Column: Abrázame

Manny Tejeda-Moreno —  February 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

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.

'FREE_HUGS'_well_received_in_Chile

[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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There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans and Heathens out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. 

In Religious Freedom News...

The Satanic Temple logo

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Announced in late January, The Satanic Temple was given the go-ahead to prepare an invocation to be read before the Feb. 17 Phoenix city council meeting. After that announcement was made, there was immediate backlash. On Fri Jan 29, council members Sal DiCiccio, Jim Waring, Bill Gates, and Michael Nowakowski proposed legislation to prevent TST from being able to deliver an invocation. 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.” They issued a request for “emergency measures” to block the TST invocation.

However, according to local news sources, the Mayor and other council members do support TST’s inclusion. The other council members are quoted as saying, “every religious group has the right to take a turn delivering the invocation.” Mayor Greg Stanton stated that, although he disagrees with the group’s message, “the Constitution demands equal treatment under the law,” and the city attorney agrees. In response, DiCiccio tweeted, “Given City Atty ruling next step by politicians supporting satanist prayer is to BAN all prayers giving satanist win.”

The Satanic Temple itself has not remained quiet during this weekend’s scrambling. On Feb 2, the organization tweeted, “[The Satanic Temple] will sue if not allowed to deliver the #Phoenix city council invocation.” However, TST is ultimately expecting a positive outcome from the vote on DiCiccio’s emergency proposal. TST explained that it will be pleased with two of the three outcomes – a full ban on religious prayer before meetings or with the right to deliver the scheduled Feb. 17 invocation.

The council is due to vote on the emergency measure today, Feb. 3.

In Other News:

  • Turkey is hoping to increase tourism by preserving the “oldest temple in the world.” The ancient site at Göbekli Tepe is believed to be more than 12,000 years old. Led by German archaeologists, initial excavations began in 1995 and, according to National Geographic, “changed the way archaeologists think about the origins of civilization.” Since that point, better roads, a gift shop and a parking lot have been added to the area so tourists can easily visit the ancient site. Now, there are new plans to encourage more tourism and protect the site itself. According to the article, plans include “building a new, larger visitor’s center and protective canopies for the structures that have already been uncovered, along with walkways and fencing to help manage tourism’s impact on the ancient enclosures.” This all comes during at a time when Turkey has been struggling with the Syrian refugee crisis.
  • Fires have been raging across Tasmania’s central plateau, an area recorded as a World Heritage Site. The fires have completely devastated 1,000 hectares to date which have impacted local animal life as well as “unique alpine flora including pencil pines, king billy pines and cushion plants, some more than 1,000 years old.” According to the local news, many of these plants do not come back after fire. They are simply gone. Ecologist Jamie Kirkpatrick is quoted as saying, “We need for people to understand that this is not a natural event.” At this point in time, the full extent of the damage is not yet known, but experts are calling this a possible “system collapse,” and are saying that this incident is a “sign of a changing climate.”
  • Speaking of forests, The New York Times recently interviewed Peter Wohlleben, a German forest ranger, who believes that “trees are social beings.” Wohlleban wrote a book about his observations called, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World. Written in a casual and simple tone, the book shares Wohlleban’s experience and notes on tree behavior gathered from his many years of being a forest ranger. At the beginning of the Times article, Wohlleban is quoted as saying, “These two trees are friends.” And then he explains, “You see how the thick branches point away from each other? That’s so they don’t block their buddy’s light.” To date, his book has sold over 320,000 copies worldwide.
  • In other international news, the Chiefs of Cameroon’s East Region have asked President Paul Biya for permission to use Witchcraft against the extremist group Boko Haram. According to a regional news source, a regional Governor Miyazawa from the North has also publicly called for the use of Witchcraft to stop the violence. In recent years, Boko Haram’s grip has tightened on the region, which is now causing heightened alarm among the local chiefs in the country. Cameroon is one of several countries in a coalition, led by Nigeria, to stop the extremist terror.
  • On Sunday, we reported on three women who are using Witchcraft to stop predatory housing practices in Chicago, Illinois. Interestingly, WITCH, as they are called, is not the only activist group capitalizing on the spirit embedded in the ‘witch’ to inspire social justice actions. In New York City, a group of young women have named themselves the Brujas, or Skate Witches. In an article in Dazed, this all-women’s skateboarding collective formed in order to support “friendship, and the radical potential of sisterhood to foster real support systems, outside the mainstream social norms. They see the preventative and healing power of friendship as a source of collective empowerment, especially in the context of Western medicine and philosophy, where it’s discouraged to tap into extra-spiritual realms.” According to the report, the skate crew is working to open doors for “Latino and POC skaters” as well as protesting “aggressive gentrification” in the Bronx.
  • The state of South Carolina has a long history of “Voodoo” practice, more specifically the Gullah Tradition. Last week, The State featured an article on its history and its place in modern South Carolina’s culture. The article concludes that, while there aren’t many rootworkers left in the state, the belief remains with many of those people living in low country. As quoted in the article, Dr. Elijah Washington, who is both a conventional doctor and a rootworker, said, “It’s not going away. It will never go away.” During this time of year, there are a number of Gullah Tradition festivals and events going on throughout the coastal regions of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
  • An article posted on the blog ZenGardner.com explores “The Occult Universe of David Bowie and the Meaning of “Blackstar.” The singer and artist died of cancer on Jan. 10, leaving behind a legacy of 28 albums, film credits and more. In that blog post, Bowie’s work is explored with an eye for the occult including photographs and quotes. The ZenGardner writes, “While many of Bowie’s eccentricities could be attributed to drugs and rock and roll, one cannot paint a complete picture of this artist without mentioning his most enduring obsession: Western occultism.”
  • For those that follow the Pope’s activity, he’s due to star in a feature film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film will be the “first-ever big screen role for the Bishop of Rome.” Pope Francis will play himself in the AMBI film Beyond the Sun, which will begin production this year. The article also notes that “all profits from the film will be donated to two Argentinean charities, El Alemendro and Los Hogares de Cristo, which aid at-risk children and young adults.”
  • On Feb 19, the latest Witch-related horror film will be released.  Rogers Eggers’ The Witch received accolades at the Sundance film festival and is being called “2016’s scariest film.” The Satanic Temple (TST) is also touting the film and will be offering advanced screenings on Feb. 10 in four cities. Why? In a press release, TST spokesperson Jex Blackmore said, “The Satanic Temple believes the movie will signal the call-to-arms for a Satanic uprising against the tyrannical vestiges of bigoted superstitions, and will harken [sic] a new era of liberation and unfettered inquiry.”  Here is the film’s trailer:

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Happy Imbolc

The Wild Hunt —  February 2, 2016 — Leave a comment

This past weekend is when many modern Pagans celebrate the fire festival of Imbolc sacred to the goddess Brigid, patroness of poets, healers, and smiths. Yesterday was also the feast day of Saint Brigid of Ireland, the patron saint of poets, dairymaids, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, fugitives, Irish nuns, midwives, and new-born babies. In Kildare, Ireland’s town square, a perpetual flame is kept lit and housed in a statue that pays homage to Brigid. Festivities for La Feile Bride in Kildare started on Jan 31 and will continue through Feb 7.

