There are many elements of community that help to build and sustain culture. Local community culture often ebbs and flows with the change of faces around the circle and the opportunities for engagement among the intersecting elements. The Bay Area, like most communities, has events, shops and memories that help to cultivate a local Pagan culture.

10858593_10153030684777552_6867534241222027502_nThe Pagan Festival has been one of the many such events in the Bay Area that has been a staple for the community for the last 14 years. This festival has been running since 2001, when it was previously known as the Interfaith Pagan Pride Parade and Celebration. Its name was later changed to the Pagan Alliance in 2004, and the festival ran annually until 2012. Due to multiple factors, the Pagan Alliance did not host the festival for two years.

The return of this event was a surprise when the Pagan Alliance announced in January the plans for a 2015 festival. People began to talk about the importance of this returning festival, and the need for opportunities to gather throughout the year. After two years, the 2012 “Keeper of the Light” would finally be able to pass the title on to a new nominated person.

T. Thorn Coyle, as the Keeper of the Light for 2012, would pass the torch to me; I had been nominated, and I had accepted the position of Keeper for 2015. Other Keepers of the Light from previous years include Patrick McCollum, M. Macha Nightmare, Anne Hill, Yeshe Mathews, Joi Wolfwoman, and many others.

The May 9 event offered more than a plethora of vendors, conversations and stage performances in the heart of Berkeley. People showed up to celebrate the return of this event, and to re-engage in the building of community relationships. The theme for the festival this year was “Spirituality Through Service” and there were many altars and speakers that engaged in this very topic.

[Photo: Stephanie Kjer]

[Photo: Stephanie Kjer]

The Pagan Alliance has always had a strong commitment to amplifying the discussions of topics that are very important to the local community, and that are crucial to its sustainability. According to its website:

The Pagan Alliance is committed to the education of the general public with the intention of changing public views, opinions and response to the Pagan Community. Through public education, we hope to create an increased acceptance and understanding, and to dispel common misconceptions.  We are committed to justice, and eliminating prejudice and ignorance in all communities, including all ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, age, size, abledness and class affiliations.We are also committed to incorporating sustainable living and “alternative” lifestyles into our events and speaker series.We sponsor activities and events that reflect how our traditions which are supportive and in tune with Nature, and play a positive role in healing human’s relationship with the Earth and with all cultures.

After two years of not having a festival, what motivated the Pagan Alliance to jumpstart it and reignite this mission in action? The Executive Director and President of the Board of Directors for the Pagan Alliance offered these collective thoughts on the matter;

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Arlynne Camire [Courtesy Photo]

The Pagan Alliance was motivated by the needs of the community that expressed itself through phone calls, emails and during the All Witches/All Pagans Meetings that have been happening in Bay Area.The Pagan Festival marks a turning of the wheel in the bay area and provides the community with a chance to come together. Pagans and non-Pagans get a chance to learn about other spiritual paths and enjoy a day together in community and Pagan Pride.
JoHanna Coash-White [Photo: Robin Dolan]

JoHanna Coash-White [Photo: R. Dolan]

All Pagan Paths have a component of service and we wanted to honor not only our Keeper of Light but also all members of our community who work tirelessly to organize events, rituals, provide chaplaincy to the community including Pagans in Captivity. We wanted to foster and teach the children/future leaders a strong sense of the importance of service and how each of them are able to make the world a better place through their actions. – Arlynne Camire, Exec. Director & JoHanna White, President

As the modern Pagan community thrives to understand what it takes to reach sustainability, it can be insightful to look at how we benefit from consistent patterns and engagement within our local Pagan environment. Local areas will have different values but consistent opportunities for connection with other Pagans appear to be a universally appreciated value.

T.Thorn Coyle, the 2012 Keeper of the Light, has been holding the position since it was passed to her by the 2011 Keeper of the Light Yeshe Mathews. As the only Keeper of the Light to hold the position for longer than a year, Coyle spoke to me about her feelings about the importance of the festival returning; how holding this position has impacted her personally; and her intentions in designing the main ritual at the festival.

T. Thorn Coyle and Crystal Blanton(courtesy Stephanie Kjer)

T. Thorn Coyle and Crystal Blanton [Photo Credit: Stephanie Kjer]

I asked, “How do you feel that the return of the festival impacts the local Pagan Community in the Bay Area?” Coyle said:

I think the community has missed the festival. As Pagans, we have personal and community rituals we come to rely upon, and often take for granted until something like financial woes or family illness takes them away from us for a time. Then we realize the impact these rituals have on our lives. The festival put on by the Pagan Alliance is one of these rituals. A few individuals put out a huge amount of work, enabling the community to gather for music, performance, and to listen to one another. Regardless of what traditions we follow, this sort of coming together impacts us all.

The gratitude I offer to the Pagan Alliance for this service is enormous. I felt grateful for the Festival’s return.

I also asked her, “How do you feel being the keeper of the light for 2012 (and the two years after) impacted you spiritually and personally?” She responded:

Being chosen as Keeper of the Light in 2012 was an honor, of course. But at the time, I thought of it as just that: a symbolic office used to honor local Pagans for their contributions to community. By the time I had held that office for three years (because the festival was on hold), I came to realize it is much more.

Keeper of the Light is a real energetic position that gets passed from person to person, imbued with power and responsibility from the community at large. By power and responsibility, I don’t mean authority. What I am talking about is a sense that we truly are holding up a light for others, keeping the larger community in our energetic awareness, paying greater attention, and being available to community members in a variety of ways. By the end of three years, I was starting to need some distance from that, and a diminishment of that power and responsibility. It is no mistake that my path has taken a sideways course into writing fiction right now. My soul needs a break after carrying that public office.

Now, both you and I do this work in a variety of ways, but in my experience, being Keeper of the Light amplified the work I was already doing. I suspect it may have a similar effect on you, Crystal.

This is why when it came time to pass the office, I designed the ritual so that the gathered community members would raise energy that would specifically support your ability to hold this power. As I wrote in the ritual description: “The magical intention of the passing of the staff and gifting of the lantern is to lend strength and support to Priestess Crystal Blanton to enable her to continue her work –not only for our Pagan community, but all of the communities she serves throughout the Bay Area– and to do this work in good health, integrity, prosperity, and love.”

During ritual, everyone gathered in that circle pumped health, integrity, prosperity, and love into that staff, which I then blessed you with. I also gave you a smaller lantern than the one I was gifted with in hopes that carrying the light this year can be done with ease!

I give thanks to you, to the Pagan Alliance, and to the Bay Area Pagan Community for their service, and for giving me the chance to serve. And I bless you, one thousand times over.

Walking around the grounds of the park, in the middle of Berkeley, I caught glimpses of people hugging, laughing, shopping, talking and spending time in the sun. Alongside the park was the busy Farmer’s Market, bringing a very publicly visible Pagan event to those in the local area. The stage show consisted of musical artists, belly dancers, chanting and speeches. The Author’s Circle hosted a list of author talks and book signings of local Bay Area writers.

I have always held positive memories of this festivals from years past. This year was the same. This one day event appeared to have a lot of impact on those who attended the festivities as well.

Heaven Walker

Heaven Walker

The pagan festival builds solidarity in the pagan community. Being pagan, especially if you are a solitary practitioner, can be a very lonely experience. People come to church seeking spiritual connection and community. Pagan circles are often closed circles or very intimate affairs. The pagan festival gives pagans who have not found community the ability to connect with other pagans and feel pride and agency in their spirituality and /or religion. This festival was particularly poignant because of  the theme of “serving our community.” For me social justice and service are the work of a High Priestess. It was good to be reminded as a community that to be in service to the Goddess is also, to be in service to one another. – Heaven Walker

Yeshe Mathews

Yeshe Mathews

I really missed the Pagan Festival in Berkeley when it was on hiatus, and I am glad it’s back.The Pagan Fest gives us “locals” a chance to mingle, support one another’s projects, and enjoy a beautiful day in the park together…right alongside the wider Berkeley community who shop at the adjacent Farmer’s Market. It’s one of the most publicly-accessible, visible Pagan events I have attended, and it’s a great opportunity to show one another and the wider community what we are about. – Yeshe Mathews, 2011 Keeper of the Light

Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey

I moved to the Bay Area five years ago with dreams.  There are SO MANY Pagans here, but there are also SO MANY other people here that it often takes up to 90 minutes to drive 30 miles.  And while public transit is a nice option for some, it would take me 3 hours to get from my home to a place like Berkeley.  There are some great Pagan scenes in the Bay Area, but the different communities don’t see each other very much.  Some of that is because our traditions don’t allow for a lot of crossover, but a lot of it is simply because it’s too hard to get one another.

The return of the Pagan Festival, changes all of that, at least for a few hours.  Suddenly I’m seeing my friends in the North Bay (two and a half hours away), and seeing my friends in Reclaiming, and even running into people from far away locales like Sacramento.  The Pagan Festival was a nice way to meet up with a lot of people, people I generally only see at PantheaCon.

It wasn’t perfect by any means.  I’ve heard that a lot of newcomers to the Bay Area Pagan scene were kind of lost, but it was a good re-start.  We are all very good at doing “our things” but we aren’t always very good at doing “everyone things. – Jason Mankey

Nathania Apple

Nathania Apple

We are very fortunate in the Bay Area to have practitioners from many and varied traditions and it was thrilling to see them come together for a public Pagan celebration. A festival in the center of a bustling city like Berkeley raises our profile in the broader community and draws attendance from families and other individuals for whom the commitment of time and finances for a weekend away at a hotel or out of town are prohibitive. It was also an opportunity for the community to witness the depth of the work that local Pagans are doing in social justice, and to invite them to take part.

As I walked through the crowd with my daughter and smiled at familiar faces and stopped to chat with friends and acquaintances, I felt that warm glow in the center of my chest, the one that says, “These are your people. This is a place where you belong.  – Nathania Apple

Community organizing allows for important moments of socializing, collaboration and the building of new memories. It was a fun filled day in the sun with friends both old and new, laughter, excitement and opportunity. I had a great time with fellow practitioners in the Bay.  I took the time to remember what a thriving local community looks and feels like. I was reminded of why it can be very important for people to be in same space with others in order to engage in meaningful community, and not just regulated to online spaces. The power of presence can support a lot of coalition building and supportive activism.

The return of this festival in the Bay Area will hopefully continue to inspire collaborative spaces among the factions of the area and promote healthy engagement, as well as show the importance of cultivating those things that will help to empower the local groups. I am personally honored to hold the position of Keeper of the Light for 2015, and to promote the important work of spirituality through service.

The Pagan Alliance has quickly transitioned from months of planning and preparation for this festival, to the planning and preparation for the memorial of one of the founding board members. James Bianchi passed away on May 11, two days after the return of the festival. The Pagan Alliance, the Spark Collective, the House of Danu, and his family are planning the memorial currently to honor his life and contributions within the Pagan Community.

