Happy Imbolc

Heather Greene —  February 1, 2015 — 1 Comment

Tonight and tomorrow is when many modern Pagans celebrate the fire festival of Imbolc sacred to the goddess Brigid, patroness of poets, healers, and smiths. Today is also the feast day of Saint Brigid of Ireland, the patron saint of poets, dairymaids, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, fugitives, Irish nuns, midwives, and new-born babies. In Kildare, Ireland’s town square, a perpetual flame is kept lit and housed in a statue that pays homage to Brigid. Festivities for La Feile Bride in Kildare started on Jan 30 and will continue through Feb 8.

Brigid: Saint and Goddess.

Brigid: Saint and Goddess.

There are many other notable observances held during these first few days of February. For example, in some Celtic Recon traditions, this is a time to honor Cú Chulainn’s three-day combat with his foster-brother Fer Diad. According to the chronology in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the epic battle happened during these dark mid-winter days.

Additionally, the Shinto Festival of Setsubun is held on Feb. 3 or 4. This holiday is more commonly known as the Japanese bean throwing festival. Around Japan and the world, people visit their local Buddhist or Shinto temples to toss soybeans, in order to drive away the evil spirits of winter. Setsubun is translated as “seasonal division” and is considered to be the final day of winter on the Shinto calendar.

That seasonal theme is carried through in many Pagan Imbolc observances. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, studio owner Diana Walter held the 2nd annual Teton Festival of Light. As she explained, the festival’s purpose is to inspire and remind students that there is life under the snow. This weekend is also Earth Spirit Community’s Feast of Lights, held in Northampton, Massachusetts and honoring a similar spirit.

Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, Pagans are celebrating Lammas or Lughnasadh, and enjoying the beginnings of the harvest season.

This year several Imbolc-inspired articles were published in the mainstream media. The Latino Post featured a report entitled, “Witchcraft in the U.S.: Imbolc 2015 History, Facts & Celebration Ideas.” Similarly,The International Business Times, in a continuation of its Wiccan Sabbat series, will be offering its Imbolc edition on Feb. 2. In Pennsylvania, the local Bucks County Courier Times published an in-depth piece titled, “Groundhog Day more than a Weather Forecast for this Faith.” This article features the seasonal religious practices of the local heathen group, Urglaawe Kindred of Distelfink.

Here are a few quotes on mid-winter observances:

Despite its coming in a month of which few are enamored, Imbolc and its goddess, Brigid, are beautiful expressions of life and the arts that bring it—life—into being and give it meaning. Furthermore, Imbolc, a moment which goes by many names (including Groundhog Day!), is a beautiful combination of celebrations in both Pagan and Christian traditions. It is a day that could be well celebrated among UU’s, yet is nearly universally ignored. – Catherine Clarenbach, fromHome for the (February) Holidays: Imbolc, Brigid, and the Union of Opposites”

The last holiday of the Vanic year (as the Vanic new year is the spring equinox) is called Rasthuas Ja’enladata (RAHS-thoo-ahs JIGH-en-lah-dah-tah) [in Eshnesk, the language of the Eshnahai, or citizens of Vanaheim) – translated as Lights of the Winter Storm, observed in early February, where lights are burned through the worst winter storms of the year as a reminder that soon the spring will come.  This is the holiday where the Queen’s half of the year and time of influence begins, power rising again in anticipation of the spring. –  Nornoriel Lokason, “Lights of Winter Storm”

I love Imbolc. The snowdrops are out – so beautiful. And it’s so amazing to think what that delicate green stem with the flower bud at its tip has done. Have you tried pushing your finger down into the cold, hard, frozen earth? It’s difficult and often impossible, and your finger has a good strong bone in it to help it keep its structure – imagine how that is for the flower stem pushing up the other way! We often ignore the everyday magic of the earth in our hurried, busy, self-absorbed modern society and the birthing of the snowdrops is just one of these wonderful magical things. I’ll be with a group of students to celebrate Imbolc this Sunday and we will definitely be sharing a little piece of the everyday magic all around us. - Elen Sentier, Moon Books Author. [Note: this is one of many quotes shared in a post entitled “Pagan Authors’ Plans for Imbolc this Weekend” published on The Bad Witch’s Blog]

Many blessings to you this holiday!

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[As this is the weekend that many Pagans celebrate Imbolc, we are taking a pause from our regular schedule and have invited Erick Dupree to share his thoughts on the seasonal celebration. Dupree is the author of Alone in Her Presence: Meditations on the Goddess and is a co-founder in the Dharma Pagan movement. He teaches heart-centered practices that unite breath to heart, inviting a Tantric relationship with the Goddess. His writing can be found on his own website as well as on the Patheos Pagan Channel.]

We are approaching that time of year, the moment between Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. It is for many Pagans, the birth of spring’s great return from the darkness of winter’s embrace. We celebrate this time as Imbolc, a cross-quarter day within the Wheel of the Year, a time for initiations, a festival of candle-light, and of the Goddess beginning her life-cycle again, ever anew. This is the time to manifest and a time to invite possibilities as we return to light.

From my Philadelphia window, I watch the snow fall blanketing the ground in pure white. It surely doesn’t seem like spring is anywhere in sight, and yet She is there, beneath the snow between slumber and wakefulness, in a place of lucid potential that is Imbolc. This is the time of steadfastness over the dramatic, a gentle shift from the bitter harshness of winter and into the brightness of Spring’s universal promise of renewal. Here in this time called Imbolc, our growth is gradual as the seeds lie hidden deep in the earth.

I have always loved this time of year. Whereas autumn brings for me a sense of melancholy with the decay of life, this lucid dreamlike moment before Springtime has always inspired me. Imbolc represents a time to turn inward, for one more moment, to see the seeds I have planted within my heart at Samhain, winter solstice, and in every dark moon ritual. It is a reminder of the promises I made to myself to regenerate, renew and restore the balance that comes from the fires of commitment needed to foster love, service, justice and peace. Imbolc is for me about the righteousness of possibility that is as fertile as the Earth herself.

[Courtesy of Erick Dupree]

[Courtesy of E. Dupree]

Here is this great promise, this invitation to transform our hearts and mind into the someone and something that is more than we were the previous season. Over the years, I have come to welcome this work as I welcome new beginnings, because like the maiden, Goddess is the work. Our commitment to that great work, and for each of us it might look different, is not always easeful, but that doesn’t mean it has to be full of dis-ease. Imbolc reminds us that there is always a return to bloom from whence there was death. Always in invitation, but never an obligation.

Imbolc is the maiden; it is its newness that inspires me. In these times of turbulence, as our world spirals, what might it be like to if we approached everything as the Maiden? As this gloriously fertile realm of possibility? Imbolc for me isn’t about dogma or mysteries,  or even wisdom traditions, but about the experiences I see reflected back at me through earth, when we invite the possible and banish dis-ease.

Imbolc is that liminal moment now pulsating with possibilities that come when we invite intentional and mindful living and experience each moment fully without fear. The maiden is Love’s warrior, fearless of failure, reminding us that love is stronger than fear. She is action, penetrating the frozen soil to bring blossoms anew.

What might it be like if we immersed ourselves in the potential of love’s great warrior? Imbolc is for the warrior who is too busy doing the work to care that someone may not approve. The warrior asks, “How can I be of service?” “How can I be an agent of change?” “How can I bring the newness of possibility?” The quest is the transformation in how we experience life. It makes life exciting and fresh, and keeps us young and eager to learn.

Imbolc is the eagerness of something great that can inspire at this time of year. When I look out my window I know something is coming. Whether we call upon Earth to rise up and greet us, or invite protection and blessings to our hearth, home, and heart, Imbolc is the moment of conception, the time to rekindle the fires of commitment. As we return to the light of present, what is the promise you make to yourself, for others, and for Goddess?

The time is now, the Maiden is coming, Imbolc is the invitation to that perfectly imperfect magical place that is Love.

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perlan in the distance

A view of Öskjuhlíð from the University of Iceland. The domed building is Perlan; the Heathen temple will be built on the hill’s south side. Photo by the author.

Outside of my dormitory room at the University of Iceland stretched a long and mostly empty expanse of land. Directly across the street, construction crews were erecting new campus buildings, but beyond that, I saw mostly empty ground: the pond called Vatnsmýri, the lawns surrounding the Reykjavik airport’s landing strip. In the distance there was a hill with a shining dome resting at its peak.

The dome is called Perlan, a revolving restaurant and tourist hub; the hill itself is called Öskjuhlíð. I never had reason to visit Perlan during my visit, but I came to the base of Öskjuhlíð several times –a trail leading to the beach at Nauthólsvík runs alongside it, and I often went there to swim. I got caught in a rainstorm while walking there one day, a heavy, cold rain that pierced through every piece of clothing I wore. I felt wretched. I looked up through my water-spattered eyeglasses and saw the hill before me on one side, the ocean before me on the other, and I started to laugh uncontrollably – a mystical vision from Thor himself, or perhaps just the first signs of exposure.

The site of Ásatrúarfélagið’s new temple, news of which has swiftly wended its way through the Pagan internet since Iceland Magazine published an article about it earlier this month, is only a few hundred meters away from the site of my rain-drenched epiphany. The temple, which is scheduled to be opened in autumn 2016, will be the first Heathen temple built in the Nordic countries in a millennium, and has been rightly seen as a milestone for modern Heathenry and Paganism.

The temple, or hof, has been a long time coming. “When Ásatrúarfélagið was founded in 1972, that was the first thing we said – that we wanted to build our own hof,” said the fellowship’s alsherjargoði, or high priest, Hilmar Örm Hilmarsson. Ásatrúarfélagið has been close to achieving that goal in the past; Reykjavík authorities offered the fellowship a building in the late 1980s, but the costs of renovation were too high for it to be practical.