Brigid: Saint and Goddess.

Brigid: Saint and Goddess.

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

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

That seasonal theme is carried through in many Pagan Imbolc observances. This weekend Earth Spirit Community’s Feast of Lights, held in Northampton, Massachusetts and honoring a similar spirit.  And, of course, there is Groundhog Day.

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

This year several Imbolc-inspired articles were published in the mainstream media. The Huffington Post featured “Imbolc 2016: Facts, Dates, Traditions And Rituals To Know.” World Religion News published, “Pagans Celebrate Coming of Spring with Imbolc Festival.” The International Business Times shared, “Imbolc 2016: Facts, Traditions And Foods To Celebrate The Pagan Holiday.”

[Photo Credit: Philip Chapman-Bell / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Philip Chapman-Bell / Flickr]

Here are a few quotes on mid-winter observances:

“I’ve never seen a purple crocus shyly peeking its fragile bud through virgin snow. Where I live, [we] have colorful roses into January and the citrus trees are heavily laden with fruit, coloring our land in shades of lemon yellow, lime green, and orange, well, orange. Fresh snow will never make it onto my altar. The winter, with its sabbat of Imbolc, is a hard season to attune to here in California. Yet, as a native southern Californian and a Witch, I can feel it in the land. It’s subtle, and most people from other parts of the country would never notice it, but there are little signs of winter even here in the LA Basin.” – Tim Titus, “Virtues of the Goddess: Beauty

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“In my Reclaiming tradition of Witchcraft, we celebrate a Brigid ritual every Imbolc. It is one of my favorite rituals, if not the favorite. Up to two hundred people gather to make their pledges for the year, witnessed by their community. In the center of our circle we tend the cauldron of Brigid, flames hissing and burning throughout much of the ritual. Each of us has the opportunity to step up to the cauldron. If we wish, we can anoint ourselves with the Waters of the World. Waters collected from melted arctic snow, the Chalice Well, spring water from Germany, San Francisco tap water, and hundreds of other places. We then speak our pledge over the flames and wait until a hammer rings on the anvil, sealing our words. –  Annika Mongan, “Imbolc is My New Year”

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“Each year I use this traditional welcome to invite Her into my home, by opening the doors wide and calling in Her blessings for the whole family, ‘The bride has come! The bride is welcome! Goddess Brighid, this is your day, I welcome you to our home, beloved guest. Blessed be!’ I also light the fire in the hearth afresh asking for Her blessings and put a glass of milk out in a special place for Her as a thank you. Then I also put a special white cloth, or Brat Bhride (mantle of the bride) outside on a bush for the Goddess to bless as she passes, to be imbued with Her healing powers, for use throughout the year ahead.  I use this cloth to cover sleeping children, as well as anyone unwell or in distress in the house as a magical comfort blanket.” – Danu Forest, “A Wisewoman’s Imbolc.”

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“Back when I was a beginner pagan, I participated in Imbolc rituals, making Brigid’s Crosses and putting little corn dollies in little beds and so on. It was fun to participate, but it never resulted in a connection with the goddess like I have with Odin, or any of the other Germanic deities I worship. I do have a Brigid’s Cross on my mantle now, given to me by one of my Brigid-worshipping friends as a housewarming gift, but that’s about it. How does this time of year between Yule and Easter fit into my own personal practice? Can I have Imbolc without Brigid?” – Amanda at Heathen Naturalist “Looking Into Imbolc”

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“Imbolc is coming. My altars are all packed away, along with art and books, photos of ancestors, and most of my clothing. I have a computer, some client files, two paper books, and two suitcases. But poetry moves through my blood. Stories tap out from my fingertips. I march in the streets, strong and true. And after pounding rain, there comes the sun. I have no altar to Brigid, except the altar in my heart and of my life.” – T. Thorn Coyle, “Well, Forge, Flame: an Imbolc Essay

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[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

Patrick McCollum has announced that he will be awarded the 2016 Ralph Bunche Medal For Peace by the International Human Rights Consortium. He will be receiving the medal at the UN’s Commission for the Status for Women held in March. McCollum explained that the Peace Medal was named after Ralph Johnson Bunche, who was “an American political scientist, academic, and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his late 1940s mediation in Israel.”  It was designed and sculpted by Alex Shagin, the world-renowned metal sculptor and coin designer best known for designing Olympic medals and other similar items.

In his announcement, McCollum also said that he will be the last recipient of the award and that he is thankful to “the many friends and colleagues who have supported and encouraged [his] work for World Peace over the years.” He added, “I share the honor of this award with all of you.” McCollum also said that the collective work done by himself and many others in Pagan communities around the world has “shifted the consciousness of people across the planet toward a more peaceful and sustainable future.” Now he asks that people join him in raising “the status of women” and creating a world that “we can be proud of.”

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pfiua-624x624It has been recently made public that the head of the Pagan Federation International – Ukraine is suffering from multiple sclerosis, and her condition has gotten worse. In early January, Fialkora Mykytenko was hospitalized and has remained there. According to several announcements, Mykytenko is undergoing extensive and regular treatments. Her community has reached out to the extended family of PFI members and Pagan practitioners for both emotional, practical and financial support.

The Pagan Federation International (PFI) is an organization made up of small satellite groups throughout the world, from France to the Philippines. It shares a “common heritage” with the UK-based Pagan Federation, which “was founded in 1971 to provide information on Paganism and to counter misconceptions about the religion.” Mykytenko is the National Coordinator for the Ukraine branch, based in Kiev. PFI members are posting updates on her condition on both the PFI – Urkaine website and in the Russian-based social media outlet VK.

