[Today we welcome columnist Inga Leonora Westerberg. In January, The Wild Hunt said goodbye to Cosette Paneque as she ventured off to engage in new and exciting personal projects. However, while it is sad to see someone leave, it is also nice to welcome a new voice. Westerberg will become our new Australian writer within our monthly Around the World column. Today she introduces herself.]

Hello, good Wild Hunt readers! I’m pretty excited to be part of the team here at the Hunt, and particularly because I get to share all things Straya and Pagan – two of my most favourite things. I’ve been writing specifically about both for some time. Who needs another internet forum to do just that? Inga does!

Drooping She-oak Photo A J Brown (Source)

Drooping She-oak Photo A J Brown (Courtesy Photo)

Before doing that, I want to take a moment to send some love to the wonderful Cosette Paneque, the former Australian “Around the World” contributing writer. Cosette’s stepping down from this role has left me with some big shoes to fill. I enjoyed her posts, not only because she is a talented and insightful writer, but also because she offered a unique perspective on the Australian Pagan community having lived and participated in such communities in the U.S. An outside-the-box perspective is always welcome.

As Cosette moves forward on her personal journey, I wish her every blessing and send many thanks for her contributions here and for the conversations generated inside the broader Australian Pagan community.

It is fair to say that Aussie Pagans can be a bit of a strange lot. Probably because we start everything upside down and backwards. While the majority of TWH readers have just come from Imbolc (Candlemas) celebrations, we’re hot on the back of Lughnasadh (Lammas) and the weather in February is the usual melting high summer, bushfires and a little less harvest.

Here in fair Hobart Town, we’re experiencing lovely 25+°C (77°F) days, which is sort of laughable to the rest of the country as the mainland braces for the coming days tipping 40°C (104°F). The difference does not aid me with my current sunburn after a weekend in the north of the Tasmania in Launceston. This has something to do with our proximity to the hole in the Ozone Layer over Antarctica. No Australians are safe!

Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar said it best when she wrote: “I love a sunburnt country.” That is probably also the most well-known line from her celebrated poem ‘My Country,’ first published when she was in England in 1908. But it is the lesser-known lines that have always spoken to me particularly.

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

Australian Pagans are for the most part European, chiefly British descendants. Our country has a difficult history and our Land an Ancient Spirit that has often felt veiled, inaccessible, if not seemingly non-existent to us. There are no Gum trees in the old myths and, at times, our seasonal celebrations feel almost comical atop the Australian landscape.

What is a Pagan to do whose veins run with violent bush and chaotic eucalyptus?

Such was Mackeller’s love, and my own. Simply “flipping the Wheel” does not suit for a continent with five, six, and seven seasons, all of which refuse adamantly to comply with the imposed European order. Australian Pagans of all ilks are slowly coming to a new place. Throwing the old ways to the elements and picking up the pieces in lopsided, strange new combinations, and devoting themselves to learning the new world order as they see revealed here. Some even are turning to Indigenous wisdom to gain better insight.

Triple Goddess Symbol as it would look in Australia

Triple Goddess Symbol as it would look in Australia

It is tough work. Any new person coming to the internet seeking Pagan ways will learn very quickly about all things Northern Hemisphere. Nowhere on the lists of planetary, elemental, and seasonal correspondences will you find She-oak (Casuarina and Allocasuarina var.) or Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata). There are no writings on the magical uses for Waratah (Telopea) and Boronia.

The Sun is at its height in the South and moves North toward our Winter Solstice. Even the classical representation of the Triple Goddess is backward, reading as waning, full and waxing to an Australian eye. Slowly, the beginnings of a new corpus of wisdom are being formed – one that is inherently syncretic and unique.

Those of us who do this work are not necessarily able to be aided by others doing the same. Why? Australia is not simply a country. It is a continent and, from one side to the other, from Hobart to Darwin, there is every possible environment and season. Something as simple as the correspondence between elements and the compass points are finding increased variety. For example, in Perth, the Indian Ocean lies to the west with the land to the east. But for those people in the temperate southeast, it is the directions of south and east that herald the cool ocean breezes over the Tasman Sea and the great expanse of land reaches off into the West.

Boronia megastigma (Source)

Boronia megastigma (Source)

Additionally, from the Indian to Pacific, there are very few of us. At the last census in 2011, 32,083 Australians identified as Pagan. Distance really is a tyranny for many Pagans around the country. So we take to the internet. Our gatherings, covens and groves can be small, but online we can share across far-flung places. And, those who are the most isolated by distance can connect.

Within those small gatherings and covens and groves, new liturgy and rituals are being written. Animists like myself are invoking the spirits of the Sentinal Gums to guard our circles, calling on the Spirit of the Boronia in our spellcraft for love, switching out Pepper for Mountain Pepper Berries (Tasmannia lanceolata), and offering our Ancestors Silver Wattle resin in the censor.

To date, that subject has been the focus of my writing on my own blog Australis Incognita, and some of what I hope to share with you here. The kind of Paganisms for which there are no guides, no lists, and no books. The kind of Paganisms that are very new, with the majority of us identifying as Wiccan, and yet, older than even we realise as strange Old World habits are revealed in the walls of early colonial buildings. Paganisms that enter into Indigenous stories that are 60,000 years old, seeing them with new eyes.

What’s going on right now?

A few of us are feeling a bit jealous of those in Los Angeles who got to see Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Brothers Workshop at Art Los Angeles Contemporary in January which included two works by our very own Rosaleen “Roie” Norton, spiritual ancestor to many an Australian Witch.

On the last weekend of January in Tasmania, the Tasmanian Pagan Alliance held their annual Harvest Fest in the North West of the State, which was by all accounts a fabulous event. The following weekends also saw a collection of events as Pagans gather across the country to celebrate high summer harvests, which is all cherries and mangos.

At MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart, Devil’s Kitchen Curios made their debut at MoMa the museum’s summer markets, showcasing hand made Occult curios. MONA has been a huge addition to the Hobart cultural scene and, even more fabulous, their left-of-centre thinking means some of our local witches and covens get to share their wares at one of the largest cultural attractions in the State. Devil’s Kitchen Curios will be at MoMa next on Feb. 28, Mar. 13 and Mar. 27.

As for me, I’ve just come from celebrating the wedding of one of my own students, having the happy role of offering the blessing in the ceremony. I handmade rattles of wattle, gumnuts and sea shells for each of the guests, and our Pagan friends from across the state helped me drum. The sound of them all together as our bride skipped down the aisle was a magical moments I will not soon forget. We called on Lutuwitta, as She is called by our Indigenous kin in Palawa-kani, the Spirit of our Land, manifest in the elements. Our motifs for the celebration were the Great Gums and Banksia, both protective plants, the flowers of each rich with nectar. Perfect for our newlywed couple. And this is just another example of how our unique Land is informing our rites and rituals.

In the meantime, I’m going to leave you with a bit of true Australiana. ‘Waltzing Matilda‘ was written by A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson at old Dagworth Homestead, Queensland in January 1895. Here it is sung by Ali Mills in Top End Kriol, a combination of languages said to have grown organically from the meeting of Aboriginal, European and Chinese people around Darwin.

At one time ‘Waltzing Matilda‘ was considered for our national anthem, because stealing sheep, anti-establishment sentiments, and ghost haunted billabongs is what we do. Aussies are a bit awesome like that.

I’m going to squeeze in as many anti-establishment sentiments and ghost-haunted billabongs as I possibly can as I share with you the crazy joys of Paganism in Australia. I’ll be honest with you though, there’s probably not going to be a great deal of sheep theft.

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The primordial level of the author's home altar, featuring a clay skull from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. [Photo by author.]

The primordial level of the author’s home altar, featuring a clay skull from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. [Photo by author.]

I hold in my hands a skull. It has the same terra cotta color as a flower pot, and the same kind of weight. White paint has been flecked across its surface; sigils have been painted. The lines rise up from the surface of the skull such that with closed eyes I can still run my fingers across the surface and know whose vévé I am tracing. Start at the base of the skull, the cross flanked by coffins: that’s Baron Samedi. Up now to the crown of the skull, to the crossroads marked out in green lines: Papa Legba. And further on, to the forehead, the most complex of the lot, drawn in purples and reds that almost fade into the skull’s natural color. Follow the lines: they form a heart with three crosses. Maman Brigitte. The base of her vévé sits on the ridge of the eye sockets; those dark cavities reveal nothing, no matter how long one looks.

Although I do not actively practice Vodun – nor would I want to without substantial training, given the obvious perils of a white Midwesterner trying to pick up religious practices from the African diaspora – I have kept this skull on my altar for many years. Today it sits on the bottom shelf of my shrine to various gods, in my conception the base from which the rest grows. It reminds me of death and history, and most of all, it reminds me of the place from which it came to me: the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in New Orleans.

Only two religious buildings have really excited a sense of the sublime in me. Neither belongs to a religion I practice, which maybe isn’t so surprising. One is the church on the grounds of the castle in Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral, which, like all the great Gothic masterpieces, overwhelms the viewer with its size and grandiose detail. The Voodoo Spiritual Temple, by contrast, has none of that obvious grandeur: from the outside it looks like just another storefront in the French Quarter, a squat, pale building with dark shingles and two gabled windows. But step inside, past the shop from whence my painted skull came. Follow the hallway down to an open door that looks out on a garden, and turn around: walk past shelves crammed with books on religion and history. The hallway opens up, and there before us rests the room that has held my imagination for a decade.

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

On a floor plan, I doubt the altar rooms seem much bigger than an average living room, but the space becomes so much bigger in person. Except for a few places where human feet can stand, icons and offerings fill every centimeter of those rooms. Tapestries and statues and votive candles, furniture and altars and drums. And everywhere offerings: sweets for the twins, the Marassa Jumeuax, cigarettes for the Ghede, dollar bills slipped into every available crevice. The light comes in through the windows, or the starry radiance of Christmas bulbs. In a meshed-in basket along the wall, the sacred serpent lies sleeping. Not otherworldly, but superworldly, a surfeit of human devotion. Was this planned? I hope not; the magick lies in the accumulation, the continual layering of object and sacrifice, a wave that builds until it crashes into the senses and drowns them.

Since that first visit, I have thought that the Voodoo Spiritual Temple represented the finest way to approach the Divine in a physical space. In my dreams I think sometimes of starting my own storefront shrine, not a copy of the Temple but kin to it. A religious space should welcome both the spirits and the flesh; too many invoke one but have no time for the other. The Temple, to my mind, melded the two more perfectly than any other church I had known.