The idea of building the temple at Öskjuhlíð has been planned since 2003, but the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland set the project back. “We lost one-third of our savings,” said Hilmar[1]. “We had been caught up in the spirit of the times, when everything seemed to be possible.”

The fellowship was forced to scale back from their original ideas for the hof in order to build within their means. Part of the the solution they arrived at was to build the hof complex in two parts: the main temple, which will be opened in 2016, and a communal housing building, which will be constructed over the next ten years. This second building will eventually contain Ásatrúarfélagið’s offices, housing, and a small apartment for visiting scholars. In the interim, the fellowship’s offices will be located inside the main temple itself. There will also be a ritual area set up outside of the main building for outdoor ceremonies, although Ásatrúarfélagið has already been conducting rituals in the location for years without a specifically prepared space.

A diagram of the temple complex, including a ritual area (Blótveislusvæði), a playground (Barnaleiksvæði) and a footpath leading to the beach. Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.

A diagram of the temple complex, including a ritual area (Blótveislusvæði), a playground (Barnaleiksvæði), and a footpath leading to the beach. [Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.]

Ásatrúarfélagið has been in existence for over four decades without a temple, using natural spaces like Thingvellir National Park, or rented buildings, like Reykjavik’s Aerospace Society Hall, as sites for its gatherings. A dedicated hof will open up new avenues for Ásatrúarfélagið’s practices, as they will no longer be so tied to seasonal conditions. “Up until the last few years,” said Hilmar, “weddings took place in the summertime, because people usually want them to be outside, but in the past two years there have been a lot of requests for weddings during winter. And of course, children are born without thinking of the seasons, so we have a lot of name-giving ceremonies in the winter, spring, and autumn. These will be moving to the temple.”

The new hof will also allow Ásatrúarfélagið to hold funerals in a dedicated space; Ásatrúarfélagið has a graveyard plot, which was established by a previous alsherjargoði, Jörmundur Ingi Hansen, but has not had its own location to hold funeral services. “It will, in a way, dignify it a bit more, so it’s not like a borrowed place,” said Hilmar.

The new temple has been designed by Magnús Jensson, an architect and member of Ásatrúarfélagið who has been interested in temple design for many years; one of his projects as an architecture student at Arkitektskolen Aarhus was a Heathen hof. “That hof was designed to be a microcosm,” said Magnús. “So is the new hof, but a different kind of microcosm.”

Magnús now teaches a university course that explores the relationship between architecture, sacred geometry, and religion, and his plans for the Ásatrúarfélagið hof put many of those theories into practice. His plans for the temple take into account the local landscape and attempts to build with as much on-site material as possible. The temple will bore into the hill itself, leaving an interior wall of bare rock; water will trickle down that wall and collect in streams and pools built into the floor. These features are meant to tie together the indoors and outdoors, the constructed and the natural. “The first wrong turn in architecture,” says Magnús, “was the invention of ‘indoors.'”

The wooden walls and ceiling will slope up into a dome. According to Magnús, the shape of the dome is meant to evoke the female form, in contrast to the phallic associations of other religious buildings in Reykjavik. Much thought has been put into the interplay of light and darkness throughout the hof; a skylight will let in shadows that change their shapes according to the position of the sun throughout the year, with different effects on the solstices and equinoxes. There are also plans for a large fireplace near the altar, as well as electric lighting, to illuminate the hof during Iceland’s long winter nights.

Inside the hof, specially-designed windows will create lighting effects that change with the seasons. Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.

Inside the hof, specially-designed windows will create lighting effects that change with the seasons. [Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.]

Perhaps surprisingly, Magnús had no interest in creating a building that attempted to replicate the designs of ancient Heathen temples. “A lot of people think that Ásatrú is something only from the past, but Ásatrúarfélagið believes it is something timeless,” he explained to me. As a result, he was more interested in designing a building to meet the specific needs of the fellowship as it exists in the modern day. His plans center around modern ideas of green buildings and the classical formulae of sacred geometry, but the greatest inspiration for the hof was the Öskjuhlíð site itself. “The hof was designed so that it could not exist anywhere else,” said Magnús. “If you were to build the exact same plans somewhere else, it would not be the same building, because it would not be the same environment.”

Magnús has hopes that his hof will bring more attention to Ásatrúarfélagið from within Iceland. “I think more people will become interested in Ásatrú when they realize it isn’t all about Vikings,” he explained. In his eyes, many Icelanders who technically registered with the state Lutheran church, but don’t really believe in it, or in anything at all; he thinks the hof may lead them to explore Ásatrú.

hof cutaway 2

A cutaway diagram of the hof. Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.

Hilmar also has high hopes for the new building. He said that Iceland’s tourist authorities have mentioned a huge increase in interest from visitors about Icelandic Paganism, and he expects that, when the hof is completed, it will become a destination for many of those tourists. “I’ve never thought about it before, to be honest,” he said. “I was getting letters of warning from friends abroad, saying we should impose a code of conduct. I was, in a way, so naive that I assumed everyone would show respect, but that’s a bit optimistic. I think we will have a great influx of people coming in, and I hope they will respect that this is our building, and it’s serving our community.”

Despite these misgivings, Hilmar believes that the hof will come to be seen as an integral part of Iceland’s national character. “Hallgrimskirkja has long since become a Reykjavik landmark,” he said, referring to the massive Lutheran state church that sits near the center of the city, the design of which is meant to evoke the basalt columns of Iceland’s landscape. “We do not want anything less for our hof. We really see it as an emblem of Reykjavik in the years to come.”

 

[1] As Icelandic last names are patronymic, it is customary to refer to Icelanders by their given names.

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Building a Pagan temple or employing full time clergy may be easier, and more difficult,  than people think. It appears that if you have a core group of three to five devoted people willing to dedicate at least ten years of their life and to make monthly donations, your dreams of Pagan infrastructure can come true.

In this two part series, The Wild Hunt will look at several successful projects in order to see what they have in common. And, we’ll also look at a failed Pagan community center to see what went wrong. Today, in part one, we’ll focus on the larger projects, such as a temple and an archival library.

“We need Temples. Urgently. It brings us together as a community and we certainly need that. … I can’t imagine anything that would make me happier than to one day go to a Temple with my husband and children and bow before the statues of the gods. I crave so badly for the restoration of Paganism to the glory it once had. There is no structure, and I think we need that. We need structure, we need community.” – Hendrik Venter

There are many challenges to raising the funds needed to create and maintain a temple, a bit of sacred woods, a library, or employ a clergy person. There simply aren’t that many Pagans in the U.S., let alone a dense concentration of Pagans in any one town or city. What further dilutes those numbers is that Paganism isn’t one specific religion. It’s almost as many different religions as there are Pagans. The largest religion under the Pagan umbrella, Wicca, is one that encourages small groups and functions well using living rooms and backyards. Additionally, Pagans often have a self-perception as being economically poor. They also tend to be suspicious of requests for money and may not trust leaders to adequately manage money. The persons heading the project might not have the skills needed to handle large projects. Finally, another challenge is evaluating if your project addresses a want vs a need.

Hindu Temple of Minnesota
Let’s take a look at a temple built by a religion with fairly similar numbers or religious adherents as Paganism – the Hindu Temple of Minnesota.

There are presently 3 million Hindus in the USA compared to 1.2 million Pagans and Heathens. While the numbers are comparable, Hindus have an advantage that their faith is fairly homogeneous while Paganism isn’t. Yet if we look at how the Hindu Temple of Minnesota came into being, we can see what a very small, tight-knit group  can accomplish.

The Hindu Temple of Minnesota [courtesy photo]

The Hindu Temple of Minnesota [courtesy photo]

The Hindu Temple of Minnesota is currently a sprawling temple complex, but in the 1970’s it didn’t yet exist. There were a just a few Hindu families in the Twin Cities area and for almost ten years they met weekly in one another’s homes for worship and classes. In 1979, three families pooled a combined $20,000 ($79,000 in 2014 dollars) to put a down payment on an empty church to convert into a temple for worship and study. A total of ten families attended the first religious services in February1979.

The group formed a non-profit called the The Hindu Society of Minnesota and elected a Board of Trustees. They had a clearly defined mission to maintain the temple, foster a closer association of local Hindus, create a library, host workshops, and create a youth program. In 1983, a week long Hindu Youth Camp was added along with embodied statues of different Gods.

By the 1990’s, the size of Minnesota’s Hindu population had grown and the temple was no longer able to accommodate them. The temple was offering several weekly services, annual youth camps, weekly spiritual discourses, larger scale celebrations of major Hindu festivals, and an official temple publication.

Over the next 8 years, the Trustees began a search for a new property that would meet the needs of their growing membership. They found an 80 acre plot of land and the Board of Trustees voted to buy the land, and the purchase was made.

In 2003, the number of Trustee members had expanded to 130 and the temple celebrated breaking ground on the new site. In 2006, the first Kumbhabhisheka was performed at the 43,000 square foot Hindu temple. The complex also has an auditorium, 250 seat dining hall, 4 conference rooms, a board room, and a library and meditation room.

Takeaways from the Hindu Temple of Minnesota:

  • They took it slow, built trust with each other, and made sure they were a stable group before they launched the project.
  • As the temple was a need, not a want, they were willing to put a considerable amount of their own money to start the project.
  • They had a good relationship with the other seven Hindu families in the area and knew how much each was willing to donate per month.
  • They created a non-profit and gave Trustee members, who donated each month, voting rights.
  • They expanded slowly and added on services that appealed to their members in order to both attract new members and retain old ones.
  • The temple is, quite simply, the center of the Hindu community. It’s not only a religious place of worship. It’s a cultural and social center for the entire family from which members derive great value.