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[Today we welcome guest writer Anomalous Thracian, a Polytheist Priest and spirit worker living in the North East. He is the director at Polytheist.com and blogger at Thracian Exodus.]

POLYTHEISM (Noun, plural polytheisms): the belief in the existence of multiple gods.

Polytheists today exist around the world, as expressions of both continuous ancient cultures and traditions, and of newly restored, reconstructed, or received religious traditions. The word “polytheist” comes, by way of French, from the ancient Greek (polus + theos) meaning “many gods,” and refers to persons or groups who affirm with religious regard the distinct and differentiated reality of many gods, frequently alongside many other groups or systems of spirits and lesser divinities.

John Reinhard Weguelin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Reinhard Weguelin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although many Polytheists are also Pagans, these movements, identities and religious traditions can be differentiated from the larger Pagan or Neo-Pagan movements. Polytheists hold intrinsic affirmations of a non-reductive theological premise, which does not “collapse down” into the binary dualism (God + Goddess) popularized in some branches of Wicca; nor a theistic monism (such as is often found in Western Occultism); nor a pantheist or panentheist regard for the nature and identities of the gods. Instead, Polytheists celebrate worshipfully the myriad diversity of their pantheon(s) and hold a focus on unique relationships. Relationships, by definition, require the affirmation of differentiated beings, and thus Polytheist identity, practice, and belief can be best understood as religions of relation.

For many Polytheists these relationships are of central paradigmic importance, rather than peripheral, social, or magical in nature, and unfold as not only dynamics of deliberate devotion or dedication, but also shape one’s total world-view and experiences. The experiences that many Polytheists have may put them outside the scope of the practical framework of the majority’s popular, secular ideas or assertions, or social philosophies held by peers and neighbors. As “identity” is a defining quality not merely of what one does, but instead who and what one is, a Polytheist identity has a significant influence in how individual devotees (whether laity or clergy) interpret and respond to the various relationships that they hold within the world-at-large.

Religions, and the spiritual considerations therein, often sit as defining characteristics of this person’s life. When acknowledging the reality of the many gods and many spirits to be found in all areas of life, and indeed seeking conscious relationship with them through practices and living traditions, it is difficult to do very much of anything without recognition for the other beings, agencies, and divine powers inherent in shared (or directed) presence.

While many Polytheists are also Pagan identified or affiliated in some way, it is not fair or accurate to assume that these are the same thing. For starters, there is simply no agreed-upon way that “Pagan theology or religious identity” can be defined. Many Pagans are Humanists, Atheists, Dualists, and non-theistic monists, and many are also strictly interested in the social and interactive side of the Pagan “umbrella” while maintaining staunch anti-religious and anti-devotional stances.

[Courtesy Anomolous. Thracian]

[Courtesy Anomalous. Thracian]

Modern Paganism is a uniquely Western idea and set of movements, with its important roots and relevance deeply seated specifically in the modern Western cultures, as demonstrated in the vital focus on social, spiritual, and magical responses to dominant power structures inherent in the civic and social landscapes around them. Polytheists, on the other hand, are specifically religious and theological in their identities, and many have never had any relationship to the larger Pagan movement at all, nor do they seek any. It has been suggested by some Pagan leaders that Polytheists represent a “subordinate strata” to Paganism. However, by and large, the suggestion is often found to be offensive, supremacist and wholly inaccurate by Polytheists.

The distinction between Paganism and Polytheism is necessary; not to force any conflict or competition, but quite the opposite, to allow for each to have its own needs and considerations. The intent of this article is to help provide clarifying language and structures for discussing and navigating Polytheist religion, religious identity, personal identity, and the various advocacy/religious rights considerations necessary to ensure dignity, safety and respect moving forward.

All of this can really be presented in just three basic structures: 1) Polytheist identity, 2) polytheistic religious groups, and 3) the Polytheist Movement, which are to be defined as follows:

  • “Polytheist” as an identifier, (e.g. “I am a Polytheist”) is an opt-in religious identifying term which communicates affirmation of many gods held in religious regard, at a level which is understood to intersect in a defining way with that person’s identity. Rather than merely being an affiliation with a community or practice that they are involved with, it is something that they are. This term is self-applied, and not generally assumed by others to apply to a person because of their involvement with a certain group. (It would be summarily wrong-headed to do otherwise, just as assuming a person is not Polytheist because of their affiliation with, for example, Wicca, as there are many Wiccans who are Polytheist religionists, in addition to their initiatory relationships to one or more of the Wiccan witchcraft traditions.) This term does not refer to a single religion or a finite number of religions; it refers instead to the identity of a person with regard to their religious realities and experiences.
  • Next, “polytheistic traditions” and groups are religious traditions which are assumed to hold polytheistic frameworks of engagement, practice and belief. However, just as many religions in the world have their fair share of secular or atheist or non-theist persons in their internal communities, affiliation with a polytheistic tradition or group does not necessarily mean that a person is a Polytheist identified religionist. Affiliation with groups or traditions may or may not have their own rubrics for determining eligibility, whereas the Polytheist identifier (described above) defines clearly and simply that this person self-identifies as affirming many gods in religious regard, at a level that is part of who they are rather than merely who they relate to in community.

Traditions are containers that provide structures for directing community and worship to the gods, as well as that which may be received from the gods, based on unique agreements with those gods. Presumably, polytheistic traditions are most appealing to identified Polytheists but, as with all organizations, the human factor will invariably include some who may not be. However, such inclusions should not be considered in a manner that challenges the group’s affirmed stances of many gods, else the container becomes either broken or rendered without meaning, and the sacred agreements violated. One may not be required to be an identified Polytheist in order to participate in a polytheistic religious group, as identity is a complex and personal thing that is explored and discovered, rather than chosen (or applied).

  • The “Polytheist Movement” is a loosely organized human rights and religious rights movement made up of affiliated Polytheist-identified religionists and their allies, who are seeking to: expand the popular understandings of what Polytheist religion and identity is all about; increase the protections and dignities that they are promised by universal declarations; create outreach, education, and networking platforms for engagement. It is not a religion, or even a group of religions. It is a rights-based movement with the mission to protect those Polytheist-identified individuals from harm, erasure, and oppressive hostility. Its interests and aims are primarily in education, visibility, outreach and alliance, serving the needs of both Polytheist-identified persons and polytheistic religious groups, traditions and lineages.

The Polytheist Movement has been around for as long as Polytheists have sought to differentiate themselves and their needs from surrounding spiritual or theistic groups or dynamics. This differentiation is, again, not because of any value-assessment, judgment, or rivalry, but because the needs of many Polytheist-identified persons (due to their direct experiences and affirmed world-views), and polytheistic religious groups (and their rituals or inclusive membership considerations), are not easily met or even understood without such distinctions. Differentiation allows for specific considerations and the establishment of methodologies to serve the actual specific needs of specific religious dynamics, without upsetting or upending the structures of other groups or identities to whom those needs are not relevant.

Many voices of leadership within both individual polytheistic religions and the Polytheist Movement have used writing as a focus for the work of satisfying the unique needs of Polytheists. Some Polytheists hold doctorates and professions in academia, others have cultivated independent research and learning for the purposes of religious reconstructionism and restoration, while others practice ecstatic or newly received traditions absent of scholarship.

Despite a healthy relationship to academia and the study of past cultures and histories, polytheistic religions are very much living religions today. Polytheists are interested in facing the same challenges of modernity as everyone else, and drawing on the wisdom of ancestral or ancient cultures does not equate to believing that we are those peoples.

Polytheist writing, whether within the format of blogging, online columns, or books and journals, generally falls into three categories: 1) Experiential and spiritual; 2) Devotional; and 3) Theological, Structural, or Organizational. The first covers ecstatic and mystic topics, testimonies, challenges and cautions as written by liminally inclined mystics and spirit-workers. The second refers to collections of praise poems, hymns, songs, rituals, and general devotional collections. The third is interested in the more intellectual, philosophical or organizational approaches to the subject, such as discussions and debates around the nature of experiences with the gods. While many of these works hold relevance and interest to those in non-Polytheist circles, the works are written primarily for those who are identified as Polytheists, practicing polytheistic religions, or learning about these religions for the purposes of being an ally.

universal-declaration-of-hu
As minority religions (even within the intersecting Pagan communities), Polytheists often struggle with issues of oppressive prejudice. These prejudices are, by literal definition, acts of conscious or unconscious violation of human rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees:

Article 18
1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of [their] choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [their] religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair [their] freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of [their] choice.

Article 27
In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

As with any case of social and cultural prejudice, Polytheists and polytheistic religions can benefit from healthy social justice considerations and, of course, from allies who are interested in supporting the rights, respects, dignities and protections inherently due to Polytheists.

Many Polytheists are involved in social justice and civic work in other communities independent of religion – such as economic disparity, systemic racism and racial inequality, homophobia, transphobia, and greater LGBTQ activism, women’s rights and minority cultural advocacy. They act as either allies to these vital human rights causes, or as intersectional members of these groups. As the visibility of Polytheist issues, erasure, and the hostilities often directed at us and our religious groups has grown, so too has a place for Allies to Polytheists who are not themselves religiously defined in this way, but support our needs all the same.

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10 Steps to Being a Good Ally to Polytheists

1. Be a listener to Polytheists in your life. Polytheists often report that others – often those from Pagan communities – do not listen to them, or attempt to re-frame what they self-report in a way the undermines, reduces, dismisses, pathologizes, or otherwise erases the experiences and identities of the Polytheists in question. We don’t care if you consider us “a type of Pagan” or “a subordinate strata” of Paganism. When a group is taking the time to respectfully discuss the erasure, hostility and oppression that they are experiencing, it is probably a good time to stop erasing them, their ideas and their identities. To be an ally is to listen and to learn.

2. Be open-minded. Polytheist religionists do not represent a single religion, but both a category of religion and a category of experience, which are themselves myriad and far-ranging. Not all Polytheists worship or affirm all gods from all pantheons, while others do. Not all Polytheists have direct and singly transformative, and redefining causal relationships with the gods, wherein they know-and-feel them in a tremendous and mystic fashion. They simply affirm the experiences of others who do, and recognize that their own relationships, devotions, and prayerful worship are equally valid, in a world populated by many gods, many spirits and many types of people.

Polytheists may report experiences of their gods or spiritual practices, which can confuse a 21st century secularist. To be a good ally, it is important to understand that your comfort with another person’s religion, practices, experience or identity is not relevant when approaching the subject with compassion, respect, and the universally declared statements of human rights pertaining to religious practice and identity. To many Polytheists, their religious identity is as essential to them as their gender, profession, place in society, or sexual orientation, and in many cases even defines some of these.