The news last week that an electrical fire had broken out in the temple, bringing with it not only the obvious danger of the flames but the more insidious troubles of water and mold, represents more than just the condemnation of the building that housed the Temple. The Rampart Street address – across from Congo Square, itself a place of weighty significance for African-Americans in New Orleans – means much, but the Temple has not always been housed there. “The most sacred and pertinent items of the temple were spared fire,” says Witchdoctor Utu, a student of the Temple, invoking the watchful eye of its original priest, Oswan Chamani, to explain this good fortune. But I worry that this means many of the smaller items – those placed with less intention, perhaps, used less often in ritual, but still of significance, have been lost. A mosaic consists only of its many stones: pry enough away, and the picture itself loses form.

I have no doubt that Priestess Miriam and her companions will rebuild, hopefully in the same location and with many of the same accouterments. Aiyda, the sacred python, made it out alive, providing reason enough to celebrate. But it should remind us of the tenuous nature of so much of what goes into our lives. We all lack insurance over the specific configuration of our existence, our history, our magick. A chance spark can be enough to turn the whole thing upside down.

So now I lay in bed, looking at the skull on my altar, remembering this place and all its mystery. I close my eyes and trace the lines of the corridors, the pathways through the holy clutter, and look again on the gifts to the loa, now perhaps turned to burnt offerings. The lines of memory rise from the surface of the floor. With my ghostly feet, I trace the vévé of time.

Rise again, Temple. Rise again on the crest of your history, and begin the process of accumulating magick again.

The Voodoo Spiritual Temple still seeks donations for their recovery fund.

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PHOENIX, Ariz. — In January, The Satanic Temple of Tuscon was given the co-ahead to offer an invocation before the Feb. 17 Phoenix city council meeting. When the news was made public, there was an immediate backlash led by council member Sal DiCiccio of District 6. On Jan 28, DiCiccio tweeted, “Another dumb idea by the City of #PHX. Satanists are set to deliver the invocation at the Feb 17th Council meeting.” But the invocation was never to be. In less than one week, the city council was forced to directly address the issue and vote on whether or not to allow legislative prayer.

Image: Wing-Chi Poon, CC lic. Wikipedia Commons

[Photo Credit: Wing-Chi Poon / Wikimedia]

According to City Attorney Brad Holm, in December 2015, TST representatives Michelle Shorrt and Stu du Haan “followed the rules” in applying to offer an invocation. They had been informed of the city regulations, including the possibility of dates changing, and everything appeared to be in proper order.  Then, in late January, the group was given the go-ahead.  TST Spokesperson Lucien Greaves told The Friendly Atheist:

There’s certainly no novelty at all to a Christian invocations, and nobody is at a loss to find Christian houses of worship, if they so choose. Satanism, on the other hand, is still largely a mystery to the general public. When public forums allow for religious displays or performances, they do so to our advantage. We’re grateful for Phoenix’s public platform for Satanists, and I believe the people of Phoenix can expect us to be regular contributors to their religious milieu — thanks, in part, to their City Council.

When the news was announced, council member Sal DiCiccio along with fellow council members Jim Waring, Bill Gates, and Michael Nowakowski expressed their astonishment and spoke out against this decision. DiCiccio tweeted, “Political correct PHX pushing satanist to speak at city invocation about to get pushed out. This is not about ‘diversity’ but about stupidity.” He and several others also maintain that The Satanic Temple is not a religion. “It is a cult,” they added.

The four council members launched a public campaign to put an end to TST’s invocation and issued a request for the city council to consider an emergency measure. The new motion was added to the Feb. 3 meeting agenda, and it recommended the adoption of a new rule that would require all volunteers offering prayers to be residents of Phoenix. In addition, council members would have to personally endorse any proposed speakers before they were allowed to be put on the official schedule.

In reaction, The Satanic Temple simply said, “game on.”  And then later, the group threatened a lawsuit against the city should it cancel the TST invocation. The organization responded directly to DiCiccio, saying, “This is what Religious Liberty looks like when you open the forum, Councilman. Little Civics Lesson.”

In the wake of this conflict, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FRFF) got involved, sending a letter on Feb. 1 to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. It read, in part:

I am writing on behalf members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, including Phoenix members, to object to proposed changes to the prayer policy for Phoenix City Council meetings and explain why those changes are illegal […] This rule change is discriminatory in both intent and effect. Regardless of the legality of the rule itself, the change was proposed to keep out one particular religion. That is discrimination.

Both FRFF’s letter and press release refer to the 2014 case of Greece v. Galloway, saying “[Staff Attorney Andrew] Seidel cites the Supreme Court’s May 2014 government prayer case, which he says holds ‘a local government must open its prayers to all comers, including atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and Satanists.’ ” The Supreme Court ruling made it legal to offer religious invocations before legislative meetings. However, this opportunity must be open to everyone, of all religions and no religion. The court’s opinion read that “no violation of the Constitution has been shown” in the offering of prayer. It stated,

Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

While the justices acknowledged the importance of ceremonial prayer within a community environment, they did so with the understanding that these religious invocations would never be used to “exclude or coerce nonbelievers.” FRFF held that DiCiccio’s proposed rule would do just that, “exclude nonbelievers” making it unconstitutional.

The Satanic Temple logoOn the afternoon of Feb. 3, the City Council convened its scheduled meeting. Included on the agenda was the proposed new rule on legislative prayer. When the item was brought to the floor, council member Thelda Williams interjected, offering a counter proposal that would allow for a moment of silence in lieu of any type of spoken prayer. This changed the conversation considerably. DiCiccio tweeted from inside the meeting: “Satanists to get Big Win if #PHX Mayor and Council Sneak Last Minute Proposal Banning Prayer.”

Beginning the testimony were three state representatives, two of which supported DiCiccio’s new rule calling on the need to keep God and religion in government. The third speaker, Rep. Kelly Townsend, offered her support of legislative prayer, but said that it does need to be inclusive. She noted that this method works peacefully in the Arizona State Legislature.

After the representatives spoke, there was a string of citizens offering their own testimony. The majority identified themselves as Christian and strongly supported DiCiccio’s new rule, arguing everything from “We are a nation under God” to “We don’t want the wrong kind of prayers.” There were several atheists, one agnostic, two people who identified as Jewish, a handful of Christians, who spoke in favor of the moment of silence. One man, Blue Crowley, who said that his brother was a “Magus of the Temple of the Golden Dawn,” spoke out passionately in support of the moment of silence, saying he knows Sikhs, Druids, and more. He was cut off, and did not get to finish his speech. Nobody from The Satanic Temple itself spoke.

After the long list of speakers, City Attorney Holm clarified the city’s legal risks if it chose to cancel the TST prayer. He stated clearly that changing the invocation rules after TST was already on the schedule would be considered an “unconstitutional suppression of a minority religious viewpoint,” and in violation of the Constitution. The mayor then clarified, saying that in adopting the original proposal and canceling TST’s invocation the city would be put in “legal hot water.”

In the end, the city adopted the moment of silence by a vote of 5-4. FRFF Attorney Seidel tweeted out, “Win! Looks like Phx City Council voted to have a moment of silence from now on.”  TST Spokesperson Lucien Greaves said, “We’ll take it.”

Phoenix resident Mark Bailey wasn’t surprised by the backlash or the ruling. Bailey is a local Druid and founder of the Phoenix Fire Gatherings. He said that the Phoenix community is religiously diverse and the council doesn’t truly represent the people. He said they are “completely out of touch with their voting constituency.”  His remarks are corroborated by comparative data offered by Pew Forum. The City of Phoenix has a lower percentage of Christians (66%)  than the overall country average (70.6%).  And, the city has a higher rate of “nones” (26%) and non-Christians (7%) than the U.S. average.

12273669_1182497181777605_7062193638985447485_oAs an example, Bailey added, “Phoenix has one of the largest Pagan/ Heathen/ Druid populations in the Southwest. The Fire Gatherings alone attract 500-750 Pagan attendees twice a year alone…more than any other Pagan event in the Valley.”  Due to this theoretical discrepancy between the population and its representatives, Bailey believes that TST was “wasting its time trying to do the invocation and the City Council’s reaction was expected.”

Bailey’s point would be correct if The Satanic Temple’s goal was ultimately to give the invocation. However, as Greaves suggested, the moment of silence was as much of a win as having offered the prayer itself. In both cases, Constitutional law is upheld. All or none, as it goes.

The side note, and one to watch, for Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists is the discrepancy in the public reaction to a Wiccan invocation and a Satanist one. In the past several years, there have been multiple Wiccan invocations given before state legislatures (e.g., Iowa and Wisconsin) school board meetings (e.g.,Escambia Cty, FL and Cleveland Cty, NC)  and town meetings (e.g., Huntsville, AL). While Wiccans do still create controversy, officials seem to overcome the discomfort and move forward with making inclusive invocations work, as defined in the Greece v Galloway ruling. This does not appear to be the case for The Satanic Temple. The reaction to TST resembles what might have happened to Wiccans thirty years ago. Times do change.

Since the Phoenix city council ruling, The Satanic Temple has not missed a step. The group recently announced that it is now on the schedule to give an invocation at the Apr 15 Scottsdale city council meeting. Scottsdale is only 9 miles northeast of Phoenix, so people in that region have not necessarily seen an end to this discussion. In addition, there are reports that TST has also requested to offer prayers before the councils in the cities of Sahuarita, Chandler, and Tucson. This story only continues.

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While the hate group Daesh continues to make headlines for its military and terrorist acts, attacks upon the the Goddess Isis for simply sharing a name with a common acronym for these Islamic extremists continues to be under reported. The number of Isis worshippers is eclipsed by those who follow an Abrahamic path, making it understandable on some level that mainstream media outlets dismiss those concerns, such as the statement by the Fellowship of Isis requesting that the name of their goddess not be used in such a manner.

The goddess Isis.

The goddess Isis. [Public Domain]

However, incidents such as the vandalism at Isis Books & Gifts, which has led the owner to erect a new sign downplaying the name of the goddess, demonstrate that the confusion continues to have a very real impact on members of the Pagan community.

More recently, a small Facebook group called “Following Isis” was removed, purportedly for violating the site’s terms of service. Its creator, AJ Melia Brokaw, was confronted with that news when she logged into the site on Feb 5. Brokaw posted her reaction to several other groups of which she is a member. She wrote:

I’m so upset. I got on this morning to find that my Isis Devotee group “Following Isis” has been deleted by Facebook as being against community standards. It wasn’t a very active group but it feels like a smack in the face. Will see if I can get it reinstated.

Anyone who has attempted to get a decision like this one reversed has likely found the process of appeal to be extremely challenging, if not outright impossible to navigate. The reviewing of complaints about individual accounts, groups, and pages appears to be a completely automated process. If a decision is made, the affected user is provided no specific information, and offered no clear path to appeal.

For example, this helpdesk post by a group owner asking for information on how to get the decision reviewed was apparently ignored.