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The Mills College Pagan Alliance (MCPA) has run into a very unfortunate situation. The college had to cancel its “special request funding” due to an unforeseen and undisclosed circumstance. This decision has left a number of student groups, who were depending on these special funds, in quite a bind. The Mills College Pagan Alliance is one of them.The group was depending on the special request funds to host its suite and two other guest rooms at PantheaCon 2016.

The MCPA suite caters specifically to college-age Pagans, offering a safe space for discussion and expression. Unique to this year, the group was was offering a special talk by Mills College alumna Diana Paxson. In addition, the MCPA suite and two other rooms play host to a number of the attending Pagan students, who otherwise cannot afford a hotel room on their own. As of now, there are ten students scheduled to take advantage of this opportunity. Member Kristen Oliver said that attending PantheaCon is important for many of these students as it provides a unique environment to “develop their leadership skills in the Pagan community.”

When MCPA organizers found out that the funds had been revoked, they immediately held an emergency meeting and have decided to launch a crowd funding campaign Monday, Feb. 1 to pay for the three spaces. The organizers are currently working on the campaign. Oliver said, “[The college] feels pretty bad about the whole thing,” and she stressed that MCPA was not the only group affected. Additionally, she is currently in talks with the administration to see “if there is any other source [she] can tap.” For an update on the situation and the campaign, visit the MCPA Facebook page.

In Other News:

  • Every wonder what it takes to keep The Wild Hunt going? Or maybe you’d like to talk to one of our regular writers or learn what’s on our drawing board for 2016? The Wild Hunt will be hosting a meet-and-greet at PantheaCon in the Hexenfest suite on Saturday from 5-6 pm. There you will have a chance to talk to several of our columnists, including Crystal Blanton, Alley Valkyrie, and Heathen Chinese, as well as our new strategic planning director, Yeshe Matthews. And if you miss that or won’t be attending PantheaCon, we will also be doing another social event and a formal “Meet the Wild Hunt” panel at Paganicon in March. Attending that event will be writers Cara Schulz, Crystal Blanton, Manny Tejeda-Moreno, Dodie Graham McKay, and editors Terence P. Ward and Heather Greene. We look forward to seeing everyone come out to these events to talk Pagan news, journalism or just to say ‘hello.’
  • Three Drops from the Cauldron has announced that it will be putting together and publishing a paperback anthology of “the best writing [they] receive on witches, rituals, and spells.” The title and release date are still to be decided. However, they are currently calling for submissions. The editors included the following suggestions for topic ideas: “Pagan rites. Magic. Hecate, Morgan le Fay, Rhiannon, Cerridwen, Circe, Medea, Mother Shipton, Salem, Pendle. Gingerbread and poisoned apples. A hut with chicken legs. The full moon, wise crones, rare beauty. Black cat familiars.” The submission deadline is Sunday May 29. For more information, go to their website.
  • A new subtitled version of the documentary Heksen in Holland (Witches in Holland) has been created, offering both Spanish and English subtitles. This new version will include a booklet filled with articles and interviews translated into English. As described on the site, the documentary, which was produced by Silver Circle, depicts a “journey through the wheel of the year and 35 years of Wicca in the Netherlands.” It features interviews with a number of witches including” Morgana, Jana, Nemain, Lady Bara, Joke & Ko, Mae, Rufus & Melissa Harrington, Geraldine Besken, and Gwiddon Harveston. The subtitled film will be available for purchase soon through the Silver Circle webshop. The original version, with no subtitles, is currently available for purchase.

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  • Air n-Aithesc has published its Imbolc edition. Air n-Aithesc: Our Message,is a “peer-reviewed magazine that hopes to offer well researched material for Celtic Reconstructionists and others who value the role of academics as much as they value the role of the spiritual in their practice.” The magazine’s first issue was published in February 2014. Back Issues, as well as the current one, are available digitally through its website.
  • Rhyd Wildermuth’s new book A Kindness of Ravens was released today.The book “is a collection of forest-edged words arrayed against the theft of meaning and the death of dreams.” The contents are pulled from a number of sites that host Wildermuth’s work. It is available through Lulu.com or digitally through Gumroad.com.
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CHICAGO, Ill. — On Feb. 6, a performance collective named WITCH will be hosting a ritual protest in Logan Square in support of local housing rights.The organizers describe the event as a “hexing and protective spell action,” which will include recognizable elements of Witchcraft practice. Due to this design, the protest has been attracting both mainstream media attention and social media backlash. We spoke with the group’s founders to find out more.

W.I.T.C.H. action, Nov 2015 [Courtesy Photo]

WITCH protest action, Nov 2015 [Courtesy Photo]

“Gentrification has been affecting Logan Square for the last 15+ years. Our action is concentrating on the increasing lack of affordable housing, which is certainly affected by gentrification, but far from the only issue surrounding it. We have all been impacted by housing speculation and insecurity, though our personal experiences vary,” explained Jessica Caponigro, Amaranta Isyemille Lara, and Chiara Galimberti, the three women who make up WITCH.

Jessica Caponigro is an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and activist. Originally from Pennsylvania, she is currently working as an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago. Amaranta Isyemille Lara is a student, poet, and single mother. She is working toward a master’s in linguistics and has lived in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood since 2004. And, Chiara Galimberti is an artist, activist, parent, and educator. She is currently working toward becoming a herbalist and acupuncturist.

Galimberti said, “My relationship to Chicago has been very difficult as housing insecurity has deeply affected me and my daughters. I have been working multiple jobs since moving to Chicago and I have never been able to afford rent without public assistance. I know that my situation is by no means unique and that the vast majority of people in the city is negatively impacted by housing speculation, especially as that reality combines with endemic racism and sexism.”

