LIMAVADY – On Jan. 21, a six-foot sculpture of Manannán mac Lir was stolen from Binevenagh Mountain in County Londonberry 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 six figure 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. Ward said, “I set up this page Thursday night [Jan. 22]. The response has been overwhelming – now almost 4,000 Followers.” 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.

*   *   *

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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As some Pagans attempt to revive ancient or indigenous religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts, and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some of the new(er) finds making waves in archaeological circles.

You, too, can drink ancient booze
Looking for the perfect drink to offer your Gods or ancestors? Why not serve them (and you) a fermented beverage recreated from ones that existed thousands of years ago? Dr. Patrick McGovern is the Director for the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health for the University of Pennsylvania Museum and he’s been breathing new life into ancient brews.

McGovern tests the residue left behind in ancient vessels used for making, storing, or drinking fermented beverages and identifies the chemical markers that the drink ingredients leave behind. If he finds traces of tartaric acid he knows grapes were used.

Some of the beverages he’s recreated are the Midas beverage, Theobroma ale, and Etrusca ale.

The Midas beverage was based on residues found in the Midas tomb in Turkey, from about 700 B.C.E. It fermented grapes, barley, and honey along with common Mediterranean spices like saffron and cardamom.

The Teobroma ale was based on a Honduran beer from around 1400 B.C.E. and has bitter chocolate notes. And, the Etruscan ale was recreated from a find in a 2,800 year old tomb in Italy and was fermented from wheat, barley, hazelnut flour and flavored with pomegranates and myrrh.

All three of these beverages, plus five more, can be purchased from Delaware-based Dogfish Head brewery.

How to Play an Ancient Greek Drinking Game
Forget quarters and beer pong, kottabos could be the hot, new drinking game. Kottabos was played in ancient Athens during evening get togethers called symposia. Symposia had a social and religious purpose. It involved male guests reclining on couches, while drinking, discussing civil and philosophical topics, playing games, singing, and enjoying the company of flute girls.

Heather Sharpe of West Chester University of Pennsylvania and a few of her students attempted to figure out how kottabos was actually played using a replica of a kylix (a drinking cup) and grape juice. According to images on pottery, there were two ways to play kottabos. One way was to try to knock down a disc balanced on a tall stand placed in the middle of the room with the dregs of wine flung from a cup. The second version of the game depicted players throwing their wine at small dishes floating in a larger bowl of water in an attempt to sink them.

A man plays kottabos  on this kylix, Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Creative Commons, Marie-Lan Nguyen]

A man plays kottabos on this kylix, Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Creative Commons, Marie-Lan Nguyen]

The students quickly learned that an overhand flicking-style throw was more successful than underhand or sideways throws. The students also learned that if you missed the target in the middle of the room, you were apt to hit another player laying on the couch right across from you. Just imagine how messy it would get if you were playing this game after several hours of drinking. Good thing the floors of Athenian homes were stone or packed earth.

So Easter Island didn’t collapse?

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Archaeologists have long thought that Easter Island’s native population collapsed due to farming practices which damaged the environment of the island. A new study shows that the Rapa Nui people might not have been the object lesson of overpopulation and the over-farming of a fragile environment as environmentalists originally thought.

An international research team has used a technique known as obsidian hydration dating to test various artifacts found around the island. What they discovered was that, although the population declined on some parts of the island at various times, the population increased in other areas during the same time period.

So far the group has been unable to find any evidence of a dramatic population decline, or collapse until Europeans reached the island in 1722 A.D. and promptly infected the Rapa Nui with smallpox and syphilis.

The Easter Islands are famous for the large stone heads called moai that dot the island and the Ivi Atua religion which is still practiced today. This religion is polytheistic with a strong focus on ancestor veneration. It’s thought the moai were representations of deified ancestors and were the living faces of the past.

The Fading of Paganism in ancient Cyprus
While the Cyprus area maintained Pagan beliefs alongside the official Christian religion for longer than most other areas of the Roman empire, well into the 7th century, Polish archaeologists excavating at Nea Paphos found a 1,500 year old amulet which sheds light on the fading of Paganism in the 5th century.