All Brokaw knows came in a formulaic message advising her that the group had been removed. It wasn’t exactly an active group, she said, with less than thirty members and only occasional posts in the 6-12 months since she’d created it. While she didn’t have a copy of the exact text to look at, in her recollection the group’s description was, “Something along the line that it was a place for devotees of the Goddess Isis, any were welcome whether Wiccan or Polytheist.”

Posts ran along the lines of quotes, images, and articles relevant to the worship of Isis, under that name or others, such as Aset and Iset.

Presentation1An ironic twist stems from the fact that Brokaw made the group because it’s difficult to find anything related to the Goddess Isis on Facebook. The name is mostly used in groups and pages focused on opposing Daesh under its moniker of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is commonly used in mainstream media despite the fact that most governmental officials refer to the group as ISIL or Daesh. Brokaw wanted a space to honor a goddess important to her in the company of like-minded users, of which there were at least a handful. The one page that  does continue to stand out against the tide of terrorist-related information is the one maintained by members of the Fellowship of Isis.

Both Brokaw and The Wild Hunt have made numerous attempts to contact someone at Facebook to discuss this issue, to no avail. A contact in the public relations department did not return seven messages left for him, and the emails sent to the address provided in his outgoing voice mail message were returned with an email error that occurs only when an email server will only accept messages from a specific list of domains. This suggests that the system is designed to be used internally by Facebook employees only. A similar non-response resulted from inquiries into some Pagan Facebook pages being hacked.

Given that Facebook continues to be where people gather, and no social networking alternatives have emerged which have taken any measurable number of users away from the site, its employees will likely be able to continue to ignore such concerns for the foreseeable future. While Brokaw is still looking into getting her group restored, she understands this reality, and to some extent has resigned herself to it.

She’s created a new group, one with what she hopes is a clearer name: “Following Isis, Goddess of Many Names.”  Perhaps that will be enough to keep it off of the virtual execution block.

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CAMEROON — In early January, Chiefs from the Eastern regions of Cameroon requested permission to use Witchcraft against the terrorist group Boko Haram. The news came through a tweet by respected investigative journalist and Chief Bisong Etahoben on Feb. 1. Shortly after, President Paul Biya responded back welcoming the assistance and use of Witchcraft in the fight to protect the nation and its people. In response to this news, Witches outside of the country are looking to help and add their magic to the protection of the region and the eradication of terrorism.

Lake Nyos, Cameroon [Courtesy Encyclopedia of the Earth]

Lake Nyos, Cameroon [Courtesy Encyclopedia of the Earth]

Cameroon is located in the central west portion of Africa, just south of Nigeria, where Boko Haram was originally founded. The terrorist organization is believed to have formed around 2003 in the northeastern region of Nigeria. Its earliest members were the followers of a “young, charismatic preacher named Mohammed Yusuf.” The name Boko Haram is typically translated as “Western education is forbidden” or “Western Fraud.” In 2009, the group first clashed openly with authorities; Yusuf and hundreds of others, including innocent people, were killed. After that uprising, Boko Haram slowly regrouped and began again in 2010. But its actions didn’t attract intentional attention until, in 2014, members kidnapped 276 girls from the town of Chibok.

But the ongoing crisis is not limited to the borders of Nigeria. Cameroon has also been under attack. As noted in a BBC article, Amnesty International reports that Boko Haram has killed over 17,000 people since 2009. Cameroon has been increasingly engaged in the military actions against the group, entering into a anti-terrorist coalition with Chad, Niger, Benin and Nigeria. In recent months, the Cameroon military was able to release a reported 900 hostages who were being held by Boko Haram in its northeastern region, and there has been some hope.

However, the continued violence is unsettling for the locals in those northeastern villages. And, therefore, regional Chiefs have stepped up to offer their own communities’ services for the cause. Journalist Bisong Etahoben reported:

According to reports, the Chiefs along with regional Governor Miyazawa recently contacted Cameroon President Paul Biya for permission to use Witchcraft, which he allegedly granted. Etahoben reports,”The head of state has demanded that an aspect of witchcraft be integrated into the fight against Boko Haram, Far North Governor Midjiyawa.” In response, a local Christian from Nigeria tweeted back, “Nigerians are with you on this, wipe out those blood thirsty sect and send your armies of witches to Nigeria.”

The call for the use of Witchcraft is an interesting turn of events considering the complicated position that Witches and Witchcraft have in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an area of the world in which people can be ostracized, beaten, killed and jailed for the alleged practice of Witchcraft. In other cases, people have been dismembered and killed by those who reportedly practice Witchcraft. It is a extremely complicated culturally, politically and religiously embedded situation that many of the governments, as we have recently reported, are trying desperately to negotiate.

[Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller / Flickr]

In the wake of the most recent Boko Haram attacks on a group of Nigerian children, several U.S. Witches have now joined the efforts to use Witchcraft to help stop this terrorist group. Calling themselves the Social Justice Witches Working, these women are asking Witches and other magical workers from around the world to come together on Feb. 13 to stop the violence perpetrated by the Nigerian-based terrorist organization.

One of the organizers, Boneweaver, more commonly known as Pamela V Jones, told The Wild Hunt, “There was little to no coverage of the children being burnt. The people in Nigeria have been forgotten. The Dead are being forgotten. We are heavy on working with the Beloved Dead, and heavy hearted about the continued slaughtering of innocents while the world turns away, while this country focused on the Super Bowl in the media.”

Boneweaver is a “a Reclaiming and Feri initiated Witch of the Victor Anderson path through the Starhawk line. [She is] a member of Spiralheart, the mid-Atlantic Reclaiming cell.” She lives in the Pittsburgh area where she and a friend teach and have recently started Reclaiming Pittsburgh. Boneweaver said, “I didn’t realize there was a Boko Haram Witchcraft call [from Cameroon], though I am not surprised there is one. A friend here on FB, after we’d participated in a similar working last week against Roosh, the Return of the Kings guy who was pro-rape, asked were we […] ready to do one against Boko Haram.”

Organized by herself and another, the ritual action date was set for Feb. 13 and the group Social Justice Witches Working was born. As Jones noted, the organizers had no idea that the Chiefs, the Cameroon Governor or allegedly the President had even called for Witchcraft help. On the surface, it would appear to be a complete coincidence.

When asked if she or the other organizers had any connection to Cameroon or Nigeria, she said, “I don’t have personal ties with the region. I’m coming at it from the perspective that collective magic is a force for change. We shake the Web, push the energies, and create potential for things to shift. Everything and everyone is connected energetically.”

The date was chosen specifically for its astrological readings, which are explained in detail on Boneweaver’s blog post. She wrote, in part:

The moon is waxing, we can’t help that, but she’s void of course and her last aspect before that is a bad one, so she won’t give any succor to the enemy. Saturday is Saturn’s and working in Saturn’s hour will give it extra oomph: as the founder’s Saturn (great malefic) is in his eighth house (the house of death), we like the reminder of that bit of harrowing doom in the chart. Mars is in Scorpio; invite him to invite more snakes and stingy bugs to the party.

Boneweaver admits that she is not the astrologer in the organizing efforts; her role was to do the setup of the Facebook event page and any research or further organization. She also wrote a poem to be used by anyone who needs some inspiration. It begins, “We see you, Boko Haram.”

Social Justice Witches Working (SJWW) has planned this action for Feb. 13 and invites people from around the world to join. Boneweaver added that this will not be the last planned event for the new activist group. The name itself is meant to be very general so that it can be applied to any future actions and calls for global magic. When ask if there is anything else planned now, she said not specifically. However, Boneweaver did say that she “wouldn’t rule out a public [ritual against Daesh] in the future.” But this one was chosen specifically “because it has slipped from the media’s attention.”

If the reports from journalist Etahoben are accurate, Boneweaver and the magical practitioners who do join the SJWW Feb 13 action may find themselves sharing magical space with the Cameroon and maybe even Nigerian Witches and Wizards, as they are locally known, in a true global effort to end Boko Haram’s reign of terror in the eastern regions of those two African nations.

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Circle Sanctuary logoCircle Sanctuary has announced the launch of its new membership program. Since its founding in 1974, Circle has been an open organization that has relied predominantly on donations, volunteerism and community support without any form of official membership needed. At Imbolc, organizers officially changed Circle’s traditional structure. In a press release, they wrote, “By creating a more formal membership program, we can open stronger channels of communication; learn from our members about how we can support their spiritual and personal development; and focus on members’ needs now and in the times to come.”

Membership is open to a wide variety of people, limited only by a willingness to agree to “a set of three basic ethical tenets” involving nature, respect and inclusivity. Organizers said, “Circle Sanctuary’s community has always been diverse, including Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, Polytheists,Heathens, Unitarian Universalists, Witches, Humanists, Shamanic practitioners and many other names and paths. Within Circle Sanctuary we come together with a common intention to honor the Divine in Nature and create community together. Our membership program continues this tradition of honoring the diversity.”

Organizers were also quick to add, “Circle Sanctuary will continue to serve Pagans of many paths and places, regardless of membership.” Their events, such as Pagan Spirit Gathering, will continue to be open to everyone. Details on joining and on other Circle programs can be found online.

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trothAfter the Jan 10 posting of controversial statements by Asatru Folk Assembly’s Steve McNallen, a wave of backlash and debate erupted throughout the Heathen world. As we previously reported, Heathens United Against Racism publicly responded with a strong response to McNallen’s comments. And, since early January the issue has not abated, with many Heathens adding to the growing public discussion on racism and the support of fascism within their religious communities.

More recently, on Jan 30, Troth Steersman Steve T. Abell posted a response to the situation on Patheos’ Agora, saying, “We have some colorful characters in the Heathen community.” The article, which calls out several members of the Heathen community by name, set off another round of arguments and more backlash. In response, The Troth as an organization posted a reaffirmation of its mission statement, and Redesman John T Mainer published an official response in an essay titled, “The High Cost of Rhetoric.”

Since that point, Heathens and Pagans alike have been weighing in on the volatile situation, including long time Troth member Diana Paxson. Speaking only for herself, Paxson wrote in a Facebook post, “Heathens are known for the variety and vividness of our opinions, and even those who are members of the Troth do not always agree. But the policies of the organization reflect the will of its members. […] If the Troth is to continue to support toleration and respect for all, all those who oppose racism need to stick with the organization and make their opinions known.”

The conversation is ongoing with many Heathens and others sharing stories and opinions on both McNallen’s original post and the follow-up response by various Troth members. How and if this will affect The Troth as an organization or the Heathen community as a whole is still unknown.

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ArcanaThe Academy of Arcana‘s museum containing “Morning Glory’s 40 year collection of Goddess Statues” is now officially opened. The Museum of Myth, Magick & Mysterie, as it has been named, held its grand opening Feb. 7 at 3:00 pm. Attendees were able to look at 366 goddess statues collected by Morning Glory over the years.