This is the type of personal experience that inspired the three women to come together and form the performance collective. Their first organizational meeting was in October 2015 and, at that time, they chose to name the group WITCH. The acronym stands for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell and was used by a number of affiliated but separate women’s groups within the broader feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The original WITCH organization was formed in New York City on Halloween 1968. Its members created a manifesto that began:

WITCH is an all-woman Everything. It’s theater, revolution, magic, terror, joy, garlic flowers, spells. It’s an awareness that witches and gypsies were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression – particularly the oppression of women – down through the ages. Witches have always been women who dared to be: groovy, courageous, aggressive, intelligent, nonconformist, explorative, curious, independent, sexually liberated, revolutionary … [From the WITCH Manifesto, 1969]

This group of feminists chose to adopt the image and concept of the Witch to represent female empowerment in a way that was antithetical to socially-constructed, traditional gender roles and that flew, pun intended, in face of the patriarchal expectations. Several Pagan writers and historians, such as Chas Clifton, Margo Adler and Ethan Doyle White, have mentioned the 1960s WITCH organization in their writings, highlighting the similarities between that movement and the early modern Pagan movement in the U.S. In his book Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America,Clifton wrote, “WITCH was not religious, yet as Eller, and before her, Margot Adler note, it was a small step from the intense, intimate feminist consciousness-raising discussion group of the early 1970s to the Witches’ coven.”(Clifton, p 120)

witch manifesto

Forty-seven years later, Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara decided to resurrect the name, capturing that energy, history and legacy for their own work. While their Chicago protests are not embedded in any specific organized feminist movement, the three modern women have found empowerment and purpose within the original group’s message. They explained, “We think of Witches as historically being women (and some men) who were at the forefront of resistance against oppressive systems, and we strongly believe that there is not one way to be a Witch. We are interested in looking at the connection between social justice, feminism, and the figure of the Witch.”

In November, the women staged their first protest action. It was held in front of Chicago’s Thompson Center on Randolph Street. Similar to the upcoming event, the November action was staged to “protest disparities caused by inequality, chanting to hex those who cause it and protect those who suffer as a result.”

Then, on Jan 3, WITCH announced its second action and created a corresponding Facebook event page. Unlike the November action, the new Feb 6 protest would be held in conjunction with a local art festival called 2nd Floor Rear 2016, a “DIY” event that features art in “experimental contexts.” The protest is listed on the festival site as one of the featured happenings.

Since that Jan. 3 announcement, the group has received media attention from various mainstream outlets, as well as backlash from the online Pagan community. Jezebel and the Chicagoist each published an article titled, “Chicago Witches Will Exorcise ‘Gentrification’ Demons.” The online site Dazed titled its article,”Chicago Witches Hoping to Cast Out Gentrification.” As is often the case for mainstream Witch articles, all three included flashy stills from the The Craft (1996)

Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara expressed disappointment in the treatment of their story within these news articles, calling them “unfortunate and misleading.” And, it may have been this misrepresentation that is at least partially responsible for the subsequent social media backlash predominantly found on Facebook. One user wrote, “So you fight colonialism by using cultural appropriation … For many this is a way of life, and you mock it as merely a public art spectacle.” Comments like this one continued on with accusations that the women were disingenuously appropriating Witchcraft or Pagan traditions to serve their own artistic or political objectives. Another user posted, “YOU are not WITCH! You have no concept. I and many like me are witches. The real deal. How about you mock some other group inappropriately.”

But are they? The issue of their own religious or spiritual identity, or practice, was not publicly addressed. So we asked them, “Do you identify as Witches in a religious or spiritual sense? Are you Pagan?”

Caponigro said, “I most certainly identify as a Witch. I come from a long line of independent Sicilian women who strongly believed in holistic medicine and the powers of the earth and intuition, and passed down their spirit and knowledge to me and my sibling. Though I’m not currently practicing, there are parts of my life when I have identified as Wiccan.”

To this question, Isyemille Lara said, “I identify as a Witch. To me, being a Witch has to do most with using an honest and balanced voice to impart support, empathy, protection and power whenever necessary. Witchcraft is personal and adaptive. My family is from the northern deserts of Mexico. I carry this stoic intuition in my veins.”

And, Galimberti said, “I grew up in Italy, where the tradition of Witchcraft is different than in the United States. The memory of Witch hunts and persecution is still present, mixed with a classism that sees Witchcraft and Paganism as part of working class practices, and thus not taken seriously. I was raised largely by my grandmother who practices Malocchio, which mostly included a healthy skepticism for authority (whether of the state or the church), and a rich knowledge of herbs for healing and daily practices that allowed a connection with the spiritual world. I am studying Herbology and Acupuncture and I think of myself as a healer-in-training, with spirituality being a component of that identity.”

The three members of WITCH added that they are not in anyway mocking anyone’s system of belief. “We are empathetic to those who are angry because they mistakenly think we are appropriating their beliefs,” they said. “Those accusing us of being disingenuous or culturally appropriating Witchcraft are working under the assumption that because we do not practice in their particular way, our sincere connection to Witchcraft is somehow less valid.”

They added that Witchcraft has long and varied history, saying, “Witches were and are healers, spiritual workers, subversive independent thinkers, in addition to the definition of “witch” in the Pagan religious sense. The figure of the Witch is present in most cultures around the world, and can come to signify many different practices and beliefs.”

1969 WITCH protest in front of Chicago Federal Building [Courtesy WITCH]

1969 WITCH protest in front of Chicago Federal Building [Courtesy WITCH]

As for the group’s mission, the women explained that the Feb. 6 action will hopefully attract the attention of “politicians and companies that are profiting from housing development at the expense of most Chicagoans and especially working class people.” They were quick to add that they are no experts and can’t speak for everyone who has been “impacted by predatory housing” practices. However, they do hope to give voice to those who have such stories.

“During the action people will be invited to speak out about their experience with housing insecurity, the impact of high rents, and speculative development on their lives,” they explained. “We will then perform a protective charm that acknowledges the people and organizations that have been working on these issues for decades, including the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the Grassroots Illinois Action.”

Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara described the upcoming protest action as a “combination of both magical ritual and performative gesture” that will be based on their collective “experiences and knowledge.” They welcome anyone to come and join them, Pagan or not. It is not a private or restricted event. They said, “We take our relationship with spirituality, Witchcraft, and social justice very seriously,” adding “Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a non-conformist, sexually liberated, independent thinker. Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a WITCH.”

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[Karl E. H. Seigfried is the author of The Norse Mythology Blog, named the world’s Best Religion Weblog in 2012, 2013 and 2014. He wrote all Ásatrú definitions in the Religion Newswriters Association’s Religion Stylebook and has written on myth and religion for the BBC, Herdfeuer, Iceland Magazine, Interfaith Ramadan, MythNow, On Religion, Religion and Ethics, and Reykjavík Grapevine. He currently teaches courses for the Newberry Library’s Continuing Education Program while working on his fourth degree, an MA in Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

In the online world of Ásatrú and Heathenry, the reprimand “stop mixing religion and politics” is a regular refrain. On Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and websites, in discussion groups and comment sections, accusations are often made that a given individual or group is polluting the religion with personal political bias. This phenomenon is not specific to a particular position; invective is hurled from both ends of the political spectrum.

