Whenever I speak about gratitude, I usually get eye rolls. And I do get it. The world is now replete with self-help books expressing its spiritual benefits. It is impossible to get through afternoon talk shows without a sappy, Oprah-anointed guru psychobabbling at us to be better individuals and recognize the importance of being grateful. Then add to that a shared YouTube video showing someone expressing thankfulness sprinkled by a chiffonade of attached Facebook memes dripping with gratitude epithets, and you have a really hard-to-swallow saccharine-dripping torte that would challenge Pollyanna Whittier at the height of her powers. I will squeal with delight if I can be the first to leave that cake out in the rain. Like I said, I really do get it.

Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno

Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno

In practice though, I actually make the effort to spend time being grateful. With so many challenges in the world and with all of us facing personal and local difficulties, the feeling of gratitude can be hard to summon. It can be elusive and, even when we’re able to beckon it forward, there is often a sense of guardedness. And for some of us, deadpan cynicism and sarcasm have become so second nature that they overwhelm our ability to reflect on the moment.

It’s as if we are perfectly fine with cynicism, grief, frustration, and anger; but when we get to gratitude, there’s a discomfort. I can only suppose we like to believe that those tough attitudes and emotions harden us for the better. While the soft emotions seem to be socially scripted as expressions of weakness. It really begs the question why we choose to deride feeling warm and fuzzy. But, there once again is the rub. As a scientist, I’ve had to come to grips with a couple of irritating facts: cynical beliefs aren’t so good for me and being grateful has lots of benefits

Cynical beliefs have been studied for some time in different disciplines with the central question being their consequences on the individual. To be clear, this is not skepticism or realism. Rather it is a worldview that others are basically functioning deceptively and are fundamentally untrustworthy while directing their efforts to their own self-interest. It is of course a longstanding philosophical argument about human nature. But psychologists don’t focus on the philosophical. They focus on the empirical consequences on behavior, and, in this case, the measurable effects of cynicism on individual functioning.

With that question in mind, both correlational and experimental studies have led to some challenging findings. Those individuals who approach the world with fundamentally cynical beliefs report a non-trivial set of outcomes including increased mortality (Everson, et al. 1997), dementia, (Neuvonen et al. 2014), and obesity (Bunde & Suls, 2006). Such beliefs also affect work success and overall satisfaction (Leung, 2010).

One recent study by Stavrova & Ehlebracht (2015) tracked several thousand Americans who were stratified based on their cynical belief. What they found was that the more cynical an individual was, the lower the income of that individual over several years. To be clear, not all these studies demonstrated causation between cynicism and a negative outcome. But they do point in a direction suggesting that cynical outlooks are really hazardous to our well-being. The implication, of course, is that cynicism should be moderated. But how?

The answer to that question lies with gratitude. Empirical research on gratitude has shown that it can not only overcome cynical belief but also strengthen us in many ways. Roman Statesman Cicero first noted that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” And like a parent, it knows how and when to fortify us. It acts as a bulwark against depression, anxiety, cynicism and envy by promoting feelings of well-being and happiness (McCullogh, et al., 2002).

Developing a sense of gratitude has positive effects on sleep patterns and results in increased feelings of serenity. This was demonstrated not merely through self-reports but also through observable changes in the brain visible through neuroimaging (Emmons & McNamara, 2006). And gratitude speeds the building of relationships while nurturing them to deepen our support and understanding of one another (Williams & Barlett,  2015). This is an amazing mix of benefits.

Additionally, gratitude produces effects that have cascading positive outcomes. Grateful people exercise more often and report less physical pain. It also improves self-esteem and increases our resilience in difficult emotional and physical situations. Gratitude even helps us with body-image issues (Emmons, 2008). All of these improve our functioning and our ability to accept our selves and others.

And all of this occurs without ever answering the central question about gratitude: Grateful to whom?

Research suggests that the answer to that question is actually irrelevant in order to receive the benefits of gratitude. There are many ways to show gratitude, and there are many permutations to feeling grateful. But the practice of gratitude does not require a target or a benefactor. There is space for the atheist and the believer. No belief or patron is required. We only need us. Gomez was grateful for Morticia without ever having to wonder much else.

The power of gratitude is that it develops the spiritual strength to recognize the moment and the privilege of experiencing it. Our ability to feel grateful involves us in the here and now, and helps us acknowledge the blessings that come from our connections to one another. That also extends to our connections to other Beings, Spirits and Nature. But gratitude does exist as a powerful human gift in its own right and bluntly one that we so often overlook or, ironically, take for granted.

In the spiritual space, I often feel that gratitude has been appropriated as a virtue exclusive to the Abrahamic religions. I feel our Christian colleagues, for example, seem more comfortable with acknowledging and expressing gratitude. So too in Islam and Judaism, gratitude is at the forefront of worship. While some may not personally internalize their gratefulness, they cannot escape being reminded that it is a virtue, important in practice and central to worship.

Likewise, Hinduism also embraces the centrality of gratitude. One of my best friends growing up was Hindu and his mother reminded us at every festival about the significance of gratitude to the Gods and each other. It is a dharma that is both human and divine. Gratitude was a daily practice and a sensibility to be developed, which ultimately protected us from ourselves.

But, it is easy to forget that we all have our own magic at play here as well. We each have our own reverence and relationship with nature, and our own spirit to harness. Each of us can reclaim gratitude as an asset of our own. The seeds of that strength have already been sown.

For some of us, this time of the year is the fulfillment of our trust in Nature. It is the time when our conviction in the order of the seasons brings forth a harvest that has been ongoing since Lughnasadh and is completed in Samhain. Yet, this time of year is often a moment forgotten because of the many demands on our time and the many events heralded by the first day of autumn.

While fall gets a lot of attention, I personally believe that Mabon really gets the short end of the calendar stick. The autumnal equinox closes out summer and with it the end of vacations and the timelessness that goes with the long days. The remnants of summer slowly shut down from crab shacks to tourist traps. It then turns from sad to hectic quickly. For some of us, the school year begins; for others we prepare for colder weather. From ballet to soccer to football, autumn revs up into full swing quickly filling up our schedules. Some of us, move right into Samhain with decorations, party planning and organizing rituals and events.

My Facebook feed is currently a testament to the rise in posts on Halloween decorations and ritual activity. All the summer white space on my calendar is now a daily rainbow of activities punctuated by “to do” pointers littered across my free time. We become busy again. And with all that, we become unavailable to ourselves.

Just this week, I received a lovely reminder of that point. Just as I finished the first draft of this column, gravity decided to teach me a lesson in gratitude. What started as a tingling on the top of my left foot after an evening run became excruciating pain that had me wrestling with the floor until rescue services arrived. The check-in at the emergency room was not quick enough.

Let me publicly state here that I am apparently an exceptionally unpleasant person when I’m in severe pain. I become unsparingly sarcastic, willful and quite adept at being insufferable. Although my pain kept getting worse, my husband stuck it out with me through the ordeal. When the physician asked about medical history my husband said “insanity runs in the family but you’d never guess it.” With one sentence and a smile, he cut through all the rancor. I calmed down; the pain went down and I even refused Dilaudid. The treatment was made more effective by being grateful my husband was there.

We can be grateful for our medicine and magic, and we can be grateful for the reminders of basic things like health and even the ability to pay for a hospital visit. The counting of what we are grateful for really begins with our relationships and, through both, we produce those powerful effects on which science reports.

Photo Credit:  S. Ciotti

Photo Credit: S. Ciotti

Back to Mabon, this season is a reminder of the promises of gratitude. We sow and harvest both in nature and our relationships. And it really is our holiday. It doesn’t co-mingle with others like Christmas or Easter or even All Saint’s Day. The closest neighbors might be Rosh HaShanah and EId-al-Edhabut with a different meaning. In the Wheel of the Year, Mabon is a time of rest and reflection. It is a day uniquely ours.

As the days grow shorter, we celebrate our accomplishments and are offered a gift to simply be grateful for being present. Mabon invites us to have a nice long chat with ourselves. Mabon invites us to share the harvest and to reflect on how our cynical selves build within us temples to materialism and self-doubt. Mabon invites us to have an optimistic and appreciative conversation that we often reserve for others and rarely reserve for ourselves. It is moment to reframe the many hostilities directed toward us into opportunities for change. Transforming emotional energy is Pagan strength; and gratitude can be a powerful catalyst.

Nature is teaching us that this is a moment of gratitude as well. The harvest is a promise fulfilled; one that began at planting. And while it is a promise kept, there were never any guarantees. There was a lot of hard work. There were moments of doubt. There were torrents of rain and wind as well as drought. And yet the fruits are here. They range from the apples of the fields to the smiles of those we love. We can rejoice in a moment of abundance in both the land and in our relationships. And we can be grateful for them. It is our Thanksgiving.

 

Citations

Bunde, J. & Suls, J. (2006).  A quantitative analysis of the relationship between Cook-Medley Hostility Scale and traditional coronary artery disease risk factors.  Health Psychology, 25, 493-500.

Emmons, R.A . (2008).  Gratitude.  The science and spirit of thankfulness.  In D. Goleman et al. Measuring the immeasurable.  The scientific case for spirituality.  (pp. 121-133). Boulder: Co:  Sounds True.

Everson, et al. (1997).  Hostility and increased risk of mortality and acute myocardial infarction: The mediating role of behavioral risk factors.  American Journal of Epidemiology, 146, 142-152.

McCullogh, M.E., Emmons, R.S. & Tsang, J.A. (2002).  The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.

Neuvonen et al. (2014).  Leate-life cynical distrust,risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort.  Neurology, 82, DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000528

Stavrova, O. & Ehlebracht, D. (2015).  Cynical beliefs about human nature and income:   Longitudinal and cross-cultural analyses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000050.

Williams, L.A. & Barlett, M.Y. (2015).  Warm thanks:  Gratitude expression facilitates social affiliation in new relationships via perceived warmth.

 

Send to Kindle

MOREHEAD, Ky – Kentucky’s Rowan County clerk Kim Davis is in court today and continues to make headlines as she pushes back against state laws. On June 26, Davis, a born-again Christian, stopped issuing marriage licenses just hours after the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of same-sex marriage laws. She has repeatedly said that issuing licenses to same-sex couples violates her “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

[Photo Credit: J. Stephen Conn, Flickr]

[Photo Credit: J. Stephen Conn, Flickr]

Davis’ personal protest has now earned her national attention as she openly defies state marriage laws. On Sept.1, the ACLU of Kentucky filed two motions asking, “the court to hold Davis in contempt of court for failing to comply with its previous ruling and to clarify that Davis must issue marriage licenses to everybody.” Steven R. Shapiro, legal director if the ACLU, said:

It is unfortunate that we’ve been compelled to take further action today to ensure that the people of Rowan County can obtain the marriage licenses they’re entitled to receive from their County Clerk’s office.  The law is clear and the courts have spoken. The duty of public officials is to enforce the law, not place themselves above it.

Davis’ case has factored into the election scene, becoming a prop in political campaigning. In a recent tweet, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said, “I stand w/ Kim Davis & Americans of faith under attack by Washington elites who have nothing but disdain for our faith & the Constitution.” Huckabee, who is hoping to become the 2016 presidential candidate for the Republican party, even specifically mentioned the issue in a letter to his supporters.

Priestess Nancie Clark, a Kentucky resident and co-Founder of Spirit of the Earth Church, told The Wild Hunt that the local situation is “very intense.” Clark said, “It’s hard to go anywhere without hearing about [the case] and people are intensely passionate when defending their side of the issue.”

In July, Federal District Court Judge David Bunning ordered Davis to issue the licenses but she refused. In response, she asked both a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court to remove that order. Both courts denied the request, which puts Davis at risk of being held in contempt, heavily fined and even jailed.