The amulet has a palindrome inscribed on it, which is an inscription that reads the same forwards as it does backwards. In English, the inscription reads “[a god] is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

Bottom, Egyptian god Osiris. Above, Harpocrates.   [Photo by Marcin Iwan, artifact from the excavations of Jagiellonian University in Krakow at Paphos Agora]

Bottom, Egyptian god Osiris. Above, Harpocrates.
[Photo Credit: Marcin Iwan, artifact from the excavations of Jagiellonian University in Krakow at Paphos Agora]

Yet it is the carvings on the front of the amulet that show the fading of Paganism. There is a depiction of the Egyptian god Osiris lying in a boat along with Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence. Harpocrates is erroneously shown covered in bandages, which suggests that the artist, and presumably much of the surviving Pagan population in the area, no longer fully understood the gods who they were still attempting to worship. 

Carbonized scrolls live again in Herculaneum
The library at Herculaneum, which contained between 600 and  700 scrolls, may finally be excavated. Buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, the library was first uncovered in 1752. However, the papyri scrolls contained in the library were so badly burned and fragile that there has never been a safe way to unroll and read them. As a result, the full library has never been uncovered.

But now the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems is using a new method of x-raying the scrolls, combined with special software to digitally “unroll” the scroll, so they can finally be read.

The first scroll examined is thought to be the work of a scribe from around the first century B.C.E. copying a work of  Philodemus defending Epicurean philosophy. The other scrolls could possibly contain lost works by Greek or Roman philosophers. Additionally, prior excavations at the site have revealed more rooms, which means that even more scrolls may be found in the future.

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EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND – On Jan. 18, the U.K. saw its first legal same-sex Pagan marriage ceremony. Tom Lanting and Iain Robertson, both hedge witches, were married in the 16th century vaulted cellars of historic Marlin’s Wynd. The ceremony was performed by Louise Park of the Pagan Federation Scotland.

[Courtesy Photo. Taken by Cherrie Coutts]

Tom Lanting and Iain Robertson [Courtesy Photo. Taken by Cherrie Coutts of cherriecouttsphotography.com]

“We felt as practicing Pagans we wanted to create a day for not only ourselves but for everyone who attended our ceremony and as Scotland recognizes love within All beliefs we were able to start our lives together bonded in the eyes of the God and Goddess and FINALLY the law,” told The Wild Hunt in a brief interview.

To date, Scotland is the only country in the U.K. that allows for legally-binding Pagan marriage ceremonies. In 2004, the General Registrar Office for Scotland accepted the Pagan Federation as “an appropriate body for the nomination of Celebrants under the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977.”  According to various reports, Pagan Federation celebrants have conducted hundreds of legal Pagan mix-sex marriages since that time.

Author and Wiccan High Priestess Vivane Crowley said, “The Pagan Federation (Scotland) has fought long and hard for equal rights for Pagans in Scotland. It has succeeded in establishing Paganism as part of the spectrum of a thriving multi-cultural country that honors the traditions of the past, while building a society of the future.”

Although Pagan marriages were legally recognized in Scotland in 2004, same-sex marriages were not. In 2013, Scotland’s neighbors, England and Wales, voted to legalize same-sex marriage. However, the two countries still did not recognize Pagan marriage ceremonies. Then, in early 2014, Scotland followed suit by passing its new Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. Same-sex marriage became legal as of Dec. 16, 2014 with the first ceremonies being performed that day. As a result, Scotland has become the first country in the U.K to legally recognize both Pagan ceremonies and same-sex marriage.

Crowley added, “The Pagan Federation joined other religious organizations in a wonderful campaigning for recognition of Gay marriage in Scotland. It is wonderful that the media, including traditional conservative newspaper ‘The Daily Telegraph’, have received the change so warmly and gave such positive coverage of Iain and Tom’s wedding.”

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

Lanting and Roberson’s wedding has indeed become the recent focus of mainstream media, as well as being a landmark moment in history – both Pagan and otherwise. Attending their ceremony was Tom French, the Policy and Public Affairs Coordinator for The Equality Network, a charity organization serving Scotland’s LGBTI community. French told the BBC:

We were delighted to be able to attend the UK’s first pagan same-sex marriage … Religious and belief groups played an important role in the campaign for equal marriage and this ceremony is a mark of equality and freedom of belief in Scotland.

Recognizing this attention, the couple said, “We are both delighted the world has taken this moment to the heart.”

While the significance of Scotland’s first Pagan same-sex marriage ceremony is certainly far reaching, its impact was felt all the more by the two men themselves. After twelve years of being together, Robertson and Lanting were finally able to pledge their love and commitment to each other in the religious and spiritual manner of their choosing and have it all be legally binding. They said, “We hope in time this possibility will spread worldwide to allow those of all sexualities and beliefs to be seen as equal in legal circles…Thank you to everyone who joined us on the day and to the wider world and our Pagan brothers and sisters globally.”