From one side come cries of “SJW.” Given the ideologies of many who favor its usage, I long thought this stood for “Single Jewish Woman,” but it is actually used to accuse an opponent of being a “Social Justice Warrior.” Logically, this implies that the accuser is a “Social Injustice Defender,” but logic is not often strong in online confrontations. “Cultural Marxist” is another term popular with the same social set. I assumed it was used for people who demand free streaming music as a basic human right, but it refers to those who supposedly aim to destroy “Western culture” by promoting democracy, intellectualism and protection of minority rights – despite the fact that many would consider these to be bedrock ideals of “the West.” Ironically, those Heathens who decry multiculturalism are arguing for a society in which members of marginalized minority faiths like Ásatrú are denied their rights by members of majority faiths whose prejudices are pandered to by corporate candidates and corporate media.

From the other side comes the No True Heathen fallacy, which asserts that no Heathen would subscribe to extremist philosophies such as “white nationalism” or conspiracy theories such as “white genocide.” When Heathens repeatedly pop up who promote these concepts, the boundaries of the assertion are reset to state that no true Heathen would hold these beliefs. This is parallel to the meme stating that members of ISIS are not true Muslims and that members of the KKK are not true Christians, despite the fact that ISIS clearly declares itself to be thoroughly Muslim and the KKK has long been rooted in Protestantism. Likewise, the intersection of Heathenry with extremist ideology has a lengthy and continuing history that has been well documented by academics. Declaring that agreement with liberal politics is the litmus test to be considered a “true believer” strangely puts progressives in the position of arguing for a reactionary notion of religious purity and identity policing.

The one thing both sides agree on is that the other is injecting politics into religion, while they themselves are simply expressing the true spirit of Heathenry. Each accuses the other of hijacking Heathenry to promote their political views. However, the idea that religion and politics are somehow separable goes against Heathen history, mythology and theology.

History
Before the conversions to Christianity, variations of the term goði were used in the Nordic lands. The title, dating to the fifth century or earlier, referred to an individual who held dual secular and sacred roles, who was both chieftain and priest. The goðar (plural) in pagan Iceland traveled each year to the national Althing, the island’s version of the great assemblies that were known throughout the Germanic world. Throughout the north, these meetings ranged in size and jurisdiction from local to national as they straddled the sacred and the profane.

thingvellir

1930 postcard of gathering at Thingvellir, site of the historical Althing [Public Domain]

Archaeological and written sources from the first century through the thirteenth attest to the sacred nature of the cultural institution that decided political, economic and legal matters. A third-century votive inscription on Hadrian’s Wall in England set up by Frisian auxiliaries in the Roman army refers to Mars Thingsus (Mars of the Thing), the god who presided over the assembly. The large annual assembly of the continental Saxons appears to have featured large-scale religious rituals. The ninth-century Life of Saint Lebuin, most likely written by a Saxon author, mentions that the meeting included prayer to pagan gods.

Given this history, is it so odd that modern Heathen leaders who have appropriated the ancient title of goði speak on secular issues? The allsherjargoði (very roughly translated as “high priest”) of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship) has spoken out in support of gay marriage rights in Iceland, which has drawn the ire of right-wing Heathens and the support of left-wing ones. The alsherjargothi (an Americanized spelling) of America’s Asatru Folk Assembly has publicly spoken out against Muslim immigrants in Germany, which has brought down the fury of left-wing Heathens and the cheers of right-wing ones.

In both cases, supporters insist the leader they like is expressing the deepest ideals of the religion, and opponents declare that the leader they don’t like is perverting the religion for political ends. At root, this is a basic human inability to see faults in ourselves that we observe in others. This tendency tends to terminate any attempt at decent discussion by degenerating into denunciation and name-calling.

I am not in any way suggesting a moral equivalency between the two leader’s positions or arguing that we should not speak out strongly against those who we believe promote troubling views. Instead, I am offering the idea that responses to statements such as these should move beyond what amount to accusations of heresy and demands for silencing that sometimes become what the media calls fatwas.

Historical goðar were involved in both religious and political matters, and they arguably would not have made much distinction between the two spheres. Members of the community sometimes strongly disagreed with prominent people, just as they do now. If historical Heathens could argue issues at the assembly without calling for excommunication or declaring someone anathema for holding a political view they found distasteful, maybe we can likewise respond to opposing opinions without demanding that there should be no discussion allowed.

Mythology
Referring to mythological lore to support one’s political ideas has always been popular. The poems of the Poetic Edda provide problems for both sides of the political aisle, yet both happily quote them to shore up their positions. One oft-cited verse from Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One,” i.e. Odin) has been read in radically different ways.

Away from his arms in the open field
A man should fare not a foot;
For never he knows when the need for a spear
Shall arise on the distant road.

Some Americans read the text fairly literally, arguing that it gives a Heathen stamp to the notion of gun ownership and carrying rights. Some Icelanders read it metaphorically, suggesting that it is a poetic image about being intellectually prepared for the struggles of life. The literalists argue that they are following what the text actually says, the liberals that they are finding what it really means.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

The argument between these two modes of reading religious texts is nothing new. Just ask your local rabbi. In the fourth century, the Christian bishop Gregory of Nyssa famously wrote on the difficulties of choosing between literal and allegorical readings. Interestingly, allêgoria posed a bit of a problem for early Christians, since the method was associated with the old pagan philosophy. In any case, both readings of the Hávamál verse owe more to modern cultural concepts than they do to ancient Heathen views. One side is justifying conservative American ideas of gun rights, the other is expressing liberal Icelandic ideas of intellectual life. Both use the same verse from the Old Icelandic literary heritage as a touchstone for their modern views.