While the Hindu Temple of Minnesota was founded by only three families, those three families were able to come up with a considerable amount of money for a down payment. This runs up against a common Pagan self-perception – that most Pagans are very poor. Pagans aren’t poorer than the general population, in fact, they are slightly financially better off. Christians at most income levels donate and average 4% of their income each year to their church. If Pagans were to donate to religious organizations at the same level as Christians, the average Pagan making $30,000 would donate $1200 per year.

pagan income

Citation: Kirner, Kimberly. 2012 Pagan Health Survey II Dataset. Online communication, 1/28/2015.

I would support something locally if it could demonstrate that it is financially sound. Not so much that it already has financial backing but that it would be transparent about what it would do with the money I was giving. Perhaps something like a community center or a public temple/worship space. However, I have had far too many experiences where there was no accountability so I would be very hesitant … I am far more likely to donate money when I attend a Unitarian Universalist service than when I attend a Pagan event. I just haven’t seen much consistency in my experiences. Many of the Pagan groups I’ve been involved in don’t last very long and often have a lot of internal drama.” – Laura LaVoie

The New Alexandrian Library
The New Alexandrian Library, a research and reference facility focused on magic and the occult, is almost ready to open its doors and has begun moving its collection of rare papers, artifacts, and artwork onsite. The library is located near Georgetown, Delaware and is named after the Great Library of Alexandria famed throughout the ancient world as a seat of knowledge and a gathering place for intellectuals.

The New Alexandrian Library (NAL) hopes to follow in those footsteps. It’s taken the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the group spearheading the creation of the library, 14 years to raise the funds and build the first building in the library complex.

James Walsh at the doors of the New Alexandrian Library [courtesy photo]

James Welch at the doors of the New Alexandrian Library [courtesy photo]

The group first announced the project in 2000 at their Between The Worlds Conference. They had initially drawn up a ten year plan, but the economic crash in 2008 delayed the start of construction by several years. The groundbreaking for the NAL was in December of 2011 and it took until December 2014 for the library to be ready to put books on the shelves. In total, the group has raised approximately $250,000 for the library.

Michael G. Smith, an Elder of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel and Treasurer of the ASW’s Board of Trustees, was very open about the funding for the library. He said the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel has 110 members, who come primarily from 11 ASW covens in the Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey areas and with two more covens forming in the Philadelphia area..

Smith said, “At the moment there are about 15 people who donate on a monthly basis to the library. These donations run anywhere from $10 to $50 per month. There are also about 10 people who donate between $200 to $500 periodically,” He also added that there are some people who made annual donations of several thousand dollars in the past and have pledged to do so in the future.

A few people have made one time donations in excess of $10,000. In addition, all proceeds from Annie Large’s A Cauldron Of Delight cookbook, Nicky LeBlanc’s The Living Goddess Project and Robin Fennally’s Qabalah books go to the library. They’ve even received a donation of stock, which ASW hopes will generate dividends. Smith says that while the majority of donors are active members of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, some donors don’t even live in the area.

Although not a clergy person, the library hopes to one day hire a Chief Librarian, with a small part-time administrative staff. Other staffing desires include a Chief Archivist, a Chief Preservationist, a Chief Researcher. Until they can solidify their income streams, like so many Pagan organizations, they’ll need to rely on volunteers.

When asked why the library has been so successful, Smith said, “People will support the things that speak to them mentally or emotionally. Some part of the project must touch and attract them. I have heard it said that we are not ‘people of the book’ and this is true enough. We are ‘people of an enormous number of books’ and the idea of a Library devoted to the study and preservation of esoteric matters of all kinds touches people both mentally and emotionally. That is certainly one of the reasons I have been a fervent supporter of the NAL project for these 14 years, since the very beginning. That there will be a collection of our history, our wisdom, our experiences, and yes, our books, moves people to want to be a part of it, to leave something behind after they pass beyond the Veil that will continue aid in the growth and evolution of the broad community that they love.”

Takeaways from the New Alexandrian Library:

  • Serve a strong recognized need. The NAL’s mission of preserving Pagan culture and history before it’s lost, not just a place to store books, is one most Pagans can easily understand.
  • Be in it for the long haul. The group raised funds for 12 years before they broke ground.
  • Have a wide enough base of members who trust your leadership and can be counted on for financial support.
  • Fundraise in person. By fundraising at their events, they are able to personally connect with donors.
  • Have a board with proven business and management skills.
  • Manage internal problems. While every group has moments of internal dissension and conflict, ASW and the board managing the library doesn’t do public displays of drama and stays very focused on its mission. Drama scares off donors.

How much money would something like the library or a temple need each year to sustain itself? We can get an idea by looking at the budget of a modest Christian church in the Pacific Northwest. The church needs an annual budget of around $200,000 to pay its clergy and pay all its operating expenses. Does $200,000 a year seem out of reach? It takes 102 members donating an average of $40 per week in the collection plate. Of course, a few members give a great deal more and most give quite a bit less.

“I would pay for nothing and want none of that.” – Mason Norsk Hest

Not all, over most, Pagans want temples or community centers or libraries. They most certainly don’t want to pay for clergy. For them such things either simply aren’t needed or they’re even seen as a spiritual detriment. “My temple is a forest,” has almost become a Pagan maxim.

Dr. Kimberly Kirner, Department of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge, says, “expanding infrastructure isn’t necessary if we keep a small, home-based meeting model and don’t mind that groups often die rapidly and then reform as something else. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

She says the need for infrastructure comes in when people want to expand past one on one relationships. Such as offer services to many people at once by a specially trained person or offer consistent community services. At that point you need to build beyond informal pass-the-hat models, “You can’t pass-the-hat among 12 people for taking care of an elder who gave their life to the Pagan community and barely scraped by, and now faces old age without retirement.”

She says no matter if you’re in a small, local group or appealing to the wider Pagan community, we need to “… think about what services we want and expect, how to clearly articulate to seekers/newbies what they can expect given our capacity, and what resources we need to accomplish our goals.”

Next week, in part two, we look at more modest funding efforts, and we’ll take a detailed look at why a community center and a Pagan temple closed down.

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LIMAVADY – On Jan. 21, a six-foot sculpture of Manannán mac Lir was stolen from Binevenagh Mountain in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. The statue, installed only about one year ago, was removed completely, leaving only a boat-structure that served as a base. In its place, as recorded by local police, the thieves left a 5-foot wooden cross etched with the words, “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”

[ © Copyright Mat Tuck / CC lic.]

[ © Copyright Mat Tuck / CC lic.]

The Manannán mac Lir statue was installed as part of Limavady’s 2013 sculpture trail project, which was established as a way “to allow visitors to the area to experience [Ireland’s] most celebrated tales.” The Northern Ireland visitor’s site explains:

Limavady and the Roe Valley has a wealth of cultural tradition and heritage, explored in the community through music, song and visual art, and a strong built and natural environmental heritage; the essence and legacy of both is captured within six exceptional individual works of art, depicting and telling local stories in an innovative way along the stunning Causeway Coastal Route. 

The county commissioned Irish sculptor John Darren Sutton to create the Manannán mac Lir statue as one of the six pieces. Sutton was already a celebrated and recognized craftsman for his sculptures installed throughout Northern Ireland and for his work in TV and Film, most notably The Game of Thrones. As shown in a video, Sutton created the Manannán sculpture first using clay and a silicone mold. Then it was cast in stainless steel and fiberglass.

Sutton told the BBC that “it was very heavy and would have taken a long time to remove.” He called the theft “unreal,” noting that some public statues are stolen for their bronze or other material value. But in this case, the sculpture’s materials had little external value.

Regardless of any material worth, the Manannán statue has definite and very tangible cultural and spiritual value. As noted in the area’s tourist page, “Local people believe that [Manannan’s] spirit is released during fierce storms. Some elderly folk in the area are still heard to remark ‘Manannán is angry today,’ when the Foyle is rough and refer to the angry waves as ‘Manannán’s seahorses.’ ”

Annie Loughlin, a Gaelic Polytheist living in Scotland, explained this local meaning further. She said, “Manannán mac Lir is an important part of the shared cultural heritage of Ireland, Man and Scotland.” She added:

It is… a beautiful work of art and symbol of the history and heritage of the area, for both Christians and non-Christians alike. The statue’s become a place of pilgrimage and a popular site with tourists and photographers alike, and in spite of the apparently fundamentalist Christian motives, I think it’s important to stress that the people responsible for this horrible, disrespectful act are very obviously in the minority. Limavady is a primarily Christian community and Manannán mac Lir is a well-loved, integral figure in the landscape and lore, and the locals are just as outraged and upset as we are – even more so.

One local is so upset that he is offering his own monetary reward for the safe return of the statue. Local Limavady funeral director Aaron J. McGrotty proposed to his fiancee, now wife, in front of this statue. He was horrified to learn that it had been stolen and is now hoping this reward will “prompt someone to do the right thing.”

[Courtesy of PSNI Limavady]

[Courtesy of PSNI Limavady]

Loughlin also noted, “We’ve been told that there’s a very real sense of anger and disgust among the police who are investigating the theft.” Just yesterday the police, showing a sense of humor, stepped up their investigation by sending out a “missing person’s report.”  It read, in part:

A well known six foot tall striking local male with an athletic build. He has shoulder length hair held back with a headband and has a beard. We have concerns for his health in this weather as he is bare chested with only a thin shawl held at the neck with a decorative clasp to keep his top half warm. Evidence at the scene suggests he has injuries to his feet! He is a very striking fella so if you have seen him please let us know …

Photographer Mari Ward, another local resident, has created a Facebook page, called Bring Back Manannán mac Lir the Sea,” dedicated to photographs of the statue. On Jan. 24 Ward said, “I set up this page Thursday night [Jan. 22]. The response has been overwhelming – now almost 4,000 Followers.” The page now boasts close to 6,000 followers and continues to grow. As a result she has been inundated with interview and radio requests from journalists and people throughout the world.