To demonstrate what was happening, Kentucky residents David Moore and David Ermold recorded their attempt to get a marriage license. Over the summer, that video went viral. But, more recently, several members of the local LGBT community directly confronted Davis in her busy clerk’s office. In that video, Davis tells the group, “We are not issuing marriage licenses today.” One of the protesters asks, “Under whose authority are you not issuing marriage licenses?” Davis calmly replies, “Under God’s authority.”

Priestess Clark explained, “Those who support Kim Davis are so strong in their convictions, they truly believe that God is supporting Davis’s decision and that she and others like her must not back down. There are some who truly believe that she is doing God’s work by standing up for her beliefs.The issue of whether are not she needs to do her job as a County Clerk is secondary.”

However, as noted by Columbia law professor Katherine Franke, Davis sincerely held religious beliefs are not “at stake.” In an NPR interview Franke said:

She has absolutely no legal ground to stand on. As a public official, she’s supposed to abide by the law and perform her public duties, which are issuing marriage licenses to qualified couples. Same-sex couples are now qualified to marry in the state of Kentucky, so she is refusing to do her job .. 

Of course. Kim Davis has all sorts of religious liberty rights secured under the First Amendment and under other laws. But they are not at stake in this case. All she’s asked to do with couples that come before her is certify that they’ve met the state requirements for marriage. So her religious opposition to same-sex marriage is absolutely irrelevant in this context.

Davis and her eleven deputies are appearing in a court this morning to determine whether they will be held in contempt. Davis’ lawyers argue that she is unable to obey the law due to her conscience and, therefore, cannot not be held in contempt. Lawyers for the state are arguing that Davis is obliged to follow the law regardless of her religious convictions. Judge Bunning told one reporter that Davis is promoting “her own religious convictions at the expense of others” and that if she cannot abide by the rules then “she should resign.”

Kim Davis

Kim Davis

Many have asked why Davis hasn’t been fired. The answer is simple. She is an elected official. Therefore, she must either resign, be removed by the legislature or be impeached. As Kentucky law states, “All county officials are susceptible to impeachment for any misdemeanors in office (Ky. Const., sec. 68) … Officials can be disqualified from holding public office or lose their office as a result of their conduct. Public servants are subject to disqualification from office if convicted of abuse of public trust under KRS 522.050.”

Davis, a Democrat, was elected in 2014 defeating Republican candidate John Cox. On Nov.7, 2014, she told a local paper, “I am so humbled and feel so blessed that the people put so much confidence in me … I promise to each and every one that I will be the very best working clerk that I can be and will be a good steward of their tax dollars and follow the statutes of this office to the letter.”

In recent days, the Rowan County attorney Cecil Watkins has come forward to state that Davis is acting alone and does not in any way represent the county In an interview, Watkins also told the Kentucky Trial Court Review that the eleven deputy clerks “would issue lawful marriage licenses. They are simply afraid to do so.” According to Watkins, those clerks were afraid of Davis, their boss.

Now, everyone is waiting for the federal courts decision. Large crowds, estimated to be over 1100 people strong, have gathered in front of the Ashland courthouse and several local stations are live streaming. Before this morning’s hearing, Davis told Fox News, “I’ve weighed the cost and I’m prepared to go to jail, I sure am … This has never been a gay or lesbian issue for me. This is about upholding the word of God.”

According to reports, protesters from both sides are out in full force with large groups screaming at each other and homeland security close on hand.

Priestess Clark said, “This has been a passionate issue here on both sides. The implication of Kim Davis’s actions are being felt state wide and only serve to further divide us.” She added, “While I am confident that justice will be served for our LGBT community, what happens after this is incident is over? There is much work that needs to be done here and I feel that this incident is just the beginning.”

Priestess Clark and her group have been offering regular healing prayers for the Kentucky community. She said, “What we need to do and probably the most difficult thing to do right now with this issue being so raw, is to extend the olive branch to foster conversations and promote understanding. That is a long road. Right now the energy here is like a boiling tea kettle, everyone is waiting assured that justice will be served in what they feel is the right direction.”

As of publication, the hearing is still in session. The story can be followed via Twitter and local live streaming.

Update 1:26pm: Kim Davis was held in contempt and taken into custody by federal Marshals.

Send to Kindle

KULPMONT, Penn — An on-again, off-again inmate in Pennsylvania’s correctional system has filed a federal lawsuit alleging his religious beliefs were violated when he was required to shave his beard. Randy Elliot, Jr., said in court papers that the incident occurred June 13 of this year, a month and a half before he was released. He was given a choice between shaving his beard, which, according to the filed papers, is “against the Viking way” or being placed on restrictive housing status. Elliot, who is seeking an injunction against such actions and monetary damages, has since been returned to prison due to parole violations.

Beards as a religious issue are nothing new in the United States, in or out of the prison system. In July, Walt Disney World relaxed its “Disney look” to accommodate a Sikh employee who had been restricted to working out of the public eye due to his unshaven beard. It didn’t meet the company’s grooming standards. Through his attorneys, Gurdit Singh, a park delivery driver, claimed that he was restricted to a single route, denied promotions, and singled out by employees because of his appearance. While Disney started allowing beards in 2012, the company’s policies required them to be neatly trimmed; Sikh beliefs do not allow adherents to cut their hair.

[Courtesy U.S. Army]

Army Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, one of the first granted permission to grow a beard and wear a turban on active duty. [Courtesy U.S. Army]

The United States military arguably has more restrictive rules on appearance than the Disney Corporation. However members are allowed to apply for waivers from those rules for religious reasons, accommodating those faiths that call for facial hair, such as Sikhism, and some sects of Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.  The process of obtaining such a waiver has been called into question, because the soldier still must comply with all the grooming standards while the application is in process.

In prisons, there are different reasons for grooming restrictions. Officials must balance the need for safety and security against the accommodation of religious beliefs, and often they err on the side of safety and security. In January, the Supreme Court found that by denying prisoner Abdul Maalik Muhammad the right to grow a half-inch beard, the state of Arkansas was infringing on his rights of religious expression as a Muslim. Justices were skeptical of arguments that contraband, including SIM cards for cellular phones, razor blades, and other items, could be hidden in beard of that length. They pointed out that longer hair was permitted on prisoners’ heads, and that it would not be particularly difficult to search short beards as well, or at least require the bearded prisoner to run a comb through it in the presence of guards.

According to Diane Duggan, case manager at Lady Liberty League (LLL), questions such as these revolve around whether the prisoner is expressing sincerely-held religious beliefs or not. “I don’t know enough about [Elliot’s] situation,” to comment on it in particular, she said. To the best of her knowledge, he had not contacted LLL for assistance. “What you need to look at is other faiths. If, in that system, members of other faiths are allowed to have beards, and his belief is sincerely held, one would think he would be allowed to have it. Because [prison officials] have to balance security where they have compelling interests, it’s a fine line.”

In the case of Muhammed, the court applied the “Hobby Lobby” test to evaluate the question of religious accommodation. As described in The New York Times,

“The test, set out in federal statutes, first considers whether the challenged government regulation places a substantial burden on religious practices. If it does, the test requires the government to show that it had a compelling reason for the regulation and no better way to achieve it.”

When it came to the request to grow a half-inch beard, the Supreme Court found that the denial did place a substantial burden on Muhammed’s religious practices, and it remained skeptical that there was not another way to achieve the goal of safety. In Arkansas, prisoners with skin conditions may grow beards of up to one-quarter inch in length,. Therefore, the justices questioned whether doubling that length would truly tip the scales away from security within the facility.

There is not a good legal test for evaluating “sincerely-held religious beliefs,” and Duggan suspects that this is by design. “Someone who is new to a religion may not know all of its tenets as they learn, but wish to comply with the requirements,” she said. Sincerity cannot be easily measured by length of time that one has been an avowed member of a particular religion for that reason. In addition, inmates frequently renew or begin religious practices while incarcerated.

Nevertheless, there is some speculation about whether Elliot’s “Viking way” actually has its roots in Heathenry. Kari Tauring, a leader in the Minnesotan Heathen community, said, this:

In my understanding, a beard is an affectation. There is nothing in the Eddas or Sagas to indicate that facial hair had religious significance in the late Iron Age.

If this person wants to adhere to ‘Viking’ norms, they may want to henna their beard. Apparently there is much archaeological evidence for this fashion taste. I also recommend eliminating potatoes, coffee, and chocolate from the diet, as well as not wearing black-dyed clothing. These are all post-colonial imports to Europe and would have been completely unknown to the travelers and traders we now call ‘Vikings.'”

Karl E. H. Seigfried of The Norse Mythology Blog also wondered if Elliot’s claims have any basis in history, as reconstructed practice is important to most Heathens.

I’d like to know more about Mr. Elliott’s claim that shaving goes against ‘the Viking way,’ as he calls his religion. Historically, there is evidence that Vikings sported a variety of facial hair fashions, including moustaches and shaved chins. Theologically, it’s difficult to imagine the gods of the north issuing commandments about fashion and personal grooming choices. The fact that Mr. Elliott complains in court documents about other inmates being allowed to have beards almost makes this seem like a case of kosher envy, of wanting to have a strict set of commandments dictated by the gods to a chosen prophet. So far, Heathenry has not had that sort of mass revelation.

In addition, due to Elliott’s “Viking” claims, media reports have all glommed onto an old 2006 USA Today article, in order to suggest that Asatru is universally or overwhelmingly associated with white supremacy in prisons. However, the old article actually provides multiple views with some skeptical of that assertion, and it does not draw any conclusions based on evidence.  Regardless, there are many questions still left unanswered in Elliott’s particular case.

Despite court decisions and settlements, and even federal legislation intended to protect the religious rights of prisoners, the line drawn between those rights and the responsibilities of correctional institution officials still remains fuzzy. Security is a real issue in those facilities, and pursuit of it often results in constitutional rights being infringed, if not trampled. The ongoing task for prisoner advocates is to ensure that precautions are reasonable, and applied consistently to all inmates, regardless of the religion they happen to practice.

Send to Kindle

There’s something to be said for a localized religion with deep and specific roots and its own stories about every rock and tree; it sacralizes ordinary things, and makes the numinous part of each particular part of the world.”  – SM Stirling

51h1IhYojZL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_
The entire Emberverse series is addictive to Pagans because it spells out one of our fantasies – what would it be like to live in a community where our religion was the dominant religion? If our rituals, our ethics, our Gods were unabashedly the norm and seen as positive, vibrant, and diverse.
The Wild Hunt looks at the latest book in the Emberverse series, The Desert and the Blade, and interviews New York Times Best Selling author SM Stirling.

Book:  The Desert and the Blade
Author:  SM Stirling
Publish Date:  September 1, 2015

Sample Chapters
Buy the book:  Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Author’s Yahoo Group
Previous coverage of SM Stirling: Author’s Books Change Opinions About Paganism; Review of The Golden Princess

Series Background:

A mysterious event happens across the globe that causes electricity, gunpowder, cars,and all the things that make modern life possible stop working. As a results, 90% of the population die off within one year due to starvation and disease. While the series could have come across as grim, Stirling focuses on how humans band together to not only survive, but thrive in this new world they find themselves in. The books contain classic fantasy elements, but the setting and characters are not. They are your friends and neighbors and is set in towns you live and work in.

Those that survive The Change (as the event becomes known) band together in small, isolated groups and form new, surprising cultures. After living through the horrors of those early days, people try to forget the past and forge a new life by turning to myths. A professor of medieval history, his SCA friends, and local gang members use feudal England as a model for a new society and build castles in the Portland area. A soldier turned devout monk is elevated to Abbot and turns the abbey into a fortress to guard the flock from roving bands of cannibals. Teenagers infatuated with Tolkien grow into serious scouts and caravan guards as the Dunedain Rangers.