The poem Rígsþula (“Lay of Ríg,” a god usually taken to be Heimdall) causes some political problems for both right and left. It tells how the wandering god fathers the social classes of slaves, free farmers and nobles before tutoring Konr ungr (“young kin,” but a word-play on konungr, “king”) in the way of a ruler. Is this a religious or a political text? For those who argue against multiculturalism, the poem presents a god with a Celtic name in a narrative that – with its religious endorsement of a caste system and a descended god who teaches royal behavior – is closer to the sacred social structures of the ancient Hindu epics than it is to the Protestant work-ethic expressed in the Nine Noble Virtues. For those who champion progressive Heathenry, the poem shows that the gods gave social inequality to you. Rígsþula is awkward for both sides, but it clearly mixes the sacred and the social. Like those in so many other religious traditions, we pick and choose which parts of the lore to emphasize and which to minimize.

Another poem that is problematic for all concerned is Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard,” i.e. Odin), which features a verbal sparring match between Thor and a disguised Odin as they compare their accomplishments. One of the best-known moments is Graybeard’s taunt that “Odin owns the nobles who fall in battle | and Thor owns the race of thralls.” The rugged individualist crowd is faced with a poem portraying Odin himself stating that class warfare continues into the Heathen afterlife. By rallying the slaves in Þrúðheim (“Home of Power”), is Thor acting like a Social Justice Warrior? By hosting them in his hall, is he providing public assistance to the poor?

On the other hand, the progressive pagan crowd is faced with the inconvenient truth that the one thing the wise god and the protecting god agree on is that it would be fun to rape a young woman together. Somehow, this section of the poem doesn’t get publicly mentioned very often. The victim the gods discuss is a “linen-white girl,” which (if the internet was a logical place) should lead to protests and petitions against Thor and Odin by the far-right crowd that rants against Idris Elba playing Heimdall (“the whitest of the gods”) and thinks there’s an international conspiracy against white women. Even leaving an in-context interpretation of “white” aside, the fondness of the gods for rape is problematic for both sides. Should we pretend this poem never existed? Should we tell the gods to stop talking about hot-button political issues?

Theology
Contemporary Heathen theology also argues against the separation of religion and politics. To say that Heathenry is a “world-accepting” religion is to say that Heathens move in the world. Our focus is on the lived life, on the world around us as we move from the past through the present and into the future. If we disengage Heathen life from the wider world and insist that Heathen action only happens in religious contexts, then we are drawing a hard line between the sacred and secular much stronger than that in any ritual hallowing.

If “Heathening” only means participating in and discussing ritual and belief, then it also means disengaging from the world – the very antithesis of “world-accepting.” Few seem to argue for any such extreme disengagement, but it is not uncommon to come across use of the Old Icelandic term for “within the yard” to state “not my innangarð, not my problem.”

Sacrifice to Thor by J.L. Lund (1777-1867)

Sacrifice to Thor by J.L. Lund (1777-1867) [Public Domain]

The Heathen mantra that “we are our deeds” asserts that what matters is what we do. Like the Hindu concept of dharma, the Heathen idea of right action defines the making of a good life. What is important in life is how we act in the world, not just how we behave while participating in blót. If Heathen ethics only affect our behavior around other Heathens, we imitate “Sunday Christians” by becoming “Sumbel Heathens,” and we imitate the “churchy” by becoming “kindredy.”

It would be quite odd for members of a religion that seeks to reconstruct or reinvent practices of the wide-ranging wanderers of the Migration Period and the Viking Age to turn inwards to innangarð insularity. To say we have a “Heathen worldview” suggests that we see the world beyond our doorstep and take action within it.

None of the above argues against the separation of church and state, which most of us agree is good policy, despite the fact that it owes more to the Enlightenment than to the Heathen Age. Rather, this article addresses how we address the interaction between the religious and political beliefs of both ourselves and those with whom we disagree.

For Heathens, religion and politics are always already linked. By acknowledging that, maybe we can move beyond the childish name-calling and purity inquisitions to discuss the issues and challenges of living in the world today – and how we can each take action that is consistent with our own diverse Heathen worldviews.

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London — Many Pagans dream of being able to say ‘I do’ in a handfasting and have their vows recognised in law. ‘Why can’t a handfasting be legal?’ is a complaint we heard around the UK for decades. Well, in 2004, the Scottish Pagan Federation addressed it first and then, finally, England and Wales followed suit in a groundbreaking case. 

[By Kam Abbott / Wikimedia ]

[By Kam Abbott / Wikimedia ]

The Glastonbury Goddess Temple was licensed for legal weddings after a whirlwind one-year process. In a first for Paganism, the Temple’s marriages are legally binding. The approval can now be used in precedent, which is incredibly important for the long term.

The journey to approval started when trainee priestess Dawn Kinsella started her celebrant training as part of her work toward ordination at the Glastonbury Temple of Avalon. While shadowing a wedding registrar (the UK equivalent of a Justice of the Peace) she learnt that a non-legally binding ceremony can be a legal contract if it takes place in a ‘permanent place of worship.’

Uniquely in the UK, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple is exactly that. Dawn realised this and started asking if her temple would be eligible. ‘I can’t see why not,’ said the registrar. And so the process began.

Not many peope know it, but handfasting itself is a ceremonial element – just as a church service is just a ceremonial element; the legality depends upon a few lines of legal wording and the proper paperwork. There are other requirements, too, set by the General Registrar’s Office (the national body for registering marriages). If it is a religious place, then it has to be a permanent place or worship. It must be licensed in a particular way; the building has to be inspected; the place solemnised. And, locals have to give approve approval.

In the UK, Christian priests or ministers can only perform legal marriages in their own church buildings; their name is tied to a specific licensed religious location. It’s just the same for the Temple of Avalon in Glastonbury. If they are doing a legally-binding ceremony, Dawn and sister priestess Sharlea Sparrow have to do it inside the Temple premises.

Once Dawn had gotten the approval of the Temple founder Kathy Jones, she approached local official bodies to see how the Temple could fulfill the necessary requirements. She quickly got the needed 40 signatures of local residents’ affirming that the Goddess Temple was known to be a place of worship throughout the locality.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

Then Dawn learned how the official paperwork had to be submitted, as well other details of the bureaucratic procedure, such as the witnesses and timings of sending off the forms. The Goddess Temple ceremony template was approved – such that it contained within it some key wording (‘I am lawfully free to take X…’ etc.).  

Lastly, Dawn herself was approved as the person in charge, trusted with the bureaucratic and legal elements. Much rests on her shoulders. If the ceremony is not done right, you are not legally married. Years from now, none of us want to find out that we were never a legal spouse when tying to get our widow’s pension, applying for child custody in a divorce, or trying to collect on our insurance. This is why the UK’s General Register Office and its local branches are so careful in giving out approvals to new organisations.

