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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    *

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

A very tiny kitten.

A very tiny kitten. [A.Valkyrie]

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

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

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

*    *    *

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

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

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

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

tower

Clock tower at Union Station [A.Valkyrie]

*    *    *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the bridge, where I met the crow

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

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

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

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

 *    *    * 

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    *

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

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

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

Crow standing off against pigeons

Crow standing off against pigeons [A. Valkyrie]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    *

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

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

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

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

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

Yoga crow, watching from above

Yoga crow, watching from above [A. Valkyrie]

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

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    *

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

The parking lot crow

The parking lot crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

Thargelia celebration near Athens. [Photo provided by YSEE]

Thargelia celebration near Athens.

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

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

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

Attendees gathered for the Thargelia ritual near Athens.

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

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

Two young girls lead the procession to the altar.

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

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

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

Left: A hymn is sung
Right: Libations are poured

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

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

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

The Thargelia celebrated in Rhodes.

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

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

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

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Festival season is now underway as the wheel turns and the weather continues to get warmer. Pagan and Heathen communities around the country are stepping outside for daylong, weekend long and even weeklong adventures and community-building. While the early festivals focus on a re-connection to the outdoors after months of cold weather; the midsummer events celebrate the high season of long days and hot sun; and the fall festivals welcome the harvest.

Drummer's Altar at Phoenix Phyre [Photo Credit: Lisa Perez Darmana]

Drummer’s Altar at Phoenix Phyre [Photo Credit: Lisa Perez Darmana]

Although festival season begins in earnest in May for most of the country, the state of Florida gets an early start due to its climate. Leading off in March are festivals such as the newly created Equinox in the Oaks, held near Ormond Beach, and Phoenix Phyre, held in Lakeland. Florida’s warm temperatures and sea breezes allow for comfortable camping in early Spring.

As the Florida festival season continues, other areas of the country join the fun as the warmer temperatures slowly move north. States in the Southeast begin to see festivals in April. These include daylong events, such as the Atlanta Marketplace of Ideas, in Georgia, or longer camping events, such as ADF-sponsored Trillium Spring Gathering in Virginia. The Washington-based Aquarian Tabernacle Church holds its Spring Mysteries festival at this time. While it is run similar to a festival, Spring Mysteries is mostly held indoors due to the weather.

As April turns into May, festival season truly takes-off across the country. Whether it’s Beltane, May Day or another reason entirely, the first weekend in May seduces people into coming outside and connecting to nature and to their communities. As explained by the Beltane Fire Society, based in Scotland, “the growing power of the sun … provides an opportunity to cleanse and renew the conditions of a community – both humans and their animals – that had spent the dark months indoors.” Since 1988, the society has hosted its annual Beltane Fire Festival on this weekend, as a marker of community-building in that region.

Here in the United States and Canada, the beginning of May sees an extraordinary number of festivals, both big and small; ranging from local celebrations hosted by individual covens to bigger region-wide events. Many of these early May festivals are Beltane-inspired. In Pittsburgh, for example, Grove of Gaia hosts a daylong festival called Grove of Gaia Fest. This year’s event attracted over 400 attendees, hailing from many religious practices. Further south, Florida Pagan Gathering, run by the Temple of Earth Gathering (TEG), holds its weekend long Beltane festival; in Connecticut, the Panthean Temple runs Beltane: Pagan Odyssey Festival; and, in Colorado, Living Earth Church hosts Beltania: a Pagan Celebration and Musical Festival.

There are also many non-Beltane events during May. These fesivals simply encourage people to get outside and come together in community. The Bay Area Pagan Alliance rebooted its popular, daylong spring festival this year. Over Memorial Day weekend, many people head to Kansas for the Heartland Pagan Festival; while in Massachusetts, Earth Spirit Community celebrates the Rites of Spring. During May, Southern Pagans and Heathens drive through the Tennessee mountains to attend Pagan Unity Festival. During this year’s event, Tuatha Dea ran its group drumming workshop. After a rousing grand finale, Danny Mullikan said to the group of drummers sitting in a circle around him, “You all were just communicating. That is community.”