Due to its ability to feed its population, Iowa becomes the most powerful area left in the old United States. Bib overalls and a feed cap become the dress of the upper class and Farmer is a title of respect. A pseudo-Celtic clan is formed in Oregon when a community coalesces around a Wiccan coven with a Bard and powerful witch as a High Priestess. The Lakota once again follow the ways and Gods of their ancestors and the buffalo number in the millions.

Religion, especially modern Pagan religions, are central to the series. Pagans take center stage as the heroes. Wiccans, who are the majority in the USA, are also the majority of Pagans in the Emberverse. There are also Heathens, Hellenics, and polytheists of other varieties throughout the series.

The Emberverse books can be broken into 3 (or 4) sub-series. Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War and A Meeting at Corvallis follow the events immediately after the Change and take place primarily in the pacific Northwest. These books treat magic as something that might or might not be real and show the beginnings of how wildly new cultures are formed. The next grouping of 7 books takes place 25 years after the Change and follows the children of many of the main characters of the first books. This is also where the books turn from being Alternative History/Post-Apocalypse to Fantasy with subtle, but real magic. The culture changes are now becoming more entrenched.

The Golden Princess and The Desert and the Blade take place 46 years after the Change. They follow Princess Órlaith, heir to a kingdom that stretches across most of the former western USA, her Knight Heuradys, and Reiko, Empress of Japan. The books take place mostly in the Pacific Northwest and California, but the stories also bring in Korea and the kingdom of Capricornia in Australia. There are bad guys, a brewing war, witchcraft, battling Gods, and a quest.


Interview with S.M. Stirling:

Cara Schulz: What started out as a book of alternative (future) history with a few instances of perhaps-magic-but-probably-better-explained-by-coincidence evolved into an outright fantasy series with Gods and magic. Did you know from the beginning that was how the series would evolve?

SM Stirling: Yes, I had that pretty much in mind. The Change is more broad-ranging than it at first appears!  Part of the fun was taking modern (more or less) people and their immediate descendants and putting them in that setting. Even Juniper Mackenzie, who was a Wiccan high priestess before the Change and always believed in magic, is a bit startled. Though in a good way!  I do try to keep the magic from turning into D&D and fireballs from the fingertips, though. That’s fine for some books, but these have a different structure.

CS: In your books you take something very normal and mundane and show how far it can be taken if a small band of isolated survivors make it their core identity. The crashed plane of Boy Scouts, who develop into a cross between legendary Indian Trackers and Appalachia Firefox students, is one of the best examples. Another is a core of Army vets who, while intending to rebuild the USA, reinvent the Roman Legions. How do you come up with these different communities?

SMS: That’s a toughie. The glib answer writers usually give is that they get their ideas from a mail-order firm in upstate New York, but seriously it’s a bit of a mystery. Some of it just does well up from the subconscious. I had glimpses of Juniper sitting next to a campfire next to her Traveller’s wagon, and knew she was a witch, for example.

In the case of this series overall, I wanted -amplitude. That is, I wanted a lot of different cultures and customs, and the post-Change world is full of ’em. As a character says, when the going gets weird, the weird get going — and this is a set of circumstances in which it’s a positive survival advantage to be a bit weird. I find that amusing, not least because I’m a bit weird myself. The board is swept clear of the ordinary and the predominant.

Also, it’s a meditation on the nature of historical change and on the interaction between the present and our memories and ideas about the past. The past is gone and can never be wholly brought back — as one character says, “even if you wear its clothes” — yet we can never entirely reinvent ourselves; the past is also always present. How people build on what their know of (or dream of) their pasts is part of the story.

CS: Other communities form around a religion and many of those religions are Pagan religions such as Wicca, Hellenismos, Heathenry, and now Shinto. Why did you decide to make minority religions such a prominent and positive part of your series?

SMS: Well, see above. Partly it’s just that I find them fascinating; partly it’s the people I’ve met along the way building the series and concepts in the course of the research, which I do compulsively; partly it’s the internal logic of the initial premises. Throughout most of human history religion has been the core of most communities, woven into the very fabric of their lives.  I don’t see why it should be different after the Change; quite the contrary, since it’s once again a world of villages and face-to-face communities. And while I’m not prejudiced against the Abrahamic religions, it is sort of tedious the way they’ve reformatted so much of the world. There’s something to be said for a localized religion with deep and specific roots and its own stories about every rock and tree; it sacralizes ordinary things, and makes the numinous part of each particular part of the world. Also it makes travel more interesting!

The “world religions” are still part of the world in the Change series; they’ve just been trimmed back somewhat and made less hegemonic, having to learn to be good neighbors.

CS: From the very first books, you acknowledged Wiccan Kier Salmon with assisting you in creating realistic Wiccan characters and Heathen Diana Paxson for inspiring the series with her Westria books and for helping create the Heathen community and characters by referencing her Essential Asatru and Our Troth books. In your latest book, The Desert and the Blade, there is a long list of Pagans thanked for their help or for allowing you to use their lyrics in your book. What has it been like to develop this network of Pagans as resources and how has that helped you as an author?

SMS: Well, first it’s been a lot of fun! I’ve met a great many delightful, intelligent and interesting people, and some of them have become close friends. As an author, it’s been helpful both directly (getting information, preventing embarrassing errors) and by exposing me to different outlooks and worldviews. This is particularly important for a science fiction and fantasy author. If you’re writing mimetic fiction, it can suffice to know one milieu and part of the world intensely, and the people in it. When you’re building entire worlds, they should have something of the width and breadth and intricate close-grained variability of the actual world, which is huge and diverse beyond our comprehension. Broadening your exposure to different ways of thinking helps prevent your imagined worlds from being too flat and monochromatic.

CS: The Desert and the Blade has three young women as the main characters. One is a Wiccan, another is a Hellenic polytheist, and the third follows Shinto. All three are politically and physically powerful. Normally fantasy and magic novels have the men wielding swords and going on adventures and the women are relegated to rape bait or magic users who needed to be protected. Why push against the norm by having all three main characters be powerful, intelligent, physically strong women?

SMS: There’s an old Mexican joke about a man from Sonora and a man from Yucatan sitting in a pulqueria somewhere talking about their home regions. The man from Sonora pounds his fist on the table and says “In Sonora, we’re real men!  All of us!  Every one!” The guy from Yucatan looks at him for a moment and says: “That’s odd. In Yucatan only half of us are men.The other half are women, and we like it that way.”

I’ve always used a lot of female characters, from the start of my writing career, for pretty much that reason!  Also because my mind just seems to work that way. Perhaps it was being in single-sex schools for my teenage years; I OD’d on the alternative. It wouldn’t be thought at all odd to have a monarch, a knight and the heir to a throne as lead characters — why not a monarch, a knight and the heir to a throne who happen to be women?

CS: The Desert and the Blade also starts taking a closer look at non-Western culture, namely that of ancient Japan if it were to be revived again. How difficult is it to to leave a Western mindset to show how Empress Reiko would view different situations? Do you think you were successful?”

SMS: I think I was reasonably successful. It helps that Reiko’s culture isn’t that of ancient Japan, strictly speaking: it’s a post-apocalyptic Japan which has used a lot of its memories and concepts of the past to shape a -new- culture. One which, of course, as resident deity of that fictional universe, I designed! Nearly all the post-Change cultures involve a rejection of modernity, which is discredited by the appalling trauma of the Change itself. The survivors more or less have to cut themselves free to come to terms with things and to get on with their lives.  But none of them is a direct recreation of the past; that’s not possible, in my opinion. Modernity still -shapes- the new cultures which emerge; they may use swords and sailing ships (and horse-drawn railways and heliographs) but they’re still the product of people who went through the modern world, and their descendants.  As the saying goes, you cannot -not- know history; there’s no such thing as a blank slate, even if the world ends, though the concept of the tabula rasa, the new start, is itself a powerful historical force. Or as Marx put it, human beings -make- history… but they don’t make it just as they please. Their choices are inevitably limited, channeled and shaped by their circumstances, which are a product of the previous history they’re stuck with. I’ve tried to reflect this in the Change series.

CS: There are now 12 books in the Emberverse, but they can be divided into three sub-series series. The first series is about the immediate aftermath of the change. The second series focuses on the children of those survivors. And this series takes place about 46 years after the change and follows the third generation of survivors. As the author, where can people new to these books start?”

SMS: Well, that’s a more and more difficult question as a series goes along. Technically the whole shebang starts with ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME, where the Change starts on Nantucket and it’s thrown back to 1250 BCE. It’s the same overall imagined universe and there’s some lapover in characters — the brother of one of Juniper’s original friends is on Nantucket and is a secondary character in that trilogy. You can start with DIES THE FIRE easily enough, though:  it isn’t necessary to know what happened to Nantucket, though it helps.  I think you could come in at THE SUNRISE LANDS for the second series in the Change universe; and with THE GOLDEN PRINCESS for this new trilogy. It would be a -little- more difficult, but I tried to make them approachable that way. Although that has its own hazards; if you’re not careful, you can take up half a book with recapitulation!

CS: Thank you for chatting with us about your books. In addition to the books written by SM Stirling, there is also a newly released anthology based in the Emberverse called The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth and one of the stories included is from Kier Salmon.

Author SM Stirling and Wild Hunt Staff Writer Cara Schulz

Author SM Stirling and Wild Hunt Staff Writer Cara Schulz

Review of The Desert and the Blade

In a nutshell you have a princess, a knight, and an exotic foreigner on a quest for a magical sword. But that’s where the tropes end. All three main characters are women, all three practice different types of polytheist religions, and all three can kick serious butt with a blade. These are not helpless damsels.

The landscape they travel through, a post-apocalyptic portion of Western USA, is familiar. Readers will recognize the landmarks, even though they are mostly abandoned and falling into ruin. Yet the land itself is recovering from the abuses of modern life and fossil fuels. The tone of the book matches that – filled with hope, renewal, and youth.

The quest itself is just starting after forces from Korea kill the fathers (and reigning monarchs) of two of the main characters. Princess Orlaith and Knight Heuradys, who are from a kingdom that was formerly the western half of the US, are assisting Japan’s young Empress Reiko on her quest to find the fabled sword that can be used to avenge the death of their fathers. This isn’t a fight to take over Korea or based on xenophobia. Korea’s leader has been taken over by a type of demon, and the evil is harming the Koreans and threatening to spread.

The book goes into fairly complex nuanced explorations of the ethics of war and a leader’s responsibility for those who follow her and those who oppose her. It also explores respect for different cultures and religions while standing firm against oppression and evil.

When faced by an enemy, who has killed some of her friends, Órlaith wins the fight. But she also frees the man’s soul to return to his ancestors in the afterlife:

Órlaith looked into the eyes, into a whirling circle of dissolution that was eternally motionless, a nothing that thought it was everything, a futility that believed it was perfection. Where there were no lies because there was no truth, only an endless chewing of stale memory into smaller and smaller bits beneath the gaze of the Solipsist.

“No,” she said. “I will not leave even a bitter enemy so. Find freedom, man of the People. Find truth.”

She stepped forward and thrust. For an instant bewildered pain and hatred ran through her in a shuddering wave. Then it was as if a door opened – not for her, though she was enough of it to see and stand on the threshold for a moment.

The skaga took his hand from the dorsal fin of the great creature that bore him on a journey, one she sensed had been far longer for him than her. He made a gesture of thanks as it turned and dove into water like froth-tipped icy jade; his eyes caught hers for seconds, and he nodded, then turned to those who waited for him.

The rituals used by the various polytheist characters to honor their Gods and ancestors are realistic, respectful, and meaningful. The same goes for all the other religions encountered, including Christianity, a few forms of Judaism, and other various cultures. Respect is one of the key themes of the book. Respect for self, for others, for the beauty of diversity, and for the world.

That respect also extends to the use of magic, which isn’t treated lightly. The witches are respected and respectful of the powers and Gods on which they call. Thankfully, the author also extends that same respect to his readers by giving a solid, non-sensational view of spellcasting.

