All years are full of death, just as they are full of life. This year, however, seems particularly violent. Admittedly, this dark feeling is encouraged by the mainstream media, the alternative media, and social media. Even with that caveat, the past month has seen a heartbreaking tide of killing. Between June 12 and July 22, we collectively witnessed over 150 violent deaths: the Orlando nightclub shooting, the Dallas and Baton Rouge police shootings, the Nice and Munich attacks, and the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Of course, there were many, many other killings in the United States and around the world, but these are the ones that have dominated our national discussion. During the same period, more than 80 people were murdered here in Chicago. Although repeatedly referenced in arguments and memes, the names of the Chicago dead go unspoken as they are used in politicized one-upmanship. Even as we change our Facebook profile images to show solidarity with victims of one of the tragedies obsessively covered by the mass media, mass murders in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere continue to go unmentioned. Such are the workings of our collective consciousness.

I unequivocally condemn every one of these killings. They are all acts of terror and horror, and people of conscience should be mortified by each of these awful acts of violence. Depending on our politics, we blame some victims and lionize others, allowing our prejudices to parse which victims are more deserving of being honored. It is time to move beyond such narrow perspectives and recognize that each life snuffed out is an equal tragedy.

Sigmund’s Death by Johannes Gehrts (1885) [Public Domain]

The deceased themselves are no longer able to care what ideology or mental state lead to their death. Dead is dead. The question for the rest of us is whether we can find a response better than blaming entire religions, professions, races, or movements. Can we do something more productive than increasing the level of hate?

The time has come for those of us who practice a form of Ásatrú or Heathenry to ask what positive actions we can take in such a charged climate.

For many Heathens in the United States, a cornerstone of worldview is the declaration that “we are our deeds.” If this is to be more than a slogan, we should treat the killers in each of the tragedies equally and hold them accountable for their actions. Rather than focusing on the dead who can no longer speak for themselves, we can demand that the perpetrators be put on public trial and face a lawful reckoning. We can act like the Heathens of old, and insist on bringing the killers before the modern-day equivalents of the ancient Thing, the assembly where public judgments were rendered.

If we are our deeds, let us hold the doer of the deed publicly accountable rather than declaring him innocent without indictment or giving him the martyrdom he seeks by executing him in the street. We often hear the refrain that the innocent have nothing to fear from the police. If that is so, then any officer who kills a citizen in the line of duty should have nothing to fear from a jury of citizens and should volunteer to be put on trial instead of asking his union to prevent legal proceedings. Rather than killing a mass killer on the spot or blowing up a shooter with a robot, let the professionals we employ with our tax dollars use their training to capture and bring killers to account.

Heathens often point to academic definitions that tag historical polytheism as “world-affirming” — in contrast to traditional Christianity, which is asserted to be “world-denying.” Are modern Heathens truly “world-affirming?” To be so means that we are active in the world, that we have a place in this world’s flow of events. Many of us are attracted to the history, legends, and sagas of the ancient Germanic tribes and peoples because of their wide-ranging travels and the determined spirit that led them to play major roles in the timelines of multiple world cultures and civilizations. If we consider ourselves the spiritual descendants of the ancient Heathens, how do we make our mark on the world of today? How do we involve ourselves in the great debates of the issues of our own time?

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World map from Nuremburg Chronicle (1493) [Public Domain]

Some Heathens insist that they are only interested in their own innangarð, focusing exclusively on the “inner yard” of their closest family and friends. As in the distant past, today the outside world forces itself into the inner one. Family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community are targeted for hate crimes by both Islamic extremists and those whose personal issues lead them to strike out in extreme acts of public violence. Our Black loved ones are disproportionately targeted by police officers who break their own rules of conduct. Right-acting police officers in our communities are gunned down, and their killers –- in both Dallas and Baton Rouge –- are damaged veterans of our nation’s military.

If we turn our backs on the world and pretend that nothing affects us or those we love, honoring the deeds of our literal and aspirational ancestors while performing blót and symbel, how are we different from Sunday Christians who only turn their thoughts to Christ while sitting in church pews?

If we truly believe that we are connected in a web of wyrd, we must acknowledge the length of the threads that bind us all. We are affected by the wyrd of the police officer shot by a sniper and by that of the unarmed Black man shot by a police officer. We are connected to the children driven down in Nice and to the club-goers massacred in Orlando. Rather than fanning the flames of division, can we agree that all who commit these acts should be held accountable in courts of law, rather than crucified in the court of public opinion or gunned down in primitive street justice?

By putting the perpetrators on trial, we can distinguish between the lone gunman and the agent, between the disturbed and the driven. Maybe this can prevent us from tarring an entire community with the deeds of one violent person. By refusing to even indict officers who shoot unarmed Black children, we encourage conspiracy theories suggesting all police departments are filled with white supremacists. By executing mass shooters in the street rather than prosecuting them, we enable the hateful to draw connections to racial, ethnic, and religious communities where there may be none.

As members of a much-misunderstood minority religion, these issues are of primary concern to us. The targeting of specific groups and the slandering of their reputation is something with which we can deeply empathize. As individual Heathens, we are often tarred with the deeds of the most extreme who claim a connection to our tradition, and even the deeds of those who are only connected to our religion by unprofessional journalists who refuse to perform due diligence.

Shortly after the shooting of the Dallas police officers, The Huffington Post accused one of the victims of being a white supremacist and connected him to Ásatrú – even while acknowledging that he was a Christian. The accusation was based solely on the “research” of “a band of international internet sleuths;” in actuality, on a meme and a blog post by “Johnny Islamabad.”

Quoting the same old quotes from the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center that are trotted out every time a Thor’s hammer is mentioned by the press, The Huffington Post states that “Asatrú” symbols are not “inherently racist” while still insisting that “Asatrú beliefs appeal to white supremacists.” No parallel assertion is made for the appeal of the officer’s Baptist beliefs to violent racists.

Thor’s hammer pendant from Sweden, c. 1000 [Public Domain]

When practitioners of Ásatrú or Heathenry complain to writers and editors about this sort of meme-based and poorly sourced journalism, their concerns are laughed off or ignored. For Heathens who neither deny their religious beliefs publicly nor cover them with assumed Icelandic-styled pseudonyms, articles like this have serious consequences: no matter how derivative or poorly written they are. In our private and professional lives, we are faced with people who only know of our religion through this sort of journalism. They assume that we share views of the most extreme fringe, or they are at least suspicious that we harbor unsavory notions.

We can pretend that this doesn’t matter, or that we are “tough guys” who care little for the opinions of others. However, these types of media-driven assumptions can have serious repercussions that affect our ability to earn a living or make us targets for various stripes of bigot.

In such a climate, how can we not support others who are suffering the same slanders? We can say that we do not stand up for Black lives, because we are not Black. But when they come for us, who will be left to speak for us? If we don’t want our own rights taken away, we must stand up for the rights of others.

We often speak of the ancient Heathens who faced violent conversion from overbearing rulers in Scandinavia and continental Europe. We puff out our chests and fantasize about how we would have acted if we lived then. We place great emphasis on the keeping of oaths. Shouldn’t we stand today against the oath-breakers among the police who abuse their power to terrorize, torture, and kill our fellow citizens? Shouldn’t we stand with the honorable members of the police departments, the Muslim community, the Black community, and the LGBTQ+ community against those in every community -– including our own -– who would harm us all?

There is much that we can do. Heathens of positive intent can push back against horrifying acts of violence, engage with the larger world, take part in the dialogue of our times, and help Heathens themselves overcome the slander of our own tradition. This is a question of individual conscience and local community initiative, but there are many actions that we all can take.

Volunteer and vote for candidates who stand against hate aimed at any community. Openly challenge friends and family (online and in real life) who promote prejudice. Contact the media and push back against biased reporting. Call your representatives and tell them you want them to fight against hate. Get to know your local police officers and support the ones who publicly speak out. Support minority communities in your area and take part in their protests. Join interfaith organizations. Work to make your own Heathen group welcoming to practitioners from all generations, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities.

Or, you can welcome the current climate of hate, deny the world, draw lines of separation between people, and retreat into a monochrome practice that excludes anyone who isn’t exactly like you. But then you must ask what your deeds make you.

Every community has common stories, images, histories, and practices that help to shape and define a narrative. This very narrative can serve as a thread of culture and togetherness among the community, yet it can also serve as a gatekeeper that restricts change or expansion. This intricate dance exists within every group, society, and even within modern Paganism and Polytheist communities.

[Pixabay, Public Domain]

[Pixabay, Public Domain]

Shared narratives help to define what becomes the status quo, even among smaller subset groups and cultures. The default beliefs and practices often shape how we relate with one another, what becomes acceptable, and what is expected within a given space, community or interaction. Not everyone is fond of pushing against the boundaries of the status quo, it often rubs against our understanding of the world, and it challenges our relationship with change, empathy and cultural sensitivity.

In his piece titled Changing Stories: Using narrative to shift societal values, Jonathan Dawson speaks to the power of the narrative. He writes:

There has, in recent years, been a growing recognition of the power of story to frame how we understand the world around us and our place within it. By ‘story’ in this context, I refer to the grand societal narratives, those clusters of beliefs and cultural norms that give shape and meaning to the human cultures within which we live. In general, these stories are so deeply rooted and so thoroughly embedded within a society’s language, behavior patterns and rituals as to be all but imperceptible. They constitute the bedrock of beliefs that are widely, if generally unconsciously, accepted to be universally true, even though they tend in fact to represent a distinct break with the dominant societal stories of previous epochs.

How does the current narrative within our community support us, and how does it also limit our ability to see beyond the walls we use to contain us? Who is brought in and who is left out in our cultural narratives? Do our narratives keep us stuck and without the ability to grow magically or spiritually? Questions like this often open the doors for dialogue that can lead to an increased awareness and understanding of the way that our community engages internally, and within the world.

Understanding that challenging our narratives can lead to renewed possibilities and a deeper reflection of the many nuances within community can bring about a lot of personal and societal growth. This very concept is not a new one, and there are many people within the modern Pagan and Polytheistic communities, who are doing pushing against the many narratives that often go unchallenged.

This is critical and valuable work.

I reached out in three different directions to explore the radical and often difficult work of deconstructing the overculture of the Pagan community. There are so many depictions of the challenger’s work — too many to capture in any one piece. This notion leads me to consider the value of this as an ongoing discussion, which looks at the many ways that this work is being done by people within our community today.

For this piece I reached out to Lasara Firefox Allen, the Order of the Black Madonna, and the High Priestess Clio Ajana, to discuss how their work  challenges the very narratives that help to shape our shared story.

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Lasara, author and spiritual coach, is not new to Goddess’ work. Her latest book, Jailbreaking the Goddess: A Radical Revisioning of Feminist Spirituality, has generated some discussion that challenges the very narrative of the way that we view, engage, and represent the Goddess.

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Crystal Blanton: Your most recent work in Jailbreaking the Goddess approaches the Goddess in a radically different way than many previously accepted narratives within modern Paganism. What motivated you to approach the many forms of the Goddess within the framework that you did?

Lasara Firefox Allen: Coming from a strong feminist, anarchist, and somewhat anti-capitalist frame, I experienced the threefold model as both limiting and delegitimizing, in a sense. As women we have been told that our bodies are not our own. The threefold model, being based in biology, is rooted in our utility and productivity.

In addition, the strict binary, and how the threefold model is in a sense responsive to that, removes our agency.

I am a great believer in my politics and my spiritual systems lining up. I didn’t feel that alignment with the threefold model.

The fivefold model that I put forth in Jailbreaking the Goddess is fluid, flexible, self-defining, and offers the group for women to truly stand fully in our power, unto ourselves. Not merely as producers, not only as mother-in-potentia, but as whole and holy beings that are complete at every stage.

CB: The maiden, mother, crone archetypes often highlighted within modern Pagan circles have brought about dialogue of limiting the myriad of faces of the Goddess. This has been challenging for many women who do not see themselves within the faces of a fertility based system. How does your work challenge this narrative?

[Photo credit: Angela Greystar of Greystar Pictures]

Lasara Firefox Allen [Photo credit: Angela Greystar / Greystar Pictures]

LFA: The fivefold model, and the work of Jailbreaking the Goddess in total, recognizes the divine feminal in all. And it recognizes our process of creativity not singularly as the power of motherhood, but recognizes the divine power in all the ways we create, design, divine, play, love, destroy, teach, craft, compose, sing, dance, fuck, cry, cocreate, collaborate, weave, reap, plant, burn. It also acknowledges the child as a divine being – again, whole and holy unto Herself. And the Old woman.