As spring moves into summer and the days get warmer, the population of festivals increase. June sees as many events as March, April and May put together. The biggest, and arguably most well-known, festival is Pagan Spirit Gathering in Illinois, sponsored by Circle Sanctuary. Beginning in 1980, PSG attracts over a thousand attendees and hosts over 400 events. As Circle Magazine editor Florence Edwards-Miller said, “Like Brigadoon appearing from the mists, Pagan Spirit Gathering is essentially a bustling Pagan town that manifests the week of the Summer Solstice every year.” This year’s PSG marks its 35th anniversary.

[Photo Credit: S. Fox]

PSG 2014 [Photo Credit: S. Fox]

Nearly as old as PSG is Canada’s WiccanFest in Ontario. Despite its name, the popular five-day festival is open to all Pagans and Heathens. Canada also sees the Sun Wheel Music and Arts Festival held in Alberta near the end of the June. And, it is impossible to talk about Canada’s spring events without mentioning the biggest one: Gaia Gathering. Held annually over Victoria’s Day Weekend in May, this event is actually an indoor conference that changes cities each year and attracts attendees from around the country. Gaia Gathering’s mission is to bring people “together to talk about who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we might be going as a religious community in Canada.”

Other popular events in June, include the two-day St. Louis Pagan Picnic, now in its 23rd year; Wisteria’s Summer Solstice retreat; Free Spirit Gathering, Michigan Pagan Fest and EarthHouse’s Midsummer Gathering. The Troth holds its own national event in June called TrothMoot. This year’s four-day festival will be held at Camp Netimus in Milford, Pennsylvania. Next year, TrothMoot will be on the West Coast. Additionally, for Heathens, the Volkshof Kindred sponsors the four-day Northern Folk Gathering in Minnesota.

New to this year’s June festival season is Pan Gaia in California. Sponsored by the North Western Circles Association, the festival will take its “maiden voyage June 20.” Organizers describe it as, “a delightful event of vendors, performers, and presenters distilled down from the best of the best of magical festivals over the past 15 years.” The two-day festival will be held in Fair Oaks, California, and will feature vendors, workshops and a Jim Morrison ritual by Patheos editor Jason Mankey.

The endless opportunities to be outdoors celebrating with fellow Pagans and Heathens continue throughout the summer months. In July, for example, there is Kaleidoscope Gathering; Free Witchcamp; Sankofa Festival; Chrysalis Moon, and Sirius Rising. Wisconsin sees a nine-day Summerland Spirit Festival, described as an “Earth-reverent spiritual retreat where you can experience personal growth, connect with nature and make new friends. And, in Ohio, the long-running Starwood Festival, which began in 1981, kicks off its seven day extravaganza of music, vendors, workshops and more.

In August, there is Pan Fest in Alberta, DragonFest in Colorado, Festival of the Midnight Flame in Michigan and Coph Nia in Pennsylvania. At this point in the year, the festivals begin to take on a harvest theme, such as Harvest Gathering, hosted by the Connecticut Wiccan and Pagan Network, or Sacred Harvest Festival, hosted by Harmony Tribe in Minnesota. Additionally, one of the longest running Pagan events occurs in August. Now in its 39th year, Pan Pagan Fest, sponsored by the Midwest Pagan Council, is held in Monterey, Indiana and this year’s five day festival theme is “Open Spirits, Open Hearts.”

By August, the schedule begins to shift, providing a array of new community opportunities. The Pride season begins in many areas as the longer festivals disappear. Additionally, this is the month that Covenant of the Goddess hosts Merry Meet, its annual meeting and conference. Over its many years, Merry Meet has been both an outdoor festival and an indoor conference. And, finally, this year marks the launch of a new indoor conference, Many Gods West, to be held in Washington. It is one of the few indoor summer events.

Regardless, the U.S. and Canadian festival seasons wind down quickly in September as the focus turns to Pagan Pride Days, Witches Balls and other autumn fun. However, there are still a few remaining festivals left for those who cannot get enough of camping. Lightening Across the Plains, the biggest Heathen-focused event, is hosted in September and held at Gaea Retreat outside of Kansas City. Dubbed a “regional Midwest thing,” the four-day festival includes “Asatru and Craft workshops, Viking Games, a Heathen auction” and much more.