The ribbon cutting event was hosted by curator Oberon Zell and coordinator Anne Duthers, and was followed by a reception and guest presentation by Witch Elder Dr. Zsuzsanna E Budapest on “The Politics of Women’s Myths.” The academy, along with its curio shop and museum, are located at 428-A Front St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060. It is the “first physical campus for the Grey School of Wizardry, offering an educational center with a Museum of Myth, Magick and Mysterie, and a Library of Esoterica.”

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Ägyptischer_Maler_um_1360_v._Chr._001We are currently researching a breaking story in which a Pagan Facebook group was shut down because it “violated community standards.” The group’s name is “Following Isis” and was created for those people who are devotees of the Egyptian goddess. As we have reported in the past, it is not uncommon for the goddess Isis to be confused with Daesh, the terrorist organization more typically referred to as ISIS. We are currently in touch with the Facebook group owners and will follow up as we learn more.

In Other News

  • The Adocentyn Research Library, located in California, has been quietly building its collection over the past few years and is now up to 13,000 volumes. Its goal is to become the “premier Pagan research center in the Western US.” The library is managed by a non-profit organization and relies on donations of both money and materials. The management team recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise more awareness and funds toward the goal of finally opening its doors. Over the weekend, The New Alexandrian Library, a corresponding entity located on the East Coast, donated $250 to the cause with the words “in unity and support of the great work for the community.”
  • PantheaCon gets underway this Friday in San Jose, California. If you are attending, don’t forget to come out and meet The Wild Hunt writers on Saturday, from 5-6 p.m. in the Hexenfest Suite. We look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new people.
  • Speaking of PantheaCon, the Mills College Pagan Alliance met its fundraising goal in just 6 days and will be able to attend PantheaCon after all. Kristen Oliver called it “a blessing” and said that the group of women attending were extremely thankful for the support.
  • As Valentine’s Day nears, the Huffington Post decided to look into the meaning of Pagan handfastings.The article, titled “Here’s Why Couples Tie Their Hands Together During Pagan Weddings,” contains quotes and photos from both Circle Sanctuary’s Rev. Selena Fox and New York-based Witch Courtney Weber. Fox is quoted as saying, “In many ceremonies, the couple faces each associated direction as I do the blessing, concluding with being at the altar for the blessing of Spirit.” And, Weber, who shared photos from her own recent handfasting, said, “The use of the elementals encourages a balanced, healthy relationship […] When all parts are working together — earth, air, fire, water, and spirit — they created [sic] a holistic world that allows the couple to breathe, move, function and grow together.”
  • Dr. Ruth Lindley, a UK-based historian is looking to interview “women whose spiritual practices focus on, or relate to, ‘the Goddess’, for [her] PhD research on religion and spirituality.”  As posted on the blog Medusa’s Coils, Dr. Lindley, Ph.D, of the Department of History, University of Birmingham said, “[My] will challenge current scholarship on religious change in modern Britain, especially in relation to women’s experiences of faith from the 1960s to the present day.”  She is specifically “looking for participants based in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.” To get involved, contact her directly at RML033@bham.ac.uk.
  • The Glastonbury Goddess Temple, which was featured in our report on the legality of handfastings in England, launched a new website for its 21st annual Goddess Festival. The summer event will “honour Goddess as Lady of Avalon, Nolava of the Sacred Land,” and will take place from July 26 to 31. Included in the festival’s activities are presentations, workshops and performances by many speakers, artists, and musicians, including “Starhawk, Carolyn Hillyer, ALisa Starweather, Rith Barrett, Jana Runnalls, Kathy Jones, Kellianna, Katinka Soetens, Luciana Percovich, Lydia Ruyle, and Falcon River”  More information is available at the Temple’s new website.
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NEW ORLEANS, La. — In the early morning hours of Feb. 1, an electrical fire broke out at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple of New Orleans. Located on N. Rampart Street in the French Quarter, the Temple sustained severe damage to the structure and contents. While no one was injured, the incident has left the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, which has been serving the community for 26 years, with an uncertain future.

Voodoo Spiritual Center [Photo Credit: Francesco]

Voodoo Spiritual Center [Photo Credit: Francesco]

“This horrible situation is new and unprecedented, its more catastrophic than what was dealt by Katrina and is so much so that the temple’s very legacy is in jeopardy,” said Witchdoctor Utu, a student of the temple, the founder of the Niagara Voodoo Shrine, and a member Dragon Ritual Drummers. He has been a member of the temple for nearly 14 years, studying under both co-founder Priestess Miriam and member Priest Louis Martine.

Utu added that this learning “is something that is continual, there is no plateau, and its lessons learned though the trials of life and community, much like what is before us now, and what was before us after Katrina, no amount of spiritual or magical training is complete without truly having to enact them when real life challenges face us.”

The New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple was founded in 1990 by Priestess Miriam and her husband Priest Oswan Chamani. It was originally located in a building a few blocks west of its current location, but after only one year moved into 828 N. Rampart Street. The temple has been there ever since. As advertised on the website, it is the “only established Spiritual Temple with a focus on traditional West African spiritual and herbal healing practices currently existing in New Orleans.”

While the temple is only twenty-six years old, the building, a traditional Creole cottage, is far older and is listed on the city’s historic registry. It was built in 1829 by property owner Pierre de Vergès and has largely remained well-preserved as it was handed down and sold over the years. Utu said, “Much of [the cottage] from floors, walls, stairs and balconies are still original. The courtyard out back is unique and beautiful. There are several living quarters in the outbuildings that surround the courtyard, and two apartments above the temple too.”

He also added that the courtyard, one of the largest in the area, was once used for ritual. Priestess Miriam has continued that tradition over the last twenty-five years, hosting an array of services and events in that historic space from weekly religious rituals to full weddings.

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

Priestess Miriam’s own story and spiritual journey also run far longer than that of the temple itself. Born in Jackson, Mississippi to a family of Baptists, faith healers, and gospel singers, Miriam spent most of her youth engaged in that community’s spiritual life. However, as the story goes, she was aware of other spiritual forces and “their ability to heal and help a person transform.”

Miriam eventually left the South, spending time both in New York City and Chicago, where she further explored her spirituality. In 1975, she left her Baptist church and joined the Angel Angel All Nations Spiritual Church, eventually becoming a Priestess. While in Chicago she also met her husband, Priest Oswan Chamani, a Belize-born herbalist and diviner.

After they were married, Miriam and Oswan moved to New Orleans and began doing bone readings on Jackson Square. Charles Gandolfo, also known as “Voodoo Charlie,” was impressed by their work and invited them to do readings and facilitate ceremonies at his famous New Orleans Voodoo Museum. Priestess Miriam said that this was the “turning point” for her.

She remembers Gandolfo fondly, recalling that he once visited the temple with a kitten found at the tomb of Marie Laveau. Utu said that “this kitten is now a full grown cat and a strong one too, still out there causing trouble. She survived three weeks on the roof of Miriam’s house when they had to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina.”

In May 1990, Miriam and Oswan decided to leave the museum to venture out on their own. In doing so, they birthed the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and opened up shop on N. Rampart Street. In 1991, the couple move their operation a few blocks down into to its current location at 828 N. Rampart Street.

But it wasn’t long before Oswan became ill. In 1995, he died from pneumonia, leaving Miriam to tend the temple by herself. For one night, Oswan’s body was returned to the property for his funeral rites, which were performed by Priest Louis Martine. During that night, Temple members drummed beside the body until the morning hours. Utu said, “Priest Oswan is one of the spirits that protects the temple, and in all reality, considering the fact that the most sacred and pertinent items of the temple were spared fire, we know he was doing his work yet again.

Despite the loss of her partner and husband, Miriam continued the temple’s work, building a community and what Utu describes as “cultural center celebrating not only west African and African American spiritual practices but the New Orleans tradition of drum and dance, song and trance much like what was practised across the street from the temple in the historic Congo Square.”

Over the past 26 years, the temple’s influence has only increased. Priestess Miriam’s students now live around the world, practicing the tradition and sometimes even opening their own religious centers. Blogger Lilith Dorsey has been a longtime student of the temple. In a recent post, Dorsey wrote, “Priestess Miriam has been a teacher, a godmother, and a friend to me for over two decades. She presided over the funeral of my daughter, and then, as always, she helped to save my life.”

Priestess Miriam with Aiyda [Courtesy Photo]

Priestess Miriam with Aiyda [Courtesy Photo]

On the morning of Feb. 1, at 3:30 am, the tenants living above the Voodoo Spiritual Temple smelled smoke and called the fire department. An electrical fire had broken out. It wasn’t until Priestess Miriam arrived for a day of work, hours later, that she learned what had happened. The botanica and cultural center were completely destroyed in the fire. But the actual temple space, which was badly damaged by water and smoke, had not been harmed by the flames. Fortunately, for that reason alone, the temple’s beloved resident python Aiyda made it out unharmed.

When it was finally safe to enter, volunteers helped Miriam in recovering what was left of the temple’s rare artifacts and religious items. That work is ongoing with many people arriving to assist. In fact, in her blog post, Dorsey wrote that she would be helping out this weekend.

However, Utu added that, “Mold is an issue at the best of times in NOLA, after a few hours of being continually soaked by water, well it’s a recipe for disaster […] Its already face-mask time.” A good portion of the temple’s property has been lost.

[Courtesy Photo]

Damaged Temple [Courtesy Photo]

According to Utu, there is no insurance to cover any of the damage, and the building itself is now being condemned. However the owner, reportedly, is determined to rebuild. And, Miriam herself is equally as determined to keep the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in that space. While at first she thought she would have to shut down completely during this rebuilding, it may now be possible for her to continue offering some services while construction goes on.

However, officials and building experts still need to assess the full extent of the damage to determine what can be saved and what exactly needs to be done next. Nothing is final at this point. And, with the coming of Mardi Gras on Tuesday, all talks and decisions have been put on hold.

In the meantime, Priestess Miriam and Utu have launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help offset the cost of reestablishing the Temple. In just four days, the campaign has raised nearly $11,000. Utu said, “One way or another we will overcome this and again be celebrating the spirits of New Orleans with drum, song and dance at the temple on 828 N. Rampart St. Come hell or high water it will be done.  High water already came via Katrina, hell has come via fire, but the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple gods willing will still triumph and be anew again.”

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Column: Essence

Rhyd Wildermuth —  February 6, 2016 — 17 Comments

Two powers, bright, heavy, warp the Abyss around them,
twins birthed from the moment of Love
birthed into the moment before Love.
They pull they desire
They push, they fear.

–From Notes From The Abyss, IV

Photo by Ales Krivec (CC0 1.0)

Photo by Ales Krivec (CC0 1.0)

Perhaps you’re aware of some of the recent conflicts between Traditionalist strands of Pagan and Heathen thought and more ‘liberal’ strands. Maybe you’re not. Either way, the differences between them seem impossible to reconcile.