The global community, or more specifically the global Pagan community, has been keenly focused on the religious implications of theft, which the local police are now taking very seriously. Investigators are currently working with the idea that these thieves are religious extremists, as suggested by the wooden cross left behind.

Manannán mac Lir is an integral part of a mythology that is sacred to people around the world. Loughlin said, “Manannán mac Lir is widely considered to be a founding force of the Celtic Reconstructionist and Gaelic Polytheist communities, as well as a guide and guardian for many of us. He is as much a god of the Otherworld as he is the sea. Under the circumstances, the theft of the statue can only be seen as an act of desecration, and it’s hit the Gaelic Polytheist community incredibly hard. There has been a huge outpouring of anger, sadness and disbelief since the news broke Wednesday.”

Loughlin is part of Gaol Naofa, an international, not-for-profit Gaelic Polytheist organisation. She said, “many of us within the Gaelic Polytheist community have joined in with the outpouring of Limavady, from here in Scotland and across Ireland, and from all over the world. ” Like the members of Gaol Naofa, international communities of Pagans, Polytheists and Heathens have been touched by the theft and have been expressing their sadness and outrage.

[art by Joanna Powell Colbert www.gaiansoul.com]

[art by Joanna Powell Colbert www.gaiansoul.com]

SInger/songwriter Celia has just released a new song, written only in the past day, specifically to honor Manannán mac Lir and call him back home. She said, “I was stunned into writing a song. Not since I wrote Symbol … have I felt my blood rise up into music and lyrics. My Celtic Heart Breaks.” She has made the song available via a free download. She wrote, “I believe the powerful magick of the Celtic Legend of Manannán with the powerful vibration and frequency of music can manifest mysterious pathways of bringing him home.”

Loughlin made a similar comment, saying, “Many of us have been singing his songs to call him home.” Last year Gaol Naofa produced a video on Manannán mac Lir, which includes a traditional song and prayer sung by the Manx band Skeeal. The group has posted that video on its Facebook page, along with other links to help inspire any personal spiritual work being performed in an effort to call back Manannán mac Lir. Loughlin said, “A line in one of the songs we use is:

C’raad ta’n Ree? - Where is the King?
Quoi ta’n Ree? – Who is the King?
Ta’n Ree Mannanan. – The King is Manannán

 

The Wild Hunt has been in touch with local police and will report any updates as they are made available.

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Covenant of the GoddessSAN BERNARDINO –In the forty years since Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) was formed, its members have been on the front lines of battles for equal rights as prison chaplains, as veterans, as parents, and as people. The organization has helped to define the Wiccan and wider Pagan communities, has weathered the Satanic panics and the infamous Helms amendment, which threatened to remove tax-exempt status from “occult” churches, and endured the more recent attacks launched by such luminaries as George W. Bush and Bob Barr.

However, in recent months, this venerable collective of covens and solitary practitioners has faced an internal upheaval, which has since become quite public, and could be one of its most difficult struggles to date. The spark which ignited the firestorm was the very current ignition point: race.

Early in December, Pagan and polytheist individuals and groups issued statements of support and calls to action in response to the treatment of people of color in American society. As the Wild Hunt coverage at the time noted, its own columnist Crystal Blanton was the catalyst of this show of solidarity. CoG was among the organizations that released a statement, which began with this paragraph:

We, the members of the Covenant, acknowledge and share the concern that many in our world and within our Pagan communities have voiced regarding inequalities in justice. We find that all life is sacred, and as such, all lives matter.

To say the statement fell flat is an understatement. Critics quickly noted that it avoided any reference to specific events, such as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or Eric Garner in New York City. The statement replaced the viral phrase “black lives matter” with the more inclusive “all lives matter,” which was interpreted by a number of Facebook observers to be code for white privilege.

In that social media venue, comments ranged from people decrying the “whitewashing” of systemic racism to others who took great umbrage at the idea that broadening the scope was inappropriate. A similar debate was also taking place, out of public eye, on one of the Covenant’s internal email lists. These lists were not made available for review due to the expectation of privacy by members.

Tiffani Thomas Parker

Tiffani Thomas Parker [Courtesy Photo]

In reaction to that first statement, several members resigned from the organization in protest. CoG Member Tiffany Thomas Parker, who was not one of those to leave, offered her own perspective. She provided further insight into what led to such a strong pushback:

First of all, I will say that I am happy of some of the things that CoG has done for Pagans as a whole. But with that said, I was very disappointed with them with the statement they originally gave.

My first initial reaction was to reread what I read. Then came disappointment and anger. I was thinking to myself “Of all people, Pagans as a whole should know what it is like to be stereotyped and singled out. They should be behind the movement to ensure that ANYONE doesn’t get targeted like this.”

They should have consulted, asked, or even suggested to get opinions from those of color (regardless of race) to get a better understanding of what was going on to get a better perspective. It may not have happened to those who are the head of the organization, but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. To simply ignore an issue such as this was a slap in the face.

Furthermore, I do think that if they had acknowledged the issue, it would have shown the Pagans of Color that they have our back and it would have given them a light of hope that they felt supported and could have joined CoG. CoG isn’t as diverse as I would have liked it to be, and it would have been a HUGE opportunity and they blew it.

Yvonne C. Conway-Williams, an assistant to CoG’s National Board, also felt the statement came up short, and said so on the internal CoG list. However, Conway-Williams understands the limitations of the organization’s consensus-driven process, saying that “. . . there was a sense of urgency, which is why I think they did not send it to a committee and instead chose to deal with it as a national board.”  She added, “My stance has long been that we are not truly hearing from a vast majority of CoG members on the private elists. One person is required to be on our announcements list per member coven. Other members of a coven might wish to subscribe… Even fewer people are signed up for our discussion and debate elist. What this means is there’s only a select few who are having say and input on these issues. By doing so, I personally do not feel all members are being heard. I think it would be great if more members were involved at a deeper level with national activities such as this statement.”

Public Information Officer Gordon Stone echoed Conway-Williams’ concerns about how representative an e-list can be, saying, “I think it is also important to mention that not every member of CoG is on the e-lists. This is why CoG does not set organizational policy through email discussion.”

Outside of the organization, the board’s statement was also attacked as generic and meaningless. Devotional polytheist Caer said:

The only way we can win this fight is to actively engage in it. We must commit. As above, so below. As without, so within. We can’t just say the words and make the gestures and leave them both hanging there, unsupported. That won’t accomplish anything, brings us no closer to our goals. We have to acknowledge the problem, clearly state our intent, and we have to move from problem to goal by actively doing something.

Longtime CoG member Marybeth Pythia Witt, also known as Lady Pythia, commented more recently about that initial statement, saying in part, “We also learned too late that the all lives matter hashtag is used by a conservative anti-abortion group, ergo, the original post was incorrect for more than one reason.”

Lady Pythia during an event doing outreach for CoG in 1987 [Photo Provided by Pythia and published originally in the Independence-Ledger of Kentucky, © August 15, 1987]

Lady Pythia during a Wiccan event in which she did media outreach for CoG [Photo Provided by Lady Pythia and published originally in the Independence-Ledger of Kentucky, © August 15, 1987]

The discussion appears to have continued on, largely unabated on the Covenant’s internal debate & discussion e-list. Members of the national board recognized that a different approach was needed to address these widespread concerns. According to First Officer Kasha, after the initial statement was published,

We immediately received feedback from individuals inside and outside of the organization and began to reconsider the content of the statement and its impact on our members. On December 11, we issued an apology, published on our internal announcement list, to those members who were hurt by this statement, explaining that the original statement was created in an effort to express the opinion of our diverse membership, and we realized we had missed the mark.

At that time we solicited members for a committee to draft a new statement to be released internally and then potentially approved at our National Meeting in August. In the following weeks, Gordon Stone, our Public Information Officer, and a committee of volunteers developed the new statement.

That revised statement was released in draft form on Jan. 20 with a note of explanation about the process for formal adoption. It stated, “In order to allow the membership of CoG a chance to have input on this new statement, it was released internally on our organization’s e-mail list last week. The membership will have the opportunity to review, revise, and adopt it as a statement made by the entire organization at the annual meeting in August 2015.”

Peter Dybing

Peter Dybing

However, any fanfare that might have accompanied this new draft was deafened by a blog post written by former First Officer Peter Dybing and published the day before. Writing under the title An Indictment of Covenant of the Goddess, Racism Exposed, Dybing lambasted his fellow members, asserting that his comments on the private list had been censored as part of a wider effort to silence dissent over these issues. He further claims that one of the individuals guiding the discussion was known to use racist epithets in casual conversation.

Let me be clear, there are many great people in CoG that I have worked with over the years. What this post represents is an indictment of the power structures that at all costs will engage in ensuring that the organization does not change. When truth is spoken to power the result is oppression. It is evident that those engaging in these behaviors have little insight into their actions, yet it remains that their actions are sheltering racism within the organization.

Not surprisingly, considerable outcry resulted with some taking to social media to applaud Dybing’s words, and others claiming he had breached CoG’s code of ethics. The two points of that code which appear to speak most closely to that questions are, “All persons associated with this Covenant shall respect the traditional secrecy of our religion” and “Members of this Covenant should ever keep in mind the underlying unity of our religion as well as the diversity of its manifestations.” Dybing maintains he has not violated ethical standards because he has not named anyone.