The five faces are Femella, Potens, Creatrix, Spaientia, and Antiqua. The model can be viewed in the linear, but also has nonlinear application. We may exist in more than one of her faces at a time. We may experience ourselves in Potens in a new interest, while embodying Sapientia in our chosen vocation. We may experience both Femella and Antiqua in us as we sit with a dying parent.

The flexibility of this model really speaks to people – most of us don’t experience life progression in a strictly linear manner.

Many say that the threefold for them is metaphor – that motherhood can really be any kind of creation. Well, I think there is a great deal of value to be found in stepping into models that mean what we believe. I feel that the fivefold model offers this to those of us who have net felt seen or honored in the threefold model.

CB: How does challenging the narrative within your work enhance your personal spiritual path, and how does it support a change in the status quo of our spiritual community?

LFA: I believe it is time for us all to ask, “Is my spiritual system in integrity with my personal beliefs?” And if not, let’s create and recreate it in greater alignment. Does your spiritual system speak of power in a way consistent with your heart? Does it address matters of importance? Does your system allow you to align your personal values, spiritual values, and your acts in the world?

We have been making excuses for outmoded beliefs for too long. you see it in most faiths. Here’s the deal: we don’t need to settle for the inconsistencies.

Throughout Jailbreaking the Goddess I offer tools to create greater alignment. My hope is that each person who reads the book will come out of the experience with a sense of alignment that allows for grace, love, and power in her path.

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The Order of the Black Madonna has a radically different approach to Pagan space. The last two years of public ritual at PantheaCon have shown a diverse audience with very different concepts of Paganism, coming together to share devotion with the Sisters of the Order of the Black Madonna. While the order originated in the Bay Area, it has since grown to having members in all different areas of the United States.

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[Courtesy Photo]

There are answers from different people within the Order that show many commonalities and some differences in the diversity of thought. This alone challenges the idea of a static narrative.

Crystal Blanton: How does the Order challenge common narratives in Neo Paganism around inclusivity, gender, and devotion?

Sr Marie Courage: The Order of the Black Madonna was established to be a radically inclusive, feminized, social justice-oriented working group for people from all backgrounds to connect with the Dark Mothers in personally-relevant practices, to all experience the essential-but-not-essentialist meaning of spiritual sisterhood, and to make room for culturally-diverse ritual activities and discussions relevant to Goddess spirituality and peace through justice. Our workings in the name of the Dark Mothers are by and for the benefit of everyone.

Sister C: Most Pagans believe they’re inclusive and they wouldn’t intentionally discriminate against racial, ethnic or sexual minorities, or people who have a disability. But being inclusive is more than thinking you’re inclusive and saying you’re inclusive. Just as Paganism isn’t the norm, inclusivity is not the norm either. We have to continually educate ourselves, challenge ourselves, and actively work towards building inclusivity into our spaces.

Tradition is valuable, but traditions can also be oppressive. Pagans leave Christianity because of its patriarchal traditions. Why uphold Pagan traditions that are equally patriarchal and oppressive? The Order of the Black Madonna challenges male supremacy. It challenges White supremacy. It challenges Christian supremacy. We are racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse. We use inclusive language. We make space for members to use our own symbols and ceremonies. If Pagan groups want to be more inclusive, they should examine their theologies and practices.

Soeur Marie Verité: The Order of the Black Madonna challenges its members and ritual participants to see differences, not to ignore them; to acknowledge how our differences make us great as a culture and a society, and how celebrating differences and honoring the experiences and voices of those who are different from ourselves brings even greater strength to the community as a whole.

We do not exclude anyone based on race, gender expression or lack of gender expression, paths of devotion, or sexual preference; we emphasize and prioritize a culture of respect and consent; and we make space to allow all voices to be heard, especially the voices of marginalized groups who experience blockage, silencing, and exclusion elsewhere. We have created public rituals naming and honoring those who have been murdered by the dominant culture simply for being different; we have stood up together in public to call attention to these events and the systemic destruction of people of color, to say as loudly as we can, “We stand for unity and respect for all, especially the most vulnerable among us, because that’s what She would do, who is Mother of All.”

CB: The Order of the Black Madonna also includes many differing cultural expressions and a radical inclusion of diversity in its shared spaces. How does the Order navigate such shared space while leaving room for the complexity of varying cultural expressions without prioritizing dominant culture?

Sr Marie Courage: In the Order of the Black Madonna, because our members are culturally and ethnically diverse, we align our rituals and workings with some of these basic common denominators, and then invite each member to bring relevant personal practices of their own to the table. In any given ritual, we might involve a multiplicity of languages, cultural concepts, and activities, each represented by a member of the Order who is genuinely connected deeply to what they have brought either by blood or lengthy study. In this way, rather than conforming to a single common belief system, or appropriating belief systems with which we are unfamiliar, we can include numerous different belief systems with respect.

Sister Maria Socorro: The Order’s main priority is to make the world a more just place for those that have been trampled on by the dominant culture, so following that nature we would never prioritize dominant culture. We aim to hold a space that is sacred and all inclusive while not encroaching on cultural appropriation.

CB: Centering devotion for the infinite Blackness brings about many examples of challenging the framework of modern Paganism. How can the devotional space of the Black Madonna expand the (too often) Eurocentric narrative of deity within Pagan practices?

Sr Marie Courage: One of my favorite prayers found in modern Paganism is the Charge of the Star Goddess. I feel deeply the connection in my heart when I say the words, “I am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars.” However, the dominant narrative in the west is about Good Versus Bad, Light Versus Dark. So, although lots of Pagan groups do their work to explain that in Paganism, Dark is not seen as equivalent to Bad, there is nonetheless a really strong paradigm we are battling from the overculture.

The Order of the Black Madonna shifts our focus entirely away from the Eurocentric Light=Good, Dark=Bad paradigm by centering Darkness, specifically Blackness, as the Original Goodness, provider of all possible solutions to our own and society’s current problems, infinite in both compassion and capacity for creating transformation. This has scientific, mythic, and sympathetic implications.

Scientifically, The Black Madonna is the Blackness of space, the generative void beyond the sun, moon, and stars from which all arises and into which all dissolves. Mythically, she is the Black Earth which births us and shapes our flesh, and she is the dark space of creative power at the center of each being. Sympathetically, in the view of the Order, the Black Madonna is each and every woman of color, and we specifically make the effort to honor the rights, needs, and accomplishments of women of color in our ritual and service works.

Sister Maria Socorro: The Order aims to open the eyes of Pagans who have only followed Eurocentric paths, we create a space that is magically straightforward and understandable so that people can comprehend that even if they’re not POC they can still respect, adore, and access the Blackness that is ultimately the source of us all.

Soeur Marie Verité: The Order of the Black Madonna worships the Great Dark Mother at the center of all, in all Her enormous variety and forms that include but also range far beyond the boundaries of Europe. Our members currently worship Her in Her manifestations as a Buddhist goddess, a West African goddess, a Norse shamanic giantess, and the Catholic Theotokos and patron Saint of Poland, Mexican Holy Mother of the Dead, and Notre Dame de Sous-Terre.

We welcome and cherish Her priestesses who feel called to honor and worship Her within their indigenous traditions, and we welcome and respect all matriarchal expressions of deity as they appear in Pagan and non-Pagan practice. Presenting a vision of Her that is clearly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-layered, multi-storied, and multi-Ancestral, yet all functioning together in a harmonious dance to celebrate Her power and love, has and will hopefully continue to demonstrate in Pagan spaces that the Eurocentricity of too much modern Paganism is leaving out an enormous pathway of connection, understanding, and devotion that no longer needs to be.

Soeur Marie Intégrité: Devotional practice to the Black Madonna challenges the common Eurocentric deities within pagan practices: because she is the Mother of All, and images of the Black Madonna can be found in most cultures going back through history, I think that pagans can connect to a cultural representation of the Black Madonna that resonates with them.

Sister LH: One pernicious iteration of systemic racism lurks in the way black and dark are framed in the occult and New Age, that position darkness/blackness as inherently negative (ugly, violent, transgressive, etc). We talk about Black vs white magic, we praise the light and devalue darkness. At best, and I have heard this from all kinds of witches and have been shocked each time i do, the Dark is something which we must accept, to balance the goodness and light. This framing itself shows how deeply embedded this bias is rooted, in language, so deep that white magickians who absolutely consider themselves not racists, can perpetuate this really destructive polar binary hegemony without knowing it.

Sister LMR: One of my favorite prayers is the Charge of the Dark Goddess. One of the most moving passages there for me is “when you gaze into the mirrored abyss, I am there”. The New Age fear and negation of all things dark shows up in our mundane lives as well. Darkness and blackness is feared in our society, and people are dying due to this fear. When we do not actively acknowledge our shadow, it begins to run the show. Confronting our wounds, our prejudices, our privileges is essential to our growth as individuals, to the Order as a whole, and to society at large. Knowing that She is there in the deep blackness, that She is that deep blackness, makes it possible for us to explore the side of our psyche that is often dismissed and discounted.

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As a Black woman that is a High Priestess of a Hellenic tradition, Clio Ajana embodies the very spirit of challenging the common narrative of the Eurocentric framework within Pagan leadership.

Clio Ajana

Clio Ajana

Crystal Blanton: How do you feel that being your whole self within Pagan leadership brings a newness that expands previous limitations in our community culture?

Clio Anja: As a Seeker in 2004, I saw few persons of color, maybe five in my first year or so. I did not think about leadership as I found only one person who was in a leadership position, and that was after two years of active involvement in the community.  I felt then, and on occasion now, as though I was the “near-invisible” person who might not be the traditional “face” of a typical Pagan.

I am a lesbian and in a tradition that is very pro-LGBTQIA oriented. When I first came to the community, I got the sense that I would have to hide or compromise my sexuality (since I could not hide my skin color) in order to fit in with any particular group. Unfortunately, previous limitations in our community culture have included those who are LGBTQIA, less physically able, geographically-challenged, non-white, or just not practicing according one’s culture of origin. If I see someone now, my personal goal is to encourage folks to embrace the tradition or path of their choice, regardless of perceived limitations in larger Paganism. Being my whole self means that if someone like me were to come along now, in 2016, that person would feel more comfortable knowing that there is a place at the table.

Now, I can lead ritual, teach classes, give back to the community through public discussions or working with those who confined in some way. Visibly, every time I show up to give a talk or to act as a high priestess, there is both surprise and gradual acceptance that a large, black woman is embracing Modern Paganism with such fervor.

The more Pagans see others who do not fit the image of a white female or male practitioner of traditional Wicca, which remains the more commonly-advertised narrative, the more they are seeing that Modern Paganism is moving away from stereotypes that have restricted or even repelled those who might consider practicing or joining a religion under the Pagan umbrella. Being my whole self means that others who are coming along will see that yes, you can embrace your culture while being a Pagan leader.

CB: How do you feel your spiritual and community work stretches our common expectation of what the average practitioner within Modern Paganism looks is like?”

CA: Again, it comes to appearance and the expectation that if you are X, you will follow Y tradition; if you are a Pagan, you must look like A, dress like B, and engage in activities C, D, and E. Through leading and appearing at public ritual, I am a clear statement that not all average practitioners are white, Eurocentric, and from a certain background. I also have done community work where I was very well received, but tested at first for skills.

Early on, I was a participant and leader at rituals where someone has walked past me to one of my fellow practitioners to ask questions, even though I was clearly a part of the ritual. I’ve also been in spaces where the presumption was that I only practiced African tradition, since I am black. Over the years, by doing the work, others see that those who identify as practitioner are more than just those who are hiding in the shadows. We are open, we are out, and we render service to let others know that they are welcome.

In a few decades, I sincerely hope that the common expectation is that the “average” practitioner has no stereotypical appearance or particular path. We need those who are willing to serve as chaplains, as clergy, for the community at large. We won’t get them if our expectation remain small.

CB: How do you feel that challenging the narrative empowers people magically and spiritually?”

CA: The narrative can only be changed when those who don’t fit the “norm” are willing to stand up and be counted.  Magically, we grow as individuals and as a community when all who are within dig deep to practice the traditions we are fighting so hard to keep and to maintain. Our spirituality grows from sharing with others, interacting with public ritual and in the circles, groves, blots, and rituals that Pagans maintain throughout the year.

