Norwegian industry rate amounts to about 120 dollars per person per tour) in what is increasingly referred to as a modern-day pilgrimage.
When the “hunting season” finally arrives, various plans and schemes are devised, friendly rivalry between guides flares up anew and new recruits are introduced to the bizarre ritual of northern lights-hunting in which individuals compete to find the best frostbitten night spot to gaze at illuminated winter skies. Because it is impossible to know if such a “hunt” will be successful on the grounds of weather, solar activity, and ultimately, plain old luck, one simply must surrender to fate, a fate that can sometimes be cruel, but which is much more often than not generous beyond comprehension. I can barely count the number of times when I was dead certain that the aurora would snub us, only to be proven wrong when in the middle of the woods, on an isolated mountain pass, and even in cases of severe snowstorm the lights finally appeared in all of their glory.
While not every auroral display qualifies as a life changing experience, a moderately strong northern lights storm is enough to bring sheer happiness and life-warmth to any onlooker. Most northern lights hunters, especially in the lower echelons of the industry, are people driven by a sheer passion that is generally referred to as the “green-fever,” a moniker perfectly fitting for the frenzy inhabiting many of us during the aurora season; every opportunity to watch, photograph or experience the northern lights in any way possible becomes more of a duty than a mere obsession, and missing a especially beautiful display feels more like a fault than just a missed opportunity. Even for the casual onlooker, such a devotion would appear as rather peculiar.As far as I am concerned, I personally know how much I am indebted to the lights. For now five winters, chasing the elusive aurora has been my main, and sometimes sole, source of income. When I moved to Iceland back in 2013, my only plan for survival was to find work as a northern lights hunter. Discard that, and I would probably not have been able to live there anymore and continue my studies in old Norse religion. A class comrade of mine, Josh Rood, editor of the Óðroerir Heathen journal, whom I took with me on a few tours once joked that the northern lights were the very source of my life force, considering that without them, I could not even afford to eat, let alone pay the rent.
Not that the job pays fantastically, mind you; most northern lights hunters, myself included, make barely enough to survive and could only compete, at best, with grocery store clerks and waiters if one’s employer is honest or competent enough. Yet there is still something that keeps me, and I can only guess, others, going back, year after year, winter after winter. Could it be an age-old remembrance of our once Pagan beliefs and worldview, in which not only the aurora, but various natural phenomena and nature itself were viewed as sacred by all? What pushes so many to reach the end of the world to simply look at the skies?
Back in Svinøya, Heinrich and I were certainly not engaging in such a deeply philosophical conversation. Waiting like sitting ducks for an aurora that clearly was not going to show herself, we passed the time by drinking some locally-produced brews and jeering at the drunken teenagers enjoying one of the very few warm evenings of the year sitting just a few yards away. At midnight, theoretically the darkest moment of the night, the northern half of the sky was still milky white and its darker, southern counterpart was illuminated by the brightest of full moons. Only in the uppermost edge of the sky was the sky dark enough to reveal a handful of stars and thus possibly and in theory, northern lights as well; but, as nothing happened and the beer supplies inevitably dwindled into oblivion, we made the decision to leave.
Mere moments afterwards, Heinrich, whose superior eyesight enables him to engage with the outside world without the help of glasses, stops and points to the jet-black southern sky. Far away on the horizon, a subtle arch appears, soon heading closer to us and taking the form of a downward spiral of pale-green color: the aurora has shown herself at last, almost two months before the beginning of the season. Ecstatic, we grab our DSLR cameras and start shooting, our hearts pumping with excitement and raw, unaltered joy. Finally we, Heinrich, the anti-theist existentialist and I, the ever-questioning Pagan, agree that this is a good sign for the coming season and head back to the hotel. The super-rich Americans will have one more story to hear in the tour bus tomorrow.After half a decade of hunting for the elusive lights, and likely hundreds of sightings, I came to the conclusion that the main reason people from all walks of life, over the whole world head towards the far north to experience the shimmering spectacle of the aurora borealis stems from a desire to reconnect with nature and the primordial wilderness. As a more and more significant proportion of the world’s population moves to large cities in which engaging with nature is all but a romantic and sadly, futile dream, our psyche somehow calls us back away from this sterile modernity and exhorts us to look back at what was ours, and what we once were a part of.
Not only are the northern lights a potent reminder of our pre-modern and pre-monotheist past in the form of the gods, the ancestors and the afterlife, they can only be adequately experienced in the wild, where the artificial city lights are nowhere to be seen and cannot stop us from focusing our sights beyond our immediate and bustling environment. Around this potent, almost mystical attraction has developed not only a multimillion-dollar industry but a whole subculture; a stiflingly dynamic subculture; a sky-gazing subculture; a nature-worshiping subculture; a Pagan subculture? Mayhaps, depending on who you ask, but in my aurora-drenched eyes at least, nothing is more certain.