Whether Dybing was “censored” or “moderated” is also a matter of internal debate. The organization does have a policy covering e-list discussions, and Kasha said, “We did apply our policy uniformly. Many Members were warned about inappropriate posts and, rather than removing members from the list, those not complying with the Net Coordinator’s (Netco’s) requests for civility were placed on moderated status. Posts that continued to violate the Netco’s request for civility were not put through to the list. After 2 or 3 days, when calmer conversation and cooler heads prevailed, the moderation of all subscribers was lifted and the discussion list was reopened to courteous discussion of all topics.” The policy actually allows the Netco to remove offenders from the list entirely, pending an appeal to the national board, but that allegedly did not occur.

CoG member Daryl Fuller, a participant in those e-discussions, publicly published a point-by-point refutation of Dybing’s post, calling much of it “half-truth and rumor-mongering.” In that response, Fuller took particular exception to the allegations being tossed around about another unnamed member. He also admits to being moderated himself, adding “No one is currently being censored on any COG email list.”

When asked about this controversy, NPIO Stone said, “I would respectfully request that your readers bear in mind that these two CoG Members were speaking as individuals rather than as official representatives of the organization. CoG also has ethical standards outlined in our bylaws, and all members are expected to know and adhere to these standards.  I encourage your readers to make a decision about what CoG stands for by speaking with several of our Members, or contacting the nearest local council for more information.”

The second statement, a draft, has also received considerable Facebook attention, and again, reactions were mixed. Comments range from gratitude to expressions that it doesn’t go far enough to complaints that saying that black lives matter discounts the struggles of other groups.

As part of a lengthier commentary, Cat Chapin-Bishop observed, “I am in no way surprised to hear statements from CoG members that seem to deny and minimize the reality of racism today. From the ‘Irish people were discriminated against, too,’ to ‘I don’t see color,’ the whole range of well-meaning white cluelessness is on display. But I’m not surprised or shocked by that, because I have come to understand, since the events in Ferguson this past summer, just how out of touch I, and other white people, truly have become on this subject.”

Penny Novak, a former Second Officer of CoG, acknowledged that there is surely racism within the ranks.  She said that “any organization without a political filter on it has racists in it.” However, she characterized Dybing’s behavior on the e-list as “really off the wall” and “very obnoxious.” What he failed to understand, Novak thought, was that many older people with racially-biased world views are unaware of that fact. “Give them a break, Peter, they don’t even know!” she said. While some of her contemporaries haven’t exactly kept up with the times, she didn’t believe that his “kicking and screaming” approach was likely to change hearts and minds. She explained further:

I’ve been thinking about the many ways in which language around the issue of race has changed during my lifetime. You may feel it’s obvious but it really isn’t. It isn’t even obvious between the generations of the Black Community.  Believe me, when I was young calling a person Black was disrespectful …  Those of us who were white and didn’t want to further the blot of what had been done to those of African-descent in our communities were very particular about the language we used…  

I’m not excusing the use of disrespectful language but when social use of language changes rapidly from generation to generation there will be bleed-over and sometimes what was socially acceptable positions become anathema. If you’re not keeping up, if you don’t keep an eye on the young folks you’ll miss when things start switching …You need to be very careful and you need to step lightly. 

More significantly, Novak thinks that, while questions over race caused this controversy, the issues run far deeper, saying that CoG “has basically been ruined by a few people who want power, and it’s ridiculous because CoG is an organization without power.” The decisions lie with local councils and member covens, she explained, and the national board has little sway. “Look what happens when they try to make a statement like big organizations do,” she said, “complete wimpdom.”

It still remains to be seen what kind of statement this organization will finally release on the subject and how it will move forward with tackling the accusations of racial inequality and systemic racism within the organization. Consensus must be achieved, and that won’t happen until the national meeting in August. That’s what Novak means when she says that CoG has no power.

This is a thread picked up by Kirk White, a former co-first officer who wonders about the covenant’s future. He said:

Rev. Kirk White

Rev. Kirk White

Part of the underlying problem is that CoG is adrift in its purpose and seeking to regain its relevance. Its foundational purpose was “to increase cooperation among Witches and to secure for Witches and covens the legal protection enjoyed by members of other religions.” Back in 1975 it was hard to connect with other Witches, get ordained, and we were still establishing our rights as a valid, legal religion. It was easy to rally the members around clearly Witch issues but now these battles are mostly won, ordination is laughably easy and we have the internet. So there is a struggle in CoG over how to restore relevance and attract younger members. The few younger members we do have and the more liberal members want CoG to be more activist to regain relevance.

But without clear Witch issues, the political polarization of our secular world is invading CoG’s inner processes over which causes to support. Environmental issues, women’s rights, gun rights, and racial inequality have all been split into “liberal” or “conservative” views by today’s media and CoG’s membership, being politically diverse finds itself unable to find consensus — which is how CoG operates — on just about anything. Thus, issues like #blacklivesmatter — originally seen as a “liberal” cause — are almost impossible to agree on quickly, if ever. This is frustrating to those more activist members, and combined with some bad blood left over from previous conflicts, has led to the recent resignations and bitter fighting within some of the more vocal parts of CoG.

Others see hope for the organization’s future. NPIO Stone said:

CoG as an organization is strengthened by the dialogue of our diverse membership. Sometimes that dialogue is easy and sometimes it is challenging; however, in my view, it is always educational. All Board members maintain an open door policy, and members are welcome to email the Board directly when they have concerns or questions. The appropriate Board Member will reply, usually in a relatively short time frame. Keeping that dialogue going is one of the best ways for CoG to insure that the organization will continue for many years to come.

While describing the process of examining issues such as social justice and the path to membership, First Officer Kasha said, “Clearly, the needs of CoG’s membership have evolved over the past 40 years, and our go forward plan is to continue to assess our needs, and ultimately, potentially revise our mission …In a consensus driven organization like CoG, this can take a long time, but our committed membership has been through several tides of change and will weather this one as well, being stronger for the work.”

“CoG is ready to evolve,” said Lady Pythia. “We’re not Witches for nothing.”

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Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. Our hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started! 

On Jan. 21, the Pagan History Project announced its official launch on its public blog site. Organizers wrote, “It was a long time coming, with several false starts, usually hindered by finances and time.” Despite delays, they have pushed forward, and the project officially opened just in time for the 11th Conference for Current Pagan Studies.

Director Murtagh anDoile explained further, “Last year, 2014, was a record year for deaths in the wide Community. And, while this site’s purpose is not solely to commemorate those who have passed, it just brings forth the need to record our history, now, before we get too far from our primary sources. All Pagans are storytellers …Small moments and ideas that, planted in the fertile soil of the Modern Pagan movement, have gone on to change what was once a set of small spiritual communities into a growing social force.”  Over time, the organizers will share details on how to get involved and how to share personal stories.

Holli S. Emore

Holli S. Emore

For the third consecutive year, Holli Emore, director of Cherry Hill Seminary, has attended an interfaith celebration and meeting held by South Carolina’s Governor. Emore is the Pagan representative for the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina (IPSC), a state-wide advocacy group promoting interfaith dialog. Three years ago, Governor Nikki Haley declared January “South Carolina Interfaith Harmony Month.” The IPSC has been helping to facilitate actions or events surrounding that declaration.

As part of this work, Emore was invited to speak about Paganism during a panel called “How The Earth Speaks To Us,” held at the McKissick Museum of the University of South Carolina. Held on January 22, she was joined by representatives from other religions including “Judaism, Native American spirituality, Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity.” She said, “It’s impossible to overstate how important it is for Pagans to get out there in their own communities … When people from other faiths get to know us, they gain a respect for our beliefs and practices.”

redgrailA Nebraska-based Wiccan organization has set out to establish a new physical spiritual center. In December, the Order of the Red Grail began raising funds to build The Red Grail Spiritual Retreat Center. The initial plan, as it notes, is to purchase 5 or more acres “of woodland to define this sacred space.” They also hope to include a barn that can be used for “rituals, classes, feasts, weddings, and other community functions.”

Red Grail organizers believe that their current community-based work needs to evolve to meet contemporary needs. They noted that, over the past two decades, members have been performing hospital and prison ministry, volunteerism, community outreach education, military support and donating time and money to local charities. They added,This [current] work is established and stable. However, progressing into the 21st century requires taking the next step – bridging differences by strengthening spiritual community among life-affirming pagans and non-pagans alike.”

In Other News

  • Megalithica Books, an imprint of Immanion Press, announced the release of a new anthology Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community. Published on January 23, this latest anthology was edited by Taylor Ellwood, Brandy Williams and Crystal Blanton. It includes essays by “Xochiquetzal Duit Odinsdottir, T. Thorn Coyle, Crystal Blanton, Clio Ajana, Erick Dupree, Amy Hale, Lilith Dorsey, Lasara Firefox Allen and many others.”
  • Bloggers and Authors Sannion and Galina Krasskova announced that they will not be hosting another Polytheist Leadership Conference (PLC) in 2016 as previously announced. In a blog post on The House of Vines, they stated that their original objectives had been met as seen through the success of past conferences. They explained, “There are things our community needs even more than [the PLC], and that is where we will be putting our attention in 2015.”
  • Speaking of Polytheist conferences, the new Many Gods West conference opens its early registration on Feb. 1. The registration continues through July in tiered format.The conference will be held in Olympia, Washington from July 31 – Aug. 2.
  • Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone are “revamping” their website, including new information, writings and appearance dates. Included on the site are a number of rare slides taken by Stewart Farrar “for use on the cover of the LP Legend of the Witches.” The photos include images of Alex and Maxine Sanders, initiation rites, cord magic and more.
  • For those interested in the work done at the American Academy of Religions’ yearly meeting, M. Macha Nightmare is posting detailed reports and stories based on her experience at this year’s event. Along with short personal notes and observations, she shares some of the information learned in various panels such as one called “Writers and Artists as Agents of Cultural Change” or “The Shifting Boundaries of the Secular, Spiritual, and Religious” At this time, there are only three published articles; however, she has promised more as time allows.
  • Modern Druidry takes center stage in a mainstream news article for The University Times, the student-run newspaper of Trinity College Dublin. Written by a non-Pagan writer, the lengthy article describes the writer’s journey exploring modern Druid culture and community in Ireland. She ends by saying, “Although not converted, I enjoyed the experience. If nothing else the Celtic symbols reminded me of a world that once existed and of which we are all descended from … Perhaps as a country we don’t need to look abroad for ways to progress but inwardly, at small groups like this who seek to revive something from our Pagan past that has long been lost.”