Tuatha Dea leads Community Drum Workshop at PUF 2015 [Credit: H. Greene]

Tuatha Dea leads Community Drum Workshop at PUF 2015 [Credit: H. Greene]

Many of the groups that sponsor early spring events also host autumn events. In September, Wisteria invites guests to attend a four-day festival called Autumn Fires. Earth Spirit Community holds an October retreat called Twilight Covening. In Canada, the WiccanFest organizers stage a second festival called Autumn Fest. And, Phoenix Festivals, Inc. hosts Autumn Meet in Lakeland, Florida. Then, finally, in November, TEG hosts a second Florida Pagan Gathering to close out the year.

It is not surprising that Florida, and other southern regions begin and end the festival season. This cycle is wave of warm-weather fun that migrates just like birds. Of course, the many festivals listed above are only a small sampling of what is actually available every year across the country. There are floating festivals, like Hawkfest, and outdoor intensive retreats, such as Reclaiming’s Witchcamp, that appear in multiple places across the country at different times. In 2016, there are already new festivals scheduled, such as the Dragon Hills Pagan Music Festival to be held in May in Bowden, Georgia.

Additionally, there are many smaller very local and private festivals and outdoor events during the entire season. Together with the winter conferences, the Balls, the Moots, the Picnics, the many Pagan Pride days, the year is filled with opportunities to connect to community, find inspiration, enjoy creativity, shop or just kick-back within spaces dedicated to the Pagan, Heathen, Polytheist religious cultures.

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DETROIT, Michigan –The Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund announced its second annual winner last week, naming Rebecca Phoenix as the 2015 recipient.

Rebecca A Phoenix lives in Ferndale, Michigan, and recently graduated from Ferndale High School. Rebecca Phoenix is a die-hard history, mythology and art buff. Put these passions together you get a direct line to studying museum sciences. Rebecca will be attending Oakland Community College in the fall for her associates and then will finish her degree at Wayne State University. In the summers she will be performing with the Legends drum core marching band, competing all over the Midwest.

Phoenix’s essay was selected by the Board of Governors of the Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund, and for that she will be awarded $500 a year for the next four years. This commitment is a significant step up from its predecessor organization, the Tempest Smith Foundation (TSF), and seeks to widen the trail that was blazed by that non-profit. TSF provided scholarships as part of a mission focused on encouraging religious tolerance. As reported by The Wild Hunt in late 2013 as TSF was winding down operations, teaching tolerance was important to the foundation’s late founder, Denessa Smith:

Before passing away, Denessa’s dream was to award TSF college scholarships. The recipient would be chosen through a contest in which students would submit a 300 word essay on the meaning of ‘tolerance.’ Annette [Crossman, who succeeded Smith in leading the foundation] fulfilled this goal. Since 2010, TSF has given out 6 $500 dollar scholarships to Michigan high school seniors. At ConVocation 2014, TSF will award three more scholarships – its last action before closing down operation.

Gordon Ireland, administrator of the Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund, told The Wild Hunt how this one aspect of TSF’s work has been carried forward. “I took over doing this because I also run the Midwest Witches Ball . . . and the Ball was always a strong supporter of TSF, in donations and promotion. When they closed down, [I] just hated to see it go away,” he said.

Actually establishing a scholarship according to IRS requirements is by no means an easy feat. However, it was completed timely enough so that there was no gap in offering a scholarship opportunity for Michigan Pagans. Specifically, the eligibility criteria are:

  • Resident of Michigan
  • Self-identify as Pagan for at least one year
  • Minimum age of 16 at time of application
  • Senior in high school, or equivalent education
  • GPA of 2.85
  • Acceptance to an accredited college or university.

Applicants must be able to provide proof of the above requirements, including such things as school transcripts and letter of recommendations by a religious leader or other responsible adult.  They must also write a 500-word essay on how Paganism has changed their life, as well as a 250-word explanation for applying in the first place. That’s one of the differences between the new scholarship and that offered by the Tempest Smith Foundation. TSF’s essay requirements focused on the exhibition of tolerance, reflecting the organization’s mission.

Once the new scholarship is awarded, the recipient can renewed it annually three times for a total of $2,000 as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA and otherwise comply with requirements set forth by the Board of Governors. That’s another big difference from the TSF program, which awarded a single amount each year.

According to Ireland, this longer-term commitment was made possible through the support of a number of other organizations. The Witches Ball committed to a dollar per ticket, which averages $500 in funding a year, and the Magical Education Council (organizers of ConVocation, where TSF’s founding ritual took place in 2003) has committed to a straight $500 annually. Pagan Pride Detroit organizers promised the proceeds from the raffle held at its annual event, and additional support has been provided by the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry, which provides the non-profit legal framework and local business sponsors. In addition to this ongoing local support, the scholarship is also the focus of two of its own fund-raising events each year.