Dawn convinced the governmental bodies that the Glastonbury Goddess can and will do all these things. They have a physical building acknowledged as a permanent place of worship by the entire local community. They have a permanent office which can store the paperwork, forms and a bank account to handle the payments. They have a priesthood that is trained for three years in public ceremonies. They have the necessary office-based structures and people who keep careful administrative records. And, the locals know just where they are, and that they are traceable, tax-registered and accountable.

Dawn and Sharlea set up the Temple’s web page, got ready, and lo – the requests came rolling in. The first marriage was, fittingly, that of the temple founders Kathy Jones and her partner Mike. The Temple can marry couples from all over the UK and Europe, and even abroad (though it’s a longer application process from outside the European Union). Same-sex marriages are legal here, and same-sex couples are welcomed at the Temple.  

In the UK most of us will carry on happily with our non-legally-recognised handfastings held in fields, clearings and homes. Then, later go down to the Registry Office (the UK’s equivalent to the Town Hall) and take a simple oath there and sign the forms – the ‘legal marriage’ bit.  

But now there is an option for the legal and the religious strands to meld together. Dawn, Sharlea, and the Glastonbury Goddess Temple priests and priestess are proud to be in the vanguard of the legal handfasting movement. They made an historic breakthrough, and have done British Pagans proud.

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Washington, D.C – On Monday, it was announced that the Theophania Temple of Athena and Apollon, a new Hellenic organization, had officially become “a legally recognized and incorporated entity within Washington, D.C.” Priestess and founder Gwendolyn Reece has been working toward this moment for over two years after receiving instructions directly from her gods. Although the structural process is not completely finished, Reece is enthusiastic and ready to begin this new adventure.

[Courtesy G. Reece]

[Courtesy G. Reece]

“I am responding to a call from these two Great Ones, this isn’t about me … I am working on setting this up so that it survives me,” wrote Reece in the public announcement. The Wild Hunt spoke with her further about the project, its origins, its purpose and its future.

While Theophania is new in its public inception, Reece has been working on “laying its foundation” for several years. She is a Witch and a Priestess devoted to Athena and Apollon. She has been facilitating rituals and workshops for many years. As one of the organizers for the popular Sacred Space conference, Reece helps maintain the presence of Athena, who is one of two deities asked to bring protection to the weekend event.

But, as she explained, it wasn’t until her trips to Greece that she was divinely inspired to birth the new temple. Reece said that her first trip was impactful, explaining, “Greece felt familiar to me. That didn’t surprise me. But it did surprise me how comfortable it felt.” However, it wasn’t until the second trip that she was given the specific direction to create a sacred space in Washington. She received this message from Apollon while simply touring the country. Those specific moments are highly personal; however, Reece did share that her mission became most clear while in Athens and Delphi. She added, “We had omens. Eagle Omens.”

When Reece returned home, she knew what Apollo and Athena were asking. “They are very concerned about our world,” she said. “They are real beings and want to have a relationship with us. They have an agenda just like we have an agenda.” And it’s this divine agenda that she is now helping to serve with the creation of Theophania.

Gwendolyn Reece [Courtesy Photo]

Gwendolyn Reece [Courtesy Photo]

Reece has spent the last two years carefully constructing a viable and lasting internal temple structure that will serve the mission placed before her. Why the name Theophania? As she wrote on the website:

Theophania was an annual festival at Delphi in which Apollon returned from His time in the hidden lands and made Himself directly known and visible to the people. A “theophany” is when a deity makes himself or herself immediately known and visible to a mortal. Apollon selected this name because He and Athena are coming back to make Themselves known directly to humanity once more. Theophania strives to serve these Great Ones by providing structures through which mortals may have direct experiences with Them as They return to us. They want to be in close relationships with us once more.

Along with completing all the necessary legal paperwork required of incorporation, Reece has also been working on the ecclesiastical structure. She said, “I am using the old Hellenic form, rather than a congregational one.”

This structure may feel unique to modern Pagan temples in that Theophania is not a membership organization. She said that the Temple is a place “to keep relationships with the gods flowing” and will be maintained by a core Priesthood. But that is it. Rituals will be open to anyone and not at all exclusive. It doesn’t matter whether attendees are Hellenic polytheists, Wiccans, Heathens or the like. The Temple will be there for anyone to experience a relationship with both Athena and Apollon.

As for the temple’s mission, Reece explained that Theophania will have three main “lines of activity.” The first is public ritual. She explained, “The temple’s ritual work will be devoted to the ‘good of the polis,’ which is why the gods wanted the Temple in the nation’s capital. A federal city.They are interested in democracy.”

The second line of activity will be oracular work. Reece said this is more complicated because Apollon will have to select which priestess or priest can actually perform this activity. It is up to the God, himself. And, as of now, Reece is the only priestess. But she said that this will change soon enough.

Finally, the third line of activity is for Theophania to “rebirth the Neoplatonic philosophical tradition within the context of contemporary Paganism.” As Reece explained briefly, Neoplatonism, a modern term to describe a mode of philosophy that was prevalent during the late Hellenistic period, was made up of various lines of thoughts all present during that era, including from Aristotelian, Pythagorean, Stoic, Egyptian, Chaldean, Buddhism and more. Neoplatonism was able “to harmonize” these very different philosophical traditions, pulling the best ideas from each one.

However, as Reece further explained, this Neoplatonic philosophy was virtually eradicated around 529 A.D. when the Athenian Academy was destroyed by Justinian I. The surviving concepts were eventually incorporated into a monotheistic framework and have lived on within that context.

One of the goals of Theophania is to return Neoplatonic philosophical concepts into a polytheistic context. As Reece wrote on the website, the results will offer “a truly Pagan approach to the quest for wisdom and Truth that blends logic, mysticism, abstract thought, and practical life applications for the individual and the polis.”

[Courtesy G. Reece]

[Courtesy G. Reece]

Reece is very optimistic about the project. When asked if the Theophania had its own physical space at this point, Reece said, “no.” She will be using rented space or her own home for rituals and workshops. However, she added that in her “hopes and dreams” Theophania will eventually have its own dedicated physical temple. Then, she laughed, adding, “I’d like one of the old Hellenic-style churches on 16th street in Washington. The street dead ends into the White House and is on the old meridian. It is a power line.”