For the Traditionalists, the revival of our ancient religions requires a return to other ‘traditional’ ways of thought, including an embrace of ethnic and racial identity, and disavowal of ‘modern’ conceptions of gender. For the more ‘liberal’ Pagans, rebuilding an earth-based spirituality requires an embrace of ‘progressive’ ideas about race and gender foreign to our ancestors.

For the Traditionalist, the views of the more Liberal parts of Paganism involve denying ancient truths about humans; for the ‘Liberals,’ the Traditionalists hold to primitive or regressive ideas that humanity no longer needs. And it would seem nothing could bridge the abyss between them. One side seems hopelessly racist and backward-looking, while the other side seems too New Age-y, arrogant, and blind to the real conditions of modern life.

Two opposites, twin polarities…there’s a magic for this.

Essentially Wrong

The apparent ideological gap between Traditionalist/Folkish strands and what some call the ‘Social Justice’ strands isn’t rooted in the personalities or really anything fundamental to the people on either side. No one is inherently ‘racist’ or ‘multicultural’ — these are just adjectives. And, actually, the beliefs about what is ‘inherent’ to humans cause most of the conflict between the two sides anyway. It’s where both sides are right and wrong.

To understand this, we need to look at our ideas about what is ‘inherent’ or ‘essential’ about humans, and look at a uniquely modern lie: Essentialism.

Essentialism is the belief that there’s something physically innate about humans which determines their identity. That is, there is a fundamental ‘essence’ which makes a human male or female, Black or white, European or Asian, or gay or straight.

It’s pretty easy to see how Essentialism applies to the Traditionalist strands of Paganism. But, as I said, it’s a mistake both sides make.

Gender Essentialism

Let’s first take one aspect of Traditionalist-thinking, seen in the writings of writers like Heathen Male-Tribalist Jack Donovan. From thinkers such as him, we have the idea that there is an innate man-ness to men which has been diminished by modern civilization and the emergence of feminism. In such a view, men are unable to fulfill their essential masculine characteristics (often: strength, protection, and warrior-hood) because of the feminization of society. They claim society demands they apologize for being men in the first place, and become victimized by rules against certain essentially male behaviors. Their answer to this problem? We must ‘return’ to an older, ‘traditional’ view of masculinity, usually somewhere in a mythic—and often ‘nordic’–past.

If this sounds ridiculous or wrong to you, please wait. You are probably doing the same thing.

“Goddess” spirituality, especially beliefs associated with Dianic Witchcraft or other matriarchist ideas are exactly as Essentialist as Male Tribalists. Is there something ‘essential’ and inalienable about women? According to this other side, women have an ‘innate wisdom’ (usually through the ‘mystery of childbirth’ or an innate connection to Mother Earth) which stands in opposition to the ‘masculine’ qualities which have caused the destruction of nature. In this view, male-dominance (“The Patriarchy”) has caused war, oppression of peoples, pollution, and other societal ills, along with enchaining women into subservient roles to men. Thus, men are inherently violent and destructive, or at least have strong innate tendencies to be those things that must be restrained by society.

Both sides come to the exact same conclusion—that the ills of society and the inability to realise one’s own potential is caused by the other gender.

Racial Essentialism

But before we look at more of the problems with these conceptions of gender—and where they come from–let’s look at another place where Essentialism is the cause of the divide between these two apparently polar opposite strands: race.

‘Whiteness’ has become a rallying cry for many ‘blood-and-soil’ Traditionalists, though they sometimes describe their actual ethnic or racial identity as European, Germanic, or Nordic. And this makes sense, of course, since they are attempting to bring back the culture, beliefs, and spirituality of the indigenous European religions. So, in essence, they’re reclaiming their racial, ancestral beliefs, just like any other racial group, right?

The problem is, of course, race. In order for there to be a racially-white religion, there must be such a thing as a category of humans called ‘race,’ and a category of race called white. And there must be certain qualities which are inherent or innate (that is, Essential) to whites which are not present in other races.

Thing is, those who oppose racism in the Liberal strands of Paganism often re-affirm the essentialist idea of race. If a blood-and-soil Traditionalist Heathen is claiming a racial/ethnic heritage unique to themselves, calling it white-supremacist only re-affirms the idea that there’s such a thing as ‘whites.’

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to just drop the idea of a ‘white race’ because of the experience of Black folk in the United States. Since most on the liberal end of things have some idea of the history of slavery in the United States, you’re probably familiar with the idea of ‘white privilege.’ White privilege is seen by many as an inherent or Essential aspect of white people that cannot be gotten rid of, can not be washed off or exorcised. That is, whites are essentially a privileged race, and no white, rich or poor, anti-racist or racist—can claim otherwise..

So, while the blood-and-soil Traditionalist is being Essentialist by claiming that there’s something innate and inalienable about their ancestry as ‘white’ (or European, or Nordic, etc.), those who wish to fight racism are just as Essentialist by claiming that whites have inherent traits like privilege. In fact, it’s precisely upon this hypocrisy that some of the more political and ideologically fierce “New Right” theorists who influence many Traditionalists are happy to pounce.

Problem is? They’re kinda…right. The way most social justice activists understand privilege (like ‘white male privilege’) is indeed Essentialist. They treat these negative traits of being male or white as something that can’t be undone. White Privilege can only acknowledged, confessed and constantly guarded against … much like Original Sin

Fated Flaws

Original Sin is the Christian idea that some ancestral flaw was passed down from Adam and Eve which makes every human descendant of them inherently (that is, essentially) inclined to sin. In this idea, no human can avoid this primary flawed attribute, and nothing can ever eradicate this trait. It’s an essential aspect of every human, and it means each person is fated to commit sin.

This idea that anyone, because of some part of their Essence, is fated to do something, is called Determinism. It’s the insistence that Essential aspects of people determine and predict the way they behave, what sorts of decisions they make, and other characteristics of their being. In a way, they become ‘enslaved’ or at least bound by aspects of themselves they cannot change.

Gender and Determinism

We can see how this functions pretty easily in Gender Essentialism, which proclaims that men always act in certain ways toward each other, toward nature, and toward women. In some Matriarchist or Progressive thought, men act rapacious (the root of this word is the same as ‘rape’) towards the natural world, taking, using, and consuming without care for the things they harm. Essentially, it is in a man’s nature to harm.

The same sort of determinism happens to women, too. Women are said to be ‘slaves to their biology.’ For instance, an old conservative argument about women is that they are unable to see outside the needs of their family. Therefore, women cannot make self-sacrificial decisions for the good of a people or a nation. Basically, women are so innately nurturing, protecting, and life-affirming that their instincts would prevent them from engaging in a violent war against a foreign enemy.

Male ‘Tribalists’ and other Traditionalist theorists on the ‘man’ side accept these categories readily. They embrace the idea that men are innately rapacious, and even glorify male violence and sexual conquest. But those on the other side embrace these categories just as thoroughly.

We can see this best when a man commits a violent crime. “Women wouldn’t do that,” goes the argument. I’ve personally heard, “women don’t kill large groups of people” or “women don’t rape,” because it is not in a woman’s nature to do this.

Of course, instances of women murdering, raping, or ordering the State murder of others (think Margaret Thatcher or Queen Elizabeth) get completely ignored, just as all the examples of men acting nurturing rather than rapacious get ignored, too.

Counter-examples musts be ignored or explained away in order to protect the Essential gender category. This allows those with the most strict beliefs about Men and Women to entertain fantasies that, were they allowed to be more their essential selves, the world would be a better place. From the “Men’s Rights” crowd we get arguments that, if men were allowed to be the brutish, strong, conquering males they were born to be, there would be less violence against women (since, in their ridiculous reckoning, ‘feminism’ is the reason they are compelled to become violent). And from the other side we find the fantasies that global warming, pollution, and most social inequality would end if women were in power instead of men.

Race and Determinism

Determinism is an important part of Racial Essentialism, too. It holds that people in specific racial categories cannot help but act according to the essential aspect of their race. This is the root of Race-Theory itself; Blacks are ‘genetically inferior’ to other races, Asians are inherently mathematically-oriented, Caucasians are strong, privileged, and civilization-minded.

Because of its history, most of the negative essentialist qualities are assigned to Blacks rather than whites in the United States, including ‘criminality.’ That’s why, when a police officer shoots an unarmed Black man, the officer is given a greater benefit of the doubt when she defends the shooting. Blacks are seen to be Essentially and Deterministically prone to violence and criminality.

The result of all this determinism is that each person becomes bound and imprisoned to the Essentialist category. Men, who wish to act other than how they are told they are supposed to act, are still judged according to what men actually are, rather than what the individual man has done. Similarly for women, for whites, and for Blacks. And each polarity is bound in perpetual conflict to its opposite.

If it seems that what I am saying is coming from my own (Essentialist, Deterministic) existence as a ‘white male,’ we should remember that this is precisely the point that post-colonialist theorists like Frantz Fanon, as well as Malcolm X, made repeatedly. The essentialism which created a racial category called Blacks also created whites, binding them both into perpetual conflict that cannot be transcended or resolved by the categories themselves.

Racial conflict must exist as long as we accept Essentialist Race theory, just as gender conflict must exist as long as we accept essentialist categories of man and woman. Worse, the categories actually cause the conflict.

Now, let’s look at why and how those Essentialist categories were created in the first place, and then look at the magic which can undo this perpetual conflict.

Photo by Padaruria Alexandru (CC 1.0)

Photo by Padaruria Alexandru (CC 1.0)

Humans in The Machine Age

This is hard to wrap one’s head around, but the way humans view each other and themselves in the modern age is actually quite new. Race and Gender were not Essentialist categories for the vast history of humanity. There was a time—not very long ago—where no-one considered that there was anything innate, inherent, intrinsic, or ‘essential’ about certain groups of humans rather than others.

The Birth of the Homosexual

Maybe the best way to understand what it was like to not believe that there are Essential characteristics of Race or Gender is to look at the sexual Essentialism, particularly the ‘homosexual.’

Gays and lesbians often describe themselves as innately ‘born this way,’ just as heterosexuals might define themselves as biologically ‘wired’ to only have sex with people of the opposite gender. This results in situations where a man who doesn’t call himself gay or homosexual, saying something like, “I’m just a guy who likes to have sex with other guys” actually receives quite a bit of trouble for his statement. He is often said to have ‘internalized homophobia,’ or declared ‘in denial’ about his true nature.

Essentialist ideas of sexuality are much, much newer than essentialist ideas about gender, but only a little older than Race-Theory. Up to the 1800’s, it was never argued that a man who had sex with another man was innately inclined to do so. In fact, there was no word that described someone who desired sex with the same gender, only labels that described what that person had done. Words like “Sodomite” or ‘Buggerer’ were the equivalent of “Murderer” or “Thief,” defining not what a person is, but what act they had committed.