That’s it for now. Have a great day.

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For many people, Nigeria is a country only known through stories and news reports. Most recently, the country has taken center stage as Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group, continues its violent campaign in the North Eastern portion of the country. In 2014, Nigeria faced a health crisis during one of the worst Ebola outbreaks ever recorded. The country is also home to the famous Pentecostal preacher Lady Apostle Helen Ukpabio, and others like her, who regular speak out against Witchcraft.

Lou Florez

Lou Florez

But there is another side to the West African nation – a vibrant, indigenous spirituality and history that calls out to many Americans. Next month, Lou Florez, an American witch, rootworker, priest and Olorisha, is headed to Nigeria to experience that side firsthand.

As a student of IFA, the religion of the Yoruba culture, Florez told The Wild Hunt that he’s looking forward to “to encountering the Orisha in their homeland.”  He said:

“Earth-centered traditions engage and conceptualize the divine in unique ways, for us divinity is not exterior to our environment but emerges from and is encountered as the physical landscape itself.  In Orisha traditions there is divinity named Oshun who is known as the mother of the sweet waters, and specifically of the Oshun River in Osogbo, Nigeria. … To go to her river is to meet her face to face and be changed by the encounter. Imagine the ability to meet and engage several of these Orisha and teachings all in one journey.”

Florez was chosen to take this trip by the communities of practitioners involved. He described the experience as a “whirlwind.” Through friend and fellow student Shantell Herndon (Iyanifa OyaDara), Florez met a community of people with whom he now studies. Both the U.S.- based group and its sister group in Nigeria had been discussing sponsoring a pilgrimage for some of their American students. The planning itself took three years, and names were finally selected in the fall 2014.

Florez said, “During the last round of divinations my name came up and I was extended the invitation. I think that part of why this is so important for me at this time is that these types of opportunities aren’t give often or repeatedly.”

Like his friend and fellow traveler Herndon, Florez has launched a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the trip. The majority of the money paid goes directly back to the Nigerian host community. He sees this as an integral part of the journey. He said, “It is about honoring, supporting, and giving back through my labor, service, and capital to communities who have continued this liberation work despite the oppressions and genocides that continue to happen. The money I am raising goes directly to these communities and makes a difference in their lives.” Most of the funds will be given to the host temple, which will then be distributed to the local people.

After leaving the U.S., Florez will arrive in Lagos where he will remain in the hotel for one night. The following morning he will be taken to the initiation site and, as he said, “be in Igbodu (initiation grove) for 10 to 14 days depending on divination.” He added, “The ritual part of this journey is to solidify the connection between the feminine divine and myself through specific ceremonies and initiations which are meant to seed this wisdom within me. I will also undergo the initiation rites of the high priesthood and study with priestesses in medicinal and magical herbalism.”

Florez and another celebrant making offerings and prayers [Courtesy Photo]

Florez and another celebrant making offerings and prayers [Courtesy Photo]

Making such a journey to Nigeria is not entirely unusual. In Florez’ case, the emphais is on religious learning. However, religious instruction is not the only reason Americans, in particular, have made the pilgrimage to Nigeria. In an article for Grio.com, Nigerian journalist Chika Oduah describes a journey in which African-Americans find solace in reconnecting to their ancestral heritage. In such cases, she writes that the travelers “underwent a ritual cleansing from what they call the stigma of slavery.”

This process, which Oduah describes as spiritual as well as cultural, is something Florez, himself, also touched upon. He said, “I was called to these [religious] paths for my own spiritual healing and upliftment and to bring light to all the transgenerational trauma and oppression held within my body. The vestiges and scars of colonialism, racism, and oppression are not only experienced individually but transmitted in our DNA to the next generation. Part of indigenous practice has been to identify and release those narratives in order to move toward liberation.”

While Nigeria may hold the key to spiritual tradition and transformation, travelers must also remain mindful that it is still a modern land with modern problems and a modern culture – one that might not fully embrace their spiritual undertaking. For example, Christianity and Islam are the dominant religions in the region. While many Americans may be turning to the African Tradition Religions, Nigerians are holding tight to these monotheistic worldviews. Only a small percentage of the population practices IFA, or similar traditions. In many cases, those that do are considered “backward” by modern Nigerian standards.

Additionally, there is the very public and strong national anti-gay sentiment in the country. In 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan signed an anti-same-sex marriage bill into law. The bill was backed unanimously by the legislature and by popular sentiment. In a March 2014 article, Oduah explained that, on this subject, Nigerians are “united under a banner of patriotism and what many perceive as a fight against Western imperialism.”

Florez with friend Yeshe Rabbit pouring libation and honoring the sweet waters at Lake Merritt [Courtesy Photo]

Florez with friend Yeshe Rabbit pouring libation and honoring the sweet waters at Lake Merritt [Courtesy Photo]

Florez isn’t worried, saying that he “implicitly trusts the teachers and communities that I will be staying with.” He added that he has “been very clear, transparent, genuine, and honest that I am a gay man.”

However, in preparation, he has been taking the necessary medical precautions. He said, “I’m in the process of getting all my immunizations in order such as Typhoid, Hep A & B, Yellow Fever, Rabies, to name a few. In terms of Ebola, Nigeria was deemed free of new cases … I will also be staying in pocketed communities and not in general public in terms of transmission. Other than these precautions and usual travel items such as a water purifier, I have no idea what I am walking into.”

Despite any obstacles, Florez is determined to make this trip, one that he knows will benefit his own spiritual journey as well as his community of practitioners and students. He said, “the biggest thing that I’m expecting is having to surrender control both physically and spiritual to the process and to these communities.”

Outside of the initiations and education, Florez hopes to have a bit of leisure time for “personal projects such as reading, writing, listening to music, or watching fuzzy Nigerian soap operas.” He plans to visit the local market, meet artisans and others in the community. He hopes to bring back some “Orisha statues, herbs and sacred tools.” He said, “My curiosity is peaked and I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of things that we don’t have access to here in the states.”

While in Nigeria, Florez will be tweeting and updating his public social media for anyone curious about his experiences. His Twitter handle is @louflorez and he has a public Facebook page and blog.

When he returns, he is planning to share what he has learned and his experiences through readings, workshops, conversations, teachings and lectures. He said, “This trip enables me to help open the door a little bit further for future generations to touch into the history, magic, and birth place of the Orishas.”

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Column: Magic vs. Religion?

Sam Webster —  January 24, 2015 — 33 Comments

Are magic(k) and religion contrary? One of the ongoing debates in our Pagan Community is the place of magic. Some gather to ‘only’ celebrate and worship. Some find magic central to their practice. Being heterodoxic, Pagans revel in the diversity of opinions we hold, so the range held on this topic is vast.

We are not alone in the discussion. There is a very long standing argument in the academic community about what magic is and how it is different from religion. Attempting to coerce the God(s), which they call impiety, or rites performed outside the customary space, time, and staff for them, which they call illegitimacy are among the more consistent elements. Often this shades over into magic meaning any expected result of a ritual action. [1]

Communal harvest altar at Faerieworlds 2013.

Harvest altar [Courtesy Photo].

Historically, we get these values from the Romans, which were then taken over by Christianity and became dominant in Western civilization. In history, even these ideas are problematic. Going back to Egypt, the use of Heka, more or less what we call magic, was available to anyone with the skills and will. Unless you were using it for crime, the act of magic was in no sense a crime.[2] Contrast this to Europe, through most of its history in the so-called Common Era, where imprisonment, torture and death were the common punishments for magic.

With a life potentially on the line, one might think we would have a very clear definition of magic, but that has yet to be produced. Scholars, starting from their Eurocentric foundation, discovered it was much harder to separate magic from religion when they were looking at cultures other than the West. Whereas for us, Christianity supplanted the ancient traditional religions of Europe, but did not come with a substitute for all of the common magics that folks used to potentiate medicine or bring a little luck. (Actually early on it had a number of traditions of magic, taken over from older practice, but these were suppressed in the first centuries.)

To fill this void, spells and techniques from the ancient world were reused, often but not always with a change in the divine names empowering it. The Kyranides text containing elements from the Greek Magical Papyri shows the enduring nature of these ancient spells well into the Christian period.[3] Naturally, biblical resources were deployed, such as using the Psalms for magic. Misunderstood elements of the Mass were taken out of context for magic, giving us the famous “Hokus Pokus” arguably from ‘Hoc est corpus meum’, meaning ‘This is my body,’ the Latin words of consecration.