3. Be willing to talk to and about Polytheists in a positive way. Communicate with the group to which you’re trying to be an ally. Reach out. We love talking. That’s why so many Polytheist religionists are online attempting to engage, build bridges and, well, communicate. But on the topics of our religions and our experiences, please start with “listening” and “being open minded.” Do not attempt to tell us that we are “wrong,” “nutters,” “mentally ill,” “crazy,” “fundamentalists,” “fascists,” or that we need to be “culled from the herd.” Please do not send us death threats, threats of violent sexual assault, threats of using your academic or institutional professional power to see us locked up, detained, or dehumanized as unfit for society, because you do not believe in our experiences and affirmed identities. Please, as allies, talk to us, but do not talk at us. We will not threaten to have you killed, assaulted, institutionalized, or “culled,” either.

4. Be inclusive and invite Polytheist friends to things. Inclusivity is appreciated. Being shunned by Pagan and other religious or secular communities does happen, because sometimes Polytheists have different ways of being. Because our gods are affirmed as real and of consequence, as are spirits engaged throughout our world, some of us have lifestyle qualities – such as taboos, required actions, food or clothing restrictions, and so forth – which you may not understand. There is no “list” of what these are, because our gods have all kinds of different plans and functions for us. Just as there are many differentiated gods, there are many differentiated ways of being in relationship to those gods, and some of us may stand out in some way as a result of our religious identity. Please try to understand and respect this, and do not assume that we are judging other people who do not follow our way.

5. Do not assume that everyone is theistically (religiously) identified the way that you are. Do not assume, for example, that everyone who talks about religion is a monotheist. Please do not assume that “religion” means “monotheism.” Someone close to you could be looking for support in their process of defining their Polytheist experiences and identity. Not making assumptions will help to give them the space they both need and deserve.

Presentation1 Thracian

[Courtesy Anomalous Thracian]

Many people who self-identify as Polytheist also self-report that they felt a great deal of relief, salvation, and safety simply by realizing that there was a “Polytheist Movement.” The Polytheist religious identifier was specific enough to differentiate their experiences of the world, of the gods, and of themselves that they felt safe and protected with it, but still broad enough to non-competitively provide those identity protections to a number of Polytheist religious paths, traditions, and approaches. Let me say that again: people report that they feel that their lives have been saved, as in literally, by being able to identify in this way.

When you attack or dismiss the Polytheist identity, you are directly dismissing the identity of at-risk demographics who are asking you to please see them as a valuable part of this world, or at the very least a part of this world that deserves to be respected. Please do not make blanket anti-religious statements, or anti-religion stances: sharing memes on the internet and so forth which promote an anti-religion New Atheism, whether you identify as an atheist or not, is harmful to many Polytheists. Please do not do that. If you would like to discuss specific concerns regarding religion, whether formal or informal, please do so while specifying and differentiating those things from “religion” or “devotion” or “piety” or “worship” in general. Chances are pretty good that most Polytheists feel almost the same way you do about those “big bad villains,” who have a long history of enacting tremendous global atrocities and centuries of colonial cultural erasure. Maybe we can be allies to an anti-colonial, anti-corruption movement together. But can we do so in a way that doesn’t erase our Polytheist religious rights, freedoms, and intrinsic identity.

6. Anti-religion and anti-theistic jokes, comments, and statements are harmful. Let people, including your family, friends, co-workers, and peers know that you find these to be offensive and unacceptable. This one should be self explanatory. Religion is a tremendously important part of world culture and personal identity. Making jokes about people for being religious or having religions is not different than attacking or dismissing or dehumanizing them for any other reason. Anti-theism is not funny, and humor intended to suggest that those with religious and theistic views are ignorant, mentally ill, or culturally devolved is an expression of callous supremacy. Supremacy is not funny.

7. Confront your own prejudices and privileges even when it is uncomfortable to do so. There are many helpful guides online and at your local library. Look for books and websites that explore the topics of internalized systemic prejudice and privilege. Many of the mechanics of oppression dynamics, bigotries, and socially inherited behaviors, like these, are shared in common between different forms of marginalization. You may find yourself benefiting from studying other social justice movements (such as understanding systemic racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia) in your pursuits of understanding how to not oppress, or even how to become an ally, to your Polytheist friends, peers, or neighbors.

8. Defend your Polytheist friends against prejudice, discrimination and erasure. Statements of alliance and support are welcome. Many Polytheists report feeling that when they were targeted with discrimination or violence, others – even in Paganism – would find ways to describe it as somehow justified, as if the Polytheist were “asking for it.” If you are looking to be an ally to Polytheist religionists, please show them that they are not alone, and you will defend their rights and their dignity. Show them that you see them, and value them as a part of your society.

9. Act in accordance with a belief that all people, regardless of religious identity or experience, should be treated with unconditional dignity and respect; even when that identity or experience are different from your own.  Check your own intellectual entitlement at the door, and recognize that your understanding of another group’s identity or practices is not relevant to your affirmation that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Do not try to “force” Polytheist identified people, or polytheistic religious traditions, into your definitions of Paganism: this is both disrespectful and in many cases inaccurate. The modern Pagan movement is popularly understood to be a thing defined by its inclusive and accepting approach to relating to the natural world, and it is considered dishonoring (and dishonorable) to force a system of identity in this way. Acts of respecting empowered visible individuation, agency, and identity are preferable to those that silence the will and wishes of a person or group, in favor of one’s own feelings.

10. If you see Polytheist religions, traditions, or persons identified religiously and devotionally in this way being misrepresented in the media, report it. Please contact the editors at Polytheist.com or wildhunt.org.

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Polytheists and polytheistic religious traditions are here to stay and the Polytheist Movement is here to ensure that that path is clear, safe, and respectful. With the rise in Polytheist visibility, we have the freedom to begin discussing our experiences, practices and theologies in accessible mediums, defiant of hostilities that seek to silence or institutionalize us in some manner.  We will value the supportive gestures of our allies to these important ends.

Polytheist.com banner

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All of us in this shared world sit within an age of change, of uneasy shifting stances and shifty glances side-to-side as we cross the roads of today toward a planned-for tomorrow that will perhaps better accommodate the many needs of the many kinds of people, groups and religions to be found throughout. The world that we fight for, that we march for with booted feet to tired ground, and that we build for stone-by-stone and board-by-board, must be a world possessing the maturity and grace to see and respect the myriad expressions of life and society that will be found within it. Rights and freedoms for all peoples and groups, and critical identifications are the currency of the future.

Polytheists view the world as being made of an infinite system of relationships between distinct and distinguished agents, human and other-than-human, populated by many gods to whom we can bring our petitions and receive the guidance toward building this future. We are invested in that future; in having space, breath, voice and visibility, and in collaborating to protect and preserve these for all those who will emerge to continue and carry as illuminating torches our traditions and devotions into a thousand futures, who will, in our inevitable passing, hold the way for those who will follow.

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[Author’s Note: Special thanks to GLAAD.ORG for providing inspiration for the structure and tone of the above “10 Steps” ally guide.]

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BERKSHIRE MOUNTAINS, Massachusetts –For the 37th year, members and friends of the EarthSpirit Community gathered this past week for the Rites of Spring. Like many Pagan festivals, this is a private affair for which advance registration is required. Participants are expected to aid in building a temporary community in the woods, wherein the focal point is the very maypole that represents the season in this, and many other, Pagan traditions. Radiating outward from that beribboned symbol of fertility Pagans and friends circled, danced, learned, laughed, drank in the gifts of the Earth and returned a fair portion to the mountain which plays host year in an year out.

Long before that stout log was hoisted towards the sky, tireless volunteers began weaving an invisible web which would define and support the weeklong festival. The strands are unseen because they have been spun and woven again and again over the years, but the web created is a strong one. Upon arriving at my first Rites of Spring, that web surrounded and supported me every step of the way. Clear signage guided my faithful car, Bucephalus, and I to the registration area, and if I got turned around, there was always someone to set me back on the path towards the gate.

After my ritual entry, I was smoothly led through a registration process that practically didn’t need my participation. The registrars confirmed my arrival, attached a wrist band to identify my meal plan, verified that I was planning on using a tent rather than staying in a cabin, and directed me to my selected tent site, as well as to the permanent parking area for when I was done unloading. An unbreakable, invisible infrastructure kept me on task and oriented, ensuring that I would have housing and food taken care of no matter how gobsmacked I became.

Andras Corban Arthen (courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art)

Andras Corban Arthen (courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art)

The entire site had been transformed by a core group of village builders, who arrive some days ahead of the main body of attendees, and who numbered about 400 this year. Andras Corban Arthen, who coordinates the annual gathering with his wife, Deirdre Pulgram Arthen, recalled that in the first year, Rites of Spring was a learning experience. He said, “It quickly became apparent that rituals designed for a living room don’t work for a hundred people,” which is how many attended that first festival.

While as many as 700 have attended some years, the traditions of the EarthSpirit Community — and even the modern Pagan community — were just being formed at that time. “I had the only drum there, and no one was interested in having a fire,” Corban Arthen admits as part of recounting the history of the organization. When a fire was finally lit and some started to dance, “others were almost repulsed,” he said, because “that’s not in the book of shadows.”

Fire plays a core part in Rites of Spring each year, being kindled as part of the first ritual and providing space for personal and group sacred work throughout the week. The web of support is particularly vibrant in the fire shrine: food donations are actively sought for the drummers and dancers, water is copious, and safety protocols are always in place, but never noticeable unless needed. Want to dance into trance from sunset until sunrise? Rest assured trance spotters will be aware of you, even if you’re not aware of your own surroundings. Providing someone the space to walk their own path, but ensuring they remain hydrated and safe, is one of the many gifts found on this community’s web.

Dancing the maypole (courtesy EarthSpirit Community)

Dancing the maypole [Courtesy EarthSpirit Community]

The central ritual field is where the massive maypole is erected. It quickly becomes a focal point of community. One group seeks out the hefty pole (which is used annually as long as it can be) and brings it to the field, where the hole has been made ready by others in the ritual. Like everything the EarthSpirit Community does together, dancing the maypole is performed to the tune of original chants, to which everyone seems to know the words and tunes.

That’s partly because the words and tunes are easy to learn, and partly because so many people attend again and again. About 20% of the attendees this year were newcomers, which Pulgram Arthen said is similar to past years. However, it was not difficult to find oneself in conversation with someone who had attended 20 or 30 prior Rites of Spring, and even a nine-year-old who had technically been to ten of them.

The age range this year ran from three babies still in bellies up to 73 years of age, and there were spaces and places for all. Once the ribbons adored the maypole, the depth of this community was given face as people approached it and announced milestones from the prior year: births and deaths, graduations and jobs, joys and sorrows. Like so many traditions at this festival, the process of sharing allowed people space for their news, but was efficient enough that the energy did not lag.

Keeping hundreds of Pagans occupied from Wednesday until Monday, particularly when they are so diverse in their ages and interests, was another opportunity to deepen the web of community. This multi-day event is a time when affinity groups, fostered by EarthSpirit, are able to meet and explore common interests. The daily schedule reserved a slot for these groups alone. For example, this year’s scheduled included a slot for participants 50 and over; one for those who have studied Faery Seership; and another for those exploring the role of queer energy in Paganism. For others, this time was an opportunity to explore nature or spend time connecting with old friends. Overall, the daily schedule was designed to provide space for magical moments that make a festival come alive in one’s memories, be it over a game of cards or a quiet conversation shared under the stars.