Challenging the narrative permits a larger use of cultural background to broaden the horizon of what can be done regardless of skin color.  As persons of color, we draw from the ancestors, from a variety of traditions, and a core of strength. I like to think of it as a residue left from how my ancestors were treated – to survive, we had to have strength. As a practitioner of color, regardless of tradition practiced, I feel all gain empowerment with the gods and in religious devotion.

Magic, Witchcraft, Conjure and Rootwork has always been a way that we privately and collectively challenge the status quo. Embracing and working from a different perspective than the mainstream religious framework has helped to shape the common narrative of Modern Paganism. The story of any community can be a very powerful thing, contributing to the ways that we create, interpret, inherit and apply our spirituality within our lives.

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While a cultural foundation can be created on ideals that challenge acceptable greater societal norms, challenging those very structures can open up the many areas of growth and opportunities. When communities become more invested in ideals that reinforce comfort than pushing against those stories as a means to explore our understanding, we limit our ability to grow beyond the boxes we create.

People are doing amazing work to challenge and reconstruct some of the narratives of our modern Pagan status quo. Pushing against the walls of our static stories can breed possibilities and great spiritual opportunities.  

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This column was made possible by the generous support of the members of Come As You Are (CAYA) Coven, an eclectic, open, drop-in Pagan community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

BARRIE, Ont. – Organizers of PaganFest, an annual event established in 2008, announced the winners of the Canadian Pagan Hero Awards last weekend. PaganFest, along with S.E.E.D Fest and Muse Fest, are organized by the registered non-profit organization Canadian Pagan Spiritualists.  The three festivals are hosted on seven acres of land owned by festival host and sponsor Earth and Sky Connection, a metaphysical medicine retail store.

paganfest

For this years event, organizer Tamare White-Wolf decided to hold the awards as a way to fight back against the negativity that she has been witnessing. In an email exchange with The Wild Hunt, White-Wolf described her inspiration. She said:

Honestly, what motivated this was our sick society’s way of finding flaw in others. We need to stop spreading gossip, nick picking, over analyzing, being overly critical and shoving our expectations and hidden agendas onto others. We have overall allowed ourselves to align with some very negative mean spirited ways.

As Pagans who expect others to not judge them, to allow space for uniqueness, for differences of opinion, we expect or at the very least want to be accepted as we are. We don’t want to be defined, we don’t want to have to align with what doesn’t feel right … Yet I have witnessed them/us do exactly what we have been fighting against, the very thing we stand in our truth firmly about. They/we are guilty of it. (This) has to change. I hashtagged #SpreadGoodness instead of saying stop your gossiping and constant hypocrisy. I was inspired to take a proactive and positive approach to help turn the wheel.

Community members were encouraged to nominate individuals who they felt stood out as a “hero.”  All nominees received a Nomination Award, and a thank you gift, for their “dedication to the old ways and persistent will to help others.” The gifts, were donated by local community members, and the display table holding them was “breathtaking to see,” according to White-Wolf.

The nominees for the Canadian Pagan Hero Awards

The nominees for the Canadian Pagan Hero Awards

The nominees were divided into three categories:

  1. Super Heroes: These are the people serving as police officers, nurses or doctors, volunteers, and any others who selflessly serve the community for the benefit of others.
  2. Honour Roll: These are people who have publicly advocated for the community and given freely of their time and energy teaching Pagan ways. They have have volunteered their time for a spiritual cause.
  3. Pagan Performing Artists: These are members of the community who utilize the Muses to portray their personal love and beliefs regarding the earth and the old ways.

The response was overwhelming, as almost sixty nominations came pouring in. Instead of voting to decide which of the nominees would receive the awards, community members at PaganFest decided instead to pull names from a hat, as it was proving to be difficult to choose between so many dedicated and worthy candidates.

The winners were announced from the stage by White-Wolf, with assistance from a one-year-old girl, who toddled up to hug her as she was announcing the nominees.

White-Wolf explained why she feels that it is so important to acknowledge the “Heroes” in Pagan communities:

I think there are so many unsung Heroes, we need to acknowledge before they are dead. Society seldom acknowledges it’s Heroes. I see the bigger picture – just imagine the inspiration infused when someone has been honoured and appreciated while they still live and breathe. That fuel may source a revolutionary discovery or heal a nation or drive a message home that changes the world for better, forever! We as a society need to change our ways. This is my little secret plan to heal the world of Pagans. These awards, I hope, will help

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Super Hero Winner Kim Morgan [Courtesy Photo]

Kim Morgan, a youth services officer, ordained minister and Pagan priestess, took home the award for “Super Hero.” She was surprised to be recognized in this way for her work.  She said:

Wow! Thanks to Tamare for starting this award. I was amazed and honored that I’d been nominated. I’m even more humbled to have been selected as a hero. I do what I do to give back to the community and to honor the memory of a great woman who was my coven sister, Dana Rondeau. I’m so humbled that I was chosen and thank all the people that voted for me. I also challenge everyone to be the change in the world you want to see.

The winner in the Honour Roll category was Laurie Benson, a Green Witch who has shared her talents as an herbalist, presenting workshops and herb walks at festivals and events far and wide:

Honour Roll winner Laurie Benson

Honour Roll winner Laurie Benson [Courtesy Photo]

I am certainly honoured and very surprised about being nominated and then actually winning the Honour Roll of “Canadian Pagan Heroes” out of 60 fabulous nominations. I have been around the festivals of Ontario for over 30 years (and Starwood when it was in New York) and have volunteered and been on staff at all of them, so I guess a lot of people know me!

This past weekend I was at my own festival, “Wild Wisdom Weekend” where ideas are passed from the older generations to the younger ones, so couldn’t attend Paganfest. I will get there soon though, as well as some of the other gatherings that are held there and are growing up around the province. My children were brought up at festivals and are now on staff, as well – pass it on!

The Pagan Performing Artist award went to Joshua Doerksen, a music producer, composer and performer from Toronto. Doerksen has created many original and heartfelt musical experiences, which he freely shares, far and wide. He could not be reached for comment at press time.

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Performing Arts Winner Joshua Doerksen [Public Facebook photo]

In addition to the Canadian Pagan Heroes awards, PaganFest also featured camping, workshops, music, rituals, vending and a potluck feast. The keynote speaker was herbalist and wise-woman Susun Weed, and the featured stage show was a concert by local favourites and Canada’s hottest Pagan music export, the Dragon Ritual Drummers. Witchdoctor Utu and members of the Dragon Ritual Drummers also hosted a Voodoo ceremony for festival goers on the Friday night.

Despite being called the “Canadian Pagan Hero Awards,” nominees only represented the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Organizers hope to reach farther, next time. They have yet to determine if the awards will become an annual part of the festival, but White-Wolf said that they are considering holding them every three years, so as not to saturate people, and to allow for up-and-coming heroes to be known.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Last week, religious rights activist David Suhor delivered an invocation before the Pensacola city council. It wasn’t the first time that he had successfully lobbied for the right to give an opening prayer before a local governmental body. However, doing so as a member of The Satanic Temple resulted in much more attention than when Suhor offered a specifically Pagan prayer before the Escambia County commission in 2014. While only one commissioner left the room during the 2014 prayer, his recent appearance before the city council was greeted by dozens of Christians seeking to drown him out.

When Suhor rose to deliver the invocation, dressed in a black robe with a hood partially obscuring his face, many of the attendees rose along with him. It was not their intention, however, to join their voices in with his Satanic prayer. They stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer, while some of their number brandished crosses and apparently sought to cast out demons. After the protesters began their third recitation of the Christian prayer, council president Charles Bare was forced to order the room cleared.

[Video Still from July 14 Pensacola City Council Meeting]

[Video Still from July 14 Pensacola City Council Meeting]

The decision was faced with objections by people who knew that Suhor himself had recited his own prayer during the delivery of the invocation at the previous meeting, which had been called to specifically discuss whether prayers should be replaced with moments of silence. The first twelve minutes of the official video show the entire series of events as they unfolded, including how the fervor spilled over into the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“My approach in the beginning was to get invocations dropped” from the meetings, Suhor told The Wild Hunt, but those efforts led to no changes. Now, he said, “I am demanding radical inclusion.”

That shift was in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v Galloway, which rather than eliminating prayers from public meetings, required that members of all religions be given the opportunity. In addition to the prayer he offered before the county commissioners meeting, he has also tried to get on the agenda of the Escambia County School Board and the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, but was unsuccessful.

According to Suhor, “We meet all the requirements of all the boards, which are none.” He also noted that, because they are not legislative bodies, neither the school nor utility board is allowed to include prayer under the Galloway decision.

Suhor said that he still identifies as Pagan despite having joined The Satanic Temple (TST), and doesn’t find anything contradictory about that fact. He also continues to use the term “agnostic” to describe himself, but does not consider himself an atheist.

He said, “I can identify with ten different paths, and reject all religions that say you can have only one. I explore many faiths.”

He still enjoys Pagan rituals, he explained, because of the “strong spiritual component.” However, he finds nothing in the seven tenets of The Satanic Temple that makes him uncomfortable. On a pragmatic level, joining TST opened his and mind to finding allies. He said, it “helped us up our game. […] No one seemed to care when I did Pagan, pantheist, or agnostic invocations, but when name Satan and they care about the issue.”

Suhor has shown consistency about that position over time; during his 2014 interview with The Wild Hunt, he was already considering invoking Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to get the issue taken seriously.

None of the four elected boards has a written policy to ensure non-discrimination, he said. This leaves members to practice what he calls an “appeasement policy,” only allowing prayers from individuals who won’t upset the Christian majority in the area. “They give the veneer of inclusion,” he said, but only just barely.

He recalled one school board meeting that he attended on the issue during which the invocation was provided by a local rabbi. The board member who invited him specifically said it was for the cause of diversity. “That poor rabbi thought he was being honored,” Suhor observed, but was actually being used to advance “tokenism.”

Bayview cross [David Suhor]

Bayview cross [Photo Credit: David Suhor]

This is not the only way in which Suhor has expressed dissatisfaction with what he sees as unapologetic Christian privilege in his part of Florida. He is also one of several local residents suing to get the Bayview cross removed from public property.

Named for the public park in which it stands, the 20-foot-high cross is a gathering place every Easter Sunday. After determining that no one had ever obtained a permit for the gathering, Suhor himself applied for and received one for this year, but the day was rained out. Both the lawsuit — which is being advanced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association — and the permit move are about opposing the tacit governmental endorsement of one religion.

In truth, Suhor seems satisfied that his invocation was delayed and constrained and otherwise opposed. City council members opted to leave his scheduled invocation on the schedule, choosing to “grin and bear” the Satanic blessing and hoping the issue would then go away. However, a press release made sure that local reporters were following the debate leading up to the July 14 meeting very closely.

It is not clear if Suhor’s latest invocation received more scrutiny because it carried the name Satan, as he believes, or because The Satanic Temple is more media-savvy than most Pagans. Suhor is a co-founder of the West Florida chapter of TST, and while he’s careful not to say that he speaks for the organization, he acknowledges that he has assumed the de facto role of public face for the group. Membership is growing, he added.

While city council members may not have been prepared for the furor resulting from the request to perform the invocation, Suhor did prepare for the possibility. He recorded a video of the prayer he sang, complete with hand motions, in case it was difficult to follow along at the meeting. That video is below.

“It’s been a great journey, but all things have a life cycle. It is time for us to let you all know that Emerald Rose has decided to retire as a band after the end of this year.” – Arthur Hinds, July 16

ATLANTA, Ga. – On July 16  Arthur Hinds, singer and songwriter for the popular band Emerald Rose, announced via his personal Facebook page  that it was time to split the party. The Wild Hunt talked with Hinds, who is also a well known ritualist and bard at Pagan gatherings, about the highlights of performing with Emerald Rose and what’s in store for him in the future.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

Over the years, Emerald Rose gained a devoted following in two areas that often overlap: Paganism and geek culture. The group was formed 20 years ago among a group of friends who enjoyed getting together and playing Magic the Gathering. As Hinds explains, one of their spouses said that they were wasting their time and should make some music for the Pagan community.

Larry Morris was already well-known in the local Pagan community as a drummer. Logan Sullivan had previous experience being in a band as a brass player. Clyde Gilbert’s background was in heavy metal. Hinds had been a singer and songwriter since he was in his teens.