One of the kilted northerners was on his… no, her knees, it was the woman named Gwri, the dark one with her hair in small tight braids tipped with silver balls – sensibly muffled with a kerchief under her helmet for this work. Her face had a sinuous design in dark green and brown and burnt ochre drawn on it now; Mackenzies didn’t tattoo like their relatives, but they did paint their faces for war when they had time.

She was kneeling up behind a fragment of wall, with her arms out to either side and palms up, swaying slowly to left and right, with an arrangement of rocks and scratches in the dirt before her and objects at the points of a pentagram inside a circle – a feather, a bone, things he couldn’t see clearly. And as she swayed she chanted or half-sang, very softly, words that trickled into your ears like warm honey, her eyes heavy-lidded. Like your mother singing to you in your cradle… and Connor’s mother had died in childbirth, he’d been raised by his father and a bunch of neighbors, he didn’t remember her at all.

Except that somehow now he did, with an overwhelming sense of homecoming, like staring into the hearth as it flickered low while it rained outside.

The entire bestselling series should be read by every Pagan. Not only is it a joy to read such positive portrayals of Pagans in this gripping, smoothly paced, and well-written series, but also Pagans get the unusual bonus of catching a glimpse of what Pagan communities could look like. However, I wouldn’t wish the Change on anyone. The Desert and the Blade hovers between Young Adult and Adult and can be enjoyed by either audience. If you’re looking for books with Pagan, GLBT, and feminist characters in them with lots of action, heart, and intelligence you’ll enjoy these books.

Send to Kindle

four quartersFour Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, a farm and campground located in Pennsylvania, was in the news after a festival-goer reported being attacked. Four Quarters opens its land to a number of yearly external events. One of these events is Big Dub, a 4-Day EDM festival that brings together “40 of the regions biggest electronic dance dj’s to perform and hold workshops.

On the final day of the festival, a women reported to festival security that she had been drugged and raped. Security turned the case over to local police who launched an investigation. Both Four Quarters and Big Dub are reportedly cooperating fully with authorities. Four Quarters spokesperson Orren Whiddon told local reporters, “We are allowing the law to work its course.” Unfortunately neither Whiddon or Big Dub organizers answered our requests for further comments or updates. Currently, Big Dub’s website is down.

Despite the investigation, Four Quarters is moving forward with its own extensive schedule of fall events and happenings. Upcoming this week, the organization is hosting its own 5 day festival called Stones Rising. The sanctuary is also home to the Four Quarters Meadery, which earned 4th place recognition for its sweet brew back in the Spring.

*   *   *

starhawkStarhawk is in the final hours of her Kickstarter campaign to self-publish City of Refuge, the sequel to her novel The Fifth Sacred Thing. As we have reported in the past, Starhawk’s manuscript was rejected by her former publisher. While she was initially both frustrated and angry, Starhawk decided to take a leap and publish the book herself.

Starhawk describes the new book, “Do you choose to imagine a future filled with food gardens and community or guns and isolation? City of Refuge offers the world an alternative vision of the future- one where we can face down the oppressors and the violence with confidence that a peaceful and abundant world is possible.”

Starhawk launched the City of Refuge crowd-sourcing campaign on Aug. 5 with a goal of $50,000. However, she has surpassed that goal, raising $73,136. The campaign closes later today and, according to the site, a special first edition of the novel will only be available through the Kickstarter event. Additionally, Starhawk announced that, if she reaches $75,000, she will create an audio book version of City of Refuge. The book is due to be released for sale in 2016.

*   *   *

Pagan Pride Day logo

Pagan Pride Day logo.

We have now officially entered Pagan Pride Day season. A few events have already taken place but most are still in the final planning stages. Pagan Pride events offer a wide diversity of opportunities, which often reflect the flavor of the local community. At the Patheos’ blog Heathen At Heart, guest writer Náf Andrewson shares a unique reflection on representing Heathenry and the group Nebraska Heathens United at Pagan Pride Day Omaha. Andrewson wrote, “My purpose was simple; represent Heathenry at this event and make the distinct voice of all of Heathenry clear compared to other Pagan religions.”

Generally speaking, Pagan Pride events typically contain three main elements: public ritual, a food drive and media outreach. While not every event is run the same, these elements are reportedly required in order to be considered a part of the Pagan Pride Day project. For example, in July, Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day sent out its press release announcing the event’s return on Sept. 5. Others have made similar efforts. The Pagan Pride Day website has an easily searchable list of all local Pride events even some happening in Latin America and Europe. In addition, many of the local Pride organizations host Facebook pages and groups for community support.

In Other News:

  • EarthSpirit Community has announced its schedule for the upcoming Parliament of the World Religions in Salt Lake City. Members will be involved with at least 6 different scheduled programs, serve on various host committees and will be speaking on panels. The organization has launched a fundraising campaign to offset travel costs to the big interfaith gathering.
  • For those of you who missed the Many Gods West conference, Morpheus Ravenna’s keynote address has been published in full at Polytheist.com. In her speech titled “Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods,” Ravenna said, “The key, in my mind, to understanding the nature of the Gods and what makes Them distinct from archetypes, is agency. And this is a theme I am going to emphasize a lot here.”
  • Circle Sanctuary will be hosting its fall festival on Sept. 19-20 in Wisconsin. The event is called an “Old Tyme Community Harvest Faire: a Celebration of Hearth and Harvest.”  It includes rituals, workshops, crafting and more. For more information and for tickets, Circle has set up a dedicated web page filled with information and photos from past events.
  • Humanistic Paganism has opened a call for submissions for its September theme: Gaia philosophy and the Earth. Editors write, “This month in 1965, James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia Hypothesis, started defining the idea of a self-regulating Earth … In the meantime, also in September … one of the fathers of Neo-Paganism, Tim (Oberon) Zell had his a vision which inspired him to articulate vision of the earth as a single living organism.” In honor of that work, editors are looking for papers that focus on Earth Stewardship and related topics. All deadlines and requirements are posted on the site.
  • The Association for the Study of Women and Mythology has put out a call for proposals for its 2016 conference. “ASWM’s supports the work of those whose scholarly/creative endeavors explore or elucidate aspects of the sacred feminine, women and mythology.” The conference, to be held in Boston in April, is themed: Seeking Harbor in Our Histories: Lights in the Darkness.” Specifics on the conference and submission guidelines are listed on the organization’s site. In addition, ASWM is seeking nominee’s for its Kore award and for its Sarasvati book award.
  • The Pagan band Taibhsear has just released its debut album called “Tears Upon the Water.” The band’s sound is described as “somewhere between Pink Floyd and Damh the Bard.” The new album is available through iTunes, Amazon and other outlets.

Tears-upon-the-water-COVER

That is it for now! Have a nice day.

Send to Kindle

[Warning: This article deals with a topic that may be upsetting for some of our readers.]

On Aug. 26, 1920, American women were granted the right to vote when the Secretary of State certified the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ninety five years later, the day is acknowledged as “Women’s Equality Day.” While the Utopian ideal of gender equality in the U.S. is far from realized, long term statistics do suggest significant improvements for American women.

Political and cultural shifts have opened doorways, allowing for opportunities that were not available to the many brave women who walked in those early protests nearly a century ago. American women are also increasingly finding the voice to continue the work needed to improve their lives, to confront issues still lurking in the corners of American society and to empower the next generation of girls by reminding them each and every day, “We are half the sky!”[i]

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

But as we pause for a moment to acknowledge, reassess, plan or celebrate, the following creeps across our digital desks…

The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. (From “Isis Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2015)

To fully comprehend the quote above, one must read the entire New York Times report. A summary will not capture the sheer horror embedded in that story as relayed by 21 survivors. Briefly, Yazidi women and girls are being sold to Daesh soldiers as sex slaves and systematically raped in prison structures as part of the conquest of war. These violent acts are being justified by Daesh’s developing theological legal system for the caliphate. The social boundaries that once may have prevented such attacks are now lying in ruins alongside the shattered remains of the Mosul museum, Palmyra and other similar ancient sites.

Daesh is attempting to rebuild a society based on its own extremist interpretation of Sharia law, and sex slavery has become a legitimate part of that construction. The organization has even created a functioning infrastructure specifically to uphold the practice. As The Times article reports, “The Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales and contracts notarized by ISIS-run Islamic courts.” And within that theologically-based legal structure, rape is considered a form of worship.

This new slavery system was institutionalized when Daesh first invaded the Yazidi region. They killed both men and older boys. Then, they transported the women and girls and the remaining young boys to prisons and camps. Professor Matthew Barber, a expert on the Yazidi, told The New York Times, this “offensive” was not at all a land invasion, but a calculated “sexual conquest.”

As we reported last September, the Yazidi people are a small, often misunderstood religious minority living in northern Iraq. Many news outlets have defined their religious practice as polytheist and, periodically throughout history, they have been labeled “devil worshippers.” However, neither is correct. The Yazidi tradition is a closely held belief system that, by design, remains a mystery to outsiders. While their religion may be kept hidden, what is clearly known about the Yazidi is that they are currently the direct targets of a modern genocide.

Last October, Daesh’s online magazine Dabiq published an article explaining the organization’s actions. The text reads, “The Islamic State faced a population of Yazidis, a pagan minority existent for ages in regions of Iraq and Shām … Their creed is so deviant from the truth that even cross-worshipping Christians for ages considered them devil worshippers and Satanists … ” The article goes on to justify not only slavery as a whole, but specifically sex slavery and the taking of women as concubines. The writer explains how slavery was once openly practiced, and Daesh seeks to return to that time.

While Daesh is openly enslaving the Yazidi women, it has not yet demonstrated a large-scale offensive against the area’s Islamic, Christian or Jewish women. Islamic women are considered believers, and have a designated role in the caliphate as dictated by a March 2015 piece of propaganda, titled, “Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-khanssaa Brigade.”  Interestingly, this manifesto is being used to recruit young Muslim women from around the world.

Christian and Jewish women, on the other hand, have a special non-believer status because of their theological link to “the Book.” As explained in October’s Dabiq article, Christians and Jews have the option of making ” jizyah payments,” which is a tax for non-Muslims living in the caliphate.

However, the Yazidi are considered, as noted earlier, pagans and devil-worshipping polytheists or mushrikun (shrik is defined as the sinful practice of idolatry or polytheism; mushrikun are those that commit this sin against Islam). The mushrikun can either be converted, killed or enslaved.

The bartering for and enslavement of women as a war conquest is sadly not a new practice. For centuries, the female body has been treated like the hidden valuables of a conquered region. Women exist for the taking; a spoil of war and a right of victory, as demonstrated by the phrase to “plunder, pillage, rape.” In May, when Nigerian troops freed 234 women and girls from the terrorist group Boko Haram, many returned pregnant. Boko Haram treated these women and girls in very much the same way that Daesh is treating the Yazidi women.

However, Daesh has added a new spin to this entire horrific engagement. It is brandishing these attacks and promoting these laws as a way to encourage young men to join its ranks. Sex slavery and rape have become the proverbial carrot before the horse; a prize for signing up or reward for a job well-done. And, the entire process is wrapped up in a guise of religious clothing. In a March 2015 Dabiq article, writers attempt to justify their institutionalization of slavery by criticizing the world for even calling a sexual act with a slave girl “a rape.” [ii]

A prostitute in your lands comes and goes, openly committing sin. She lives by selling her honor, within the sight and hearing of the deviant scholars from whom we don’t hear even a faint sound. As for the slave-girl that was taken by the swords of men following the cheerful warrior … then her enslavement is in opposition to human rights and copulation with her is rape?! What is wrong with you? How do you make such a judgment? What is your religion? What is your law?