“Creating a scholarship is about raising funds,” Ireland said. “If you cannot guarantee a certain yearly income do not bother, as all you end up doing is disappointing some kid.” With two scholarships to award, the organization will be doling out a thousand dollars this year, ramping up to the $2,000 annually to be divided among four recipients when it reaches its peak. Together with operational costs and publicity, the Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund expects to need $2,500 a year. Ireland recommends that anyone wishing to copy this model take heed of the work-load, adding that having “a business networking model of raising money” is helpful. He also said “it takes a village to raise a child, or at least put one through college.”

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Barb MossThe Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) family is mourning the loss of one of its devoted members, Barb Moss (1969-2015). Barb was also a facilitator of the Daughters of the Dark Moon coven as well as a member of the Open Circle Unitarian Universalist congregation in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. In addition, she was a working artist, known for her enthusiasm and creativity. Last October, Barb were interviewed for a local paper’s bi-weekly feature: “The Artist Next Door.” According to the report, Barb had overcome many obstacles in her life including addiction, failed pregnancies, and divorce. Many of these struggles were featured in her paintings.

Barb’s latest struggle was with breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 2011. After various treatments, she went into remission. Then, this past summer, doctors discovered that Barb’s cancer had spread to her liver and bone. On May 11, she lost the fight. As her friend Cathy Fia Moritz shared, “My friend, Barb, squeezed the last bit of life out of that paint tube yesterday. Even though I only knew her for a short time, she touched my life greatly. Her creativity, welcoming attitude, and her unflagging optimism were just a few of the bright qualities that made her a wonderful woman.”

The Open Circle Unitarian Church held a fundraiser and memorial service this past weekend. Then on Sunday, there was a second service at her parents church – Salem United Methodist. PSG will be “honoring her … as part of [its] Circle of Remembrance on the opening Sunday, June 14.” In addition, since Barb was scheduled to co-lead this year’s Daughters of the Dark Moon ritual at PSG, coven members decided to include an honoring of her life as part of the rite. Rev. Selena Fox said, “She was beloved by many. [I am] glad to have connected with her as part of my life’s journey.”

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Lapd sealOn Thursday, May 21, the West Valley Area, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is co-sponsoring a meet-and-greet with local Pagans. The focus of the event will be on how best to handle and report “Hate Crimes/Speech” against the Pagan community. As the flyer notes, “This is also an opportunity to get to know your local officers.”

The idea for this community meet-and-greet was born last year when Pagan Wendilyn Emrys, a local activist, attended the LAPD Hate Crimes Forum in Encino, California. She said, “I was attending in my capacity as a Pagan Priestess, and because I am a member of a number of political groups that often get attacked by right wing psychos. I wanted to know my rights...” After asking a few questions, an officer approached her and offered to meet with her and other Pagans.

Although the event took some time to coordinate, Emrys and the current facilitating officer Sergeant II Frank Avila were finally able to secure a date. Emrys is enthusiastic about the opportunity, saying “I think it is essential for Pagans to get to know their local Law Enforcement Professionals, and Governmental Representatives … It is also important for us to know what is and is not a Hate Crime, or Hate Speech, and how to get in touch with our local Law Enforcement should someone inflict such a crime or criminal speech against us.” She is hoping for good turnout. The meet-and-greet will be held at the West Valley Area Police Station at 7 p.m., the event is open to anyone interested in the subject matter. For more information, contact wendilynemrys@hotmail.com.

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Earth

Courtesy: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center

The Pagan Community Statement on the Environment has garnered 4,249 signatures in just one month’s time. The signatures hail from all over the world and from nearly every continent. There also now eight translations of the statement available, including Spanish, French, Italian, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese. More translations are currently in the works.

In a recent blog post, coordinator John Halstead wrote, “If you peruse the list of signatories of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”, you will see a lot of names you may recognize…” but many you do not. Then he featured an interview with the person who signed directly before Starhawk.