“Our first paid gig was at a nudist resort where we played about 6 songs.” – Arthur Hinds

While the group was ostensibly created to appeal to Pagans, the group developed a Celtic folk-rock sound that soon made them one of the top local bands in the Southeast United States. Most of their music draws from Celtic mythology, but one CD, titled Con Suite, highlights their roots as a group of guys who love all things geek. It was the odes to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and gaming culture that further widened their audience. Their music was used on the soundtracks of two documentaries, including Ringers, which is about Lord of the Rings fans, and Done the Impossible, which is about the Firefly Television series. They were also the headliners for Hollywood Lord of the Rings Oscar parties in 2003 and 2004.

The Wild Hunt: So you were created as a Pagan band, but when did you become a sci-fi/fantasy convention favorite?

Arthur Hinds: Ahhh, well all four of us were geeks- from comics to anime to science to RPGs and of course MTG. Clyde and I had been to a bunch of DragonCons [a yearly Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention in Atlanta] in the varied incarnations it went through, but we did not know each other at the time.

Then in 2002 Clyde talked [DragonCon] into letting us in. Larry, in particular, writes wacky geeky songs that fit well, but really our strength at cons has been as a Pagan band. The overlap between Pagan and geek is gigantic.

TWH: Yes it is. Why do you think there’s such an overlap?

AH: There are probably PHD papers on that subject. It might have to do with the power of imagination, creating thought forms. Most Pagans identify with created worlds where Nature is recognized as live and worthy of veneration. So many Pagans are first drawn to their path after being illuminated by fiction. Mists of Avalon called many to the Goddess. Also, the willingness to think outside the mainstream is there as well.

TWH: So, at the start, all band members were Pagan? Are they still?

AH: Honestly Cara, I would prefer not to speak for another person about their spiritual path. I think it is safe to say that I am very much Pagan.

TWH: Fair enough. The announcement that Emerald Rose is disbanding comes 20 years after its creation. Is their significance to that? Did you think, “20 years? Hmmmmm…..”

AH: I can’t say that the number really impacted our announcement. It was simply time. Our lives and commitments did. 20 years, however is a loooooooong time.

TWH: It is. Most bands don’t stay together anywhere near that long. Life changes, personality conflicts. Why were you able to stay together?

AH: Well, first of all, we started as really good friends and many of the choices we made over the years were based on that friendship. And really, the Pagan root that we grew from helped to give stability as well.

TWH: In that 20 years you’ve created so much music. Played so many venues. Do you have a favorite memory from a Pagan venue or some time where the spiritual component was most memorable?

AH: Wow, you are asking a lot

TWH: I know, right?

AH: I always love singing Freya Shakti for the right crowd, it has raised much power, but I think I am going to go with a different song. We were performing Dagger of the Moon outside on an overcast night, when the crowd gasped as one. I turned to see that the clouds had parted to reveal a crescent right behind us.

TWH: Where was that at?

AH: I think Maryland Fairy Fest, but I’m not entirely sure. Another one of my favorite Pagan show memories took place on a rainy night. We were dry and safe on a covered stage but the crowd was getting damp. They did not scatter, but kept on dancing. All of a sudden the sky opened and a rain fell. Did the people run? No, they took off all of their remaining clothes and danced harder. I bet U2 never had that happen. it was a mighty rain

TWH: On the flip side, what has it meant to you, to be able to offer excellent quality Pagan music? Why do it?

AH: I love it. I love Pagan music. I love playing and performing in general, but being able to let my spirit shine is the glimmer on the lake. For me it is part of my clergy work and art of my Bardic spiritual path.

TWH: So you know this question is coming. Why is Emerald Rose breaking up?

AH: We haven’t had a giant fight. We still like each other, but our lives and creative paths are separating. It has been happening for a couple of years, and we thought that we owed it to our fans to not just sort of fade away. We wanted to let them know that we are leaving this wonderful path with good feelings and great memories.

TWH: I know from my own experience with serious health challenges how stressful it can be on a spouse. Your wife has been facing her own medical challenges. Is that coming into play for you personally as a reason why you’re ready for Emerald Rose to end their run?

AH: Only a little. I think. I have walked a hard medical path with My Lovely Wife our entire relationship.

TWH: What’s next for Arthur Hinds? I can’t picture you not performing and I’ve seen how much you enjoy encouraging people to perform at Pagan Spirit Gathering’s talent show.

AH: Well, I came to Emerald Rose as a singer and songwriter of both Pagan and secular music, and that is how I leave it. I have three solo CDs and I am working on a fourth. I plan to continue touring and singing and telling the old tales. I had an awesome crop at this year’s PSG show and I’ll continue to do that as well.

TWH: Thanks Arthur. Anything you’d like to add?

AH: Well, I just want to thank the fans who supported us all of these years. I know that sounds like an old saw, but in truth, it is what kept us going. We had a hell of a time.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

hcooper-256x500PARKERSBURG, W.Va.- The city council has “voted to uphold a ban on fortune-telling this week, despite a formal request from a local entrepreneur to do away with the decades-old law,” as reported by Riverside City News. In June we published the story of Heather Cooper, who had opened up a local shop called Hawthorn. Her intent was to offer Tarot readings as well as a place for local artists to display their work. However, she was denied a business license due to an old fortune-telling law, and she pledged to fight to have it removed.

After her first attempt, it was announced that the Council opted to keep the law, with a vote of 5-3. Cooper was disappointed, but she is continuing to work in the store and will keep trying. Cooper wrote, “We will not be doing any readings until further notice. We WILL, however, have classes at our store and continue to have consigned work from local artists. Stop by to see what we have and continue to watch the page for upcoming classes.”

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PENSACOLA, Fla. — Pagan David Suhor, the founder of the local chapter of The Satanic Temple, delivered his invocation before the Pensacola City Council meeting July 14. As we previously reported, Suhor’s scheduled appearance generated concerns, and a special meeting was held in order to decide whether or not to cancel the city’s inclusive prayer policy.

The council voted to keep the invocations, and Suhor was left on the schedule. However, when the day arrived, the council meeting did not run as smoothly as officials would have liked. Suhor’s invocation was interrupted by people reciting the Lord’s Prayer, one council person walked, and others protested. During the meeting several people, including Suhor, debated the policy again.

The entire meeting, including the opening invocation, can be viewed online. We will have more from Suhor about his religious freedom work in the coming week.

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287078_10150255779783742_3999081_oATLANTA, Ga. — It was announced this week that the Celtic American folk band Emerald Rose would be retiring. The announcement reads, “It’s been a great journey, but all things have a life cycle. It is time for us to let you all know that Emerald Rose has decided to retire as a band after the end of this year.”

The group will be performing at Dragon*Con, held in annually in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, and they are looking for one more venue to stage a farewell concert. The Wild Hunt has spoken to band member, singer and songwriter Arthur Hinds about Emerald Rose’s history, music and the retirement. We will bring you that interview this week.

In Other News

  • EarthSpirit Community’s co-founder Andras Corban-Arthen has been in Prague participating in the annual meeting for the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER). Corban-Arthen, who is currently serving as the organization’s president, wrote, “Representatives of 20 countries have gathered in a marvelous old building which currently houses the Czech Academy of Sciences.” Reporting from the event, Corban-Arthen said that they participated in a ritual built around “an old Celtic tripod of stones on the grounds of Vyšehrad.” He was reportedly told by locals that the “more than two hundred” people at that ceremony made up “the largest gathering of pagans in [Prague] in modern times.”  
  • The Temple of Goddess Spirituality, dedicated to Sekhmet, is experiencing a fiscal crisis. Founded in 1993, the temple is located in the Nevada desert near Cactus Springs. For 23 years, it has operated on the principle of the “gift economy.” However, in reality, the temple, which includes land and a structure, has been almost entirely supported by its founder Genevieve Vaughan. Donations reportedly make up less than 5% of their budget. Now in her 70s, Vaughan is not able to keep up with the temple’s needs. The organization has created a new governing “Temple Council” to develop new methods of funding. As they do that, donations of money and supplies are being accepted.
Temple of Goddess Spirituality in Nevada [Courtesy Photo]

Temple of Goddess Spirituality in Nevada [www.sekhmettemple.com]

  • Earth Traditions, based in Illinois, has announced a Death Midwife Certification Class for February 2017. The announcement was just made and a Facebook event created. The class will be held in Archer House, Northfield Minnesota and will be led by Angie Buchanan, who was trained and certified as a Certified Death Midwife by Nora Cedarwind Young, one of the founders of the Death Midwife movement. Buchanan said, “Death is the only guarantee we have in life and it is a sacred Rite of Passage deserving of as much thoughtful care and planning as any other life event.” Registration for the class is online and currently open.
  • The Guardian has reported on the opening of a local metaphysical store in the city of Lancaster. The owner of the new shop, called Bell, Book & Candle, is 38-year-old Dubhlainn Earley, who describes himself as a necromancer and a practitioner of “black magic.” In the interview he said that there should be more shops in the city due to its history. Lancaster is similar to the U.S. city of Salem. The Pendle witch trials took place in Lancashire, and the accused were all tried and sentenced in Lancaster due to it being the county town.  Earley believes Lancaster needs a Witch museum and hopes more Witches come forward now, saying, “there is no need to hide away, come out, come out wherever you are.”
  • There is a call for authors for the upcoming book Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions: Faith and Culture Across History. “Author-Scholars are needed for the two volume reference work […] to be published by ABC-CLIO Publishing. We seek contributors with expertise in Women, Religion, and History to write articles of 500 to 2000 words, with overview, historical background, and selected details.” More specifications and requirements are on the website. The current deadline is August 15.
  • Another upcoming submission deadline is of the music kind. The Hermetic Library, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, is calling for artists to submit work for their 2016 Magick, Music, and Ritual 12 album. “These anthology albums help promote artists to the audience of the Hermetic Library and beyond. These albums raise awareness about the connection between ritual, music and magick. And, they are a mass of awesome fun.” The submission deadline is Aug. 15.

A Note from the Editor’s Desk

As many of our daily email subscribers have noticed, we recently upgraded to a new subscription provider. The look of our emails now corresponds with the new logo and style of our web site, and provides subscribers with a clean, easy-to-read daily delivery of articles and news. It’s like receiving a newspaper in your inbox! If you’d like to subscribe to our daily delivery, it’s easy to sign up here.

As part of our upgrade project, we are launching a new advertising program. Rather than allowing the subscription provider to place their own (often off-topic) external ads on our daily emails, we will be offering ad space at the bottom of our emails to Pagan, Wiccan, Polytheist, and Heathen businesses, artists, and festivals, at an affordable rate. Your banner ad will be seen by nearly 1500 subscribers each day. For more information on this great advertising opportunity, please contact us directly using our contact form.

Over the past month, the new mobile virtual game Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. The app is now reportedly the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. According to the SurveyMonkey Intelligence blog, Pokémon Go has exceeded by several million the daily peak users record held by Candy Crush. Within “three days of release” the game attracted more users than Twitter and now, according to the blog, the breakout game is aiming “for Snapchat and Google Maps.”

pokemon-header2
What is Pokémon Go? It is a mobile game application created by the same team that originated the Pokémon franchise in 1996. Just as in the original concept, the user is a Pokémon trainer who must gather Pokémon, or fictional “pocket monsters,” to train for battle. Using GPS locators, the game “places” Pokémon virtually within the users real space. They are on sidewalks, in homes and in buildings. Trainers can “see” when these virtual creatures are near and must get within a certain distance to catch them. But there is far more to it than that, including PokeGyms, PokeSpots, battles, leveling up, teams and more.

Rattata found roadside in South Georgia [Photo Credit: E. Howard]

Rattata found roadside in South Georgia [Photo Credit: E. Howard]

But what does Pokémon Go, or Pokémon in general, have to do with the occult? The easy answer: absolutely nothing.

However, when are we ever satisfied with the easy answer?

So let’s get out our flux capicitors and head back in time 20 years to when Pokémon first arrived on the pop culture scene.

In the not-so-distant past, Satoshi Tajiri imagined a video game that involved users catching bugs and training them to fight. After six years of consideration and negotiations, the idea became Pocket Monsters, which was shortened to Pokémon. In February 1996, Nintendo released two Pokémon games for its popular handheld Game Boy system. The games weren’t an instant hit, but there was enough buzz for the launch of the first generation card game in October of that year, and an anime cartoon series the following spring.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It didn’t take long for the new franchise to generate backlash. Excitement surrounding the card game built to near fever-pitch among children. Many school officials opted to ban the game from their campuses due to a variety reasons, including: distraction, competition, excessive commercialism, fights, and the violence of in-game battles themselves.