However, as we well know from our inheritance, many other elements of the classical world came over into Christian culture to provide for the needs of magic. The most obvious ones being the Elements, and the names and character of the Planets. But when we look at the world over, this is unusual. We are possibly unique in that the (once) dominant religion of the West, Christianity, is not the religion we take our magic from. (There may be structures like this in Islamic and Buddhist countries.)

In most cultures the main religion also provides for the deployment of spiritual resources to accomplish the needs and desires of its adherents. Mantra (spells), talismans, all manner of rites of blessing or expiation exist to heal, to help, to make things a bit better. But when they perform these rites, they call upon the names of the Gods they regularly worship. This posed something of a problem for scholars in that it made it hard to see the difference between a prayer and a spell.

While allowing for a few exceptions, most of us who practice magic think what we are doing is good. When we look at how magic is viewed from the perspective of non-magic users (muggles, cowans, normals, etc.), magic is generally seen as bad. Much of the discussion about it in the academy, or among ourselves, really comes down to a value judgment. It is all the harder to discuss since the topic is being variously valued by the participants in the debate: what is the value of magic?

[Photo Credit: by Leila Darwish ]

[Photo Credit: by Leila Darwish ]

The rub is that the definitions of magic, centered in coercion or legitimacy, run into trouble when very similar actions are found in not obviously coercive modes or performed under legitimate conditions. If a need is being addressed through supplication or prayer, the ‘spell’ (such as the Pater Noster or ‘Hail Mary’) is religious, but if presented in a more aggressive mood, it is magic. If done by the right person under the right conditions it is religious but if not it is magic.

We might be able to make these distinctions in our own culture, but they are much harder in other parts of the world. When looked at overall, any given action, such as the repetition of a phrase, would be considered holy japa (mantra repetition) in India, but ‘vain repetition’ in Biblically dominated cultures. (but then there is the Rosary…)

It has become very hard to find an objective difference between magic and religion. So, much of the judgment is actually subjective. It begins with the idea that magic is bad and that religion is good. This is, of course, not universal. The Atheists and Humanists often think of religion itself as bad, but then for them magic is even worse, being vain foolery or failed science. However, the larger society holds to this pattern.

The other major distinguishing factor is the outcome. Are any boons asked, are any supplications made? Is there any hope or expectation that after performing this action spiritual power will be deployed to accomplish what is asked for? If worship is without expectation, but magic expects results, we have an even worse problem separating magic from religion. It is very easy to make the case that the Catholic Mass is magical. It gathers spiritual force and then propitiates the God for benefits for the congregation and beyond. Indeed most worship includes prayer for those in need. If you think about it, even the hope for spiritual improvement or a good afterlife state is still an expectation of result.

What about the ecstasy that comes in worship itself? Is this not an effect or a benefit? When this analysis is applied it becomes very hard to find an example of ‘pure’ worship that has no expectation of result.

I propose that part of the problem with the argument is that we have such a hard time distinguishing between magic and religion that what we are really talking about is a value judgement: is this given spiritual activity good or bad? Calling it magic just becomes a way of saying to someone that their spirituality is bad. Irritating, I know…

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[1] A selection of sources that deal with this problem: Ruth Benedict, ‘Magic’, in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 10 (1933), pp. 39-41; ‘Religion’ in Franz Boas (ed.), General Anthropology (Boston: Heath, 1938), pp. 64-67; William J. Goode, ‘Magic and Religion’, Ethnos, 14 (1949), pp. 172-82, and Religion among the Primitives (Glencoe: Freepress, 1951), pp. 52-55.

[2] Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization). (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; 2008 reprint edition, 1997). 322 pp.

[3] One example is a spell for getting one’s lover to say who they have been having sex with by putting the tongue or heart of a frog or bird on their breast while they are sleeping. It shows up in all three texts: Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), LXIII. 7-12 p. 295, and another version VII. 411-16 p. 129. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa Von Nettesheim, The Three Books of Occult Philosophy: A Complete Edition, ed. Donald Tyson, tr. Jame Freake, (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993) p. 47, and Anonymous, Kyranides, On the Occult Virtues of Plants, Animals & Stones (Renaissance Astrology Facsimile Editions, 2005) p. 67.

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The first time I ever drove cross-country, my only real objective was to get it over with as quickly as possible. I was moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, and I wasn’t looking forward to the long hours and days behind the wheel. I mapped out the quickest route that I could find, and took off in a precariously packed minivan full of my worldly possessions with the goal of reaching Oregon in five days.

It turns out that the route that I thought would be the easiest was also the route that those who blazed trails long before me found to be the most practical as well. By the time I hit Nebraska, I quickly realized that I was following the general route of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Following the railroad, with the train in my constant line of sight, it occurred to me that there was an entire history there that I knew very little about, a history that was crucial to the successful settlement of America. Prior to that moment, I had understood the importance of the railroad in theory, but there was something about literally keeping pace, face-to-face with that history that emphasized its significance in a way I had never considered before.

It wasn’t long after I diverted from that route north into Wyoming that I discovered that I was traveling the same route as the Oregon Trail. Similar to the railroad, I was again faced with an essential piece of American history that I knew little about. The farther west I went following the Oregon Trail, the more the rest stops started to double as historical markers. By the time I approached the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon, learning about the horrors of westward migration become synonymous with stretching my legs. A layer below the initial digesting of that history, the colonial perspective of that telling also gnawed at me, as I knew that there was a whole other story within the saga of westward expansion that had not been inscribed on state-owned plaques at rest stops.

The Oregon Trail. [Public Domain]

The Oregon Trail. [Public Domain]

There was also something in the land itself that was commanding my attention– something unexplainable, a pull entrenched in the power of the wounds and stories and spirits of America. In connecting briefly to the history of the land, as one-sided as it was being reflected, I was quickly realizing my overall disconnect to these places as a whole. They themselves seemed to reflect that disconnect to me quite clearly, and the closer I got to my destination, the more I felt the urge to backtrack and explore.

By the time I made it to Portland, I felt like a stranger in my own country, but a determined stranger who wished to understand and befriend the unknown. That small taste of America had suddenly stirred up an enormous yearning, and my new surroundings in Oregon quickly started to relate and reflect the same themes and realizations that I had stumbled upon during the trip. Immersing myself in history wasn’t enough. I needed to meet the land, to understand these places from the bottoms of my feet. I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed to find, but I knew that I needed to search for it, and that need only grew stronger as time went on.

A few years later, time and money finally conspired in a way that was too precise to ignore, and I threw an old mattress into the back of my van and hit the road. I left with the intention of connecting with place and with history, of trying to understand my own complex relationship to the America I felt that I didn’t really understand. I wanted to learn from the places that made me feel as a stranger. I wanted know this land by its nooks and crannies.

I decided that my path would be dictated by both fate and curiosity, by signs and invitations alike. I was guided by paragraphs and articles in books and magazines, by roadside markers, by suggestions from friends and strangers and gas station attendants all the same.

From the time I first started out, those same people often asked me where I was going and why, and I quickly found that, while I understood my intent and motives, I didn’t necessarily have the language to express that to others. It was part pilgrimage, part adventure, part surrender, part obligation, part reconciliation, part sequel, and yet none of those things sufficed on their own as an explanation. After a few days of trying to explain it a variety of ways and seemingly failing every time, I simply told folks that I was “searching for America”, which seemed to be an acceptable answer no matter where I went.

Astoria, OR

The mouth of the Columbia River has been known among sailors for well over two centuries as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific.’ One does not have to be schooled in sailing to sense its treachery; simply standing at the edge of the mouth on a windy day puts one quickly in touch with the intensity, the enormity and mortality that emanate from this crucial intersection of river, sea, wind, and sky.

It is a notable place of both power and history, both as a port in itself and as part of the story of American expansion as a whole. The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1804 bunked down at this spot, and a few years later a party funded by fur magnate John Jacob Astor founded Fort Astoria, the first permanent American settlement on the West Coast. Reminders of that history and the wealth that accompanied it are reflected in the mostly well-preserved Victorian architecture dotted throughout the town. The town reflects both history and modernity, feeling neither gentrified nor stuck in time.

Mouth of the Columbia River as seen from Astoria, circa 1912. [Public Domain]

Mouth of the Columbia River as seen from Astoria, circa 1912. [Public Domain]

As I stood at the mouth, watching the bar pilots guide a cargo ship through the treacherous channel, I thought back to something I had read about Concomly, the Chinook chief who served as the original bar pilot for the Columbia in the early 1800s. Aside from the obvious technological advances, what I was currently witnessing on the river was essentially an unchanged ritual that had been performed regularly in this same spot for over 200 years now.

Thinking of Concomly, the question that approached me seemed to come from outside, from the mouth itself. What did Concomly call this river? This graveyard, this mouth of ghosts – what was her name?

I was only a few days into my trip, but it was already apparent to me that actively decolonizing my surroundings whenever possible on this journey was both a challenge and an obligation on my part, an obligation to the land and the ancestors as well as to myself. I knew from prior research that there was no single indigenous name that the Columbia was known by, and most of the names that had been recorded were badly translated and phoneticized. Nonetheless I wished at that moment that I had one of those names at the tip of my tongue. I wanted to greet the river properly without also invoking the name of a colonizer, but I resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have the ability to do so at that moment.

But while that specific name may not have been known or available to me at that moment, I also knew that the indigenous place-names of numerous lakes, rivers, and mountains throughout the country were well-known and were easily accessible information. From that point onward in my travels, I took it upon myself to revert to the indigenous names of the places I visited whenever possible, and to make notes and research specific places and place-names when the information wasn’t readily available.

Fargo, ND

“We’ve been staying here for well over two months now. My hope is to get back to New Mexico by the time school starts.”