SHROPSHIRE, England — A row has erupted after the organisers of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival (SFF) decided to ban morris dancers from wearing blackface at this year’s event. The annual festival is one of the biggest of its kind in England, and it celebrates folk music and traditions from across the UK and farther afield. A morris dancing contingent is customary. However, this year’s costuming tradition must be changed due to the ban precipitated by an equality campaign group, Fairness and Racial Equality in Shropshire (FRESh).Festival director Sandra Sutrees said, “After last year’s festival, the event was accused of racial harassment and threatened with legal action by FRESh, following performances by morris sides wearing full-face black make-up in the town centre.” In a statement, the organisers of SFF further stressed, “The festival finds itself caught between two sides of this opposing argument and believe that this is a national issue that should not be focused solely on SFF.”
Morris is a traditional English dance, others of which include sword and clog dancing. Some Morris sides, especially what is known as border morris, (so called as it is a dancing style that originates from the Welsh border counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire) paint their faces black. In other words, the dancer appears with all or most of the face covered in black make-up as part of the costume or guise.
There are many theories on the origin of this tradition in morris. One is that it was a form of Moorish dance, which inspired its name. Another is that it is from an ancient folk custom known as guising, which was used at various festival times, such as Hallowe’en and while dancing to protect oneself from malevolent spirits. As it was common during festival periods, it has also been used in mummers plays, which are often performed around Easter or Christmas, and they often incorporate aspects of Pagan traditions.Guising also had a more practical application of protecting the identity of beggars during a time when it was still illegal in England and Wales. They often hid their faces under a layer of soot or coal dust. As Sutrees explained: “The use of full-face black make-up is an age old tradition, particularly within border morris. The morris movement has always evolved over time and some sides have made their own decisions to move away from using full-face black make-up towards other forms of colour and disguise.
“In the past 18 months, of the three sides we booked for this year’s festival, two have already moved away from wearing full-face black make up of their own volition.”
The stressing of blackface as an ancient tradition is a sentiment echoed by Adam Garland. The outgoing Ring Squire (leader) of the Morris Ring states: “All over the world, one finds traditional folk customs for which costume and face paint are integral parts; for example, certain tribal dancers in Africa white their faces for the performance. In England, the Morris world is no different; many morris clubs use face paint as part of their costume.”
The ban was welcomed by FRESh leader Jonathan Hyams, who applauded the change as representing sensitivity to “a changed social climate”.
In a public statement, Hyams said: “From FRESh’s perspective, it is good news. We entirely understand the argument from morris dancing communities that this is something that goes back to tradition. However, there are other ways of celebrating this other than “blacking up,” which has very strong connotations of racism.”However, the ban has provoked anger from some parts of the morris community. Garland responded, “The theory of the tradition originating as a form of disguise through the use of soot has been well documented. These days within the three organisations – The Morris Ring, the Morris Federation, and The Open Morris – a whole range of different colours can be seen in many places around the country. The use of one particular colour within these costumes is in no way a statement against one particular societal group and the morris community refutes the accusation of racism most strongly.”
One aspect that has complicated the issue is the guising tradition being conflated with the more modern version of blackface coming from American customs, such as the old minstrel shows that were still being televised in the UK as late as the 1970s. The Morris Ring of the UK is keen to stress the differences between the two customs.
The ban has divided dancers and locals alike. Joseph Healy, secretary of the Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers, who are a clog dancing side from Lancashire in the North West of England and who traditionally used coconuts on their clogs to make a distinctive sound, told LBC radio that for his side, the tradition came from the mining heritage of the area. He added: “We will always dance in blackface because that is the complete and full costume we turn out in.”
Richard Day told to BBC Radio Shropshire, “Just because we have done something for a long time does not necessarily mean we should continue it – unless you want to bring back the burning of witches, maybe?” Shropshire County Council has decided that from 2017, they will not book any troupes that still use blackface.Meanwhile, the Morris Federation is attempting to move the debate forward and open up a dialogue about the issue. It said in a statement: “Blacking up in morris is a very sensitive and emotive subject and we are truly saddened by the division it has caused among morris dancers. We would like to reiterate that the Morris Federation is currently seeking legal advice on the impact of blacking up in morris and chairing an open discussion with our membership at our AGM on September 24th.”
It looks like this debate is set to continue.