The Pagan Federation Scotland was unavailable for additional comments. However, celebrant Louise Parks told the BBC, “We feel that, if any couple wish to, they should be able to make their marriage vows before their own personal Gods, friends and family, in a religious ceremony tailored to suit their own beliefs.” She added, “I am absolutely over the moon to have been able to conduct Scotland’s – and the U.K.’s – first pagan same-sex marriage for Tom and Iain, who hold a special place in the hearts of Scotland’s Pagan community.”

In her comments, Crowley agreed, offer her own good wishes. She said, “Congratulations Iain and Tom, creators of the well-known ‘Gemini Wands’ company who will be known to Pagans throughout Britain from their frequent appearances at festivals. ”

The Doreen Valiente Foundation also offered its own words of congratulations saying:

Tom Lanting, one of the couple who were married in Britain’s first same-sex pagan wedding has supported the Doreen Valiente Foundation at various conferences over the years. We see this as a further historic step towards the equality of religion that Doreen and many others have struggled for for many years. That it also reflects the equality struggle of another minority group only makes all the more satisfying to see. Congratulations and blessings to the happy couple from all of us at the Doreen Valiente Foundation.

Fortunately, with all this unexpected publicity, Lanting and Robertson have not received backlash in any form. They continue to be very thankful for the outpouring of support and interest in their story. To other Pagan LGBTQ couples around the world, they offered this positive note, “Congratulations to our brothers and sisters who have received recognition and the rest WILL follow.”

[Courtesy Photo. Taken by Cherrie Coutts of .cherriecouttsphotography.com)

[Courtesy Photo. Taken by Cherrie Coutts of cherriecouttsphotography.com)

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK –In astrology, the planet Mercury begins moving retrograde again on January 21, meaning that the planet will appear to be moving in the opposite direction of other heavenly bodies. This optical illusion occurs three times annually, and usually inspires a plethora of social media posts blaming communication and other blunders on the condition. This time around, Mercury’s reversal has caught the attention of writer Kristin Dombek, who in an essay in the New York Times magazine writes:

On Jan. 21, at 10:54 a.m. Eastern Time, Mercury will begin its first pass by Earth of the new year. For about three weeks, it will appear to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.

Teri Parsley Starnes

Teri Parsley Starnes

“I thought the article was kinda great,” said Teri Parsley Starnes, an astrologer who writes on the topic for PNC’s Minnesota bureau. She braced herself for a slew of misconceptions, saying, “I figured, ‘here we go,’ someone’s going to make fun of us, but I learned some stuff, like the fact that the craters are named after artists. That’s brilliant.”

While Starnes feels that Dombek’s treatment wasn’t as terrible as it could have been, she does think people with only a passing familiarity with astrology may not quite grasp the concept. “Saturn return and Mercury retrograde are the two things most people know,” she said, and as a result, “It’s easy to blame Mercury” for any mishap that occurs during the retrograde period. As a Pagan, though — she’s a member of the Reclaiming tradition — Starnes looks at the skies through a spiritual lens, and considers what is known about the gods associated with the heavenly bodies.

Mercury and Hermes (Starnes used the names interchangeably during the interview) are gods of communication, but they are also tricksters. “I’m very inspired by the trickster aspect,” she said. “Whatever we expect to do, during retrograde the result is often something we didn’t expect. I think of it as a mirror: what’s my intention? Now, we must do it another way.”

She went on to explain that this is a period where being mindful and present is important. “I think his mission during retrograde is to integrate all of our minds, we often use just our ‘left brain’ or our ‘right brain;’ he encourages both.”That kind of integration is the opposite of how many people move through the day. We often space out, we’re not present,” she said. “I don’t caution to not do things, it’s a really good opportunity to enhance our focus be more present.”

One of Starnes’ clients has exploratory surgery scheduled during this retrograde, and asked if rescheduling was the best option. “No, I would take a little extra care talking to the nurses and surgeons,” she counseled the client, and “express confidence to remind them to be thoughtful. We can actually invoke Mercury as an ally, getting deeper in the surgery,” she explained. “I work with Mercury that way.”

Blaming Mercury may be easy, but it misses the mark. Starnes said, “It’s easy to just blame him and not recognize that we are involved. It’s easy to send emails you regret later. Easy to incite arguments, or get in trouble. I don’t blame Mercury, he’s just showing me I need to be more careful. It bothers me when I hear people blaming Mercury.”