Along with those practical and secular concerns, another issue arose; this one of a moral variety. Religious groups began to speak out against the franchise’s promotion of immorality, which some labeled satanic. They equated the game’s symbology and monstrous qualities to demonology, mysticism, Witchcraft, Wicca and modern Paganism. In one video sermon, a pastor explains:

Pokémon is a game that teaches children how to enter into the world of witchcraft. How to cast spells. How to use psychic phenomena. How to put to work supernatural powers against their enemies. How to fantasy role play… Pokémon World is a world of the demonic, of the satanic.

Several of the Pokémon histories suggest that reactions, similar to that above, led to the creation of the Christian card game Redemption. However, this Bible-based trading card game was created and released an entire year before the Pokémon came on the scene. Redemption was more a reaction to the lingering memories of Dungeons & Dragons and the contemporary success of Magic: The Gathering and other similar gaming offshoots.

Redemption‘s creator Rob Anderson said, “Many of the games available had dark and horrific themes […] Much of what is offered in the collectible trading card game market is difficult to reconcile with the Christian faith.” Although Anderson’s card game preceded Pokémon, the idea was the same and the arrival of Pokémon only fueled the flames of that fear and ideology.

The Christian backlash became so prevalent that the Catholic Pope reportedly spoke out. In 2000, the Vatican TV satellite station announced, on his behalf, that “Pokémon trading cards and the computer game is [sic] ‘full of inventive imagination,’ has [sic] no ‘harmful moral side effects’ and is [sic] based on the notion of ‘intense friendship.’ ”

While the Pope’s alleged message signaled his followers to relax, others, outside of the Christian and Catholic world, remained unconvinced. As reported in 2001 by the BBC and other outlets, as the cards reached the Muslim world, national leaders began actively banning the franchise because they believed it promoted gambling and other immoral activities. Saudi leaders specifically called it a “Jewish conspiracy” that promoted Zionism. Interestingly, these same leaders also identified as a problem the franchise’s use of “crosses, sacred for Christians and triangles, significant for Freemasons.”

In 2001, the Anti-Defamation League responded to the cries of “Jewish conspiracy,” calling them “outrageous.” But, several years prior, ADL had its own concerns with two specific Pokémon cards (Golbat and Ditto) that contained what looked like a swastika. As explained in an ADL press release, the symbol on the cards were “intended to represent a ‘manji’ sign ascribed to Buddhism and Hinduism.” These versions of the two cards were only suppose to be released in Japan where the image would be understood as such. However, due to the game’s popularity, the cards made it to the U.S. where the symbols were read as a swastika.

In 1999, Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director said, “In today’s shrinking world due to globalization, what is deemed appropriate or acceptable by one culture may have a significantly different meaning in another.” Nintendo did reportedly take the ADL complaint seriously and responded to the group’s satisfaction.

[Photo Credit: Jarek Tuszyński / Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Jarek Tuszyński / Wikimedia]

In the same year, Time magazine published an interview with creator Satoshi Tajiri. While the conversation focused on his work, the interviewer did briefly ask about criticisms specifically concerning the immorality or “satanic” nature of the game. He responded, “I never heard of that! [Laughs] I heard there was a guy who criticized [kid’s book character] Harry Potter because of the magic. But I saw the author, and she seemed really nice. The critic seemed like a grouchy mean guy.”

Putting things in context, this era, 1996-2000, occurred just after the notorious satanic panics in the U.S. and U.K., and it also followed on the tail end of a pop culture Witch craze. This was a period that saw the release of The Craft and the reign of The X-Files, Sabrina, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. J.K. Rowling had just released a new book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which would soon become an international best-selling series and movie franchise.

While the pop culture engine generally and slowly shifted from a high concentration of satanic Witches to other occult or fantastic themes, the interest in magic and mysticism never died. Cultural fears and desires, relating to social issues, politics and more, continued to play out in various fantasy narratives. Pokémon played into this collective dreaming.

Additionally, the game was a feature of the shrinking global culture, which was precipitated by the internet and an increasingly tech-driven world. Not only was the card game a symbol of this new world-based digital cultural phenomenon, but it was also a distraction for a generation of children, who were showing a decreasing interest in attending religious services, as noted by Pew Forum.

Now let’s go back to the future….

It is now 2012, with the internet and social media in full swing. A blog site called Playing4Real published a mock Time magazine interview with Satoshi Tajiri. The post, titled, “Pokémon Creator Admits Games are Anti-Christian, Aimed Towards Satanists,” was not marked clearly as satire. The mock interview has Satoshi Tajiri saying, in part:

Tajiri: Yes. Pokémon is essentially the correct answer towards life, not Christianity. Everything presented in the game is the opposite of what Christians may believe. Some have said that the game promotes voodoo or magic, and I agree in the sense that there are many things that occur in nature that are unexplainable …

Any regular user of social media might expect what happened next. The Playing4Real post was shared with wild abandon. The fake interview inspired a new round of Pokémon backlash, feeding any still lingering demonic origin theories.

For example, as published in 2010, opponent Brett Peterson compared the Pokémon universe’s use of the elements as equivalent to that use in modern Pagan practice. Peterson wrote, “Most Pagan and earth based religions and philosophies find power in the Four Elements? Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. These are the energy cards in the Pokémon game! […] What are we allowing to come into our homes!”

Yet, at the very same time, another cultural reality was being birthed, one that makes that same connection between the occult and modern Paganism, but from an entirely different angle. This new reality can be found embedded in the growing practice of Pop Culture Paganism. As an example, the owner of the Pokemon Paganism Tumblr blog writes:

I have been working for a while now on a Pokémon elemental correspondence system based on a combination of the two most prominent systems from antiquity (Western and Eastern). So far I think I’ve come up with a pretty fleshed out system and I hope to be able to make a few posts on it in the coming weeks. My goal is to have a workable magic system to be used alongside my devotional work with the various Legendary/Mythical Pokémon. All and all I’m hoping to form a more vibrant practice that is more immersive and can also work alongside some of my more traditional polytheist practices.

The majority of people integrating Pokémon into magical practice were born in the Millennial generation or are younger. That should not be surprising, because these are the same people who grew up with the original Pokémon franchise of the 1990s.

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Pokemon Tarot Deck [Publicity Image]

Tumblr user Kitty, who runs the Pop Culture Paganism blog, also posts and reblogs notes concerning the use of Pokémon in religious, spiritual or magical practice. And, in 2014, Cokujyo Eikyu created a Pokémon Tarot deck, now in its second edition.

Let’s move forward in time again to the present.

This year, 2016, marks the 20th anniversary of Pokémon and the release of its arguably most popular game, Pokémon Go. And, although it’s based on the same gaming premise, the backlash has been decidedly different because of the way it has played out within our collective world cultures.

The new game is getting people outside and moving around, even if that movement is zombie-like or resembles herds of wild animals on a David Attenborough special. One Tumblr user wrote, “Pokémon Go deserves a nobel peace prize for getting me off my ass.”

Pokemon show up in the most untimely of locations [Photo Credit: E. Howard]

Pokemon show up in the most unseemingly of locations [Photo Credit: E. Howard]

Additionally, the company has created what it calls PokeStops and PokeGyms, which are actual places where Pokémon congregate and where battles happen. Users must be physically within range of these locations to catch these wanted Pokémon and engage with the game further. As a result, Pokératti, those masses of players, are showing up at random locations, with phones in hand, and sometimes are even putting themselves at risk of being arrested for trespassing.

Interestingly, many churches are reportedly labeled as PokeGyms and, as a result, groups of young people are showing up at their doorsteps to play the game. Many church leaders, such as in the Church of England, are beginning to see this phenomenon as a positive development. While the Pokératti may not stick around for sermons, leaders see this move as “a good way to start a conversation that may lead on to other things,” as noted by the BBC.

The same Pokémon game, which once was thought to have driven people from religion, is now being considered a tool to potentially lead them back.

And churches aren’t the only institutions looking to take advantage of the PokeStop or PokeGym feature. Companies, organizations and event planners are using the built-in “lure” or the “incense” game actions to bring Pokémon to their locations in hopes of attracting visitors, customers or the like. The more Pokémon at the site, or the stronger and rarer the Pokémon, the more Pokératti show up.

The Wild Hunt’s own Cara Schulz, who is running for political office in her hometown of Burnsville, has teamed up with a local restaurant and is using the game’s lure feature to attract people to her campaign event. It is a clever marketing tool that creates a pickup community space, which could potentially “lead on to other things.”  As we move into Pagan Pride and fall festival season, this tool may be a marketing concept that organizers can employ to attract visitors to their own public events.

However, before a planner jumps on the band wagon, there is a downside. Do you want groups of gamers lingering on your doorstop? These players are typically more interested in catching Pokémon than the services being offered. This fact has caused problems worldwide where players create hazards for real shoppers or similar. The U.S. Holocaust Museum Memorial, for example, was made a PokeStop and has been reportedly attracting groups of loud and disrespectful Pokératti.

“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director, told the Washington Post. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”

As noted earlier, the PokeStops and PokeGyms are chosen by the company, and only recently has it opened up the option to suggest new locations. The system is not at all monetized, but the company has suggested that it may be in the future.

Another organization contending with Pokératti is the Westboro Baptist Church. The location was made a PokeGym, attracting battling trainers who are now allegedly vying for the right to control this particular gym in order to “troll the Church.” The church’s leaders responded with their own Pokémon-inspired message saying, “Pokémon Go and Sin No More.” One spokesperson told USA Today that they are using the “language that is understood.”

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Another one caught. [Photo Credit: E. Howard]

Today the Pokémon franchise, which began as a simple video game, has now become a viable tool within a magical system, an exercise method, a community-building activity, a marketing strategy, and a political weapon. At the same time, the game is still inspiring the same backlash that it did in 1990s, including new conspiracy theories, angry sermons and fatwas.

Going back to the original question: what does Pokémon have to do with the occult? The easy response, as said earlier, is absolutely nothing.

But human culture never allows for that level of simplicity. Therefore, the actual answer is “a whole lot.”

Happy hunting.

Get ready for the seventh generation in November as a new wave of danger hits the market.

Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman

Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman [Publicity Still]

“Firstly, it’s The Dreaming. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as Hairypeople are not bound by what is,” says Waruu West (Rob Collins) in ABC’s latest original Australian drama Cleverman.  Found in the second instalment ‘Containment,’ this moment stood out. Collins, playing an Indigenous spokesperson on a TV news panel discussion, delivers the line with acid on his tongue, shifting in his seat and barely able to maintain his countenance to suit the panel’s format, which is supposed to represent the epitome of polite society in serious discussion.

In the world of Cleverman, the Dreaming is mentioned here with the same condescension it might be on an actual TV weekly news and current affairs panel. I’ve seen enough Aboriginal Elders and commentators on such shows to know that Collins did not have to look very far to inspire his character’s reaction in this moment. As an Indigenous man himself, Collins probably didn’t even need that.

In the make-believe dystopian near future of Cleverman, not six months before the action takes up with the first episode, the Dreaming just materialised in the form of the Hairypeople. What was once thought of as just an Aboriginal story and a monster to scare children, is now flesh and blood. They are an entirely different species of human that is stronger, faster, harder, covered in hair, and absolutely not a figment of some distant story derived from an uncivilised past. This narrative fact makes the host’s condescension in this scene all the more misplaced, purposefully nasty.

[Above: Q&A Monday 09 June, 2014. Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ “I am not the problem” speech, in conversation regarding John Pilger’s Utopia.]

This point in the show also created a moment during which, it was white Australian viewers’ turn to shift uncomfortably in their seats, if they had not already. In that scene, with its similarity to real day-to-day viewing, it felt like director Wayne Blair, and writers Michael Miller and Jon Bell were speaking directly to us. And I confess: it was my turn for a little bit of solidarity with my Indigenous Brothers and Sisters fist pumping. Waruu’s statement contained within it something that could easily translate to my own experience as a Pagan and a Witch: Our Mythos. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as the Otherworlds are not bound by what is.

Cleverman is a futuristic sci-fi narrative told using the contemporary language of television and chocked full of very real and very current issues. Included in its themes are Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, forced imprisonment, our nation’s crimes against humanity, as well as the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered at our hands by those most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrants, and refugees. Additionally, the show includes the Scientific Frankenstein, the Shady Media Mogul, themes of fear, terror, racism, bigotry, atrocity, isolation, desperation, violence, and police brutality.