While the sort of person who has committed murder or stolen might be likely to do it again, we don’t tend to believe that there is some Essence of them that has always been a murderer or thief. Nor do we generally think that a person who has stolen was ‘fated’ by their genetics to steal.

It was once the same thing with people who we now call gay or homosexual.

The way our understanding about the innate/essential nature of sexuality changed occurred not through religion or philosophy, but through legal strategy and changes in the scope of scientific theory. There’s no space for the entire story in this essay (and Foucault has described it quite thoroughly already), but it’s important to keep in mind that our conceptions of what is innate about humans can shift, and often do so through external forces.

So, let me tell you about how our understanding of Gender and Race changed recently.

Women Make Bad Workers

Essentialism arose as part of what is often called ‘the mechanistic’ world view. Mechanistic-thinking was a shift in the understanding of the world from earlier, pre-industrial societies to one dominated by industrialisation, capitalism, and machines. It marked the end of an Animistic world-view where everything was seen as having soul or spirit.

You’ve maybe heard this idea already, especially if you’re familiar with “Neo-Animism,” Dianic Witchcraft, Deep Green Resistance, or many other ideologies. Forget what they say about this for a moment. Most of them place this shift very far back in time with the birth of agriculture and cities, basically so far back into prehistory where nothing can actually be done about it, and there’s no historical evidence to argue against them.

There was plenty of animism in Europe during the middle ages, as well as Pagan and Heathen beliefs. In fact, there was a Pagan kingdom in Europe up until the 13th century, and part of the Catholic reconquest of Spain up to the 15th century involved converting Pagans. Alchemists and astrologers continued to exist in courts up to the 19th century, and one of the fiercest criticisms of the Catholic church during the reformation was that it never fully eradicated Pagan and Heathen beliefs (as well as Witchcraft) from the common people.

The Age of the Machine was also the birth of modern Science and secularism. Both claimed that the world was not a magical place but one that was run by mechanistic laws which determined the behaviour of everything in the world. Before this, humans understood the natural world to consist of ever knotted threads of relationships and incomprehensible mysteries. If there were natural laws, they were either from the god(s) or the stars, and these natural laws were also magical laws.

Now, we approach the world, each other, and ourselves as assemblages of component parts, reducible to the physical material which comprises existence. The new science which arose during that time fixated on plumbing the inner secrets of the natural world, finding out what it was about a plant or a human that made them act certain ways. Starting from their own personal theories of difference, scientists, philosophers, doctors, and engineers dissected, disassembled, and otherwise took apart dead and living things to get to the core of their being—that is, their ‘essence.’

These attempts to determine what precisely made a woman different from a man—or what made someone from an African culture different from someone in an European culture—were no longer just a matter of curiousity. We must never forget that knowledge of all sorts—be it the court alchemists and astrologers of the middle-ages, the priests and augurers around Emperors, or the scientific advisers to world leaders today—has always been crucial to the powerful.

Most important of all, knowledge of how humans ‘worked’ during the start of the Age of the Machine was not just to understand how they ‘ticked.’ It was also to understand literally how humans work, because learning how to exploit human labour (and the wealth derived from it—also called Capital) unlocked the key to more wealth.

The mechanistic worldview accompanied the birth of factories for a reason. Factories were ways the wealthy could arrange human workers in such a way to maximize the wealth they generated. Because factory owners needed certainty in order to predict profit and expenses, the humans who became workers had to act like machines, too. They needed to stop doing things which were useless and counter-productive in a factory setting–like carousing, resting, social interactions, as well as activities involving family, like breast-feeding or caring for children.

This last part is really important, because it helps us understand how women became essentialized. Certain activities of women got in the way of a smooth-running factory. Pregnancy, menstruation,and breastfeeding all required breaks from working. It kept women from fitting perfectly into the new Machine-Category of ‘worker.’ Though there were plenty of other such human activities which got in the way of the creation of the worker (like resting and eating), women were the only ones who could successfully argue a natural, impossible-to-overcome limit.

Male workers weren’t able to claim the same natural limits that women could, so they had a harder time resisting the demands of their bosses. The only limits they could claim were the ones that all human had, like the need to sleep and eat. Also, because population had decreased significantly after the Plague and factory owners needed a steady supply of workers, birthing children (that is, more workers) was an important activity that factory owners couldn’t argue against.

So, women became an essentially different sort of person from men because they did not make ideal factory workers, and men did. But as I mentioned earlier, one of the things men could claim as a natural limit to work is one common to all humanity—the need to rest and the need to eat. Add to this all the other activities any human needs in order to survive and you can see how any factory owner would have a problem. A male worker couldn’t work 16 hours a day in a factory and still feed himself—all machines, after all, wear down.

This is how women got shunted into the ‘traditional’ (which was actually mostly new) gender role of housewife. To exploit male workers—to make them act like machines—men needed someone to perform all the tasks they no longer could do for themselves because they were working in the factories. Women thus had to become exploited by men in order for men to be exploited as workers.

Here we can see how to dissolve one of the primary complaints of the Male Tribalists, that modern men are forced to act less like men, less natural, less themselves. They’re actually almost right: men have been forced to act less natural, less like themselves. They’ve been shaped by the same social and political forces which forced them into factories in the 1700’s. They were forced into an essentialist gender role where they could not claim natural limits against the demands of the machine, as well as finding themselves now requiring a wife to perform all the activities necessary to keep them alive. But they didn’t lose their ‘maleness,’ they lost part of their humanity.

The exact same problem has occurred for women. Preference for male workers in the factories (again, no ‘natural’ limits to their ability to work) meant women got paid lower wages than men (as continues to the present). Worse, the Commons (land available to all in a community for grazing, foraging, fishing, etc.) were being destroyed, divided up fenced off and sold to individuals, so women had no access to the way to support themselves. They became bound into a position of reliance upon men to labor on their behalf, trading household work to men (husbands, lovers, sons, fathers, and also to domestic employers) in return for a share of the wage earned by the men.

So, when either side of the gender essentialists (male tribalists or matriarchists) look to the ancient past to construct their views of ‘traditional’ gender, they are accepting the Machine-Logic which was foisted on humanity during the birth of Capitalism.

Black and white, or Revolt

What about Race, then?

Race-thinking did not first become a ‘thing’ until late in the Age of the Machine, when scientists, theorists, philosophers, and others began trying to determine the relationship of the bodies of Africans and indigenous people to their culture. This involved an awful lot of dissection of the dead (and some vivisection on the living), particularly studying the shapes and sizes of human skulls through ‘Craniometry.”

Before the 1700’s, while the conception of difference between peoples existed, ‘race’ didn’t mean a separate line of humanity. To anyone familiar with European slavery, then, this fact presents an intriguing problem. The enchainment and forced-labour of peoples from the continent of Africa is seen by liberals as an inherently racist act. And while it was certainly justified by theories that Blacks were of an inferior race than Causasians, the slave trade wasn’t actually racist.

This isn’t to say that it wasn’t horrible, only to state that race-thinking was not a justification for the subjugation of people from Africa by the early slavers, because they had no conception of race as an essential category of human being. Race-theory (or ‘scientific racism’) actually came later, and was empowered significantly because it helped justify the continuation of slavery to those who thought slavery was immoral.

Just like the demands of the rich and powerful required the Gender Essentialism which brings us to think that women are innately one thing and men are innately another, Racial Essentialism arose to maintain another sort of labor: unwaged, forced, slave-labor.

There was another reason for the creation of Race-thinking. In the European colonies (including what is now the United States), poor people from Europe (particularly the British Isles), working in conditions as awful as the poverty from which they fled, started to befriend and make alliances with slaves. Neither group liked their rich masters/bosses very much, and both groups could see that they were paid much less (or not at all, in the case of indentured servants and slaves) than the wealth they created with their work. For both groups, the difference in their ethnic backgrounds, culture, and ‘race’ were much less important than their common enemy.

The workers from Europe weren’t considered ‘white’ until law-makers and bosses saw the potential revolt. Laws were passed which defined those workers as ‘white,’ and gave them different rights and privileges than the slaves from Africa or the indigenous people in the colonies.

Privileges were something actually granted to whites, rather than something essential or innate within them. And ‘white’ was a created category of human being, a new racial and judicial category of human being. An entire group of people, a small subset of Europeans, woke up one day to find they had no colour.

Transgressing The Essential

We can see that all these Essentialist categories require an opposition. The racial category of ‘white’ required there to also be a category of ‘black,’ otherwise white was a meaningless category. Women were not the only victims of Essentialism, because an Essentialist category of one gender required an opposition—Man—to also be essentialised. Even if one category (Black, woman) became subjugated by the division, its opposite suffered as well.

And unlike class categories which describe changeable characteristics (think “rich” and “poor,”) gender and race categories are seen as completely static. A Black person cannot become white, nor can a woman become a man…right?

Actually, this is the last important thing we need to understand about Essentialism; any attempt to escape, transgress, or transcend the dichotomies is punished severely by those who’ve built ideologies (or religions) around Essentialism.

Transgressing gender categories can be done multiple ways. Since heterosexual sex was originally an important part of Gender Essentialism (‘heterosexual,’ by the way, is also a new category, actually coming after the term ‘homosexual’), gays and lesbians were early targets of hatred, both by men and women.

A man who has sex with men is doing something non-essential to male-ness (despite, of course, ancient societies which saw same-sex relations as signs of higher manhood), so he inspired hatred from conservative Christians and Muslims who saw what they did as a transgression. Similarly, the existence of gay men erodes one of the core doctrines of matriarchist thinking, that all men treat women as sexual objects.

A sort of peace has been made with the queer man or woman now, because both sides have another enemy: the transperson. Transmen experience quite a bit of hatred, certainly, but the majority of the ire has been aimed at transwomen on all sides.

In fact, hatred of transwomen might be the only thing that unites matriarchist traditions and political groups (including Deep Green Resistance) with Fundamentalist Monotheism and New Right Traditionalist Heathenism. In fact, they’re all in perfect agreement with these words, written by Male Tribalist and Heathen Jack Donovan (but just as easily by Ruth Barrett, Lierre Kieth, or Pat Robertson):

The only way to prove you’re not afraid of trannies is to agree that transsexuals are not only sane, but heroic, and should be welcomed into any women’s restroom.

The transperson transgresses the Essentialist categories of male and female by moving from one to another, utterly eroding all social foundations for Essential Gender.

The same ire is levied against those who attempt to transgress race. “Miscegenation,” or the mixing of racial lines, is considered anathema by racial essentialists because it erodes the very concept of race. If a Black man has a child with a white woman, what race is that child? And if that child has a child with another such child, where did the essence of race go?

This question led to authorities who needed race to be essential to come up with bizarre calculations of what made someone actually Black. One drop of Black blood (one Black ancestor) was, in many places, enough to make a child Black, no matter how many white ancestors they had.