Weaving the web (courtesy EarthSpirit Community)

Weaving the web [Courtesy EarthSpirit Community]

While affinity groups use Rites of Spring to strengthen bonds, this festival also has space for intensives: classes which take place each day to allow for some mastery of the subject. With most of these sessions taking place during the same morning slot, participants were less likely to face the age-old problem of missing out on several other workshops to join in. Options included spending the morning drumming, walking the labyrinth, learning the ways of northern or Indian traditions, or mastering the art of spinning poi. Most of these intensives were structured to allow those who arrive later in the festival to drop in and learn.

Other classes targeted specific demographics, such as the Vulva Dialogues and several aimed at the younger generation of festival-goers. The Wilderness Survival intensive, for 9-15-year-olds, may have generated the most adult envy; youngsters learned about tracking, fire-building, camouflage, and spent the night in shelters they built themselves.

Deirdre Pulgram Arthen (courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art)

Deirdre Pulgram Arthen [Courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art]

The web holding together the Rites of Spring is not just a metaphor: EarthSpirit Community comes together each year to weave one around the maypole, transforming the ritual field into an even more magical space. The anchoring strands, which all stand for such varied spirits as the wisdom of the elders, insights of the seeker, animals, plants, and elements, are held by adults, while young and old alike weave colorful strands throughout to create a web made of chaotic joy. Each person is given a chance to weave their piece into this web, creating a magic which lasts long after the last tent stake is pulled up.

Part of the tradition is for pieces to go home as talismans, or materials for creating something new. Two such items appeared in this year’s auction, and fetched handsome prices. The auction is another annual piece of the festival, with proceeds this year going towards sending a delegation to A Parliament of World’s Religions, and to helping to upgrade EarthSpirit’s web presence.

In addition to an amazing assortment of hand-crafted items, a number of community members put themselves on the block to be “serving wenches” of any gender for the sumptuous feast. This celebratory spread, open to all participants whether they paid for a meal plan or not, is served buffet style. Winning a server at auction means more time to spend building community, and less time on line filling one’s plate.

As was the case frequently during the week, the atmosphere of the feast was livened by Brizeus, the pipe-and-drum band which is contracted to make everything more awesome. At any time, one could be surprised by bagpipes rolling across the site’s lake, or find oneself joining in a sing-along of Beatles and Floyd played on guitar.

Within this web of music, ritual, workshop, and quiet space, there was somehow room more. Late nights at Rites featured a number of musicians, as well as DJ dance parties and karaoke blow-outs. Professional-class storytelling and fire spinning rounded out the entertainment options. Lovers of ritual could choose a Heathen blot, ancestor devotionals, Quaker silent worship, labyrinth walking, and several others focusing on various magical and religious paths. Workshops numbered in the dozens, not including the intensives already noted. There was even an opportunity for Pagans in recovery to join in 12-step meetings. The web was strong enough to allow everyone to be as busy as a bee, as quiet as a mouse, or to change gears at a moment’s notice.

Rooting out invasive plants.

Rooting out invasive plants. [Courtesy EarthSpirit Community]

Perhaps one of the most heartfelt parts of the festival is when Pagans are asked to act in accordance with their beliefs, and give back to the mountain. Groups of all ages gathered with tools and gloves to seek out and remove invasive species and litter. One Japanese barberry, in particular, showed how intractable a plant out of its place can be, breaking several tools over the course of an hour or more. But it did not break the spirt of the people intent to removing it; the massive root ball was later displayed as would any great kill would be by its hunters. This heaviest work went to those in prime physical condition, but there was also plenty of garlic mustard and litter to collect along the roadsides. Most invasives at the site come in on trucks, according to Isobel Arthen, but this annual practice has measurably reduced their impact on the land.

The transition back to everyday life can be a hard one, which is probably why it can take so long to say good-bye and hit the road. EarthSpirit has rituals to support this work, as well. Monday morning, a group of visitors sang a-maying songs throughout the camp, announcing the it was time to take down and pack up. When the community gathered one last time around the bewebbed maypole, the many people who helped to make the festival happen came forth to be acknowledged: not just the teachers and village builders and kitchen crew, but the newcomers and children and others who rounded out this temporary community were cheered.

Taking down the web was, of course, accompanied by the song “Carry it Home,” a perfect choice to help keep the magic of this time and place in one’s heart. And while most attendees sang their tearful partings as they processed back through the gate, their cars were being quietly moved around so that vehicles which had been packed like sardines were now all accessible for a quick load and leave. Even after the physical web had been taken down, the strands of support just made even those final mundane tasks a whole lot easier.

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218px-Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skiesOn Saturday, Ireland voted “yes” to legalize same sex marriage, making it the first country to do so by popular vote. Susan Large, moderator of the Irish Pagan Movement Facebook page, said, “As Pagans we are delighted as our small community welcomes many Gay couples and we view this vote as a wonderful vote for Love and for freedom. Ireland has shown the way for others to follow and this vote is a remarkable demonstration of how enlightened a nation can be. We hope and pray that other countries will help this small flame to burn even brighter.”

11193216_1426113094372944_669836385512419440_nTurnout was reportedly very high at 60% of the 3.2 million eligible to vote. For some, the win was a surprise in a country that is considered to be conservative and traditionally Catholic. However, the vote proves that a cultural shift has happened. In response, the Pagan Federation Ireland changed its logo and said, “A happy day for everyone, not just the LGBT community, as Ireland votes Yes to marriage equality. The Yes vote for equality benefits us all, even those who voted No. But once the euphoria of victory and the celebrations are over, we must remember that many remain to be convinced, and that will take time and patience. The fight for equality continues.”

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Last week we reported on the start of festival season and the various upcoming events. Another one that is on the horizon is The Morrigan’s Call. Although many festivals and conferences have themes, only a few focus on a specific deity. In this case, it’s The Morrigan. Organizers say, “Do you hear her voice whispering to you on the wind? Do you feel her presence in the shadows calling to you? Can you feel her warrior spirit stir within you? The Morrigan is calling to us once again …Join us for a weekend of ritual work, devotional practices, kinship and workshops dedicated to the Morrigan, the Irish goddess of sovereignty and battle.”

Similar to Reclaiming’s Witchcamp, The Morrigan’s Call is a retreat intensive to learn about this “dynamic goddess” and “how to embrace her transformation in your life.” Organized by Morrigu’s Daughters, the retreat is open to both men and women. After the 2014 event, Morgan Daimler wrote in a blog post, “We came together to honor Her, and we did; in word, and song, in ritual, and prayer, in communion with each other and by sharing our experiences and insights with each other. And it was an awesome and amazing thing to experience.”  This year’s retreat will be held at Camp Cedarcrest in Orange, Connecticut and runs from June 12 – 14. Tickets and information can be found on Facebook or at Brown Paper Tickets.

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Lapd seal

Last week’s meet and greet, held at the West Valley Area Los Angeles Police Department, was reportedly a huge success. Co-organizer Wendilyn Emrys, a Pagan Priestess and activist, said that more than thirty Pagans showed up and filled the community room at the station. From the LAPD, co-organizer Captain John Egan was joined by both a former and a current Hate Crime Detective, and a Deputy City’s Attorney. Emrys said, “Frankly, the really surprising thing about the event was how many Pagan Officers showed up.” Although she added that more didn’t come for fear of being “outed” as Pagan.

The various officers spoke on different topics of concern, such as the difference between hate crimes and hate incidents. For example, Emrys said, “The City Attorney explained how he/they handle misdemeanor Hate Incidents, and also will arbitrate neighbors disputes. That was a resource none of us were aware of.” There were many questions and Emrys described Capt. Egan as open and willing to answer each and every question. Afterward, he spoke directly to a number of people and offered assistance to those experiencing problems in other areas. Pagan Jill Weiss asked if a similar meeting could take place in the North Hollywood area. Capt. Egan said that he would try to help make that happen.

Last year, the West Valley Area LAPD was implicated in a court case in which a Pagan officer allegedly experienced religious and gender discrimination. The officer involved, Victoria DeBellis, and her husband were not in attendance at the last week’s meeting; nor did DeBellis respond to the invitation. Emrys did asked Captain Egan about the case, and he simply said that “he could not talk about it because it is still in play, but he was hopeful that the decision would be a fair one.”

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It was announced this week that fantasy author Tanith Lee (1947-2015) had passed away at the age of 67 after a long illness. Born in London, Lee was raised by two dancers. She was unable to read until the age of eight due to dyslexia. But that didn’t hold her back.

Lee published her first novel The Dragon Hoard in 1971, and became a freelance writer shortly after. Over the following 44 years, she wrote and published more than 90 novels and 300 short stories, earning her many accolades. In 1980, Lee became the first woman to receive the British Fantasy Award for best novel with her book Death’s Master.

Known for her highly imaginative work and feminist themes, Lee’s stories are very popular in many Pagans circle. Some of her more recent books were published by Immanion Press, including A Different City, which was just released March 2015. When Lee’s passing was made public, her official website simply displayed this quote: “Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told – on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others – there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change – passing on the fire like a torch – forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all.”

In Other News

  • The Pagan Community Statement on the Environment is now over 5300 and counting. The goal is 10,000 by mid June.
  • In support of Gaia Gathering, the national Canadian Pagan conference, thirteen artists came together to record “an anthology of some of the best of Canadian Pagan music and spoken word.” The collection of works spans thirty years, including “out-of-print classics” as well as new works. The artists include: Vanessa Cardui, Tara Rice, the Ancient Gods, JD Hobbes, Brendan Myers, Dano Hammer, the Dragon Ritual Drummers, Gallows Hill, Heather Dale, Tamarra James, Raven’s Call, Sable Aradia,and Parnassus (Chalice & Blade). The album, titled Songs of the Northern Tribes, can only be purchased online, and all proceeds go to support the conference.
  • A group of women in Venice, Italy have launched a project that will potentially result in a brand new Goddess Temple. The Dee Oltre Le Nebbie (Goddesses Beyond the Mists) is a local study group made up of women representing various Pagan traditions. President Anna Bordin said, “We are going to open a permanent Goddess Temple to give the Pagan community a place where [we can] meet each other and where we can celebrate the Goddess of many names, in every aspect.” The group is now raising money to purchase a space and looking for volunteers to assist in the construction, upkeep and maintenance of that space.
  • Pagans Radio Tonight announced that Pam Kelly has taken over as station manager. Rev. Don Lewis said, “All of our familiar shows will continue … but there are also many new shows either recently premiered or soon to come!” As an example, he pointed out two new programs: “Voces Paganas” with Rev. Nube Lazzo and Rev. Eblis, and “Soapbox Witch” with Rev. Chuck Chapman. He also added that the Friday lineup has changed completely.
  • The new summer conference, Many Gods West, is on the horizon for many. The initial programme is available online. One of the scheduled presenters is the Bakcheion (Βακχεῖον), a group of Dionysian devotees, who will perform a ritual called “Filled with Frenzy.” One its members is blogger Sannion of the House of Vines. He described the event as a “celebration of the god Dionysos through wine, masks, drumming, dancing and altered states of consciousness.” It is also being touted as one of his first live events. To offset the cost of the trip to the conference, Bakcheion members have launched an Indiegogo campaign. The money raised will also be used for the purchase of ritual supplies, and anything left over will be “distributed back into supporting the polytheist community.”
Bakcheion Ritual Logo

Bakcheion Ritual Logo

That’s it for now. Have a nice day!