She paused for a second, looking over at her two daughters across the table, who were distracted by a set of crayons and the activities on the diner placemat.

“But we need to stay for long as there’s decent work. School will do them no good if we can’t afford to eat.”

I had met Marcela and her daughters the night before, at a rest stop right outside of Fargo. Their family had been sleeping in the van next to mine, and it had been immediately obvious to me that they had been living at the rest stop for quite a while. I saw the father leave on foot before dawn and, instead of taking off immediately, I felt pulled to take Marcela and her kids out to breakfast.

I learned over breakfast that her husband was a migrant worker who was currently working in the local sunflower fields. She also worked in the fields on days when she could find someone to watch her girls, but she hadn’t been able to find anyone for at least a few weeks. They had been living out of the van for nearly two years at that point, with brief periods spent on and off with relatives near Santa Fe.

The sunflowers were the focus of my attention the day before, stretching for miles as I was driving down I-94 towards Fargo. When I first saw the sunflowers, I had spotted a few people out in the fields as well, and I had been thinking about the relative invisibility of migrant labor in this country on the drive into Fargo. So it seemed fitting that Marcela was the first person I found myself interacting with when I stopped.

Sunflower fields near Fargo, SD. Photo by Hephaestos.

Sunflower fields near Fargo, SD. [Photo Credit: Hephaestos.]

I knew that there were an untold number of families just like Marcela’s, skirting on the edges of existence and survival, but there was something in listening to Marcela’s story that brought that struggle home for me. Hers was a story that so many know abstractly and yet so few actually hear. I was grateful for the opportunity to share this space and time with this family, as heartbreaking as it was.

After breakfast I took them back to their van, said goodbye, and headed back out. A few miles down the road, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bunch of sunflowers. I looked out towards the farm and saw small dots out in the fields that I knew to be humans, and I couldn’t help but to wonder if one of the men out in the field was Marcela’s husband.

Sparta, WI

The first time I drove past the sign I though I must had read it wrong. I did a literal double-take as I passed it, somewhat convinced that I had just seen a sign for an astronaut and bicycle museum and concerned that my eyes were playing tricks on me.

A half-mile later right before the exit, I saw the sign again, and it was no mistake. “Astronaut Deke Slayton and Bicycle Museum”, the sign said. I laughed out loud and turned off towards the exit.

Neil Gaiman has suggested that America’s roadside attractions are America’s most sacred sites, and I was finding more and more by the day that there was a deep truth to that sentiment. I had passed up on several other similarly quirky roadside attractions prior to that morning, but I had no immediate destination. It seemed the perfect day for such a detour. I wasn’t sure what bicycles and astronauts had in common and how or why this was being presented to the public, but I was curious to find out.

It turned out that what the two had in common was the town of Sparta itself. Sparta, Wisconsin was the birthplace of Deke Slayton, one of America’s first and most famous astronauts. Sparta is also known as the “Bicycling Capital of America,” and the museum was a rather impressive (and surprisingly cohesive) expression of those two aspects of transportation. I spent the afternoon unexpectedly immersed in the histories of both bicycles and space, appreciative of both the actuality of what was in front of me as well as the process that led me to this point. While the phrase “only in America” is so often reduced to meaningless cliché, it was the defining thought on my mind as I walked back from the museum to my van.

In finding that museum, not so much the exhibits themselves but the very existence of the museum itself, I found a piece of the unexplainable that I had been itching to immerse myself in.

Lincoln, NE

I pulled up at the gas station, parked in front, and went inside the convenience store to grab a bottle of water. The front door was partially propped-open, and taped to the door was a huge sign. “No hoodies. No exceptions.”

I was wearing a hooded jacket. I pushed open the door the rest of the way to enter, and I immediately started to take off my hoodie as the bell on the door sounded my entrance. The woman behind the counter spotted me and waved me off. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with a smile. “I’m not worried about you.”

I stood for a moment in discomfort, wondering who she was ‘worried about.’ I then walked to the back of the store to grab a beverage and as my back was to the door the bell went off again. I looked over behind me, and a young Hispanic man was walking into the store. The woman looked up at him sternly and immediately pointed to the sign on the door. “Please remove your hoodie”, she said to him firmly.

I looked at her in horror, gave him a sympathetic look, and quickly made my exit without purchasing anything.

Back in the van, I tried to shake off my anger. I had been on the privileged end of racial profiling before, but there was something about the bluntness of that experience that caught me off-guard. I zoned out on the highway, driving what was quite possibly the straightest stretch of road that I’ve ever driven, to the point where my elbows started to ache for lack of movement. My heart ached along with my elbows, albeit for a different reason.

Pike County, KY

The roads are quite narrow through Appalachia, and navigating them requires a very specific attention to detail that I wasn’t used to in my travels. I spent so much time hyper-aware of my position on the road that I nearly missed a key aspect of my surroundings. Winding through the heart of Hatfield-McCoy country, I was quite taken by the stark contrast between the various rock formations and the lush green beauty.

It wasn’t until I pulled over to stretch my legs that took a wide-range inventory of the terrain that I noticed that I was at the base of a mountaintop mining operation, surrounded by what used to be mountains. While I had been aware on some level that mining companies actually remove the tops of mountains, it had only affected me as an abstraction until that moment.

This is ‘progress’, I thought to myself. We remove the tops of mountains.

Mountaintop removal in Pike County, Kentucky. Photo by ilovemountains.

Mountaintop removal in Pike County, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: ilovemountains.]

I walked up a gravel path into the woods at the base of the mountain, and I was quickly overcome by how angry the woods felt. It was as if a mist of despair and sadness and rage had enveloped this place around me. I felt angry back; I also felt absolutely heartbroken and disgusted. The actual brutality in how this practice affects not just the land itself but the people and the creatures who live here was all I could focus on as I stood there observing the the beauty around me, a beauty which emanated so strongly despite the sadness of the woods.

Later that afternoon, I stopped off for lunch. When I parked the van, a woman was getting into the car next to mine. She had a bumper sticker that read “I Love Mountains”.

“Are there any mountains left?” I asked her, nodding towards the sticker.

“Not for long at the pace they’re going,” she replied, the sadness evident in her voice.

Medora, ND

The distance from the parking lot to the comfort station was less than fifty feet, but by the time I got to the entrance of the building, I had seen at least three separate signs warning me not to try to touch the bison. Inside the restroom, there was another prominent sign, and by the time I made it out of the building and up to the main patch of land overlooking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the number of bison warning signs I had seen had approached the point of repetitive absurdity.

Who in their right mind would try to touch a bison in the first place? I shook my head in amusement as I climbed up and looked out upon miles of badlands, the untouched wilderness peppered with picturesque herds of bison.

Then I noticed people out on the bluffs, trying to touch the bison.

And I realized that a dozen signs are no more effective than one or none or a hundred when it comes to overcoming the mentality of entitlement that so many feel in terms of our wild places and the creatures that inhabit them. I was furious, watching the display of utter ignorance and disrespect in front of me, not to mention the danger. Suddenly I had no desire to stay and explore this place.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt national Park. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt national Park. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

Walking back, I remembered a talk I had seen by a Native woman who spoke of the prevalence and pervasiveness of ‘settler mentality,’ especially in the American West. I glanced around at the parking lot, at cars bearing the license plates of at least a dozen states and thought back to the bison and what I had just witnessed. That entitlement, that defiant exercise of blatant disrespect, right there was a painful example of the pervasive behavior that she had spoken of.

Rock Springs, WY

I’ll admit that there wasn’t much that caught my eye as I drove into Rock Springs, but I also wasn’t there for the scenery. I was there to pay my respects to the victims of the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre, where at least 28 Chinese immigrants were murdered and mutilated among an ugly backdrop of racism and greed. While the West is dotted with countless massacre sites, the Rock Springs Massacre had always stuck out in my mind as especially significant both in its barbarism and its political implications, and Rock Springs was one of the destinations that I had in mind from the very beginning of the trip.

My mistake was in assuming that there was a memorial.

I asked first at a gas station, and then I asked a few residents who had no idea what I was talking about at all. Eventually I came across the local history museum, where the man at the front desk embarrassingly assured me that there was no such memorial, although he “personally felt that there should be”.

I came here looking for something that did not exist, and the fact that it did not exist was extremely unsettling. Outside the museum, I watched the people walking to and from, realizing that they were mostly clueless about the horrifying carnage that once took place on these very streets.

I thought again of history and of colonization, and of the oft-repeated adage that history is written by the victors. I suppose that going to work each day is much easier when you’re completely unaware that there was once a massacre in the middle of your downtown. I suppose that to publicly recognize such a history would be more than a little inconvenient and uncomfortable, to say the very least.

The wind suddenly blew rather harshly as I stood there, and I could feel something extra in that wind. It was as though the land and the spirits themselves were screaming for recognition, screaming for justice.

Afterword

I spent nearly six weeks on the road, visiting at least twenty states and traveling over 10,000 miles. When I finally got back, it took nearly as long to recover. I spent the next several months processing what I had taken in over the course of the trip. To this day, I find myself often drifting back to some of the people and places that I had come across along the way.

While I can’t say definitively that I found all the answers to my questions or discovered all I was looking for, it was an eye-opening and life-changing experience that greatly influenced my understandings and attitudes about this country, for better or for worse. Looking back, part of what I was searching for was a unifying energy, a linking thread of sorts that I never did find, but in not finding it I also came to see why it was not there in the first place.

More than anything, I came into and remained in touch with the anger and trauma of this land itself, one that is continuous throughout with so many of her wounds unacknowledged. That trauma, and the strong undercurrent of denial that feeds and sustains it, quietly expresses pain and consequences in ways that no history book could ever truly convey.

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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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