Similarly, though, the attempt to transgress whiteness by calling yourself “European” or “American” rather than white meets with anger both from those who believe in white separatism and those who believe that all whites bear a sort of Original Sin for the historic crimes of slavery. Is there a difference in culpability and privilege between a U.S. born woman of Irish immigrants who came to America in 1980 and a woman of the same age whose great-great grandfather owned and beat slaves in Mississippi? By the logic of Essentialism, there isn’t.

But you may by now be asking if there’s really an equivalence between all these positions. Is a goddess-loving matriarchist who believes transwomen aren’t women really equivalent to the Male Tribalist Heathen who believes the same thing? Or the social justice activist who believes all whites have inherent privilege and responsibility for slavery—are they really equivalent to the white Heathen blood-and-soil Traditionalist who believes in the existence of a Nordic race?


They are equivalent, at least ideologically. I’ve my own moral preferences, of course, and those who’ve read me for awhile know which side I take in these arguments and which side I’d fight on if I had to fight. But ideologically, there’s no difference, and we need to stop pretending there is.

Anyway, this whole war is stupid.  Besides, the rich and powerful started it, not us.

Photo by Caleb Ralston (CC0 1.0)

Photo by Caleb Ralston (CC0 1.0)

From Conflict, A Weapon Is Born

There is another way past these oppositions. Not many will like this answer though, because it involves giving up something we all believe to be essential to ourselves. But there’s a certain magic trick most of us know, one of the most powerful Mysteries in any of our traditions.

Think about the problem we’re in. If male and eemale are essential, unchangeable categories, then there’s no way to end the modern war between them. Likewise with race—Blacks and whites will always be at war with each other if Blackness and whiteness are divinely-ordained categories of human that can never be transgressed.

And who benefits from this relentless conflict? Governments and the rich: literally non-essential classes of humans for whom the rest of us are just workers, consumers, expendable soldiers in their wars.

There’s another way of looking at why we cling so tightly to Essential categories of race, gender, and sexuality. Something Essential about us as humans was taken away with the birth of the Age of the Machine. Our beliefs, our relationships to the earth and ancestors and gods and each other, our traditions, and our ways of life were severed, cut and ground down by the coming of machines and factories, waged-work and alienated urban life.

Our ancestors, Black or white, man or woman, lost their connection to the world and to themselves, lost what was most essential to our existence as humans. What was left to us was the drudgery of the long work day, cheaply-made products in faceless markets, and a deterministic Science that told us we are not what we decide we are, only what we have no choice but to be.

The Matriarchist and the Male Tribalist are looking to recover something essential about themselves, but all they have left to them is the false category of essential gender and deep, obsessive hatred of their opposite. The white Heathen and the Black activist are both trying to heal an ancient wound done to their ancestors, but cannot ever fully regain what was lost until both are liberated.

We’re caught in these polarities, neither side ever able to give in to the other, neither twin able to be complete without the other.

And therein’s the deep magic we need.

The alchemists knew this secret. Witches know what happens next. Astronomers have seen this in the stars. Druids study this mystery for decades. Even atheist Marxists know this trick, but would never admit that it’s a kind of magic.

When two stars meet, get caught in each others orbit and don’t slingshot each other out into the Abyss of space, they begin to revolve around each other. Their gravities conflict, both pushing and pulling each other until they hit a sort of equilibrium. But they don’t actually revolve around each other, but around a third center that arises from their conflict.

Druids know this to be the secret of triads, how two things which exist as opposites generate a third that is the resolution of their polarity. Hegelians and Marxists know this as the dialectic, how a condition generates its opposite that can only be resolved by a synthesis arising from the gulf between the two.

Esotericists know this by many names, including the lunar current and the Grail mystery. When the solar current and the telluric current arise in equal proportion, a third current arises, one only possible because of the other two. Alchemists and Wiccans know this by many names, as well—it’s the pursuit of the divine androgyne, or the Chalice rite, opposing principles of feminine and masculine, or lord and lady, birthing a new state of existence when united.

And Witches know this to be the secret of the Divine Twins. Two equal yet opposite beings, born of a severed unity. First the one, then sundered into two who both fear and desire each other, and between them rises the winged serpent, the peacock angel, the light-bearer.

It’s also the secret of love. When your fear of someone is equal to your desire for them, you are caught in their orbit. When their desire of you is equal to their fear, they are likewise caught, and you are both in love.

It is impossible for the damage done to women in the Age of the Machine to be healed without the damage done to men to also be healed. The same is true of Blacks and whites, and the colonizer and the colonized.

We can remain in perpetual conflict, clinging to our ‘essential’ difference, never finding ways to resolve the wounds wrought on our peoples by the archons of the Age of the Machine. And if so, the forests will die, the oceans rise, and wars will rage on.

Or maybe we’ll remember that it takes two to create a third, and perhaps take up the powerful weapon which arises in from this Mystery, finally wielding it against those who have actually stolen our Essence.

*   *   *

[Author’s Note: My second book, A Kindness of Ravens, is now available in print or digital. It includes several essays originally published here at The Wild Hunt.]

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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Column: Abrázame

Manny Tejeda-Moreno —  February 5, 2016 — 11 Comments

We have a hugging problem, and it is probably not the one you think.

First, I am not going to go on about the benefits of hugging here, and there are many. But, my original article for this month was derailed yesterday when I noticed the creation of a new set of hugging ribbons for Pantheacon.


[Courtesy Free Hugs / Wikipedia]

These ribbons offer a gradation of interpersonal hug-comfort from “No Touchy!!!” to “Ask First!!!” to “Hugs are like Oxygen!!!” The intent to underscore the importance of consent is an outstanding idea. Reinforcing the urgency of consent will help individuals who are uncomfortable with certain levels of social expression to make others aware of that fact. Some people are uncomfortable being assertive and others have a real psychological (haphephobia or aphenphosmphobia) or physical (dysesthesia) challenge that make hugging problematic and even painful. Some people have faith traditions forbidding interpersonal contact with strangers of opposite sex. Some people are not neurotypical; some might be pregnant. And others may have experienced sexual or interpersonal violence in their past, which makes intimate contact difficult if not impossible. These individuals command our support.

And some may just not like hugs. It’s all good.

The intent of the ribbons is to help people proclaim a desire to maintain a wide personal touch space for any of those reasons. This underscores why these ribbons are a good idea. Their use is also optional.  So – and this is particularly important – those motivated to use these ribbons will likely have a vital reason for adopting them. Moreover, I would put my hand in a raging fire to affirm that these ribbons were never created with any other intent than to help people.

I am, however, skeptical that they will help. Not only will the ribbons be in a sea of other ones; their use makes a critical assumption about the reader. For those who behave inappropriately, are ill-mannered or simply interpersonally violent, the presumption of the ribbons is that those guests will have the wherewithal to review and respect the ribbons before approaching with a hug or a touch. It’s a stretch in my mind, but still it’s all good.

But here’s the thing. They are also disappointingly Anglocentric and accidentally enabling ethnocentrism. I get the fact that this is not the intent. But as a Latino member of our society, my first reaction was, “so you want me to act like an Anglo?” Let me just repeat what I wrote before: I get the fact that this is not the intent.  But the focus on salutation behavior and the added exclamation points to emphasize greeting expectations convey an unintended message about what is an appropriate means of greeting others. The greeting distance and the behavioral expectations are subtly centered on northern European/Anglo expectations. But, appropriate greeting – in the greater scheme of things – is not that, nor is it standard American.

I have difficulty navigating around the fact that, while I understand that my culture has vastly different rules about interpersonal space and the importance of touch, these ribbons promote a secondary message that subordinates how many people I know – including myself –- greet one another. Hugging and cheek-kissing – or a combo maneuver of both of them including the air kiss – is the standard greeting for more than two billion people who are not part of the Anglosphere. Some 50 million of whom live within the US; which, by the way, makes United States the second-largest Spanish-speaking Latino nation in the world exceeding the population of Spain and surpassed only by Mexico.

The gesture of cheek-kissing, often with a hug, is the de facto greeting in Latin America, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean nations. It has also become – as Time magazine noted in 2004 – a common greeting in the larger cities of the United States: that’s code for foreign, specifically Latin American. Among Latinos, cheek kissing and hugging is a universal form of greeting, even between heterosexual men.

The counterpole to these behaviors is the Victorian salutation etiquette, which continues to pervade our collective culture and, more insidiously, presents itself as the authority on expectations of proper behavior. Greetings – as still expected in parts of the United Kingdom – should be light handshakes at a distance. And this has a powerful cultural effect. It identifies how “proper” people interact and codes what is elegant, classy and cultured, while also highlighting who is uncultured, uneducated and uncouth. It lays out our roles in interpersonal behavior, guiding us to accept Anglo behavior as normative. You might even say there is a craving for it because there is a palpable pining among some people for the good old days of Downton Abbey, minus the classism. The reflected behaviors of etiquette are often seen as quaint, and when they are violated by those not of the right class or culture, it evokes Sarah Miller’s famous speech in Addams Family Values: “Remember, these savages are our guests. We must not be surprised at any of their strange customs. After all, they have not had our advantages, such as fine schools, libraries full of books, shampoo.”

[Courtesy PROMetropolico.org / Flickr.org]

[Courtesy PROMetropolico.org / Flickr.org]

It’s an issue, because this “quaintness” hides the bigotry. Chatham House recently surveyed British men and women asking them which countries they had good feelings about. They reported most favorable feelings toward Australia and Canada, followed by the United States, which tied with the Netherlands and then Sweden. There’s another code there, too. The countries of greatest comfort are more fluent in English. Not only that, there is another active code here, as they report, that the USA is moving linguistically, culturally and politically more toward Latin America. And those survey participants are echoing that shift as increasing discomfort with United States.

There’s nothing like having codes that tell us who is the “in-group.” At an unconscious level, we are all looking for in-group codes that allow us to discriminate among individuals and identify who we can trust. Intentionally or otherwise, we broadcast those codes not only to reinforce the dominant culture, but also to remind the “out-group” how its members are expected to behave in the presence of the majority. That anticipation of behavior, that reminding of how we should act, and those gentle cues to assimilate are nothing less than the arsenal of cultural warfare.

Cultural dominance coding is a dangerous game that can easily and elusively slip into racial segregation, social exclusion, and cultural assimilation. It often moves unnoticed, but with surgical effect. It can combine the tools of politics and economics to create an underclass of individuals who fail to “pass” for those in power. And we promote that cultural dominance coding in many ways that range from the grotesque to the subtle. The English-only movement that occasionally rears its head is little more than an attempt at linguistic domination. I’ll leave that as the grotesque example.