Since that blog post, Halstead has noted that the group’s goal is to get 10,000 signatures by mid June. Why June? This is the scheduled time of Pope Francis’ publication of an encyclical on the environment. Halstead views this as “an ideal opportunity to share a Pagan vision of sustainability with the world.” Patheos blogger John Beckett agreed, saying, “If the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination can issue a progressive statement on the environment, why can’t Pagans – most of whom hold Nature in much higher regard than do Christians – do at least as much?”  Halstead and the many people involved are now asking others to pass along the statement through social media and other sources. Where can it be found? The statement, its history and all the translations are available at Ecopagan.com.

In other news:

  • On May 25, the Pagan/Academic European Associates Network (PAEAN) will be holding its 3rd online academic conference. Held in cooperation with the Pagan Federation International, the PAEAN Conference will “focus on the different aspects of development of Contemporary Paganism and its challenges.” The online platform allows “scholars, lecturers and attendees to engage in meaningful discussions to “hopefully increase learning and understanding.” This year’s theme is “The Future of Contemporary Paganism.” and will include lectures by Mr. Stanislav Panin, Dr. Lila Moore, Mr. Shai Feraro, Ms. Martina Capuleti and Mr. Gwiddon Harveston. There will also be several group panels. Information can be found online.
  • T. Thorn Coyle has just released her first fiction novel, titled Like Water. Nayomi Munaweera, author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, described the book“Like Water is a love letter to both the streets of Oakland and the youth who walk them. It tells of the city’s history as well as the conflagrations threatening to devour it. These are characters attempting to love through the fire.” Inspired by her social justice work, Coyle calls the book “visionary fiction.” It s now available in both paper or electronic forms from online and local bookshops.
  • The Norse Mythology Blog has begun its annual midsummer art competition. This year’s theme is based on “an excerpt from the Old Norse poem Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of Sigrdrifa”) from the Poetic Edda.”  The specific except is posted on the site along with project suggestions. In addition, Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried also wrote, “Throughout Northern Europe, there are local traditions that celebrate midsummer. Some of these practices preserve very old rituals. Your original piece of visual art should capture the midsummer spirit of Norse mythology.” Past winners and their art are posted in the blog’s archives. The submission deadline is midnight June 19.
  • On May 11, Molly Khan launched the Heathen at Heart blog on Patheos Pagan Channel. In her opening post, Khan wrote,”Hello, and welcome to Heathen at Heart!  Here I hope you will find a thoughtful commentary on Heathenry, polytheism, and Paganism in general; as well as practical information, prayers, and rituals.” Khan is member of a local Kindred as well as a Scribe for an ADF Grove. She is also a wife and mother of three, and a strong supporter of her local Pagan community.
  • The Wiccan group Silver Circle, founded in 1979, has commissioned a film on Witches in Holland or Heksen in Holland. The project is part of the group’s recent 35 year anniversary celebration. The organization has established a foundation that is “committed to expanding and evolving Wicca to an ever growing public.” To help fund the project organizers have launched an Indiegogo campaign.  However, they have already begun production with the help of a variety of volunteers

That’s it for now. Have a great day.

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Over the past few weeks, Pew Research has released its findings from two major studies on the religious composition of various populations. In April, the center released “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” which projects the religious makeup of future global populations based on current statistics, including “age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Released just last week, the second study titled, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” is an analysis of the current religious composition of the U.S. population based on data collected in 2007 and 2014. Both reports have been generating some buzz, as the numbers and projections suggest marked changes in religious populations.

[Credit: Sowlos / CC via Wikimedia]

[Credit: Sowlos / CC via Wikimedia]

Looking at the American study first, Pew summarizes its finding in the first sentence:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.

According to the data, the Christian population of the U.S. declined 8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014. The biggest loss was to mainline Protestants Churches. The Christian share of the overall population went from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Despite the drop, Pew notes that “the United States [still] remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world” with an estimated 174.3 million followers in 2014.

At the same time, the “unaffiliated” population significantly increased, rising six percentage points from 16.8 percent to 22.8 percent. It is important to note that Pew defines “unaffiliated” as Agnostics, Atheists and “people who do not identify with any particular religion.” That latter designation includes those persons who are spiritual but not religious; and religious but not labeled. Pew clarifies this definition in Appendix C of its world projections study, saying:

Surveys have found that belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7 percent of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30 percent of unaffiliated French adults and 68 percent of unaffiliated U.S. adults.