That very comment in the April issue of Dabiq invites a broader discussion on basic human morality. Is there an intrinsic morality embedded within humanity, or even a socially-constructed baseline that defines which acts should never be considered acceptable regardless of religious belief? That discussion goes well-beyond this article. But it does lead back to the original New York Times headline, “Isis Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” Is the institutionalization of rape through religious doctrine truly a mark of “theology?” Or is a religion simply being used – victimized itself – as an excuse to commit violent sexual acts against women, to perpetrate a genocide against a perceived enemy and to strengthen a propaganda campaign to recruit new young male followers?

The world’s Islamic leaders are decrying these atrocities and publicly discussing the secondhand destruction being caused to their faith practice and belief system. There is a distinction being made between Islam and Islamism; between Muslims and Islamists. In a recent CNN report, Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed wrote:

 I am an observant Muslim. And because I am a Muslim, I believe in pluralism. I believe in tolerance. These are the beliefs that Islamist totalitarians are determined to extinguish in the world as they oppress and brutalize those they deem to be ‘the other.’ … Because of their abuses in the name of Islam, Islamists smear each and every Muslim, tarring us all with the same brush.

As the world has became increasingly aware of Daesh’s slavery practices, some people are asking why the world’s governments don’t appear to be focusing more on this particular horror. “Do they believe it is just a women’s issue?” In a 2014 article published at Foreign Policy, Aki Peritz and Tara Maller, former CIA analysts ask that very question. They observe, “Rarely do [sexual attacks] seem to be the focal point of politicians’ remarks, intelligence assessments, or justification for counter-terrorism actions against the group.” Peritz and Maller conclude, “Sexual violence carried out by terrorist groups should be catalogued as ‘terrorist attacks.”

Before Daesh’s 2014 Yazidi offensive, there were already reports of rapes and kidnappings in the general Iraqi region. Where once the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) was steadily working to improve Iraqi women’s legal rights, it now, as reported Foreign Policy in Focus, “takes everything the organization has just to keep their shelters open and women safe.” The article explains how, in war-torn Iraq, all men have guns and can do whatever they want. Women live in fear.

Along with OWFI, human-rights organizations around the world are joining the struggle to help the region’s women. Yazda is an Iraqi-based international Yazidi organization that is sponsoring relief efforts. YezidiTruth is a U.S.-based organization that educates and collects donations. In Israel, The Combat Genocide Association is also working to educate, raise money and find ways of actively assist the many refugees from the affected areas. These are only four examples.

While grass-roots efforts and government action may end the nightmare and alleviate some of the trauma. None of those actions can fully root-out a more deeply embedded problem – one of indoctrination found within the pages of Daesh’s manifesto and the writings by the organization’s supporters. All of these works continue to teach boys and men that it is culturally acceptable and even their right to objectify women’s bodies.

Living far away from the violence and the realities in Iraq, American women can walk freely, secure enough in their own struggle for equality. But even in the U.S. there are reminders that a very similar problem still lies deep beneath the lands where once the suffragettes marched. This was recently demonstrated by several back-to-school fraternity banners displayed at Old Dominion University. “Freshmen daughter drop off,” one read. While these manifestations and related traumas are not comparable to the open institutionalization of sex slavery and rape in Iraq, a connection remains.

In celebrating the advancements made over the past 95 years, we also acknowledge there is much work to be done. That work includes continuously encouraging our young girls to stand up and speak up because they are half the sky. But at the same time we cannot forget to teach our boys that they are only half the sky.

And, without both, the sky will fall.

*    *    *

[i] The term “Half the Sky” is borrowed from a movement that addresses the worldwide oppression of women. The term originated as the title of a book written by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and then was adopted for a corresponding effort to help women worldwide. The Half the Sky movement is not to be confused with the foundation of the same name, which specifically addresses child welfare in China.

[ii] There are countless published articles and essays by Daesh supporters that demonstrate and theologically justify the promotion of the slavery practice. However, we have made editorial decision to not link to any of these pieces.

Send to Kindle

celebrate wilderness front cover a 2smlReview: Celebrate Wildness: Magic, Mirth and Love on the Feraferia Path. (First Edition) Written by Jo Carson.

Years ago I was given a list of books to read in response to my interest in pursuing Paganism. Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon was one of those books and, through that text, I first learned of the Feraferia tradition. At the time, the tradition did not specifically call to me. Even if it had, there was lack of access to information and teachers in Georgia in the 1990s. Wrapped up in trying on different practices and traditions, I didn’t give it much more thought.

Then, a few months ago, I came across the path again while reading Palgrave’s academic text Sexuality and New Religious Movementsand I was reminded of that part of modern Pagan history. Consequently, when Jo Carson’s Celebrate Wildness: Magic, Mirth and Love on the Feraferia Path arrived in my inbox, I was very interested in exploring it in order to learn more about Feraferia, a tradition that appears to have had a strong influence on many Pagan paths in the United States.

The word “Feraferia” literally means “celebrate wildness,” stemming from “fera,” as in wild (feral), and “feria,” meaning festival. It is a religious tradition founded by Fredrick Adams in the 1950s. According to the forward of Celebrating Wildness:

Fredrick Adams was a writer and an artist. He has been called a modern American William Blake. The majority of his work is on mystical themes relating to the Divine Feminine and the relationship of the Mother Goddess and her Daughter to Sacred Nature. Adams and his life partner Lady Svetlana were among the first founders, and most elegant proponents, of Goddess Religion in the Western Hemisphere. Through their religious fellowship, Feraferia, they inspired thousands of modern romantics and Neo-Pagans with their lyric paradisal visions, profound ecological-spiritual philosophy, elegant ceremonial rites and stunning artwork…

Even as a boy Fred dreamed of paradise. He hoped to eventually create an Eden-like environment where he and his friends could live and love each other, in and at peace with the ‘All Wild of Nature’ as he called it. A goal of Feraferia is the creation of such paradisal sanctuaries, focused on celebration and the culture if native trees and plants in harmony with the seasons… (Forward written by Carroll ‘Poke’ Runyon)

In a recent interview with Jason Mankey, author Jo Carson said that one of Adams’ unfulfilled intentions was to write a book about Feraferia in order to make it accessible to everyone. She told Mankey, “He wanted other people to be able to experience something like what he had experienced.”

For anyone not familiar with Feraferia, here is a succinct description, which can be found on the Feraferia website:

Feraferia promotes the love of nature, the “land-sky-love-body” of all wild. We take nature in the widest sense, to include ecology, physiology (human and non-human) and psychology.

Feraferia sees the Goddess as the most ancient deity of all humankind. To honor Her, we hope to serve the community of all life.  At the same time, the unique deity we celebrate most is the young maiden Goddess, the laughing Girl Goddess, the Merrie Maiden – also known as Kore (pronounced kor-ee), from the ancient Greek. By her characteristic innocent grace, She allows for the freedom and joy of all.

Our basic spiritual goal is the awakening of a deeper identity with landscape as a conscious, living presence…

While preparing to review this book, I struggled with putting together a clear conceptualization of Feraferia as a religion based on the introductory information provided. This forced me to look in other places for background material. After I had more information I went back and re-read the first section and things started to make more sense the second time around.

As someone who has studied Pagan beliefs for years, I did find much of the information familiar. Even so, my overall impression of the book, and the first section in particular, is that there is too little information given on any one subject. For example, details on several concepts, including Kore as Twin Goddess (Light Kore and Dark Kore), Mysteries of Death and Rebirth, Trance and the Magic of Dreams, are wrapped up in a page or less.

With these very short bits of information coupled with loads of enchanting artwork, the book is designed more as coffee-table material than anything else. It’s the sort of book that is beautiful and that you would pick up to look at while you’re waiting for your clay sculpture to bake, but not necessarily read cover to cover. This is especially true considering the decision to print white text on black pages, which was hard for these middle-aged eyes.

That being said, I like coffee table books and this one had some beautiful art work, intriguing information and ideas all wrapped up in one.

The best section of the book was Part Three: Feraferia’s Deep Roots. It was in this section that the discussion of ancient henges, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the ancient peaceful cultures of Crete were explored. Not only were these discussions interesting, but it was at this point in the book that things really started to click. I began to have a clearer idea of what Feraferia is and, more specifically, what is meant by the phrase: “the awakening of a deeper identity with landscape.”  

It was through this section that I could put into context the rites and practices described earlier in the book. For example, I understood the importance of creating the Faerie Ring Henge in the manner presented in Part Two, and I began to understand more about the tradition’s focus on the Minoan Crete culture and on Kore/Persephone.

Generally speaking, the book was interesting, and I was only disappointed in its organization. There were countless times that I read something late in the book and had a “Oh, that’s why…” moment, leading me to re-read earlier articles, reconsider artwork, and research the tradition through other means. For example, if “The Hallows of Feraferia” (written by Admas in 1967) had been included in the beginning rather than the end everything would have made more sense the first time around.

While I have a firm-enough foundation in Pagan history to understand much of what was presented, I am not certain if a person, who is new to Paganism, could use this first edition hardbound art book as an introduction to Feraferia. Fortunately, Carson has recently released a second edition, which is smaller (11 x 8.5) contains more articles, art, a bibliography and further reference information. In addition, more books are planned, which will dive deeper into the beliefs and practices of the tradition. Until then, I will happily gaze at the enchanting artwork within the pages of Celebrating Wildness and figure out how to create a fairy henge that won’t alert my neighbors in my tiny suburban backyard.

Jo Carson is a long-time follower of Feraferia and is the tradition’s current leader. She has a Master’s degree in Film Production and in addition to her extensive work in the film industry, also produced documentaries Dancing with Gaia and A Dance for the Goddess. Her book, Celebrating Wildness, is available through the Feraferia website.

Send to Kindle

I. Fire and Bone: July, 2006

I was hurrying home, deep in thought and not paying attention, when I walked right into his sign, accidentally tearing it with my boot as I plowed through the cardboard.

I looked down at the torn sign and snapped back to reality. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I blurted to the man sitting a few feet away as I started to bend over to pick it up.

“Only Need $20 More For Bus Ticket Home” the sign said. Next to the sign was a collection of objects presumably for sale. There were a few tattered romance novels, some antique Coke bottles, and what looked like a piece of antler.

I picked up the antler and examined it. Part of it was broken off with a small stump remaining, but it was a beautiful piece, and I realized that if I sanded the broken stump down it would make a nice wand.

“Where is home?” I asked.

“Milwaukee”, he answered. “I left years ago and swore I’d never return, but over the time I’ve decided that maybe one actually can go home again.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out $20. “Sorry again about your sign, but hopefully now you don’t need it,” I said as I handed him the money.

Image: US Treasury Department

Image: US Treasury Department

He broke into a wide smile. “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” He got up to shake my hand. “I hope that piece treats you well.”

I thanked him again and continued home, waving the antler around like a wand as I neared my corner. I went through the front door of the building and up the stairs, leaving the antler outside my door by the landing on the second floor before going inside.

A few days later, I dug out my dremel and went out on the landing with the intention of sanding off the stump on the antler in order to give it the right shape. I had done some bone carvings some years back, and didn’t think much of it as I put on my goggles and turned on the dremel.

I held the sanding tip to the antler and made contact, and within a second or two I started to suddenly panic and uncontrollably shake. I quickly put down the dremel, and before I could understand what was happening my body went into full panic attack mode. I started to hyperventilate and I lowered myself into a seated position as my heart started to race and I started to sweat.

Terrified, I put my hands over my head and closed my eyes, and all I could see and feel and taste and smell was fire. Visions and sensations poured through my head; a fiery inferno, the screams of the dead, the stench of burning flesh. I felt myself being pulled down into myself and I briefly opened my eyes, but the visions and the smell did not immediately cease and I felt myself tightening into the fetal position as I closed my eyes again and reminded myself to breathe.

My heart was pounding ever faster, and it took me several minutes of slow breathing before whatever had come over me faded and I was able to uncurl myself and sit back up. As I felt myself come back, I stared at the antler in horror, utterly confused and terrified at what had just transpired. What had flashed through my mind was familiar, all too familiar, and yet so deeply buried and deliberately forgotten. But…what? How did the…

At that moment, my upstairs neighbor bounded up the stairs towards the landing, and as he got within a few steps of me he suddenly froze and sniffed the air. He looked at me, wide-eyed.