These details are all woven together in a sprawling story that we should in fact not be confused about at all. However, it is the twist with which it’s told that is the real highlight. The fictional Hairypeople are lifted directly from several Aboriginal Dreaming stories. They speak Gumbaynggirr, a language from northern New South Wales, as is the Namorrodor, the monster stalking urban Sydney. Indigenous actors dominate in both the Indigenous and Hairypeople roles. The Cleverman is a cultural facticity.

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman show poster

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman [Publicity Poster for SundanceTV]

Our reluctant hero Koen West, is Aboriginal, a refreshing change from what we so often see highlighted by Australian and international news. Koen, an opportunistic young Indigenous man who refuses to choose a tribe, has suddenly had the Cleverman superhero powers thrust upon him. The power is real and present in this show’s world. It is manifest in Koen, Waruu, in the Hairypeople, and in the short (but always sparkling) performance of Jack Charles as Uncle Jimmy the Cleverman who passes the nulla nulla (or waddi a warrior’s club) of the Cleverman onto Koen.

If Koen stands as a proxy for young Indigenous viewers, then the narrative comes with a dare: Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Dreaming is not static. None are left to wonder about the nature of that strength and power. It’s Indigenous and it comes from a very real place.

In this way, Cleverman is the Dreaming. The show is Indigenous story soaked with a real Indigenous past and a contemporary Indigenous experience. With the help of CGI and special effects, the show demonstrates how the Dreaming contains within it the ability to confront new issues and problems with no less potency. The Dreaming refuses to stay static.

The Dreaming is not at odds with western science, political systems, media, or indeed, the future. Rather, here, the Dreaming uses all these modern ideas and formats to its own end. Standing alongside these contemporary mainstream Australian institutions as equally valid and powerful, the show tells a story of change, of how it is made manifest in those who engage with it, and how it can reclaim itself – its Indigenousness – from those very institutions who have sought to diminish it. The Dreaming claims itself, as strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, in the now.

It is here, precisely at this moment, that Australian Pagans and Witches should feel the pangs of empathy. This is art as story magic.

In the first place, we should be familiar with the historical arc that underpins the show. In summary, cultural practices, myths and stories are outlawed, then, after a time, they are repackaged as oddities from a distant past for children’s entertainment. Then, finally, adults start taking these “oddities” back.

Pagans around the world know this story. In recent times, we have seen a major resurgence in many myths and folktales. Appearing on the small and silver screens alike, these stories are being torn apart and remade with entirely relevant themes and contemporary issues, and very often strictly for adults. Examples range from American Horror Story: Coven‘s unabashed, subversive femaleness in all its complicated and messy glory; to the miraculous image at the end of The Witch showing power embraced as the young protagonist is liberated; to Michael Hirst’s Vikings in which a historical Pagan worldview is given prominence over early Christian ideas. Even at Disney, the early and mid-20th Century children’s stories are being approached anew, with the likes of Angelina Jolie’s turn as the Mistress of All Evil in MaleficentWe get this.

However, these things – our myths, reimagined in the mainstream, artistic, and pop culture spheres – can serve to be a hindrance to the legitimisation of contemporary Pagan and Witchcraft discourse. They can be wildly disrespectful and further propagate tired tropes and negative stereotypes that influence the very real lives of the Neopagan and Witchcraft communities. These things do not exist in a vacuum. But at their best, they can serve as a powerful quickening to such communities, who, in turn, find the inspiration to readdress the magical and mythical narratives within the ritual space itself.

These modern retellings can normalise themes and ideas in the mainstream, which can then further legitimise those same ideas as they are contained within our contemporary discourse. The young and aspiring seeker of the Craft, for example, can find heroes and heroines in these places, urging them to look further.

Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Myths are not static.

As a story and as a Dreaming narrative, Cleverman excels at demonstrating that power is best realised through the creative vision, voice and bodies of those who are living a direct experience of it already. Inside contemporary culture, it further demonstrates the power of community support and participation required to push forward with these new narratives. Cleverman‘s mainstream success and positive reviews are a testament to two hundreds years of fighting to legitimise Indigenous voices.

This is a lesson Pagans in Australia can take away. It is a salient reminder that our own myths are strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, now.

Especially as Australian Pagan communities begin to increasingly realise their social and political voices, it is this thought that should stay in the back of our minds when we engage with Pagan discourse, writing, art, and craft, and reimagine our stories inside our ritual space to confront and work with contemporary and very real social and political issues. It is important to promote that same creative talent inside our communities in order to achieve change, justice, fairness, highlight social issues right now.

These ideas and concepts are all on top of the stand-alone joy of engaging with Australian Indigenous voices and creative talent as found through Cleverman. The final episode of season one was aired Thursday, July 7.  This particular episode felt like one giant teaser for season two. It left me wanting much more.

We left our anti-hero, Koen, much less “anti” and coming finally into his own, as all sides are baying for war. I agree with AV Club‘s Brandon Nowalk, whose review pointed out the first season was more promise than delivery in terms of story.  It was a season of exposition that has left a carefully crafted set of characters ready for the real meat of season two.

But that exposition can be easily forgiven. After all, there would only be a handful of people on this continent with enough knowledge of Aboriginal Law and Dreaming not to require background information. I can only imagine the culture shock and complete lack of context for those watching in the US and, shortly, the UK.

Thankfully, for those interested, there are a few helpful guides that wade into the dystopian near future of Cleverman‘s Sydney. This includes Zebbie Watson’s guide at Inverse, and The Guardian‘s episode by episode recaps. For some extra fun, check out the behind the scenes video with Adam Briggs and, one of my favourite Australian voices, Gurrumul Yunupingu and the inspiration for the Cleverman theme song.

Behind the Theme Song – “Cleverman” from Goalpost Pictures on Vimeo.

“One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseille would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.” – Hannah Arendt

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin [Photo Credit: Gisela Freund]

The ‘catastrophe’ that Arendt refers to was the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of Walter Benjamin on the night of September 25, 1940, only hours after crossing the border into Spain in an attempt to escape the Nazis. Although there is some question as to how he actually died, the most accepted version of his death is that he committed suicide by overdosing on morphine in his room at the Francia Hotel in Portbou.

At the time of his alleged suicide, Benjamin and his two companions were under police surveillance along with another group of refugees from France. They had arrived in Portbou earlier that evening after hiking over the Pyrenées from occupied France, only to learn that they were being denied entrance into Spain. They were to be deported back to France and handed over to the Vichy government the next day.

Despite assurances from members of the other refugee party that they could potentially bribe their way out of it, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine that night, after having been on the run for seven years. It was a dose that he had been carrying around since the burning of the Reichstag. This was seemingly an act of both desperation and defiance. He was not only more than aware of what his fate would be should he fall into Nazi hands, but he had also apparently decided long before that moment that he would choose death by his own hand over such a fate.


*   *   *

I am not much of a hiker, and I have never hiked a mountain before. I’m in decent enough shape considering that I don’t work out or engage in any type of regular strenuous activity, but I also struggle with chronic fatigue and nerve pain which often keeps me from outdoor activities. And I definitely knew on one level that the trail that I was so determined to hike was a bit out of my league in terms of experience.

But I also knew that 
Walter Benjamin was in much worse shape than either my friend Rhyd or I. And, every time I dwelt on the fact that he completed the route under the circumstances that he did, and in the poor physical condition that he was in, it served as ample justification for dismissing my own worries. The pull I was feeling to take the hike was strong and not fully of this earth, and I had recognized for many months that the trek was an essential part of our pilgrimage to Europe. We both recognized the importance of tracing his footsteps as a tribute to him, and that importance far outweighed any concerns that I had about my abilities.

At the time that Benjamin escaped from France over the Pyrenées, he was forty-eight years old and suffered from a heart condition, having been in delicate health since childhood. He had been living in poverty and exile throughout most of the 1930s, which had greatly exacerbated problems with both his physical and mental health. When he made his escape, he took with him a heavy briefcase that contained an unknown manuscript – one that he insisted was more important than his own life.

We packed much lighter than Walter Benjamin did, bringing only some food for lunch, two bottles of water, a half-empty bottle of Orangina, a sweatshirt, and our phones. I also took a small notebook and a solar charger, which I kept in a small side bag, while Rhyd carried the majority of our gear in his rucksack.


*   *   *

By summer 1940, Walter Benjamin had been in exile from his native Germany for seven years. He first fled to Paris in spring 1933, understanding the significance of the Reichstag fire long before most recognized what that event would mean for the future of Germany. As a Jew, a Marxist, and a cultural critic, he knew he was in danger for many reasons, and he sought refuge throughout France as well as briefly in Denmark with Bertolt Brecht. He was a heretic on the run, desperately trying to write and publish as much as he could while both his economic and physical livelihood fell into ever increasing danger.

In 1938, Germany revoked the citizenship status of Jewish citizens, and overnight Benjamin found himself to be a stateless man. Eventually the French caught up to him, and he was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1939. After his release was secured with the assistance of friends in early 1940, he returned to Paris, where he stayed until French defenses were defeated by the Wehrmacht.

Benjamin then fled Paris for Lourdes the day before the Germans took the city. The subsequent armistice between Germany and Vichy France contained an extradition clause that denied exit visas for all German refugees in France and required the French to surrender anyone who had been granted asylum. Overnight, Benjamin was suddenly trapped in a country where he was a wanted man with no legal means of escape.

Knowing that he needed to leave France in order to save his life, he eventually left Lourdes for Marseille, where he managed to secure an entrance visa to the United States in August 1940. While in Marseille, he met up with his old friend Hannah Arendt and then reunited with Hans Fittko, who he had met the winter before when they had both been held at a French internment camp in Vernuche.

The mountains.

The mountains [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After learning that Benjamin was trying to escape, Hans Fittko told him that the only potential route to safety was to make it to Spain without having to go through a border crossing, and then to cross Spain to Portugal and exit Portugal on a boat to the United States. Fittko then encouraged Benjamin to contact his wife Lisa, who had recently left Marseille for Port-Vendres on the border with Spain with the intention of finding a smuggling route over the mountains.


*   *   *

Every single website we had checked, including the official tourist site for the city of Portbou, stated that the hike was a 7 km, three-to-four hour trek. 
My instinct told me from the beginning that it was longer than that, and while my general rule is to trust my instinct, I also recognize (usually in hindsight) that there are times when I ignore that hunch for what later is revealed to be an important reason.

Looking back at this specific instance, the reason I ignored that hunch is very clear. Had I known how long the trek actually was, I likely wouldn’t have attempted it.

But having convinced myself at least on the surface that it was a 7 km hike based on the information that we found online, we planned for that amount of time and distance. We slept in that morning at our campsite near Perpignan and timed our travel so that we would arrive in Banyuls-sur-Mer around noon. Based on that schedule, we assumed that we would be in Portbou by four or five at the latest. We took just enough food for lunch and about three liters of water.

*   *   *

The route over the Pyrenées was a smuggling trail known as the Lister Route, named after Enrique Líster, a general in the Spanish Republican Army. Lister led his troops to safety over the Pyrenées to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Spain fell to the Fascists. While few knew of the route’s existence, one of the people who knew it well was Vincent Azéma, the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, one of the first towns on the French side of the Pyrenées. Azéma was a socialist who had also been sympathetic toward the Republican cause in Spain.

A little over a year after Spain fell and Lister made his escape, the Vichy government took power in France. Azéma wanted to help those who were seeking to escape the Nazis, and his knowledge came in handy the day that Lisa Fittko showed up at his office seeking a route over the mountains. Like Walter Benjamin, Fittko was also a stateless Jew who was wanted by the Nazis. A dedicated anti-Fascist, Lisa and her husband Hans had also been on the run for years and had been working with the underground Resistance for much of that time. The Fittkos had also made their way down to Marseille not long after the Vichy government took power.

In September 1940, Lisa Fittko headed down to the border with Spain with the intention of securing a smuggling route across the Pyrénees. After only a few days in Port-Vendres, some dockworkers told her that the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Monsieur Azéma, would be able to help her find a route over the mountains. She went to see Azéma soon after, who discussed the route with her in great detail and gave her a hand-drawn map of the path.

*   *   *

I had never heard of Lisa Fittko until she died in early 2005. I had come across an article about her in the New York Times, which ran a story about her life and death and also mentioned Walter Benjamin’s tragic ending. I had heard of Benjamin before, but had never read his work, and it was that story in the Times which first prompted me to seek out his writings.

By that summer, I had immersed myself in his works, hunting down everything I could. It was the same summer that I ended up sharing my apartment with a young woman from southern France who was interning at a production company in Manhattan. The fact that she was from Perpignan, not far from Banyuls-sur-Mer, didn’t strike me as the least bit meaningful or synchronistic at the time. But all the same, that summer was dominated by two distinct perspectives: her observations and views of New York, and the work of Walter Benjamin.