More subtly, we use mimicry and humor in combination to marginalize non-English languages as somehow inferior. Mock Spanish is such an example. Terms like “no problemo,” “hasta la vista, Baby,” or “buenos nachos” create a palimpsest of humor over racist language to disguise the latter. We see a different form of linguistic domination in the absurd belief that English is universally intelligible if spoken slowly and loudly.

We also make ignorant claims about culture and language. I remember one conversation many years ago with a colleague who was 30 years my senior. He was an educated engineer who held multiple biotech patents and even served in an organization to promote inter-cultural dialogue. Yet he explained to me how English will one day become the only language on the planet because it has an inherent economy of word use. His reasoning was that, in English, the possessive is created with the “apostrophe s” instead of the word “of.” Therefore Spanish, German and Chinese speakers, among others, would abandon their languages to adopt a quicker way of expressing ownership.

Now you may read this and laugh, but he was serious. To this day, I have yet to figure out how much time I have saved using the English possessive. And by the way, to add some more perspective, when I asked him if he spoke other languages, he answered, “No.” He spoke only English because his parents had warned him that learning Spanish might damage his natural intellect. He told his children to go to a college that didn’t require a second language or else he wouldn’t pay their tuition. But he liked Cuban food, so, as he explained, he wasn’t a racist.

By contrast, multiculturalism invites minorities to become visible while retaining their culture. It attempts to weave that culture into a mosaic where no culture remains dominant and all cultures are respected. It’s a utopic model whose origins are both in American and Canadian political philosophies, most prominently emerging from the Canadian Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

As a society, we’re not there yet. Though I will state with some personal bias and only anecdotal evidence that Pagans seem to be among those most committed to multicultural values. Yet, we still have our moments of tribalism. We often presume English. We’re surprised by Latina Heathens and White Nebraskan Santeros. We’re disappointed, even stressed when our cultural cookie-cutter doesn’t behave like we want it to. But most of us also do not shy away from the difficult dialogues that allows us to strengthen our community with that cultural mosaic.

Pagans are the vanguard of multiculturalism and acceptance. I remember reading an observation by Alvin Schmidt the author of The Menace of Multiculturalism: Trojan Horse in America (1997) that Pagans represent the worst of the lot because we have revived pantheism in such dastardly films as Pocahontas (1995) and The Lion King (1994). Not just that, we unleashed even more heresy. Our multicultural beliefs were destroying the Judeo-Christian components of Euro-American culture and “endangering America’s soul.”

Y’all are awesome. And he is right, in a way. Pagans generally reject oppression and celebrate difference. We have lived as the oppressed and the reviled, often worship and congregate in secret and our sensibilities have been honed to recognize persecution. Neopaganism has grown in parallel to and in support of the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement. We recognize how cultural domination works, and we have become a bulwark against it.

Now back to those ribbons.The real issues here are manners and fear.

First, it is sad that we need those ribbons. Those of us from cultural backgrounds where interpersonal touching is normative are taught to carefully read body language indicating discomfort, and then unwaveringly apologize should we misread it. I and other Latinos were taught some very simple rules about hugging and kissing that I think remain important during first contact, or any contact.

  1. Don’t kiss or hug strangers.
  2. If you just met, no hugs or kisses. Unless you ask if it’s okay to hug or kiss.
  3. If you’re not sure, let the other person lead.
  4. If the other person says no, they mean it. You’re not entitled to a kiss or hug. Get over it.
  5. All hands above the waist at all times.
  6. No lingering.
  7. No saliva.

Did I really have to list those? We add for other Latinos, air kiss people you know; air kiss plus hug people you know well. That’s it. Culture and consent together.

Second is the fear part. As a community, we know fear offers nothing. And we know fear is the tool of oppressors. So, there must be no tolerance, no apologies and no succor for abusers. Period.

None of us should live in fear. And all of us should live in choice. Period.

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NORTHAMPTON, Mass — When the Parliament of the World’s Religions was staged in Salt Lake City last year, thousands of people gathered for this interfaith event. Being first held in 1893, the parliament is the oldest event of its kind, and others, which have emerged since, have not yet stripped it of its unique characteristics. One way the parliament stands out is in the fact that minority religions, including indigenous and Pagan ones, are given a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion.

The Wild Hunt sat down with vice-chair Andras Corban-Arthen during A Feast of Lights to talk about the parliament, his duties within the organization, and what he sees in its future.

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]

Among his several responsibilities, Corban-Arthen is chair of the site selection committee, which is responsible for assessing potential sites for the next session. “It’s a big deal,” he said, and a job he takes quite seriously. The official invitation to submit proposals has not even been released, and already there has been interest expressed on behalf of several cities.

He said. “People think it’s a great idea to bring it to their town,” but not every city can handle the sheer number of people who show up, such as the near 10,000 which attended in Salt Lake City. That pressure depends in part on location: when it’s in the United States, where the parliament held its first and second sessions (in Chicago, 1893 and 1993), many more people attend than when it’s elsewhere in the world. However, there’s a clear desire to maintain the international scope of the organization by not restricting host cities to just one country.

It’s understandable why it’s appealing to bring the Parliament of the World’s Religions to town. The event translates into $15-20 million dollars spent by those visitors. That could offset any infrastructure improvements made to accommodate the crowds.

Corban-Arthen is also part of the nominating committee, which is arguably even more important. “It shapes the direction of the board,” he said, which impacts the overall tenor of the organization. It is because of the makeup of the board that such efforts as its indigenous task force even exist; he’s been part of that since 2008. That might be enough to keep him busy, but Corban-Arthen also is a delegate to the United Nations, representing the parliament as a non-governmental organization in the interfaith field.

“One thing that distinguishes the parliament is that minorities play a big role,” he said. “People ask where the Christians are,” he added, despite the fact that in Salt Lake City they were indeed the majority of those present. “It didn’t feel like it,” he explained, even though they are also a majority on the board, because they are “respectful and conscious, and let us be out in front. It’s a very healthy thing.”

Andras Corban-Arthen

Andras Corban-Arthen

An area that Corban-Arthen has worked in since long before the parliament was reinvigorated in 1993 is that of indigenous European religions. With the parliament now holding sessions regularly, skepticism that there might be survivals of those traditions has fallen away, as members of those traditions have come forth to participate. Indeed, the 2009 parliament in Melbourne generated a small controversy about how that might affect the very definition of Paganism. While Corban-Arthen believes it proved to be a hot topic among Pagans largely due to misunderstandings, at the same time he feels that 2009 represented a seminal moment when the larger interfaith community recognized indigenous European traditions into the fold.

The very concept has sent ripples throughout Paganism and the interfaith community, he said. “I was told that Paganism has nothing to do with indigenous traditions,” he recalled, while some tried to expand the definition of “indigenous” to include religions like Wicca, which while it did emerge in Europe, is generally considered newer than what’s referred to as indigenous. At the same time, he remembers a Presbyterian minister who was excited at the idea of indigenous European survivals, but “it bothered him that they turned out to be Pagan.”

Representatives of those indigenous traditions were included in the plenary session, he recalled, and “people had a huge, positive reaction” to the idea that Christianity didn’t wipe those traditions from the face of the Earth, as has been widely believed. “It felt like a vindication for them.” That’s a key role for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in his view: to support minority and indigenous traditions.

The parliament is where the modern interfaith movement started, and it continues to hold the largest events of that kind in the world. “Other groups may feel it’s not what it should be,” he said. “One major organization has criticized the parliament because it has Pagan members on its board.” That’s part of why it has such a large impact, he believes: minority voices being given the chance to be heard.

The Pagans sitting at that table didn’t get there by chance, though. “They didn’t really invite us” in 1993, he recalled, and he characterized the organizers at that time as being “reticent” to include them. His own Earthspirit Community, together with Circle Sanctuary and Covenant of the Goddess, combined their efforts into what he called a “three-pronged approach” to convince those organizers to grant them admission. Then, they set up one joint information table in the area reserved for that kind of educational outreach, and disabused many attendees of the notion that Paganism was a thing of the past.

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]

One interesting effect of having a parliament in a city, Corban-Arthen noted, is that the local Pagan community tends to thrive in its wake. That was true in Cape Town, Barcelona, and Melbourne, where local Pagans got a seat at the table and it opened doors for them into interfaith work. He said that new Pagan groups formed in those cities, and new leaders emerged. Time will tell if the “parliament bump” helps the Salt Lake City Pagan community find its footing.

Big names at the parliament typically include figures such as the Dalai Lama. However, a Roman Catholic Pope has never attended. That might well change with the next session, although Corban-Arthen isn’t sure it would be a benefit. He noted that among the potential sites is a city in Europe where the erstwhile organizers hope to extend an invitation to Pope Francis, who has proven himself to be more popular — among Catholics and people not of that faith alike — than any of his predecessors in recent memory. “That might be counterproductive,” Corban-Arthen said, because Francis has a following of his own that could distort the character of the parliament. “It might be all about the Pope,” he said. “We might not want that.”

Despite the fact that Vatican City is there, as well as members of those aforementioned indigenous traditions, Europe is a tough place to sell the parliament as an attraction, because “so much of the society is secularized.” That, more than other factors, could be why attendance is higher in the United States: there are more religious people here, despite recent downward trends.

What Corban-Arthen finds gratifying about the parliament is that “people don’t spend time arguing theology. They present their beliefs and observances, but we focus on social issues and trying to solve them, especially when religion is the cause.” That’s why he believes it’s so important for Pagan voices to be part of that conversation, as they have much to say about issues such as the environment and women in the priesthood. They can also be an important part of any dialogue about money, much of which is dominated by the Christian model that presumes it’s the root of all evil(and, seemingly at the same time, an earthly reward for living a good life.

Money is something he’s often found himself at odds with other Pagans about. He recalled a disagreement he had with Judy Harrow in the 1980s on that topic. “She felt that Christians put their model on us, but that small community-based Pagan groups couldn’t build mega-churches,” he said. “I told her that if a thousand people contributed five dollars a week for a year, that would be $260,000, which would be a good start” toward any goal that they established, including paying for staff, programs, schools, films, legal defense, and buying land. “We need to create infrastructure,” he added, echoing his side of an argument which is as old as the modern Pagan movement. “Until we do, we won’t be real to ourselves.” That’s a perspective other parliament members have shared with him: Pagans don’t take themselves seriously enough.

One thing that Corban-Arthen has learned in working with the Parliament of the World’s Religions especially is that his words are sometimes interpreted by members of his own community as speaking for them. “I don’t speak for all Pagans,” he said. “I’m just expressing my opinion. I represent the community that supports me,” not those who see things differently. That’s true for all board members of the parliament: they do not serve as formal representatives of their traditions. If other Pagans were to “step up,” they might also get elected to the parliament’s board. But with the ground work that he and others have helped to lay, perhaps it won’t take as many years of consistent effort to make that happen.

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