“That smell. Holy Mother of God, that smell. What the…?” he said, his voice shaking slightly.

I pointed to the antler and the dremel and tried to summon the proper words, but he had no interest in what I was actually pointing to. I looked down again where I was pointing and the objects suddenly read out to me as a solved riddle: friction and antler. Fire and bone. I looked up at him again but he spoke before I could.

“That smell,” he said again, his voice barely above a whisper. “It smells like when the Twin Towers were burning.”

II. A Lesson in Capitalism, A Lesson in Imperialism: February, 1993

Our fifth-grade class had spent all month learning about the stock exchange, and it seemed fitting to wrap up the unit with a day trip to the Financial District. We piled into a big yellow bus and rode into Manhattan along with the morning traffic, eventually inching our way downtown towards Wall Street right at the peak of the AM rush hour.

We started out with a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange, had lunch at a Burger King near Wall Street and, afterward, we walked over in a group to the headquarters of Solomon Brothers, located in the World Trade Center complex.

7 WTC as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

7 WTC and the North Tower as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

It was the first time that I had ever seen the Twin Towers in person, and I was instantly mesmerized by their energy and presence. We stood in front of the towers for a moment as our teacher took a few photos, and then proceeded across the street towards Building 7 where Solomon Brothers was located. As we walked away from the towers, I kept looking back as I struggled to process that anything could be so tall, so vast and so otherworldly. There was something truly unreal about them, as though I had stepped onto a Hollywood movie set or I was being fooled by a hologram.

One our way into Building 7, one of the guards wanted to check one of the bags that our teacher was carrying. We stood back as she was searched, all of us quite confused as to why there were security guards in the first place, let alone why our teacher had to open her bag up for them. After she was waved along by security, a few of us immediately wanted to know what that had been all about.

She gently tried to explain that the security guards check bags because they were worried about people potentially sneaking in “bad things”, which only piqued our curiosity further. She then told us that it was hard to explain in a few words but it was something we could discuss the next day, and then quickly led us toward the elevator while changing the subject. Within moments, the incident was forgotten.

In school the next morning, we talked extensively about our trip and what we learned, what the good parts were and what we didn’t enjoy so much. I was still wondering about the security guard and hoping that our teacher would talk about it, but nobody else brought it up and I was too shy to do so.

The following afternoon, we came in after recess to learn that a bomb had ripped through the garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, with reports of both deaths and injuries. We looked around at each other, both terrified and confused. Why, we asked. Why would someone do that?

Our teacher had no answer that afternoon, telling us only as much as the media knew at the time. Over the next few weeks, however, it became apparent that the bombing was an act of terrorism, which eventually facilitated the discussion around bombs and security guards and bag searching that our teacher had evaded during the field trip.

“But why do bad people want to hurt us?’ one student asked.

“Because we are the most powerful country in the world, and sometimes that means that we do things that anger people who do not have power,” she answered.

Nobody asked anything after that, but I stewed on her words long after the subject had been exhausted. I wrote them down in a journal and thought about them often, especially when watching the nightly news. Between my own personal awestruck experience with the Twin Towers in and of itself and having been on that land in their presence only 48 hours before the bombing, my attention was suddenly aimed towards subjects like terrorism and empire in a way that would never have occurred had we not gone on that field trip.

III. Of Boxes and Blemished Skylines: Summer 1996

I remember the very first time I heard the joke.

I was with a friend, in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon, on our way into Manhattan to see Les Miserables. As we approached the Holland Tunnel, with the skyline clear-as-day in front of us, her father turned around to face us.

“You girls know that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are the two tallest buildings in Manhattan, right?” he asked us with a grin.

“But….” I started to immediately correct him, as everyone knew that the Twin Towers were the tallest.

He interrupted me with a laugh. “Yeah, the two boxes that they came in were dumped way down by Wall Street …”

We laughed along with him, immediately getting the joke. It was an understood and unspoken truth that for all their impressiveness in terms of height, the Twin Towers did look like two big ugly boxes, especially in comparison to buildings such as the Chrysler and the Empire State. While I had a strange fondness for them, even I had to admit that while they were otherworldly, they were otherworldly eyesores.

“You know, I was about the same age as you two are now when those towers first went up, and I’ll never forget how much folks hated ‘em at first. They called ‘em a blemish on the skyline, complained that they ruined the view of Lower Manhattan. And now a generation later, everyone’s buying tchotchkes with the Twin Towers on ‘em, and nobody can imagine what the skyline would look like without the towers. Funny how that works…” he said, drifting off into his thoughts.

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

I thought about what he has said as we came out of the tunnel. One of my neighbors had expressed a similar sentiment recently, and as I got a brief glimpse of the towers out the back window, for a moment I tried to imagine the skyline without the Twin Towers.

And while it was hard to imagine that those buildings actually existed in the first place, it was even harder to imagine what it would look like without them.

IV. Land, Once Water: Spring, 1999

“And it was right at this spot, at the base of a buttonwood tree, that the contract that became known as the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in 1792, marking the beginnings of what was to eventually become the New York Stock Exchange…”

‘This spot’ was in front of a hot-dog stand on Wall Street near the corner of Pearl Street. I was on a guided tour of the Financial District, having been dragged along by a friend from the West Coast who had never been to New York before. At that point, I had been taking the bus into city once or twice a week and I knew most of Manhattan like the back of my hand, but as I looked around I realized that I hadn’t been down near Wall Street since the school field trip six years earlier. I looked around, down the dark narrow street tucked within the oldest and deepest depths of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, and it was nearly impossible to imagine any sort of tree, buttonwood or otherwise, ever having grown in that spot.

We started walking eastward again behind out tour guide, who continued talking as we ambled along.

“Wall Street itself was named after an actual wall which once protected the settlement of New Amsterdam from both the British and the local tribes. The wall was built in the mid-1600’s, and originally stretched from Pearl Street to what is now called Church Street, which were the original shorelines of Manhattan over three-hundred years ago.”

Wait, what? I said to myself. The original shorelines of Manhattan are Pearl Street and Church Street? The present-day Manhattan extended three blocks east past Pearl and at least as many blocks west of Church. I thought of the Twin Towers, which I knew were just west of Church Street. If the tour guide was correct, that would mean that the entire WTC complex was standing in what was once the Hudson River.

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote "made land". [Public Domain]

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote “made land”. [Public Domain]

“By the time the Buttonwood Agreement was signed, landfill had extended Wall Street out an extra block east, and the next year the Tontine Coffee House was built here at the corner of Wall and Water, which was to serve as the headquarters of the New York Stock and Exchange Board until the mid-1800s….”

I looked down where I was standing, suddenly aware that I was standing on an invisible border between bedrock and landfill, between the original boundaries of Manhattan Island and a man-made extension of “land” that was created from refuse. I looked eastward at the blocks and buildings, stretching towards the waterfront, buildings that I now knew stood where fish swam for millennia. I tried to imagine what the shoreline might have looked like around the time that the Dutch first fortified New Amsterdam with a wall, but once again the concrete got in the way.

The tour guide headed back in the other direction, still pointing out landmarks, but I was only partially paying attention at that point, still hung up on the idea that the lower half of Manhattan Island was once only half as wide as it was in the present day. As we approached the New York Stock Exchange, I tuned in to the tour guide again for a moment and quickly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“And it was right here that on September 16, 1920, that a bomb went off in front of 23 Wall Street, at the height of the lunch hour on a busy weekday. 38 people were killed and over 100 were injured in what was at that time the deadliest attack on American soil. It was suspected that the bombing was carried out by Italian anarchists, but nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day.”

Wait, what again? A bomb? Here? My thoughts immediately drifted back to the WTC garage bombing, and then back to the tour guide’s words about Wall Street as a fortified wall that was built as a means of defense. The guide made no mention of the events that led to the need for a fortified wall in the first place, but I understood enough about history and empire at that point to sense a general pattern of cause and effect.

I looked around; the block itself felt like a fortress, holding itself in tension, in constant defensive posture against anything that may try to attack it. It felt nervous and guarded, and I felt the same as I continued down the narrow concrete corridor.

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. Photo by NortonJuster7722

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. [Photo Credit: NortonJuster7722]

 V. Fate and Foreshadowing: Late July, 2001

“You don’t have a fear of heights, do you?” he asked me at one point while giving me a tour of the main dining area. I had been looking out the window for a moment, temporarily paralyzed by the realization of how high up I was, and the look on his face was one of slight concern.

“Oh, no, not at all,” I lied. “I’ve worked in skyscrapers before,” I added nervously. That part wasn’t an outright lie, but I left out the fact that while I had actually worked in a few skyscrapers, I had never been higher up than the 29th floor.

“Uh-huh,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “New hires always tell me that they’re not afraid of heights, but then I’ve had some go and quit on me after a few weeks because they realize they can’t deal with it,” he said to me.

For the money I’ll make here, I’ll learn to deal with it, I thought to myself.

“This is as high up as you get in this town,” he continued, as if I needed any more reminders that I was on the 107th floor of the tallest building in Manhattan.

I nodded and smiled. “I know. I’m OK,” I said again, trying my hardest to project an air of confidence.

He smiled back and waved me over as he walked towards the back of the restaurant.

Other than the awkward exchange around heights, the interview went smoothly. I got along well with the interviewer, he seemed satisfied with my resume despite my relative lack of fine dining experience, and he was pleased at my willingness to take any shift that was available. I left there very hopeful that I had the job.

“I’ll give you a call in a few days”, he told me as I walked out.

But a few days came and went without a call, and by the end of the week I realized that I didn’t have the job after all. For some reason, that time I had really gotten my hopes up, and I took it very hard and very personally. Those around me noticed, and tried in their own little ways to cheer me up.

“You know, I have dreams of that building sometimes,” my partner said to me a few weeks after the interview. “In the dream, I’m standing against the windows on one of the top floors, and all of a sudden the building starts to sway violently back and forth.”

I thought back to when I looked out the window from the dining area of the 107th floor, that terrifying, paralyzing rush that the manager picked up on, and I nodded.

“Frankly, you’re better off with a job closer to the ground,” he said after a while. “Personally, I don’t know if I could handle being that high up all the time. That building always made me a little nervous.”

“Everything happens for a reason. I’ll find a better job,” I concluded.

After dinner, we walked through Midtown down to Lower Manhattan. The sun was setting, illuminating the skyline, and I stared down at the southern tip for a moment, thinking about the job I didn’t get. The job in the buildings that stood where the river once flowed, the buildings that swayed back and forth in my partner’s dreams. I suddenly felt a strangely unexplainable relief that I wasn’t going to be working in that building.

The manager probably made the right call, I admitted to myself as walked through the shadows of the towers towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with being that high up.

VI. Consequence of Empire: September 11, 2001

I opened my eyes just a crack, immediately closing them again as the bright sunshine streaking through my windows temporarily blinded me. I knew it was already mid-morning, and I also knew that I wasn’t ready to wake up quite yet. I had spent the night before out late drinking with friends, and I hadn’t gotten back to my place until close to sunrise. I had only been asleep for three or four hours at that point.

But something had just woken me up out of a sound sleep, and I shifted my head slightly and slowly tried to open my eyes again to see if it was anything that I needed to worry about. The head of my mattress was up against a large bay window, and as I squinted my eyes open again all I saw was blue. The sky was an amazing, brilliant blue, not a cloud in the sky, a rarity that late in the season. I turned my ear towards the open window for a moment, heard nothing but birds and traffic, and rolled over back to sleep.