Until that time, she and the future temple priesthood will be maintaining the sacred space elsewhere, and she will continue building the temple’s legal and fiscal backbones. On Jan 26, she submitted the IRS paperwork to earn temple’s 501(c)3 status.

When asked how people can learn more about her work, the temple’s mission or working with the gods, Reece said that Theophania’s website was a good place to follow the temple’s progress. As of now, she plans to lead the temple’s first oracular ritual in March or April. She can also be reached through the website.

More specifically, for Sacred Space attendees, Reece will be offering a workshop on Hellenic oracles, which is tied in to the creation of the new temple. The workshop blurb reads:

Hellenic Oracles: The Oracle of Delphi is, rightfully, the most famous oracle of the Ancient Greek world, but there were quite a number of other oracular cults in ancient Hellas as well. As part of her work as a priestess of Apollon, Gwendolyn is working with Him to found an oracle in the nation’s capital. As part of her preparatory work, she has conducted extensive research on Hellenic oracles. This workshop provides a summary of the historical research

Reece also offered some spiritual advice to those people interested in understanding more about how and why she is taking this journey and how they can go about doing the same. She said, “Be open to pursuing relationships with the gods. Learn how to give and to receive. Develop the ability to be a good friend. And to embrace this as a virtue.” She stressed the need to develop loving and spiritual relationships both between humans, and between humans and non-humans. She said, “Approach Them,” adding “[Apollon is] incredibly compassionate. He will talk about global issues, such as climate change, as well personal problems … They want to be heard. They want to be in relationship.”

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SOUTH AFRICA — After years of lobbying by Pagan groups in the country, the South African Law Reform Commission has determined that portions of that nation’s Witchcraft Suppression Act are unconstitutional. Witches should be able to identify themselves as such, the commission found, as well as practice divination. However, the proposed replacement law still has its problems, according to members of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, because it singles out “harmful witchcraft practices” for regulation on the basis that they can cause “intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror.” SAPRA members are drafting a response to the bill and hope to see changes in it before it becomes law.sapralogoThe Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 is, like most similar laws in African nations, based on 1735 Witchcraft Act of the United Kingdom, which was itself repealed in 1951. SAPRA requested a review of this law in 2007, an effort which was joined by the South African Pagan Council and the Traditional Healers Association. That slow process has finally resulted in the release of a lengthy issue paper by the SALRC, an independent body created in 1973 to investigate South African laws and make recommendations to the national and provincial governments for reform.

In that issue paper, members of the SALRC agreed that by making it illegal to identify as a Witch, the act violates the right to religious expression guaranteed in the South African constitution. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that there is no definition of Witchcraft in the legislation. In other words, Wiccans and other Pagans fell into the same category as those who are more traditionally considered Witches in sub-Saharan Africa, a place where the word “witch” is often associated with people who use supernatural powers to cause harm.

Where the SALRC paper deviates from the hoped-for outcome is in how it tries to make distinctions between the different uses of the word “witch.” According to Damon Leff, who has been working on this cause for years, “The draft bill is focused on preventing accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts, human mutilations and ritual murder, and what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices.’ ” In Leff’s view, that lumps together actions which should be unacceptable for any person to commit with beliefs that are protected.

We believe that existing laws may be used to deal with human mutilations and ritual murder – we already have a Human Tissues Act which prohibits the harvest and sale of human body parts, and murder is already illegal. We also believe that what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices,’ in the absence of actual demonstrable criminal activity, cannot be proven in any court of law to exist without reference to belief, and since the Bill of Rights protects the right to belief, ‘witchcraft beliefs’ aught to play no role in the determination of actual criminal guilt.

The bill has apparently been structured to address concerns that the widespread belief in malevolent magic makes it possible for one person to cause very real harm to another by convincing them that they intend to cast such a spell. Leff provided a copy of the response that SAPRA is drafting, which lays it out thus:

Whilst certain crimes may indeed be motivated by belief, those crimes identified in the Commission’s definition of alleged ‘harmful witchcraft’ practices, specifically, intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror, may be committed by a member of any (or no) religious faith. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to show that some Christians and Traditional Healers have in the past attempted to justify their criminal acts by appealing to their beliefs as motivation for such acts.

Traditional healers may also underlie muti murders, committed to obtain a specific human body part for the purposes of healing another. Children, the elderly and disabled are most susceptible to these kinds of attacks. The draft response reads:

SAPRA must argue that since the perpetrators of such practices, specifically those who trade in human body parts, do not self-identify as Witches or as practitioners of Witchcraft, but have in the past been identified as traditional healers or as practitioners of traditional African religion (who do not self-identify as Witches), the application of the term ‘witchcraft’ to such practices constitutes an equally inaccurate misnomer. Muthi murders have nothing to do with Witchcraft, because actual Witches are not the perpetrators of such crimes.

Instead, they argue, such crimes should be enforced under the existing Human Tissues Act, which was passed specifically to prevent such crimes.

From the SALRC issue paper, it appears that the Traditional Healers Organization has pushed for a clear definition of Witchcraft in a new law, and regulation of the harmful practices associated with it. Traditional healers, according to Leff, would never identify as “Witches” because of the strong cultural bias against the term, which has only been challenged recently with the spread of Wicca and related religions.

Proudly_Pagan_PFD_KZN_2009

Pagan Freedom Day in South Africa [Photo Credit: Ginney May / Wikimedia]

Another problem with the replacement bill, insofar as Pagans are concerned, is that while accusations of Witchcraft are banned, it doesn’t go far enough to protect those accused. The existing law has even been flouted by public officials. SAPRA’s draft response asserts, “Such a Bill must however not merely prohibit accusations of Witchcraft and punish those who do make accusations of Witchcraft which lead to harm against the accused, it must also provide the victims of accusation, living refugees of accusation, with access and means to victim support and restorative justice,” Since the lifting of apartheid, restorative justice has become a powerful concept in South Africa.

In short, SAPRA’s position is that laws should be based on verifiable evidence of wrongdoing, and no crime should be associated with a belief system such as Witchcraft, since heinous acts can be committed by anyone regardless of their religion or lack thereof. The comment period on the draft bill and related issue paper ends in April, and it could be another year before it is presented as a white paper, and submitted to parliament for consideration.

“If the SALRC goes ahead with the proposal, the Bill will be sent to Parliament for review before it is published, and only after that, could it become an Act of Parliament,” explained Leff. “We plan to stop that from happening.”

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