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Three years ago Kathleen Culhane was heading home after attending a taproom opening in Minneapolis, and she was thinking about how she’d like to work in a brewery. Then it hit her. She didn’t want to work in a brewery; she wanted to own one. Three years and many hundreds of hours of work later her dream has become reality as Sidhe Brewing Company opens it doors in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Founder Kathleen Culhane at Sidhe Brewery [photo Cara Schulz]

Founder Kathleen Culhane at Sidhe Brewery [Photo: C. Schulz]


What makes Sidhe Brewery different from other craft beer breweries across the country is hinted at in its logo, the artwork hanging in the taproom, the names of the beers, and the pentacle hanging around Ms. Culhane’s neck. This brewery is owned by four very out of the broom closet Pagans.

Culhane is the founder and head brew mistress. Rosemary Kosmatka keeps the books; Robin Kinney is the secretary; and Erica Rogers handles operations. Culhane owns 52% of the brewery, while the other three partners each have a 16% interest. Not only are all four women business partners, but they also share a house and are all practicing witches.

Culhane said that it was never a consideration to hide their faith, “We’re just going to be who we are and be obvious about who we are and if people figure it out, great. And then of course City Pages called us a “Wiccan brewery” – yeah, we’re out of the broom closet now, not that we were ever really in it.”

And, that is very apparent to anyone entering the taproom. Goddess art and a large painting of a full moon by artist Aneesa Erinn Adams adorn the walls of the brightly lit, 68 seat taproom. Culhane said that the painting will change as other artists display and sell their artwork through the brewery. There’s also a stage area where musicians can perform and where open mic poetry nights can be held.

Full Moon painting hangs above the stage in the taproom [photo Cara Schulz]

Full Moon painting hangs above the stage in the taproom [photo Cara Schulz]

The owners’ openness has already attracted a few protesters, leading up to their Grand Opening weekend. Culhane said that the group was small, and she’d be pleased to talk with them if they return.

Brewing as a Ritual
The brewery was originally called Four Elements, but was changed to Sidhe after a problem trademarking the name. The logo design, which reflects the original name and features a pentacle in the center, also shows Culhane’s theory that brewing beer is a type of ritual, “It occurred to me when I first started to think about this that there was a perfect one-to-one correspondence between a standard Wiccan ritual and brewing because you combine air with water and fire and it creates spirit. When you brew, you combine hops, yeast, and water and you make beer.”

Culhane said that, once she made that realization, the ritual she now uses to make each batch of beer practically wrote itself. Each brewing also ends with a Great Rite.

Logo

Magic isn’t just in the beer, it was built right into the brewery, “Once we got the space, we purged it and gave it a good blessing and then when I built the walls I put stones in all the corners and I welded stones into the brewery itself so they are embedded in the posts.” Her working altar, nestled in a toolbox, is visible from the taproom.

A working altar visible from the taproom. [photo Cara Schulz]

A working altar visible from the taproom. [Photo C. Schulz]

Wicca also influences Culhane’s work ethic. She said that one Wiccan concept guiding her is that while doing magic to manifest Will, you must also do work in the mundane world. This work supports the magic and makes it happen.

Culhane has done the work. Not only is she the head brewer, but she has also remodeled the facility and built the brewing equipment herself. She said that she has needed to be very self-reliant because she didn’t have many monetary resources. This is also why the Sidhe brewery is the smallest in the Twin Cities. Culhane could only build what she could afford out of her own pocket, or what her partners contributed by cashing out their retirement savings.

The Beers
For such a small brewery, they have a wide selection of beers on tap.  Bast Kissed is a cream ale named after one of Culhane’s cats, who enjoys malted barley. Sol Victorious is a bright Mexican style lager. Hopped Up McGonigal, an IPA created at the request of a friend, is not overly bitter like many craft IPAs. Barking Cat is Belgian ale with a strong flavor and a similarly strong alcoholic kick. Greenman’s Harvest, an American nut brown ale first made for a friend’s wedding back in 1998, has a slightly caramel flavor. Dark Moon Rising, a Stout, is the darkest of all the beers offered.

Beer

[Photo: C.Schulz]

As of now, the beer is offered only in the Twin Cities. You can order glasses in the taproom or buy a growler to take home. It’s also offered on tap at Tongue in Cheek, Ward 6, and the Historic Mounds Theatre.

The craft beer industry is highly competitive with a 24% failure rate among microbreweries, according to the Brewers Association. Therefore, it remains to be seen if Sidhe Brewing Company will be successful. They appear to have all the right ingredients for a successful brewery; owners with business experience and a willingness to put in long hours, solid beers, and an attractive taproom. Could magic be the edge needed in such a crowded market? Perhaps so.

“Brewing is magic,” said Culhane, “and I think that it makes the beer taste better.”

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Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., a federal holiday that honors the many who have died in military service. For decades, modern Pagan and Heathen military personnel have worked to have their contributions and their sacrifices equally recognized within military circles. Due to the unyielding efforts, Pagan and Heathen involvement within the armed forces is at a level of visibility and acceptance never before imagined. With that visibility, of course, comes new challenges.

Throughout the year, we highlight many of those triumphs and discuss the obstacles. But today, let us pause to recognize and remember the many who have fallen.

Veterans Ridge at Circle Cemetery

Veterans Ridge at Circle Cemetery [Courtesy Photo]

At Arlington National Cemetery, these fallen soldiers lie side by in a remarkable display of religious diversity within the U.S. armed forces. Baha’is lay beside Jews; Muslims beside Christians; Hindus beside Wiccans. The cemetery offers over 60 religious symbols with which to engrave headstones — some of which may be familiar and others rarely viewed in public spaces. – from “Arlington Cemetery Gravestones Honor America’s Fallen Soldiers Of Every (And No) Faith,” The Huffington Post, Antonia Blumberg

Memorial Day isn’t about veterans like me, who got to come home and go on with their lives. No, Memorial Day is supposed to be all about the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who came home in caskets or in body bags. Or who never came home at all, like my father-in-law. They paid the highest possible price to defend this nation, and it trivializes their sacrifice not to make their one day a year just about them. Blake Kirk, Wiccan Priest

Centuries ago, in Athens, when someone died the body was taken by procession to the burial or cremation site. A family member would say the dead person’s name three times to see if they would answer. It was to show the person was really dead, to bring the reality that they had crossed to the land of the dead and will never be coming back.

The US military does the same thing. They take a final role call of the squad or element the military member belonged to and they call the dead person’s name last. Then they call it again adding in the first name. Then they call it a third time, using the person’s full name. When the person doesn’t respond, it is announced they person is dead and where they died. It’s as powerful a rite now as it was 2 or 3 thousand years ago, which is why it is still done. ” from “Thoughts on Death and Burial,” The Wild Hunt, Cara Schulz

They gave their lives, to [country] and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchers—not the sepulcher in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men’s minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or to action … I would ask you to count as gain the greater part of your life, in which you have been happy, and remember that what remains is not long, and let your hearts be lifted up at the thought of the fair fame of the dead. – from Pericles’ Funeral Oration dedicated to those lost in the Peloponnesian War.

I learned something from the families: The true cost of grief is beyond politics. It was important to realize an individual life had been lost and people were greatly affected. That loss is so much greater than agreeing or disagreeing with [the] war.  – Military photographer Andrew Lichtenstein, as quoted in The New York Times.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

The modern military experience can be part of the modern Pagan and Heathen experience. Those who are wounded and die in service to our country are not an anonymous “other” removed from our society and daily lives. They are us.

We here at The Wild Hunt honor our Pagan and Heathen brothers and sisters who have have fallen in the line of duty.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
– Laurence Binyon, “For the Fallen,” originally published in The Times, 1914

Please feel free to post any observances, names, tributes, thoughts, or remembrances you think appropriate on this day.

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The Craft may be getting a reboot.

the craftAs first announced by The Hollywood Reporter, Sony is “remaking the 1996 supernatural teen thriller, tapping up-and-coming horror filmmaker Leigh Janiak to write and direct the new version.” A relatively new director, Janiak’s recent projects include the film Honeymoon (2014) and an episode of the new TV series Scream (2015), based on the film franchise of the same name. Doug Wick, producer of the original film, is back in the same capacity.

Why is Sony going back to the cult classic? The answer is quite simple. Witches in film and television are hot right now, and they have been for several years after stealing the limelight, almost completely, from vampires and even zombies. (e.g., WGN’s Salem; Lifetime’s Witches of East End; Beautiful Creatures, 2013; Maleficent, 2014)

The American popular entertainment industry, aka Hollywood, is above all else, just that, an industry. Output and decisions are profit-driven. If fictional witches sell tickets and tie-ins, and make the money flow, then witches will be reproduced – over and over again. In the last six months, there have been unconfirmed rumors of a Bewitched remake, and a sequel to the campy Hocus Pocus (1993).

But why The Craft?  Why not a brand new witch story? Or even a remake of an older witch-inspired horror film like City of the Dead (1960)? There is a second aspect to this film, and the marketing of any film, which helps to drive the decision. That element is nostaglia. Sony producers know that The Craft will not only attract the younger audiences, who are currently fueling the Witch-craze, but it will also attract the older audiences – those people who have turned the campy film into a cult classic.

Sony is not alone in this effort. Many studios are cashing in on America’s nostalgia with remakes of other popular films from the 1980s and 1990s. MGM’s Poltergeist is in theater’s now. In December, an updated Point Break is scheduled for release. In July, New Line Cinema will unleash the next installment in the National Lampoon’s series Vacation. The list goes on. Hollywood loves remakes, reboots, adaptations, sequels, prequels and dark twists. How many Police Academy’s were there?

Nostalgia itself offers a nice soft, cushion on which to rest many these remakes. However, it is not always a factor in a producer’s decision to back a film. The studios like remakes and sequels primarily because they are easy. These films provide a pre-written script or narrative, a pre-designed visual concept, and often come with actors. Some have already shown either success at the box office, or the ability to neatly exist in film’s storytelling world.

While many viewers are lamenting the current recycling trend, it really isn’t unique or new. In the 1990s, for example, the 1954 Audrey Hepburn film, Sabrina, was remade and released in 1995. A new version of the 1968 Thomas Crown Affair hit screens in 1999. The 1986 comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills was a remake of a 1932 Jean Renoir film Boudu sauve des eaux. Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho (1960), wasn’t even sacred enough to avoid a make-over in 1998.  And those are just examples.