Blue sky over New York. Photo by Payton Chung

Blue sky over New York. [Photo Credit: Payton Chung]

A little while later, I heard a similar noise again. That time I sat up, again my vision fixated on the sky, wondering if what I heard was the demolition project from a few blocks away. Again I listened for a minute, looked out the window again, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But as I lowered myself back into bed, an unsettling and creeping feeling came over me.

I tried to get back to sleep but failed, eventually settling for lying in bed while staring at the sky, too anxious to fall back asleep yet too exhausted to actually get up.

Out of the silence the phone rang. I jumped at the sound, then slowly reached over and picked it up.

“APLANEAPLANEHITTHETWINTOWERSTURNONYOURTVWEAREUNDERATTACK” was all I heard on the other end of the line.

I recognized the voice of a friend but thought I had misheard what he said. “What?” I asked. “Can you say that again?”

“TURNONYOURTVJUSTTURNONYOURTV’ was the reply.

I stayed on the phone and reached for the remote. I turned on the TV and saw the Twin Towers engulfed in flames.

I threw some clothes on and ran downstairs, flung open the front door, ran down to the end of the block, and looked northwards towards Manhattan. I could see what looked like smoke and fire in the distance, and the air was sooty and acrid. I looked around. My block was mostly empty, and the few faces I saw looked as ashen as the sky in the distance.

I stood, frozen, staring at the smoke in the distance. As I stood there, an older man walked past me, walking with a cane and wearing a hat that proclaimed his status as a Vietnam vet. He stopped next to me for a moment, and then looked me in the eye and motioned towards the smoke with his cane.

“That there,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke, “that there is the consequence of empire.”

I nodded, repeating his words to myself quietly. The consequence of empire.

My thoughts started flashing, from the bombing of the WTC garage nine years earlier, to the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, to the original fortification from which Wall Street bears its name. The consequence of empire indeed – 350 years of colonialism that led us to this very moment.

I ran back to the house and stood in front of the TV for the next several hours, taking in as many vital details as I could bear. I reflected for a moment on the job that I ended up not getting a few months prior and a knot immediately formed in my stomach.

As I stood there, I slowly took in what this meant in actuality. Subways were shut down. Bridges and tunnels shut down. Flights grounded. Cell phone networks hopelessly jammed. ATM networks down. Stock exchange shut down. Traffic suspended throughout all of Manhattan for the first time in the city’s history. An entire ‘way of life’, shut down in an instant.

And out my bay window, only a few miles away, a fiery pit steadily burned, with television cameras catching every detail save for the one things that I knew could not be transmitted through sight or sound: the stench of fire, of metal and soot, of burning flesh and bone. The news was calling it a “rescue mission”, but my senses and my gut both told me otherwise. I could smell death in the air, and I could hear and feel the dead as well.

VII. City of the Dead: September 12-15, 2001

The morning after, I cracked my eyes open in the identical manner as I had the day before, and it only took a split second of staring at the blue sky to remember what had transpired over the past 24 hours. I lay there for a moment, my dreams still fresh in my mind, dreams filled with fire and horror and the screams of the dead.

I needed to check on a friend who lived downtown, and I couldn’t ignore the pull that I was feeling from the other side of the river, so I grabbed my camera and a few other items and set out on foot towards Lower Manhattan. It was around three miles between my apartment in Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, and with every block the smell in the air increased along with the tension of the land and the unmistakable screaming that shook through every bone of my body.

At the base of the bridge, an officer with an AK-47 guarded the walkway. “Residents only,” he barked as I approached.

“I live on Warren Street,” I lied, and gave the address of my friend.

“ID?” he asked.

“Its in my wallet which is in my apartment on Warren Street.” I answered calmly. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, I thought to myself.

He scowled for a moment, not sure whether to believe me, then relented and let me through.

I walked across the bridge, straight through Lower and Midtown Manhattan right up towards Central Park, walking in a city that other than the sound of emergency vehicles had gone completely silent. Not a single store was open, not a single car was driving through the streets, and there were very few people on the sidewalks. Birds eerily chirped as I made my way uptown, briefly pausing near 14th Street to take in the totality of the silence. It was a literal ghost town, in more ways than one, with the surreal nature only increasing when a military tank rolled right by me as though it was the most normal, everyday thing.

Tank rolling down 14th Street in Manhattan. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Military vehicle down 14th Street in Manhattan. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I continued uptown, taking pictures as I went. By the time I got to Rockefeller Center, I paused and looked around and for a moment was in utter terror. There was nobody in sight. No cars, no people, no sounds other than the shrill shrieks of sirens and the screaming that I couldn’t tune out. I stood across from Radio City, the only person in a 360 degree radius, and was so taken in and paralyzed by the emptiness around me that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was standing right in the middle of Sixth Avenue. A group of people walked by on the sidewalk and I was so surprised by their presence that without even thinking I pulled my camera out and took their picture.

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I then laid down in the middle of the street and did a log roll straight across to the other side. I didn’t know why, but in that moment I needed contact with the land, with the concrete and ashes that I had been walking upon for miles. I lay still in the street next to the sidewalk for a moment, and the screaming I was hearing suddenly became a roar. When I got up, I looked over at the people on the other side and realized that they had been taking pictures of what I had just done. They waved, I waved back.

Remembering that I had a friend that I was checking on, I quickly made my way back downtown. As I approached Union Square, I quickly saw that makeshift memorials were already being erected in the park, and flyers with pictures of the missing were taped to nearly every street-pole.

It brought me back to what I couldn’t tune out, the screaming. The dead. I wanted to stop and pay tribute, but I was still on a mission, and I continued on until I arrived at my friend’s apartment four blocks north of the disaster. As I rang the bell, I could feel the heat of the fire, and the stench had become overwhelming.

“I haven’t seen a thing yet, I haven’t left the house and I don’t want to,” he said to me we sat down on the couch.

“I don’t blame you,” I replied. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that smell out of my mind.”

He looked up at me. “My grandmother’s been in a constant anxious state since yesterday, and nothing I can say or do will calm her down,” he said, motioning towards the back room. “She says the smell reminds her of Poland when she was a child, and she’s been in a terrible state. She’s terrified. I mean, we’re all terrified, but I don’t even know how to begin to comfort her.”

I didn’t know what to say, and we both sat there in silence for a while with our tea and cigarettes as I tried desperately to tune out the screaming that had hit a deafening pitch.

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.

VIII. Fear of a Blue Sky: July 2010

“When you were a kid, did you ever hear that joke about the Twin Towers?”

I paused for a minute, trying to access a file in my brain that had been long since tucked away. “You mean the one about how they’re just the boxes that the Empire State and the Chrysler Building came in?”

She nodded, poured herself another glass of wine, and then continued.

“Isn’t it weird how one day the world has suddenly changed and you just can’t say things anymore? Like, my mother would go on and on about those buildings when I was a kid, about how ugly they were and how she wished that they had never been built, on and on. And even remembering and recalling that just feels so weird and inappropriate now. I mean, obviously telling any jokes about the Twin Towers nowadays doesn’t seem right, but even remembering that we used to make jokes feels funny, like we did something bad retroactively or something. Its weird, I almost feel guilty about it.”

“Yes,” I said. I knew just what she was talking about. “I think we all carry around much more baggage around that event and our relationship with those buildings in general than we’d ever want to admit or even conceive of,” I said.

“For example, I’ll give you one,” I continued. “I can remember years ago being in the back of a friend’s car driving into the city from Jersey as her father was telling me how there were no Twin Towers when he was a kid. And when I heard him say that, I stared out at them and tried to picture what it would be like if they weren’t there. I shudder when I think about that now, it just freaks me out. And I swear, its like I’m almost afraid to even put words to it, to say it out loud. Somewhere in my head I seem to think that it never actually happened if I don’t speak of it. “

She nodded. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked me.

“Of course,” I answered.

“I mean, its weird and messed up. I feel like I’m just crazy or this was just some crazy thing that happened in my head, but I really just need to tell somebody and you’re good with crazy stuff.” She looked at me for affirmation and I nodded.

She took a deep breath. “Okay. So, a few years ago I was having a cavity filled, and I should preface this by saying that I hadn’t gotten any work done on my teeth since before 9/11. But I’m in the chair, and as the dentist started to drill, all of a sudden the smell just jolted something seriously deep and I suddenly started panicking and remembering the towers and the aftermath in this vivid and intense way that felt like I was on psychedelics or something. Its like it was right there for a moment, it was real and in front of me again. I had to get the dentist to stop, and it took me a while to calm down after that.”

I nodded vigorously and I told her about my experience with the antler and the dremel. “It was one quick and hardcore lesson in how deeply scent and trauma are linked in the brain, and the degree to which trauma is retained long after you think you’ve gotten over it,” I said to her. “It felt like an out-of-body experience, like I had completely lost control.”

Her expression suddenly turned to sadness. “There was a part of that experience, the part where your stomach clenches so tight you think you’ll choke…. I’ll tell ya, sometimes that happens to me for absolutely no reason at the most innocent times. Like last week, I was lying on my back in the park and there was something about the color of the sky that just threw my stomach in knots. It was that same blue, something about that shade…”

“I mean, listen to me,” she continued after a moment. “ Fear of a blue sky? It’s just absurd. But its also very real and I don’t know if I’ll ever rid myself of it.”

I just stared at her for a moment. as not only did her experiences so precisely mirror my own, but she had the courage to vocalize something that I couldn’t ever bear to acknowledge to myself up until that moment.

“Yes, the fear of a blue sky,” I said after a while. “It’s very real indeed.”

Author’s Note: Minor details were changed for privacy reasons.

*   *   *

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

Send to Kindle

In December 2014, a new website was launched to promote active religious learning and to act as a storehouse for primary religious text and information. The site, called Deily.org, is the brain-child of Shawn Bose and Justin Halloran, two Austin-based entrepreneurs with experience in tech media. In recent months, the site has expanded its content to include “Paganism.”

The site’s name “Deily” is a play on two words – daily and the “latin world “dei, of a/the god or the nominative plural – the gods.” As is explained, Deily’s mission is “to host an online community, where members share and leave their understanding of religious content, that you will participate in every day.”

logo
In January 2015, Halloran and Bose were interviewed by The Washington Post and, in that article the co-owners offered a bit of background on the project. Bose said:

For many people, their religious experience has become passive. They go to church, temple, synagogue, listen to a sermon, digest and leave. It’s one-way. We wanted to let people engage with content. How can a community come together to explain things to one another? This way they can deepen their faith or understanding. . . .

At the time of that interview, the majority of the published material was on Christianity, and three of its four most popular posts were Christian prayers. The fourth was a piece from the Quran.

However, as the months past, Deily increased its population of non-Christian material. The site now lists searches for Buddhism, Hinduism, Islamic, Judaism “and more.” As Bose told The Wild Hunt, they have recently been expanding into Paganism. Korin Robinson, an elder of the Ancient Celtic Rite tradition and a training priestess of Greenwood Covenstead, has been assisting with this expansion. The site now lists Wicca and Paganism. However, a simple content search demonstrates that the site is also gathering pieces on various Heathen and Polytheist practices.

As explained in both the Washington Post interview and in our email conversation with Bose, the site’s content is purely user driven, similar to YouTube and many other social media sites. Bose explained, “It’s a community-managed marketplace. We have no agenda of our own; there’s no invisible hand. We just say the content has to be about religion, not intolerant, not hateful, and we allow for the community to flag anything that’s inappropriate.” He added that they are forming an advisory board to manage any problems.

And, as issues with Facebook, Instagram and Etsy have recently proven, problems do arise in a purely user-based content model. In fact, one just did. It has come to the attention of several Pagan media outlets and writers that Deily was hosting their written material without any permission, unattributed and unlinked. The work was lifted from Patheos Pagan Channel, Polytheist.com and The Wild Hunt, to name a few.