Over the years, Benjamin’s work has undoubtedly influenced my thinking more significantly than that of any other writer, and nowadays I regard him not only as a profound thinker but also as both a prophet and an ancestor with whom I have forged a working relationship over time. And although the pull that I felt was much stronger overall than the individual parts that I could comprehend, the level of influence and relationship that I feel toward Benjamin was the primary reason why 
I felt the overwhelming need to trace the path of his fated escape path over the Lister Route during my pilgrimage to Europe.

It seemed fitting that my friend from Perpignan, who I hadn’t seen since that summer in New York eleven years earlier, was the one who kindly offered to drive us down to Banyuls-sur-Mer in the midst of transit and gas station strikes throughout France. She took us all the way to Puig del Mas, a neighborhood just south of Banyuls-sur-Mer, where the route actually began, and dropped us off on a side street that bordered the beginning of the mountains. We thanked her profusely and stumbled up the hill toward the end of the road.

*   *   *

On Sept. 24, 1940, Walter Benjamin knocked on Lisa Fittko’s door in Port-Vendres and told her that he had been sent by her husband and that he needed to escape to Spain.

Having met with Mayor Azéma only a few days earlier, Fittko quickly agreed to lead him over the mountains. She also agreed when he asked to take along two acquaintances who he had met in Marseille, a woman named Henny Gurland and her teenage son, who were also German refugees seeking to escape France. Fittko made it clear to Benjamin that it would be a strenuous climb, and that she did not know the route and that they would be taking a risk, but he seemed unconcerned. He stressed that to not make the attempt would be the “real risk.”

Later that day, Benjamin and Fittko left Port-Vendres for Banyuls-sur-Mer on foot, walking down back roads in order to avoid the growing police stops being conducted on both trains and auto routes. Fittko wanted to meet with Mayor Azéma again to go over the details of the route once more and to see if he had any additional advice or suggestions.

*   *   *

After Stéphanie dropped us off at Puig del Mas, we walked up the hill a bit but quickly realized that we couldn’t find the beginning of the route. I had downloaded a GPS map of the route onto my phone that morning, but it vanished from my screen and then refused to reload as we walked to the end of the road toward the vineyards.

Luckily, we saw a man exiting his car and walking up the hill. Figuring that he was a local, Rhyd asked him if he knew where the route was. The man was more than happy to walk us down the hill a bit, and then pointed us to the right and told us to look for a staircase.

We went down the staircase and through a narrow path, and found ourselves surrounded by vineyards.

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We then walked for a few minutes up an easy path, and looking up at the trail before us, we decided to stop for lunch before tackling the steep terrain. We were surrounded by vineyards, some so old that the vines were literal trunks, bearing a much greater resemblance to dwarf trees than any type of vines  I had ever seen before. I kept looking down at our food, and then up at the terraced vineyards, and it hit me halfway through our lunch that what we were eating, while quite unintentional, was very similar to the traditional meal that vineyard workers in the region were accustomed to eating – bread soaked in olive oil with some meat and cheese on the side.

After washing our food down with some water, we packed up our gear up again and headed upward through the vineyards.

*   *   *

When Walter Benjamin and Lisa Fittko sat down with Mayor Azéma that afternoon, he advised them to take a practice run in the daylight before actually hiking the full route. He recommended that they hike up past the vineyards and as far as the tree line, turn around and head back to town and check back in with him. Then, they could attempt the route in full the following day.

And so they set out on the route on the afternoon of September 24, only to learn quickly that the path was much steeper and more treacherous than Azéma had thought. Benjamin had brought a heavy briefcase with him, which Fittko offered to help him carry. When she asked him what was inside the briefcase and why he had brought it on a trial run, he told her that it contained his new manuscript and that he dare not risk being separated from it because its contents must be saved at all costs.

It is more important than I am, more important than myself,” he told her.

It took them several hours to reach the tree line, and by the time they hit that point Benjamin was so fatigued and run down that he refused to turn back. After unsuccessfully trying to convince him to return to town, Fittko headed back to Banyuls-sur-Mer in order to prepare for the full hike the next day. Meanwhile, Walter Benjamin proceeded to spend the night, the last full night of his life, alone and exposed on the mountain at the base of the tree line with only his briefcase.

*   *   *

After Rhyd and I made it up past the first plot of vineyards, we came across an elderly couple hiking up the trail. They were equipped with hiking poles, which admittedly made me pause for a moment. Hiking poles? Do we need those too? What have we gotten ourselves into?

We walked behind them for a moment, until we came across an intersection in the paths. They were following the road, but another path went straight up into the mountains, and my instinct told me that the path straight up was the one we were supposed to take. And yet, we were without a map.

“Excuse me,” I asked them. “Do you know which path is the Chemin Walter Benjamin?”

He pointed to the path straight up, and then to the markings at the base of the path. “See the two black lines? Those are what you need to follow.”

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I thanked him, and looked at him with both gratitude and wonder. Of all the material I had read on the route, not one source had mentioned the relevant trail markings. I expressed my thanks again as they walked off down the road, and we looked at the path before us, both realizing at the same time that this would be anything but an easy hike.

It also didn’t take us long to realize that especially without a working GPS map, those trail markings were absolutely crucial when it came to staying on the path. As the path kept twisting and turning on our way up toward the top of the tree line, it occurred to me numerous times that if we hadn’t run into that couple we would have been hopelessly lost.

*   *   *

After leaving Walter Benjamin at the clearing on the mountain the night before, Lisa Fittko once again started up the trail before sunrise the next day with Henny Gurland and her son in tow. It took them about three hours or so to reach Benjamin, who was still lying down in the exact place where Fittko had left him the night before.

The party quickly discovered that Benjamin had a talent for navigation, and he expertly directed them, keeping them on the right path as they climbed further and further upward. Everyone took turns carrying Benjamin’s briefcase as they climbed toward the summit. On account of his heart condition, he insisted on taking a minute’s rest for every ten minutes walked.

Despite such a disciplined rest schedule, Benjamin stopped not long before the summit, insisting he couldn’t go any further, and both Fittko and Gurland literally dragged him up the incline to the next resting place not far from the top. A short time later, the group finally reached the summit.

It had taken them between four and five hours from the point of the clearing for Benjamin’s party to reach the summit, and seven to eight hours overall since Fittko, Gurland, and her son had left Banyuls-sur-Mer early that morning. But finally they had reached Spain.

*   *   *

A few hours after parting ways with the elderly couple, Rhyd and I finally spotted a sign that pointed toward the summit and stated the distance. I realized at that moment that the websites were all exactly half-right. It was 7 km and three to four hours to the summit at Querroig. But it would then likely be 7 km and another three to four hours to get back down and into Portbou.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the breeze and the shade of the cork-oaks made the hot sun bearable. As we continued to climb, a certain amount of diffused worry built up between us. Both time and our ability to stay hydrated were subtle but ever-growing concerns that we managed to communicate lightheartedly, but regularly, to each other without ever quite naming our exact thoughts for what they were.

We started to monitor our water supply, already halfway gone, taking smaller and more deliberately timed sips with an unspoken understanding that we would be up on the mountain much longer than we expected. We took extra care of ourselves; stopping for breaks under trees, continuously looking behind us as inspiration and relying on the visual power of the fact that the more that Banyuls-sur-Mer shrank in the field of vision behind us, the closer we were to the top.

And yet there were feelings of hopelessness at times, feelings that reverberated from our surroundings as much as they originated from within. And those feelings, as much as I tried to block them out, kept bringing me back to the figure whose escape path we were tracing.

The summit near Querroig.

The summit near Querroig. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After four hours or so we finally reached the summit. We took a few moments to rest and to take in the beauty of it all, but we then quickly began our trip down in order to try to make up for lost time.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko had originally planned to leave Walter Benjamin and the others at the summit, as she did not have the proper paperwork and could not risk being caught on Spanish soil. But once she reached the top, she was concerned about their ability to navigate the treacherous downhill terrain. So she guided the three refugees down the narrow mountain paths.

Not long after they began their descent, they stumbled upon a greenish pool of water, obviously dirty and polluted. Walter Benjamin immediately bent over and stopped to drink, as the party had run out of water by that point.

You can’t drink that,” she told him. You could catch typhoid fever…

Yes, perhaps,” he replied. But you must understand: the worst thing that could happen is that I might die of typhoid fever – after I have crossed the border. The Gestapo can no longer arrest me, and the manuscript will have reached safety. You must pardon me, please…

And so he drank, and then they continued on downhill.

*   *   *

As we began our descent, I noticed that our surroundings were suddenly completely different than the terrain that we had been hiking for the previous four hours. The flora was different. The plants were different. Cork oaks and scotch broom had given way to cacti and succulents, and water could be heard rushing below. And the buzzing of bees was a consistent and strong presence throughout the entirety of our descent through the mountain brush. At times the bees were louder than our own voices, and while it faded in and out it served as a dominating chorus throughout the trek down to the road.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

While the Chemin Walter Benjamin on the French side of the path had been very casually marked, often with handmade signs, and was nearly impossible to navigate unless one knew what trail marks to look for, the Ruta Walter Benjamin on the Spanish side of the mountain was much more ‘official’ and organized. Every kilometer or so there was a waymarking sign, usually accompanied by a plaque sponsored by the Catalonian government. Each marking detailed an aspect of Benjamin’s life while featuring quotes and graphics. The trail blazes, which had guided us from the beginning, were still present and constant. However, the new signage took out much of the guesswork and deliberation that had characterized our way up the French side of the mountain.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko led the party downhill for another hour or so, until they finally reached a road at the end of a cliff-wall that led down toward a town below. Portbou was now directly in their sight and, at this point, Fittko bade them farewell, instructing the group to take the first train to Lisbon as soon as they had their entry stamps.

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Benjamin, Gurland, and her son continued down the road to Portbou, while Fittko headed back up the mountain toward Banyuls-sur-Mer. The road that wound down from the mountains led directly into town, and they followed it through the train tunnel to the downtown promenade and then up to the train station, where they surrendered themselves to authorities with the expectation of being granted entrance.

It was there at the train station where they learned their fate. It was at this place where police told them that they were being denied entry into Spain and would be deported back to France the very next morning. They were put up at the Francia Hotel for the night under police surveillance, and Walter Benjamin allegedly committed suicide that night in his hotel room, believing that his luck had finally run out for good. His briefcase subsequently vanished.

*   *   *

It was at that same juncture between the path and the road where Lisa Fittko bade farewell to Walter Benjamin and his party, the same juncture where she had finally decided that they could make it the rest of the way on their own, that Rhyd and I briefly got lost.

I’m generally an adventurous sort that usually deals with being lost without much fear. But, at that point it was only a few hours until sunset; we had next to no water left, and we had already been on the mountain for nearly seven hours. We were not thinking clearly; our judgment clouded by the combination of fatigue, fear, and thirst. And, it was this lack of clear thinking that led to a few mistakes and a few moments of panic.

There was a fork in the road, one way headed slightly up and one way headed slightly down, both pointing in the general direction of Portbou. Those who know a thing or two about mountains probably would have deferred to common sense at that point: if you’re heading down, pick the road that goes down. But we are not mountain dwellers, nor regular hikers, and for the first time since we started, there wasn’t a waymarking sign or a trail blaze to be seen. So for some reason we decided that the road that headed upward was the way to go. And as we continued on, ever doubtful, that feeling of hopelessness once again crept in.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I didn’t learn until after I returned to Perpignan and studied the terrain at length that it was only another wrong turn and a dead-end that kept us from walking straight back to France. Once we hit the dead end, we briefly argued over what to do next, and I took stock at that moment of how much my judgment was compromised and decided to defer to Rhyd’s judgment.

He pointed to another road below, stressing that even though it might technically be off the trail, the priority at that moment was to get off the mountain before sunset. I was doubtful but I agreed nonetheless, and we headed down that road only to discover within the next hour that it had actually put us right back on the trail, exactly where we needed to be in order to get to Portbou.

*   *   *

A few days after Lisa Fittko returned to Banyuls-sur-Mer, and before she had learned of Benjamin’s untimely fate, she was approached by Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee, who had heard of her success in smuggling Benjamin over the Pyrénees.

Fry and his associate had set up a legal French relief organization, the Centre Américain de Secours, with the intention of using it as a cover for smuggling Jews and other refugees out of France. Fry had both connections and funding, and wanted Fittko’s help in establishing a smuggling route that could potentially be lead by refugees themselves.