Many of the most beloved witch films are not original properties. Bell Book and Candle (1958) was first a play. I Married a Witch (1942) was a dime-store novel that also inspired the television show Bewitched. Of course, the recent Maleficent (2014) was a spin-off from Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty (1959), which was simply an adaptation of a Charles Perrault story that was, itself, taken from the oral tradition. Even MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) was not the first film rendition of the famous story (e.g., The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1910).

Remakes and adaptations happen.

Knowing all of that does not make it any easier to accept the remake of a beloved film. Frustrated viewers flocked to Twitter to express their outrage. One woman wrote, “I invoke thee to stop Sony’s presumably horrible remake of The Craft.” At The Huffington Post, writer Stephanie Marcus listed the “5 Reasons They Don’t Need to Remake the Craft.”

Peg Aloi, of Patheos‘ Witching Hour, published an article titled “The Craft is getting a Remake?” While Aloi acknowledged that a reboot could be interesting, she feels it is unnecessary. She wrote, “The cultural implications will be interesting to say the least … but I’d prefer there wasn’t a remake at all. The original is too good to tamper with.” In her post, Aloi noted that the film “holds up well” in exploring such things as teenage angst, loyalty, friendship, body image, sexual jealousy.

Actress Fairuza Balk, who played Nancy in the original film, also spoke out about the news on Twitter, saying:

Balk added that she “wasn’t surprised” that Sony was remaking the film; the studio “made a lot of money off [The Craft] and obviously see it as a way to make more.” Due to the continued outrage from loyal fans, Balk later had to clarify, “I did not say I thought remaking The Craft specifically was a bad idea- I said remakes -IN GENERAL-tend to be a bad idea.” Balk’s argument is different from others in that she simply expressed support for fresh scripts and stories.

Pagan blogger Jason Mankey chimed into the discussion, saying “In between the teeth-gnashing this evening there’s something a lot of people are forgetting: The Craft wasn’t high art. It was a fun, campy, horror-movie. It’s not sacred ground now and it wasn’t then.” Although many Pagans or young would-be witches did adore The Craft, it was not universally celebrated, as Mankey suggests.

In a 1996 statement, Witchvox‘s Wren Walker voiced her disgust with the film, saying, “By linking the terms ‘Witches’ and ‘Witchcraft’ with murder, mayhem and destructive acts, there is a great potential danger. That danger could create encouragement for a resurgence of public mistrust and suspicion of the contemporary religious belief system known as Witchcraft or Wicca.” Walker did say that the film had some “amusing parts,” but overall, she felt it was problematic.

As indicated by her comment, The Craft played into the cultural leftovers of the Satanic Panic, both visually and narratively, and kept one foot stationed firmly in that space. However, the 1996 film was produced during a cultural pivot point with regards to Occult practice. Not only did it show offer a visual and narrative awareness of previous horror trends, it also was very aware of the growing visibility of real Witchcraft, as a practice and a religion.

Wiccan Pat Devin was hired as the film’s technical adviser. In 1998, Devin said, “I decided to try to get as much truth into what was, after all, a teenage date spooky movie, as I could. I knew the results would not be perfect, but I felt obligated to try, as the movie was going to come out in any event.” In the interview, Devin talks about her direct involvement in the writing of this ritual scene:

Due to the proximity that The Craft had to genuine Witchcraft practices, as well as its exploration of female agency, it is not surprising that the film quickly became a cult favorite. Aloi called it one of the “must see” Pagan films. Despite any failings and its overall campiness, the film did touch many people. That fact cannot be denied.

When a film touches us deeply, it becomes part of our personal narrative, in one way or another. While watching it, we pass the threshold of the silver screen, and enter the film’s world. We are part of it and it is part of us. Therefore, it is difficult to accept any change to its nature. People often have a similar reaction to film adaptations of beloved books.

In that way, The Craft  has became part of many people’s personal narratives, turning it into a cult favorite. As shown by the reactions to the announcement, the movie still holds that space. Nancy will never be anyone but Fariuza Balk, and Bonnie can only be Neve Campell.

However, the story’s themes, as Aloi noted, would not be entirely foreign to teenagers in 2015. The film addresses issues of female empowerment that are still very current in today’s age, especially considering Witchcraft appears to be making a resurgence.

Sony is well aware of this fact, and the selection a female director demonstrates that awareness. However, there is speculation that Janiak’s hiring may have only been due to pressure coming from an American Civil Liberties Union complaint about gender inequities in Hollywood. Either way, there is a female director at the helm.

If updated carefully, The Craft, as a coming-of-age tale for young girls, has the potential to touch an entirely new generation of women, who are trying to unearth their own power and place in society. Additionally, it will be very interesting to see what adaptations are made in the representation of Witchcraft and its intersection with horror. The position of Wicca and Witchcraft within American culture is very different today than it was in 1996.

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yvonne burrowReview: All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca. Written by Yvonne Aburrow (Avalonia Press, 276 Pages)

Early in my studies I spent a lot of time pouring over books to learn how to be a witch, and those introductory books were plentiful. I absorbed so much information about the elements, circle casting, the deities, and magic during that time, then relearned most of it when I later entered formal studies.

The “New Age” section of the bookstore has since lost its appeal. Most of the books sitting there are more additions to the Wicca 101 genre, with one recipe after another for invocations and spells. While some of these books offer beautiful and inspiring poetry and ritual ideas, few of them inspire critical thinking and practice examination. However, this is exactly what I found in Yvonne Aburrow’s All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca.

Aburrow begins by stating “[t]he aim of the book is to act as a guide to existing initiatory covens who want to make their practice more inclusive.” She says that inclusive Wicca is not a specific tradition but is “about including all participants regardless of sexual orientation, disability, or other differences, not by erasing or ignoring the distinctions, but by working with them.”

Why would Pagans need to read a book like this? The assumption is that we’re so accepting. We’re so open-minded. We’re so progressive and enlightened and… well, cool. Compared to other unnamed religions, absolutely. However, there is always room for improvement, though, and awareness is the first step.

Early in the book, Aburrow tackles the issue of sexuality and gender. To illustrate her point that Wicca tends toward heterocentrism and genderism, she explores the duotheistic belief that “all Goddesses are one Goddess and all Gods are one God.” She writes:

As the divine couple are then understood to be lovers, this again excludes LGBT practitioners. It is also a problem for those people of either gender who do not particularly identify with or relate to the predominant archetypes associated with the divine couple.

Aburrow goes on to say “the gender binary is the notion that cisgender heterosexual pairs are the norm and that everything in the universe resembles a cisgender heterosexual couple. We need to expand the model to include different genders and sexual orientations.” It is common, in my experience, for people to encourage practitioners to think of this as the union of “masculine” and “feminine” energies, but regardless of metaphysical semantics, it can still feel exclusive especially since “masculine” and “feminine” are so often used interchangeably with “male” and “female.”

Polarity, however, is such a foundation in Wiccan practice – how could we displace the sexual union of the Divine Couple to be more inclusive and still function? Aburrow suggests a focus instead on the dance of light and dark as seen in the seasons or making the primary polarity the “interaction between self and other, lover and beloved (rather than as male and female),” or even primordial ocean and lightning bolt. I found myself wondering how much rituals, especially at Beltane, would change if groups wholeheartedly embraced “[t]he ultimate polarity is not male and female – it transcends gender.”

While the entire book could have been written on LGBT inclusiveness (indeed, there are several), Aburrow ventures into the idea of inclusiveness on a number of other topics as well. One that stands out is the chapter called “The Nature of Truth.” In this section, Aburrow explores the meaning of truth, scientific truths, mythological truth, and absolute truth, leading up to the conclusion that truth is uncertain. She writes:

Because we are not certain about the existence or the nature of deities, it is good to allow for a diversity of views, including atheism, agnosticism, monism, pantheism, duotheism, polytheism, polymorphism, and so on. Many Wiccans hold more than one of those beliefs at the same time, or change their minds about the nature of deities…  Wicca is primarily an existential religion, so there is no real imperative for everyone to agree on theology.

I sat with this idea for a while. A long while. I had never considered that some Wiccans could be duotheistic while others were polytheistic or monistic. I (perhaps wrongly) assumed that all Wiccans were pantheistic or at least animistic. After reading this chapter, I found myself wondering if we could still consider Wicca a religion if we had no generally agreed upon idea of what deity was, and especially if deity even existed. I realized at that point that it had been nearly two decades since I had my head buried in my Sociology of Religion text books, and that perhaps I needed to refresh my memory on the current working definition of “religion.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as “the belief and worship of a superhuman controlling power.” That seemed too limiting and rigid, and does not really apply to Wicca. Merriam-Webster defined it as “the belief in a god or in a group of gods, an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or group of gods, or an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” This seemed too broad. I really love spinning yarn, and I particularly love doing so in a group of other spinners, but that does not make it a religion.

Then I came across this page of definitions on Religious Tolerance.org, and remembered why I disliked sociology with all of its rambling academic ponderings. I ultimately gave up on my quest for an operationalized definition. But I still wondered, what would I do as a teacher and coven-leader if someone who identified as an atheist wanted to be initiated into Wicca?

As open as I am to students having their own idea of deity and of their idea being different from my own, and as open as I am to the idea that a person can be Pagan and atheist, I don’t yet know how open I would be to initiating a person into Wicca who felt certain there is no Goddess or God. At what point can we draw the line in the sand and say “This is what it means to be a Wiccan?” Then I recalled a New York Times article about the decline of Christianity being partially due to changes occurring in the some of the more liberal branches. Writer Ross Douthat argues:

…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.

I wondered if this could be the fate of Wicca should our quest for inclusiveness leave us without a central and uncompromising set of beliefs?

I don’t have the answer, just a whole lot of questions. This, however, was my favorite aspect of Aburrow’s book: it inspires critical thinking about my own beliefs and practices as a Wiccan and a teacher. And, my comfort with the uncertainty it evokes is a compliment to the sociology major I so despised.

Yvonne Aburrow is the author of eight published works, of which All Acts of Love & Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca is the most recent. The book is published through Avalonia press and is available on their website, www.avaloniabooks.co.uk, and through major online retailers.

 

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When I was in my early twenties I had a rabbit, a sixteen-pound French Lop that had free rein of parts of the house and succeeded in both equally fascinating and terrifying every houseguest I ever had. From her ability to clear a seven-foot gate to her skill in severing any cord or wire ever laid out in her path, Gwendolyn was much more akin to a troublesome toddler trapped in a four-legged body the size of a Corgi than what the average person pictures when they think of a pet rabbit.

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl...

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl. [A.Valkyrie]

Out of all her tricks and quirks, the one that still echoes loudest in my mind years later was her unfailing habit of excitedly charging any time she heard a sound reminiscent of pills shaking in a bottle. She would come immediately running at the sound, often at top-speed, obsessively expecting a treat. While it delighted friends and family, it was an accidental behavior that was an unintended consequence of my own naïveté in terms of how strongly animals can form associations with sounds.