In reaction, director of Polytheist.com Anomalous Thracian said:

Morpheus Ravenna, co-founding priest of the Coru Cathubodua and author of “Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods,” contacted me today to alert me that this piece of writing — which is published exclusively on Polytheist.com — has been copied over and appears without attribution to the site, at Deily. This is definite violation of Polytheist.com‘s stated and visible policies, of US copyright law, and — apparently — of Deily’s own policies …

Polytheist.com is a small and intentionally slow-growing platform for polytheistic voices, owned and operated by Polytheists in service and trust to the greater intersection of polytheistic religions and advocate. As marginalized religious groups facing at times aggressive erasure, a violation of this sort does little to help the development of safe visibility and open engagement in our world, of the sort that all religious groups should be expected to receive. Responsible and respectful treatment of copyrighted material is paramount to the continued developments of the sorts of religious dialog and interfaith trust that will be needed to preserve these — and any — religious traditions in the future.

Thracian’s own essay, The Polytheist Primer, which was originally written and published exclusively for The Wild Hunt, was also copied to Deily without attribution or permission.

In response to the issue, Bose said that Deily’s official “policy asks [users] to properly cite content and not to post copyrighted materials.” The policy itself is stated on the site’s “terms page.” It reads, in part, users “will not infringe any third party’s intellectual property rights including but not limited to copyright, patent or trademark rights.”

Several writers have reached out to the company in order to correct the problem, and it does appear that Deily is very willing to make these corrections. A number of the Patheos Pagan Channel articles, which were not attributed yesterday, now do have appropriate bylines (i.e., For “Deep Well: Great Heart Society” by Jenya T. Beachy; “Beyond Female Role Models: The Triple Goddess as Nature” by John Halstead). However, there are still many works, originating from multiple sites, that have not yet been fixed.

Unfortunately, due to the user-based model, this copyright infringement problem may be on-going for Deily, who makes it a point to note that it’s staff does not routinely monitor content. As with YouTube and the like, Deily must rely on its audience to identify problems. As Bose said, “We allow for the community to flag anything that’s inappropriate.” Unfortunately, copyright infringement and plagiarism are rampant in the digital media world. Copy, Cut and Paste is all it takes.

Because Deily.org is new and the team, as Bose said, is small, it is just beginning to run into copyright and other problems that typically plague these user-based content sites. As content and use increases, Deily will eventually have to develop a strong watchdog system.

RELIGIONES

[From Wikimedia Commons]


Interestingly, Deily doesn’t only see itself as a collector and curator of religious content. Within the internet startup world, one of the first big questions for any new company is “How are you going to monetize the site.” While Deily formed with investment money “well over seven figures,” its answer to this fiscal sustainability question is crowd-funding. Deily users can create profiles for their chosen nonprofit religious organizations (church, academic institution, temple, community group etc) and, then anyone in the Deily community can choose to donate, through the site, to that organization. The catch? Deily takes 10 percent of all donations.

At the present time, Deily is running a special “Deily Donates” campaign, in which the site matches user donations in several ways. First, for every new member that a current user signs up, their chosen organization receives $10.00. It is a win for Deily, as they build an audience, and it’s a win for the religious organization in donations. As of now, Cherry Hill Seminary and Circle Sanctuary are both listed on the site and have received donations. Through the current “Deily Donates” campaign, the first five organizations to reach the $2000 donation point will also receive a matched donation from Deily.org.

There are a number of Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist groups of interest already listed. This includes Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC), CUUPS, Pagan Educational Network, Ardantane Learning Center, Asterflag, several local Pagan churches (i.e., Richmond Urban Pagan Church), event-based organizations (i.e., Phoenix Pagan Pride), clergy organizations (i.e., Maine Pagan Clergy Association) and other local groups (i.e., Spokane Pagan Alliance).

It remains to be seen how Deily develops or is used by the collective Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist communities. In August, the site entered a partnership with Patheos.com. There is now a Patheos Deily Channel that publishes select content from Deily. In addition, the new site “powers” Patheos’ new “Ask an Expert” blog.

As the Deily grows its content, there will certainly be tech-based and copyright issues to resolve as is typically the case in any user-based platform. However, The Washington Post article touches on two others issues that might plague this particular site, especially as it now builds its Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist content. Halloran and Bose have both said that Deily’s content should focus on religious source material, primary sacred texts and related discussions with limited moderation. How do they define and determine sacred texts and source material for the incredible diversity of world religious practices?  Additionally, as a user-driven platform, how will they negotiate and police what is flagged inappropriate. One person’s inappropriate can be another person’s divine. Where or how will those lines be drawn?

Only time will tell as the site continues to grow.

 

Send to Kindle

ORANGE, Conn. — Harvest Gathering is not the only Pagan festival to welcome participants home upon arrival, but its staff put a lot of energy into the idea. The theme came up again and again over the course of the four-day event, and it was evident in the increasing spring in the step of many an attendee. How many harvest events open the first feast to all comers, whether or not they paid for the meal plan? This one does, and it not only helped this first-timer feel welcome, it set the tone of “harvest event” from the outset.

Perhaps Harvest Gathering had exactly the right number of people in attendance, at 163, which is right around Dunbar’s number. Maybe it was the weather, which fell short of oppressively hot thanks to the trees and only smelled of rain once. Or it could have been the “astral car wash” upon entry, where bewinged organizer Gina Grasso smudged my Volkwagen Beetle, Bucephalus, and all that was within. Whatever combination of people, place, and things that contributed to it, Harvest Gathering resonated a warm, welcoming magic that made the best moments more intense, and the inconveniences nearly unnoticeable. (An event at a campground, even one with some amenities, will always require participants to face insects, weather, and walking to a greater degree than modern life generally prepares us for. Inconveniences come with the territory.)

2015-08-13 21.32.48

[Photo: T. Ward]


This is an event with a strong, unapologetic witchy feel. It permeated the rituals, the workshops, the energy of the newly-reconstructed fire circle, and the kinds of vendors who hawked their wares. The depth of that witchiness was hinted at in the workshop schedule itself. For one program slot, both Ronald Hutton and Raven Grimassi were presenting.

However, Harvest Gathering is not an exclusively Wiccan event, and there were rituals and workshops alike which came from very different traditions. The sense of welcome was in no way diminished for those who followed other paths. Those who ran the event walked the walk that matched their talk in an authentic way.

The spirit of community and authenticity could be seen in multiple ways. This was the first year that recycling was implemented for the festival, and it seemed to be a rousing success. With no existing infrastructure, event staff organized the source separation of garbage from recyclable materials, and reusable wine and mead bottles from that. Brewers were invited to collect the bottles from the latter supply, and all attendees were asked to take bags of material home. People recycled with gusto, ensuring that the experiment would continue in future years. At another point, a piece of glass caught my eye on the trail. I stooped to pick it up, and as I rose I saw two people who had been walking ahead of me each bend down to pick up a piece of trash.

One morning I found myself, not surprisingly, gathered around the coffee urn with other devotees of Caffeina. One of these early risers was expressing a longing for more advanced material than is generally found in books on Pagan religions. She found that the ADF curriculum was sufficiently challenging for her intellect, but nearly insurmountable for her pantheist worldview. It turned my own experience on its head, and reminded me that all Pagan religions still have much to learn from one another, despite differences in theology.

Such was the nature of this festival. I found myself hanging on the words of an esteemed scholar one afternoon, and a few hours later having a serious discussion with a ten-year-old boy about the types of spirits he’d encountered in his life. Anyone could, and did, strike up a conversation with anyone.

Classes with class

Faced with the impossible choice of attending a workshop with Hutton or one with Grimassi, I hedged my bets by choosing the third option, a seidh ritual by Patricia Lafayllve. References to this trance practice are scant in the historic record, and Lafayllve explained that absent a clear idea of what the Norse people actually did, she incorporates aspects of her shamanic training to fill in the gaps and perform oracular work. This session proved to be both workshop and ritual, with Lafayllve giving a history of seidh as it is known and a play-by-play of what she and her assistant would be doing during the rite before beginning.

I attended the Grimassi class called The Cord of Greenwood Magic & Working with Plant Spirits.It was a workshop in the truest sense as attendees crafted a magical tool and were instructed how to use it. Research into the consciousness of plants “is not particularly good news if you’re a vegetarian,” explained Raven Grimassi as Stephanie Taylor-Grimassi cut and handed out cords for the work. “We use ourselves for a model of reality,” including an assumption that a being must have a brain and central nervous system to feel and be aware. Studies measuring plants hooked up to lie detectors and other instruments suggest that they are aware of harm on some level, and work to counteract it. In step with that emerging science, the Grimassis helped their students knot magical intention into that cord, to tie it into the life cycle of plants, and then used those new talismans to connect with the spirit of a particular plant known for its spiritual aspects.

Hutton was the talk of the festival in his tweed jacket, but he did strip to just his waist coat in the 90-degree heat of the day. However, summer in New England was not enough to keep him from donning his tweed cap to guard against the sun. He explained that he had grown up in British-colonized India and was, as a result, quite used to the heat. The temperature dropped noticeably after sunset, so perhaps he felt more secure keeping his jacket near to hand.

2015-08-15 18.06.15

Cori Taylor and Ronald Hutton [Photo: T. Ward]

One of the professor’s lectures, The Return of the Horned God, drew heavily upon material from his book, Triumph of the Moon, which sets out the very real historic roots of Wicca. While these are not as tidy as the mythic tales of an unbroken tradition, they are nevertheless deep and genuine. Hutton traced the interest in a horned god in Europe from rumblings in the Romantic era to the resurgence of Pan as the quintessential nature god, only to have the focus shift by the 1940s to a celebration of Cernunnos. The popularity of Pan among European thinkers of the Victorian period came in part from the convenient double nature of his name, which also means “all” in Greek, making it possible for “pantheism to become Pan-theism,” in Hutton’s words. Those sorts of accidents, choosing a rustic Arcadian deity to stand in for all male divinity while at the same time forgetting the hundreds of local gods whose shrines dot the British landscape, Hutton suggestion may itself show the hands of the gods. “These are the names that destiny, or the gods themselves, decided we should have,” he said.

Rich in Ritual

Friday and Saturday nights each featured rituals, which were quite different but not entirely so. The Novices of the Old Ways led the Well, the Forge, the Song, which explored three aspects of Brigid as healer, empowerment, and inspiration. The following night was Awaken the Warrior, organized by Stephanie Woodfield and a group of Celtic practitioners. How these groups set sacred space, invited in the presence of deity, and confronted participants with lessons was very different, as different as Brigid is from Macha and the Morrigan, whom the latter ritual was focused upon. As they both drew upon Celtic tradition and lore, the underlying power felt in some ways the same: many people were bowled over by the force of emotion during each ritual.

The fire circle which was focus of much of the ritual work, as well as bardic and drum circles, was entirely rebuilt this year through the efforts of the community. Some $1,700 was collected to obtain and place stout sitting logs, dancing-grade sand, and rocks to form a clear barrier between embers and bare feet. Fire tenders were vigilant in putting out stray sparks in the path of dancers, but their role was more than safety alone. The flames blazed purple, blue, and green under the ministrations as shining bodies danced to the beat of tireless drummers.

Space for Self

Many festivals and conferences are moving toward larger periods of time between class sessions, and Harvest Gathering is no exception. Not every morning was an early one, and there was sufficient time to walk from building to building, even with a pause to visit the flushing toilets. Plenty of people chose to forgo a session or two to make or reforge connections, so meal times were not the only opportunity to catch up with old friends. The roads looping around the camp property provided plenty of space for quiet walks in the woods, when that was what the spirit asked for.

Harvest Gathering is neither the largest nor smallest outdoor Pagan gathering I have attended. Likewise, I’ve been to events that are both newer and older. For me, it stands out by being one of the most sincerely magical events I’ve been to in 2015. The feeling I was left with was not dissimilar to how I feel after I pick up my weekly farm share: weighed down with bounty, and wondering how I can possibly consume it all.

Send to Kindle