She agreed, and over the course of the next few years, Fittko and the Emergency Rescue Committee saved thousands of lives by leading folks over the Pyrenées via the Lister Route to Spain. Their efforts went down in history, and the Fittkos as well as Varian Fry are remembered to this day as some of the many heroes of the Resistance. The Fittkos finally fled France for Cuba in 1942 with the help of Varian Fry, and eventually settled in the United States.

And it wasn’t until almost forty years later, during a telephone conversation with Benjamin’s closest friend Gershom Scholem, that Lisa Fittko learned the fate of the mysterious briefcase that contained Benjamin’s final manuscript. She had always assumed that it had reached safe hands, especially given its importance, and was shocked and upset to learn that it had vanished.

*   *   *

Our original plan had been to reach Portbou by four or five in the afternoon at the latest, where we would then take a taxi to Cerbère, the very first town on the French side of the border, and then a train back to Perpignan where we were staying. The last train from Cerbère was a quarter past eight, and if we did not make it we would be stranded in either Portbou or Cerbère for the night.

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A plaque near the train station in Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After following the road down the mountain for a while, we finally started to see houses and we could also see Portbou straight ahead. We both felt a sense of relief, having held a mutual, muted tension for several hours at that point. But with that relief also came a heightened sense that we needed to hurry, as it was already past seven at that point.

Signs of civilization where suddenly everywhere, from cars to dogs to a huge reservoir right below us. Without realizing it, due to our mutual state of light-headed and fatigued relief combined with the need to hurry, we followed the rest of Benjamin’s exact path into town without either map or sign as a guide. As we walked down the road toward town, we kept looking back at the mountain, watching as the fog quickly drew in. We had made it off the mountain just in time.

We continued through the tunnel, down the promenade, and to the train station where Benjamin and his party turned themselves in to the police. And while we were only seeking a taxi, not an entry visa, there was something in the moment, connected to the themes of hopelessness and escape, that lingered with meaning.

After a few minutes’ worth of location-based and linguistic stumbling, we finally hailed a cab to Cerbère and then caught the very last train back to Perpignan.

*     *     *

While the official story is that Walter Benjamin died by suicide, there is an alternate, much more recent theory of the last day of Benjamin’s life, which many dismiss as conspiracy theory. Yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly supported by a combination of evidence and inconsistencies. This theory claims that he was murdered by either the Gestapo or by agents working for Josef Stalin, who had learned of his escape plans and were determined not to allow him to leave Europe.

Both the Gestapo and Stalin had adequate reasons to want him dead. Not only was he a Jew and a Marxist attempting to escape the Nazis, but he had also apparently offended Stalin quite personally with his most recent and final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Released in early 1940, “Theses” was a biting and influential critique of orthodox Marxism, and it was viewed by many as a betrayal of the tradition as well as a direct attack on the Soviet regime. There was also precedent for such an action on the part of Stalin. Leon Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City only a month earlier by an NKVD agent who was acting under direct orders from Stalin.

There are several oddities about his death that suggest that it was other than a suicide. First, theret was the suicide note itself, which many believe to be falsified because it had been written in French as opposed to his native German, and also contained inconsistencies regarding his location. And then there was the death certificate and related paperwork, which listed the cause of death as a stroke, not a drug overdose. There was also the fact that Benjamin was granted a Catholic burial in a Catholic cemetery, which would have been forbidden had he committed suicide. Finally, the fact that his briefcase disappeared also potentially points to a suspicious ending, especially given the degree to which he felt the need to keep its contents out of the hands of the Gestapo.

It is also notable that Portbou was a small, close-knit town and was rumored to be a Fascist stronghold with a reputation for hostility toward French and German refugees. Once Benjamin and his companions were detained, their presence in Portbou would have been anything but a secret, which created an ideal opportunity for agents of either Stalin or Hitler or anybody else for that matter who wished him dead.

How he truly died will always remain a mystery, as will the contents and the fate of the briefcase that disappeared after he perished. But his writings, his final days, and his life and death itself serve as a series of important lessons and reminders, not just of our past but our future possibilities and the potential we all hold to alter our fates through an understanding and analysis of what came before.

*   *   *

Through his life can be read the violent unfolding of the twentieth century, which destroyed not only him, but millions of others. Yet his writings envision a world not condemned to repeat its mistakes, unlike the defeatist cosmology of a Blanqui; a world in which the political subject still has recourse to revolutionary praxis, unlike the disempowering theory of a Habermas. Benjamin’s writings tell of other possibilities, models for future thinking and acting, re-encounters with the past and proposals for what might yet be to come. Such are his important living remains.” – Esther Leslie

I had known for several years now that Lisa Fittko had written a memoir about her experiences smuggling refugees over the Pyrénees, but it wasn’t until we got off that mountain and back to Perpignan that I felt an overwhelming and sudden urge to read her book. It’s almost as though I had deliberately overlooked it on one level and, yet only in hindsight, had recognized this fact, sensing that having read it would ruin my adventure somehow. But after completing the route, taking in Fittko’s recollections seemed to be a crucial piece of the puzzle which was that experience. It is akin to seeking out a book for its details after having seen the film version. After sensing and experiencing what we had over the course of the seven hours over the mountains, I felt need to fill in the potential gaps and the questions in my mind.

I ordered the book online from France, had it shipped to my home in Portland, and started to read it immediately upon my return home nearly a month after completing the hike over the Pyrénees. I was immediately taken in by her recollections, and quite blown away by both her overall story as well as by a few similarities between her experience on the mountain and our own.

Among other things, had I read Fittko’s book beforehand and known that it would be a 15km hike that would take twice as long as I assumed it would, I likely would not have attempted it. And yet learning that they had also assumed a much shorter hike brought our experience in step with Fittko and Benjamin’s in an oddly synchronistic way. In her memoir, Fittko wrote of Mayor Azéma’s “elastic” understanding of time in terms of what “a few hours” actually meant, a tendency which she noted was common in mountain dwellers. Seventy-five years later, I had discovered the same tendency in those who authored the many websites that spoke of a three-to-four hour hike. In both cases, this tendency resulted in similar experiences and conditions in terms of the non-mountain dwellers who took such advice at face value, and then proceeded to trek over the mountains.

But much more so than matters of time and distance, Fittko describes a certain disposition, a certain determination and desperation, a certain way about Benjamin that he overwhelmingly exuded in her presence throughout his last days. The sentiments in her expression and emotion were so familiar that it was though I had read her words many times before.

For tucked into her words and descriptions were the identical sentiments and thoughts that I had taken from the mountain itself that day. In tracing Walter Benjamin’s final hours, in gaining that perspective as we followed his final path and in our mirrored experiences during that journey, I feel as though I somehow collided into his spirit directly and to this day the resonance of that collision is not only lingering but ever strengthening. In following the footsteps of and paying tribute to a prophet whose heresies tragically collided with fate, what came forth was a new level of understanding, connection, and Work.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

   *     *     *

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

ABERDEEN, Scotland — A recent archaeological dig at a church in Scotland has helped bring the public perception of Witches and the history of their persecution into sharp focus. A team of scientists in Aberdeen uncovered up to 2,000 bodies and a cache of medieval archives showing that the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting was used in the 1500s as a “Witches’ prison.”

Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

One relic that has gripped the imagination of the public is an iron ring mounted on one of the walls (pictured below). It is believed to be where the accused were kept before going to trial. This, along with the rest of the finds, are a result of a 10-year project at the church, known locally as Mither Kirk, which is Scottish dialect for Mother Church. St Nicholas Uniting is the name of the Mother Church and Administrative Head Church of the city.

Through this find, on one level, a very vivid image of the persecution of Witches has emerged. The records that were unearthed demonstrate that details of the witch trials were painstakingly recorded by Church officials. Archivist Martin Hall said that those tried for witchcraft were “very frequently accused of healing diseases, usually using unusual methods”.

He added: “Janet Lucas (one of those recorded by the archive) is accused of taking threads from people’s clothes to heal or enchant them.”

In another example, a man called Andrew Mann was accused of “long-standing affairs with the Queen of the Elves” and “stealing a herd of cattle and leading dances through the countryside on All Hallow’s Eve”.

Those accused of Witchcraft were invariably burned at the stake, and the materials necessary to perform the burning, such as the number of tar barrels and the amount of wood, were painstakingly recorded.

General view Excavations in Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

General view Excavations in Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Parts of Mither Kirk date to 1150, and it currently still operates as a Church of Scotland site. The building’s eastern wing, which had not been in use for many years, was given the go ahead for development in 2003. When it was finished, the wing was opened up as a public facility for the people of Aberdeen.

Of the 2,000 bodies discovered during the dig, which began in 2010 in the Eastern zone’s old graveyard, only 900 bodies were considered completely or partially buried. The rest had been disturbed in some way, thought to be mostly due to placing new graves on top of existing ones.

A number of bodies were also found interred in the walls of the church itself. However, it is not yet known if any of those bodies are connected to the Witches’ prison, and it is also unclear why the story has only been covered by mainstream media now – long after the discoveries were first made.

Sensationalised coverage by the BBC placed a particular emphasis on the Witches’ ring. Project leader Dr Arthur Winfield admitted that he did not understand the media attention. He told The Wild Hunt: “It is only post-excavation work which is still ongoing, plus finding links to other information sources.”

“The [BBC] piece clearly focused on the use of St Mary’s Chapel as a prison for Witches in the 1590s,” he said. “There is a ring – which is quite insignificant – in the wall to which they were chained.”

Dr. Winfield also added, “I was rather sceptical but it seems that the city archives contain the itemised invoice for payment for putting the ring in place.”

Witch Ring found at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Witch Ring found at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, who is currently undertaking a major research project on the history of Witchcraft, stressed the fact that, in terms of news, there have been no new discoveries. He said: “The finding of unrelated burials in the church has reminded people of the iron rings in its vaults where accused criminals, including alleged witches, were held awaiting trial and execution. We always knew about these.”

Prof Hutton continued: “Aberdeen had an especially vicious mass witch hunt in 1596-7, in which local cunning folk got swept up with socially suspect characters, and convicted on confession, probably after torture.”

As Prof Hutton explains, Scotland’s record on the treatment of Witches differs sharply from that of neighbouring England. He said, “In Scotland it was very difficult to avoid conviction of Witchcraft, unlike in England where the acquittal rate was 75%, because the people who arrested the person accused were empowered by the government to act as her or his judges.

“The mode of execution was, however, similar, as English victims of Witch trials were hanged and the Scottish were usually strangled. But in England the bodies were then buried and in Scotland they were burnt.”

As Prof Hutton and project leader Dr Winfield both highlight, while there is a definite link to the persecution of Witches at the site, the extent and full nature of that link remains unclear at present. The find at Mither Kirk represents a great opportunity to discover more, not only about this fascinating period of history, but also of the history of Witchcraft in Britain.

Remains found in the wall [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Remains found in the wall [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

It is often said that these Witch trials and executions, on one level, served as public entertainment. With that in mind, it would appear that the modern sensationalist spin on the story, as presented in the British press, offers up the victims in that very way. Additionally, the BBC’s focus on the more grisly details of such an archaeological find is in keeping with the tradition of mainstream British media sensationalising any news story remotely Pagan.

But Ashley Mortimer, a trustee at the Doreen Valiente Foundation and director at the Centre For Pagan Studies, feels the spotlight that has been shone on Mither Kirk can still be seen as a positive. Mortimer said, “I think it shows the Pagan community not to forget where it came from, that our history informs us and those outside of our community of how we came to be here.”

Mortimer continued on to say: “That bloody history records that people who describe themselves as Witches were far fewer in times past and those that didn’t describe themselves often found others doing it for them – with dire consequences.

Burials at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Burials at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

“I think it reminds us that we occupy a place of equality in society now which we should treasure and value carefully, one we should remember was hard won over many, many years by those brave enough to stand up for our rights to do as we will and call ourselves what we will.

“Our ancestors deserve our gratitude and we owe it to our descendants to preserve the history – modern, ancient and in between – so that we may never forget where we came from and how we got to here.”

All of the details found in the archives will be put on public display, and the remains that were dug up will be reinterred in a specially built crypt in the church.

The true story of Mither Kirk’s Witches is still to be told, but for now we have been reminded of their presence.

*    *    *

For more background on the Witch Trials in Scotland, Professor Ronald Hutton recommends Brian P. Levack’s Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion by Brian P. Levack