Similarly to humans, rabbits have both quite the sweet tooth as well as a noted lack of self-control around what we would call ‘junk food.’ Carrots are the most popular example of this tendency, as rabbits crave them specifically due to their sweetness, but they will also obsessively seek out candy and other treats meant for humans, and will often make themselves sick if they gain access to an unattended stash of sweets. Animal trainers often take advantage of this tendency in rabbits by using papaya tablets as a reward, as rabbits are quick learners and will happily comply in exchange for the treat.

I did not know this when I called my vet about Gwendolyn’s digestive issues and she suggested giving her papaya tablets as a dietary aid. I bought a bottle of the tablets, shook it just for the sound and then opened the bottle in front of her and gave her a few, and put the bottle up on a shelf. A few hours later, I took the bottle off the shelf and shook it without really thinking, and she immediately came running at the sound. I gave her a few tablets, shook the bottle again, and she responded by jumping for the bottle. From that moment forth, every time I ever shook that bottle she immediately came running.

The association was advantageous in many ways. Any time I needed to find her, she would come immediately when I shook the bottle, which helped greatly at times for rabbits find great hiding spots. But over time I discovered that she responded in kind to the sound of any bottle, not just the papaya tablets, which is why over time everyone in the house took great care every time they opened a pill bottle. More than once, a guest opening an aspirin bottle in the bathroom was suddenly rushed by an enormous rabbit who would then occasionally jump at the exact source of the noise itself. This once resulted in a spilled bottle of aspirin and an immediately dangerous situation as the rabbit then desperately tried to eat the pills.

Its not that I hadn’t recognized the tendency in animals before. Nearly every house cat jumps at the sound of a can opening. But there was something about watching it click in the rabbit – the intensity and instantaneousness of the rabbit’s reaction, propelled by an addiction to sugar that I could clearly empathize with – that really opened my eyes to both the effectiveness and potentialities in how intelligent creatures of any persuasion can react to sound.

*    *    *

Two summers ago, I unexpectedly ended up with a sickly, four-week old kitten, having plucked her off the shoulder of a street kid after realizing that she would die without proper care. Although I wasn’t planning on adopting her when I first took her, I bonded closely with her as I nursed her back to health and after the first couple of days it was clear that she was my new cat.

A very tiny kitten.

A very tiny kitten. [A.Valkyrie]

My living situation at the time didn’t allow me to leave a kitten at home unattended, so for the first month that I had her, the kitten I ended up naming Squirrel stayed on my body for the vast majority of any given chunk of day, usually either on my shoulder or in the hood of my sweatshirt. Our constant state of mobility made me quickly realize that I needed a way of immediately calling her back to me if she was to jump off my shoulder in a public place.

I thought back to my rabbit with the pill bottle, and then to the way that a cat responds to the sound of a can opening, and decided to integrate those examples with minor changes based on lessons from the past. I decided on a glass jar rather than a pill-bottle, hoping that the sound was distinct enough so that the kitten would not conflate a bottle of aspirin with cat food. I filled the jar halfway with dry kibble, and the next time I fed her I shook the jar before doing so. It took only a little more than a day for her to learn that the shaking sound meant food. A few days later, she jumped off my shoulder at a busy intersection in downtown Eugene, but only took two steps before being coaxed back by the shaking sound.

To this day, no matter where she is hiding, if I want her to come out all I have to do is shake the jar.

*    *    *

I tried forming relationships with crows when I first moved to Eugene with little success. They didn’t actively avoid or scorn me as I know they do to some, but they never seemed interested in my presence or my words. I didn’t push the relationship, especially considering that there were many other creatures and entities in that town that were actively seeking my time and attention.

In Portland, however, the crows have been a constant feature from the very beginning, living in great numbers both throughout downtown Portland in general as well as specifically in the area near Union Station where I live. They made their presence very obvious to me from the moment I started to move furniture into my building.

Time has also been a hovering constant from the very beginning. For the first time in my life, I found myself without a routine, without a reliable daily activity, without a proper or useful way to spend my time. Time is a reliable foe in that too much and too little can both effectively destabilize and eat at the soul, and in from moving to Eugene to Portland, literally overnight I went from a situation where I had absolutely no time to myself to a situation where I had more time than I knew what to do with. I had a bicycle, I had a fresh terrain to explore, I had ideas and thoughts and urges, and yet without direction, time still stood as a presence in a way I had never experienced before.

And while I know that the idea was seeded in my head by seeing the crows fly around the Union Station clock tower so often, crows and time became strongly and immediately linked in my mind. It’s a link that over the past year has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as the presence and behavior of the crows eventually became my antidote to the ever-looming curse that time held over me.

tower

Clock tower at Union Station [A.Valkyrie]

*    *    *

I usually don’t remember my dreams, and I’ve learned from experience that if I am remembering my dreams, there’s something very important that I need to be paying attention to. Which is why a certain red flag went up once I started dreaming of crows for several nights in a row.

After the third or fourth night, I woke up at the crack of dawn, trembling, the images of crows seemingly seared into the darkness behind my vision. Without really consciously understanding what I was doing, I quickly threw on some clothes and stumbled down to the riverbank, seeking out a familiar dark and still spot on the water. Still half-asleep, still seeing crows when I closed my eyes, I stared into the water and briefly fell into a trance. The crows that were burned into the darkness of my vision were suddenly reflected in the water, appearing larger than life. I looked up and noticed that two actual crows were circling. They flew down at me, almost touching the riverbank, and then took off towards the west.

I followed them for as long as I could keep track of them. They led me throughout Northwest Portland, touching down repeatedly at corners and intersections that I tried desperately to mentally note while also desperately trying to keep up with the flying pair. I finally lost sight of them underneath the 405, and yet as I was headed back home I could hear them nearby and I had the distinctive feeling that I was being watched.

That night my dreams felt like a trap, a pull, a call, a maze of repeated imagery in which crows shifted into a dark-clad woman, who then shifted back into a crow. I recognized her immediately; we had been chatting on and off for years with no serious commitments on either side. And yet it was still all rather vague. I woke up not sure how to proceed. There were still too many pieces missing.

A few days later, when Rhyd Wildermuth posted a blog about bees and bestowing kindnesses towards ravens, I knew better than to shrug it off as mere coincidence. I made a mental note to buy a container of unsalted peanuts the next time I was out and to keep an eye out for crows.

And then a few days after the blog post as well as another series of crow dreams, my partner and I were on our walking down First Avenue just north of the Burnside Bridge, only a few feet away from edge of the buildings, when I noticed a crow standing still in the corner by a window. Thinking he was hurt, I approached the crow slowly and stooped down. The crow stared me right in the eye, less than two feet away, and immediately I could tell he was not actually hurt at all.

“What’s up? Are you OK?” I asked the crow, and suddenly I was flooded with a stream of thoughts and visions… from Rhyd’s blog about feeding ravens, to the crow dreams I had, to the crows on the riverbank the other day…and then thoughts and images of my old rabbit Gwendolyn and the papaya bottle, and of Squirrel and her glass jar of cat food, of myself on my bike riding through downtown, and then of peanuts and more crows. Suddenly, it all clicked.

I had meant to buy peanuts. I looked at the crow, feeling terrible that I had nothing to give to it at the moment. I thanked the crow for the information and apologized for my lack of a treat. I wouldn’t make such a mistake again, I said to myself.

Under the bridge, where I met the crow

Under the bridge, where I met the crow [A. Valkyrie]

Walking away, I looked back and the crow remained against the wall, watching me until I turned the corner.

I looked at my partner. “I think I get it now, I think I finally get it,” I said. “I’m supposed to be watching the crows, making friends with the crows. Like as a regular thing, a daily thing. I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my time right now. ”

He looked at me and nodded. “That makes sense,” he said.

 *    *    * 

Once you train your eye to notice specific features within the landscape, it’s often impossible to un-see them. The feature becomes encoded in both one’s conscious awareness as well as the subconscious, and creates a hiccup in one’s latent inhibition, unwillingly interrupting any given moment of observation in order to announce its presence. This tendency is why many graphic designers can’t help but to constantly complain about fonts, or architects about the eaves or arches of any given building. The graphic designer can’t not notice the painful use of Papyrus in the storefront sign, nor can the architect not notice the cheap and brutal travesties that are de rigueur in modern design.

This same tendency comes forth pretty quickly when one consciously decides to notice and acknowledge every crow that they come across. I poured some peanuts into a plastic box with a lid and started setting out daily, following the crows while shaking the box to announce my presence and feeding them whenever I got their attention. I was trying to attune myself to their perspective while at the same time paying close attention to what is taking place in my own world as well.

And within the space of a few weeks, I realized that I couldn’t not see a crow, I couldn’t ignore a crow, I couldn’t relegate a crow to a feature of the landscape anymore no matter how hard I tried. I’m not sure how long the sound of a crow prompted an immediate reaction in me before I consciously noticed that it was happening – but I know now that I can’t tune it out any more than a mother can initially tune out the cry of her baby. Every time I saw a crow fly above me, I couldn’t not look up. Riding my bike in downtown traffic presented a bit of a challenge.

Unlike fonts and arches, however, what’s different about attuning oneself to noticing crows is that the gesture is reciprocated, especially when you offer them treats. The crows start to notice you as well and, even in a dense urban area such as downtown Portland, one quickly starts to realize that they’re always being watched to an extent. I may be constantly looking for crows, but I also get the strong sense that they don’t have to look for me. They know where I am as soon I leave my building. They know where I am even when I have no idea where I actually am.

The more I think about the vastness of a crows-eye view, the more I start to think that the crows know this city much better than any of its citizens ever possibly could.

*    *    *

It also didn’t take me long to realize that the pigeon-crow relationship dynamics are at least as interesting and complex as most of the human relationship dynamics that I observe while downtown. Other than Canadian geese on the waterfront, crows and pigeons are the only two sizeable birds that inhabit downtown Portland, and they are constantly interacting with each other on nearly every corner or rooftop.

The differences in their pack habits and their mannerisms stood out immediately. Rarely do I see a solo pigeon, and rarely do I not see a solo crow. Pigeons generally go about their business in flocks on the ground, while crows often fly in pairs or trios. When foraging for food, they are usually on their own. The pigeons are braver and much pushier in seeking out food in the presence of humans, but not nearly as observant or sensitive to the subtle goings-on, as the crows are. A crow will spot a hipster discarding a sandwich from half a block away, while the pigeons often miss bread that tourists throw directly at them. The more populated the area, the more the crows hide in plain site while the pigeons bobble in a flock in the middle of the commotion. On the food cart blocks in downtown Portland, one practically trips over the pigeons in their path while the crows watch from the light-posts, unnoticed for the most part.