Instead, she sees retrograde as a “real chance to enter sacred time,” and looks to the myths about this messenger god for lessons. “[The] myth of the birth of Hermes [tells how] as a day old baby, he hatched plan to become a major god. He invented the first musical instrument, stole Apollo’s cattle, hid their tracks by walking backwards, [and] invented sacrifice,” she said. “It got the attention of Zeus, and he became one of the pantheon. Mercury is eternally crafty, and we’re also trying to get something we want.”

For those who feel they are getting a little more divine attention than they can handle, “You can appease him,” Starnes said. “Sometimes I will do that, leave offerings at the crossroads, tell him he’s a great god, ask him to be gentle with me as he helps to relink the parts of my mind that need to be linked again.”

Perhaps it’s not enough to simply acknowledge that Mercury is in retrograde when one’s plans run afoul. Perhaps a better approach is to ask, “What point is Mercury trying to make?” and take the lesson seriously. If nothing else, Starnes recommends cultivating a sense of humor for the duration.

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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! 

HUAR Banner [Courtesy Photo]

HUAR Banner [Courtesy Photo]

For Americans, today is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday during which the country acknowledges and celebrates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Due to the current social and political climate, this year’s events have been or will be bigger, and far more poignant than in the past. Several Pagan and Heathen activists have indicated that they are participating in and even organizing public demonstrations, marches and vigils.

For example, on Friday morning, Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR), Solar Cross and Pagans United Against Racism together dropped a banner over the University Avenue footbridge in Berkeley. The banner contained Dr. King’s quote “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” and included the hashtag #MLKalsosaid.

Today, HUAR, Solar Cross, Coru Cathubodua and other area Pagans will be joining a march in Oakland, California to “celebrate the radical legacy of Dr. King.” One of their banners reads “Pagans United for Justice” and “Will we be extremists for hate, or extremists for love? – MLK.” The march begins 10:45 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

According to the PNC Minnesota Bureau, Minnesota Pagans are joining a big #ReclaimMLK march being held in St. Paul at 1:00 pm CST today. Although the article doesn’t indicate any specific names, the groups attending will be marching together and holding signs. The article reads, “Words are wind and many Pagans hope to change that with action.”

[public domain]

[public domain]

In Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Pagan shop owner, Kristin West, is using her monthly “Witch’s Night” to honor King with a discussion on freedom. According to a news report, the popular themed meeting, which usually focuses on religious practice and the Craft, can draw up to 30 people from around the state. This month she changed directions, deciding to connect King’s work to her freedom to practice Witchcraft.  West said “If we didn’t have freedom of religion, we wouldn’t be here.

Others have been discussing or honoring King through their writing. For example, T. Thorn Coyle, who has been actively involved in the above California-based events, published a blog post titled “Disturbing the Peace.” The Humanistic Paganism blog offered a dedicated meditation in its post, “Beloved Community.VooDoo Universe writer Lilith Dorsey considers the complexities of historical remembrances and the honoring of Dr. King. The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel has published its official statement on the #blacklivesmatter movement. HUAR released a solidarity statement for “the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend actions.”

While King’s message and his life had a very specific purpose during a very tumultuous period in U.S. history, over time his message has been distilled down and come to permeate U.S. culture with a meaning that far exceeds the focused goals of that particular decade. In the wake of Ferguson, that message has returned with force, in many ways, to its origins, regaining a new vitality and forward momentum.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. – Dr. Martin Luther King, a Letter from Birmingham Jail

In Other News:

Alane Brown in Peru [Courtesy Photo]

Alane Brown in Peru [Courtesy Photo]

  • The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad Cities, located in Iowa, has begun a new earth-based traditions program. According to reports, organizers kicked off the new program with a Yule Sabbat last month, and will continue with monthly meetings and eight yearly sabbat celebrations. Organizer Lana Long told reporters, “We are an umbrella for a little bit of everything — Pagan, Shamanism, Wiccan, etc. One of our goals is to offer a place for people like that to be able to meet in a community.”
  • Pagan Todd Bernston has launched a new “Relationship Survey that “explores and compares relational dimensions such as emotional bonding, anxiety, caregiving, and sexuality, between monogamous and consensual non-monogamous couples.” Bernston is a couple’s therapist who “does a lot of work with couples in non-traditional relationships, such as polyamory and consensual non-monogamy.”  He said that many past studies have not adequately looked at the bonds in non-traditional relationships.  He hopes that “the results [will] help shape our cultural and therapeutic understanding of the growing number of couples who are involved in non-traditional relationship styles.”  The survey is online at Relationship Study.

That is it for now.  Have a nice day!

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