And yet despite their shyness and altogether lack of aggressiveness when compared to the pigeons, a single crow will fend off a whole flock of them in defense of his claimed prize, using a wide assortment of noises, dances, and aggressive gestures in order to chase the intruding birds away. On the campus of Portland State University, I watched a crow aggressively fight off pigeons for several minutes in order to defend a half-eaten burrito in the bottom of a take-out container that the crow had dragged out of an overflowing trashcan. At one point, the crow grabbed the fork out of the container with his beak and threw it towards the pigeons. After the flock finally left, the crow carefully and expertly tore the excessive pieces of tortilla off the side of the burrito before taking the remainder of it in his beak and flying off to a nearby rooftop.

Crow standing off against pigeons

Crow standing off against pigeons [A. Valkyrie]

I was interacting with a crow near PSU, shooing away the crowding pigeons, when I was approached by a rather grumpy, elderly gentleman.

“What you got against pigeons?” he asked me.

“Nothing, really. I’m just more interested in the crows, that’s all.”

“What, you think crows are better than pigeons?”

“No, it’s not a contest, but I’ve been working with crows, not the pigeons. Its nothing against the pigeons, I’m just not seeking them out.”

He seemed intent on challenging that. “Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”

I took a deep breath. “Look. I’m not in the mood for an argument about bird rights and bird equality, OK? If you think I’m being unfair to the pigeons, give them a little attention yourself. There’s nothing personal here. I just work with crows.”

He gave me a dirty look and walked off, himself shooing away the pigeons as he left. I was reminded that within a downtown urban landscape, even the subtlest of solitary activities are not really solitary. One always has an audience.

On my way home I took a longer route, up and around through the Pearl District. As I was riding through, it occurred to me that I rarely ever see a single crow north of Glisan Street, in the newer part of the Pearl. I thought about what I found distasteful about the neighborhood – not enough trees, too many boxy buildings, way too much construction, too many dogs, and very few places to deposit trash – and I laughed out loud, realizing that the crows most likely avoided the Pearl for the exact same reasons.

*    *    *

I feel like a Pied Piper of sorts, riding through the streets of downtown Portland every day around lunchtime, shaking the peanut box as I ride past corners where I know crows to congregate. After a few months, I find myself in a steady routine along a specified path throughout downtown, a path that was overall dictated by the crows themselves. What first started as simply following their caws quickly turned into a dedicated route with expected interactions on both sides, often taking several hours out of my day. I approach the location, shaking the peanut box, and more often than not a crow appears a short time later. I then toss some peanuts, back up a bit, and the crow usually advances and starts to snack.

I quickly find that there are subtle maneuvers and tendencies that make a world of difference. Tossing peanuts underhand is best – overhand startles the crows and they often fly away. They don’t appreciate my sunglasses much, nor the squeakiness of my rear brakes. But they very much like being talked to, and they make quite the show of knowing that they have your attention.

Without deliberately meaning to do so, I realized that I’ve started to give the crows nicknames in my mind based on the locations in which I tend to find them.

The “Bud Clark crows” hang out in the trees across the street from Bud Clark Commons, a “Housing First” shelter and homeless day center that sits a block from Union Station. The Bud Clark crows are noticeably both louder and braver than any of the other crows that I come upon regularly. I can’t help but to think that this is a very specific co-adaptation to their specific location, as the folks who regularly hang out on this block themselves tend to be noticeably louder and braver than what one would generally expect in this neighborhood. The crows have adapted to other the rhythms of the local residents, swooping in daily around the same time just after lunch to pick up the food scraps from the patio and the surrounding sidewalk.

The “yoga crows” are a bonded pair who live on the rooftop next door to a yoga studio a few blocks north of Burnside. At least one of them spends nearly every day perched above the studio, watching the action below while scolding and mocking random passers-by.

Yoga crow, watching from above

Yoga crow, watching from above [A. Valkyrie]

Next door to the yoga studio is a gift shop with a bowl of dog treats left outside. After a few weeks of visiting the yoga crows daily, I started shaking the peanut box on the sidewalk one morning when one of the crows came right out and swooped over my head, landing in front of me. He took a peanut, ate it, looked me in the eye, swooped over to the bowl of dog biscuits, grabbed one in his mouth and flew off to the roof. He cawed in celebration, looking at me while dancing back and forth with the biscuit in his mouth.

He was obviously showing off, and I was quite impressed.

The “parking lot crow” often acts as a supplemental security guard for a parking lot on an unusually deserted and empty block in Old Town. This crow paces back and forth at the entrance, warily observing the pigeons while keeping an eye peeled for any scraps that the flock may come across. When the actual security guard steps onto the property, the crow often jumps on the cars, hopping from rooftop to rooftop while cawing in a mocking tone. The parking lot crow was the very first to start to respond to my shaking the peanut box, and is the least timid of all the crows that I regularly interact with.

A few blocks from the parking lot crows are the “ODOT crows,” who hang out in the trees around the employee headquarters for the Oregon Department of Transportation. They scavenge for scraps dropped by employees on their cigarette breaks, and they frequently take over the parking lot once everyone has left for the day. Recently, one of the ODOT crows has taken to swooping above my car when I drive past the building, and he’s not the only crow to start flying past my car as I drive through the neighborhood.

When I go by the ODOT building at other times separate from my crow route, I often see one of two crows in the side-street, comically dancing and waving around twigs or food scraps while a passer-by stands and watches in amusement.

And if I shake my peanut box, they usually pause and look right over at me.

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I had noticed the man watching me from the roof of the homeless shelter almost daily as I interacted with the parking lot crow. This time, he was standing in the middle of the parking lot as I approached on my bike, shaking the peanut box towards the parking lot crow who was perched on the pole. He watched us for a few minutes, and once the crow had his fill of peanuts and flew off, he approached me.

The parking lot crow

The parking lot crow

“Why are you feeding the crows?” he asked me.

I looked at him for a moment and decided to tell him the simplest version of the truth.

“Because a rather intimidating deity-type who came to me in my dreams asked me to and I couldn’t really say no, and I also really needed something to get me out of the house. I’m still don’t have a solid grasp on the entirety of the why part yet, but its making more and more sense by the day, I’ll tell you that.”

“Can you really make friends with crows? Why do you shake that box for?”

“If you want to make friends with them, just feed them. And talk to them. And be nice to them, and calm. They shy away from loud noises and yelling. They will learn to remember you quickly, and they will trust you the more you show kindness. I started shaking the peanut box with the idea that they would learn to respond to the sound, expecting a treat. At this point I’m pretty damn sure that it works.”

“Huh…” he said, his voice drifting off a bit.

I looked at him for a moment, handed him my peanut box, and pointed towards the crow. “Here, take this,” I said. “The crow expects me in the afternoon. I’ll bet you that if you start coming down here in the mornings, shaking the box, and scattering some peanuts, you’ll have a crow friend by the end of the week.”

I smiled at him and then started to ride off the long way towards my building. A block away, a crow flew above me and landed in the street ten feet or so ahead of me. The crow looked at me expectantly.

I pointed back toward the man from the shelter. “I gave him my peanut box, man,” I said. “You gotta go ask him. I’m going home to put together another one.”

I doubt the crow actually understood what I had said, but nevertheless I watched him look over and then fly to the pole at the edge of the parking lot. I shook my head, amazed at how vastly my perception of this city has shifted over four months’ worth of paying attention to crows, and I continued on my way home.

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

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The ancient Pagan festival of Thargelia is once again being celebrated publicly in Greece by members of The Supreme Council of the Greek National (YSEE), an umbrella group working to restore the traditional polytheistic religions of Greece.

Thargelia celebration near Athens. [Photo provided by YSEE]

Thargelia celebration near Athens.

This isn’t the first time YSEE members have celebrated the Thargelia, a celebration honoring the Gods Artemis and Apollon. The Thargelia was celebrated May 17, which roughly corresponds to the 6th day of the month Thargelion in the ancient Athenian calendar. In pre-Christian Athens, the observance took place over two days. It focused on driving bad things out, such as diseases that affect humans or crops, and bringing good things back in, such as healthy children and the first barley harvest.

The rituals took place near Athens at the foot of Mount Parnitha and on the Greek island of Rhodes. Approximately 60 people attended Athens ritual, while a much smaller group attended the one in Rhodes. Vlassis G. Rassias, priest of Zeus and Apollo, and the General Secretary of YSEE, said that attendance for a YSEE ritual can vary from 50 to 200 people.

Attendees gathered for the Thargelia ritual near Athens [photo provided by YSEE]

Attendees gathered for the Thargelia ritual near Athens.

This rituals began with a procession to the sacred site, led by two young girls bearing flowers, which symbolize the good that the community would like to bring in. During ancient times, these two children would have been twins in honor of the divine twins of Zeus and Leto, Artemis and Apollon. On the banners, the symbol for ΣΥΛΛΑΤΡΕΙΑ, which means reverence of two Gods, is seen. Other important imagery for the twins include an Apollonian tripod standing between Artemis’ crescent moons.

Two young girls lead the procession to the altar. [photo provided by YSEE]

Two young girls lead the procession to the altar.

The attendees are already loosely gathered on the other side of the altar. The acting priest then declares the altar as operating and protected, and then, the altar fire is lit. “We light the altar fire invoking [the] Goddess Hestia, but only with the flame of our hearts as our holy flames remain extinguished under the Christian rule, and then we uncover our cult statues,“ explained Mr. Rassias.

Artemis and Apollon are honored with hymns and prayers. Next libations of oil and wine are poured. Community members are also invited to place offerings on the altar. Finally the central wish of the community is spoken to the Gods, the Gods are thanked and saluted, and then the ritual closes.

Left: A hymn is sung Right: libations are poured [photo provided by YSEE]

Left: A hymn is sung
Right: Libations are poured

While the whole ritual is considered sacred and spiritually fulfilling from its first moment till its last, sometimes “tears come to the eyes of newcomers at some very certain moments of the whole ceremony,” said Rassias. He explained that the basic ritual outline, which is different from what most American Pagans and Wiccans are familiar with, remains virtually unchanged from classical times.

Rassias said, “Our ritual outline is given to us by the people that brought the Hellenic Religion to our times, through the dark ages of persecutions, from the end of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the closure of our philosophical schools to Georgios Gemistos-Plethnon, Marullus Tarchaniotis and the “Stradiotti” and then to our secret societies in the 18th century in Northern Italy and the Ionian Islands.” He said that the Hellenic ethnic religion, commonly called Hellenismos in the USA, has had a continuous existence from the Late Antiquity until present day.  He is thankful those practices were never fully eradicated by the Christian church.

The Thargelia celebrated in Rhodes. [photo provided by YSEE]

The Thargelia celebrated in Rhodes.

YSEE hosts many public rituals to support its mission of reviving the Greek ethnic religion and supporting the rights of those who practice the religion, in Greece and abroad. They have member groups and branches primarily in Greece, but also have an active branch in New York.

To see videos of other Pagan rituals performed in Greece by Labrys, another traditional Hellenic organization, go here.

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[Editor’s note: All photos used in this article were taken by Irakis Patramanis, Yiannis Bantekas and Costas Kehagias. Permission to use the photos was granted by YSEE.]

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