This is an important point when reviewing the data. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, titled “The Future of Religion is Bleak,” Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennett suggested that the rise of the “nones” or “unaffiliated,” is evidence of the decline of religion. The author’s reasoning is based on the definition of “unaffiliated” as solely Atheists, ignoring the growing population of “spiritual but not affiliated.” While Pew statistics do indicate a decline in traditional organized religion, they do not necessarily indicate a decline in personal religious belief or ritual practice. This is something easily understood and seen within the collective Pagan, Heathen and Polytheists contexts. People can be religious and unaffiliated.

So where do the alternative religions fit into the Pew study on American trends from 2007-2014? Pew uses a series of eight categories, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unaffiliated, Other World Religions and Other Faiths.

“World religions,” which include “Sikhs, Baha’is, Taoists, Jains and a variety of other world religions,” have, as a groups, increased slightly to 0.3% of the current American population. The “other faiths” grouping includes “Unitarians, those who identify with Native American religions, Pagans, Wiccans, New Agers, deists, Scientologists, pantheists, polytheists, Satanists and Druids, just to name a few.” This category has remained stable at 0.4% of the population.

While the “other faith” basket is quite diverse, there are a few interesting statistics to pull out of the study. For example, in 2007, the gender distribution for the “New Age” sub-category, under which they placed Wicca, was evenly distributed. Since that point, there appears to have been a slight surge in female adherents. The 2014 data shows 61 percent of the population is now female. In addition, the Southern and Western U.S. have the largest populations of “other faiths.” Each area is home to 31 percent of the total U.S. population of “other faiths.”

The study also demonstrates that the “other faiths” and “unaffiliated” categories both have the largest “Millennial” populations. This may account for the large number of “New Age” respondents claiming “some college,” as well as the largest income bracket being “under $30,000.” Pew itself concludes that the religions and religious groupings that experienced the most growth during this period have larger populations of young people.

[Photo Credit: Ktrinko / Via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Ktrinko / Via Wikimedia]

Turning to Pew’s world projections, the story is slightly different. From 2010-2050, the Christian population is projected to increase at the same rate as the world’s overall population, maintaining  its 31.4 percent global share. While some countries do show a decline, as the United States, other areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, will increase.

At the same time, the Muslim population is expected to skyrocket. By 2050, Pew estimates that Muslim population will be equal to the Christian population, and by 2070, the center projects that there will be more Muslims than Christians worldwide. As noted earlier, Pew bases these projections on current fertility rates, migration patterns, life expectancy and other statistics that indicate population shifts.

As for minority religions, the changes are marginal at best. As with the American study, Pew uses eight groupings, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unaffiliated, Folk Religions and Other Religions. Folk religions are defined as “African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions;” and “other religions” are defined as “the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca, Zoroastrianism and many other religions.”

While the American study demonstrates a recent increase in the unaffiliated, the world projections suggest a future overall drop. Of course, these shifts are largely location dependent. Pew projects that, by 2050, three countries will have an “unaffiliated” majority, including France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. As noted earlier, “unaffiliated” is defined as Atheists, Agnostics and “people who do not identify with any particular religion.” While these countries may no longer have a formal Christian majority, it does not mean that they are “losing their religion.” France, for example, is a fiercely secular country. The growth of the “unaffiliated” may simply indicate a surge in religious individualism, as fostered by the specific culture, as much as a surge in Atheism.

Where does the global study project “other religions” going by 2050? While the study suggests a slight decline from 0.8% to 0.7%  of the total world population, the number of actual people will rise from 58 million to 61 million. Unfortunately, this grouping of religions is far too broad to pick out any data specifically on Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist trends. As recorded by Pew, “The growth trajectories of specific religions in this category could vary greatly.” However, Pew did note that Wiccans and Pagans, along with Unitarians, featured largely in a previous landscape survey concerning the switching of religions.

pewFor our purposes, Pew’s results are too broad to provide any concrete data on trends in Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist practices. However, the studies provide a sense that these minority religions could gain momentum within the United States and other cultures where “unaffiliated” populations are expanding. Even if the “other faiths” or “other religions” are not expanding themselves, acceptance may become easier in those areas; unlike regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where Pentecostal Christianity is on the rise.

Returning to the Wall Street Journal article, Professor Dennett suggests that “religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rises,” and when people have increased exposure to information. This may be true, as many people do tend to rely on spiritual belief and religious practice when faced with crisis or the unknown.  However, as noted earlier, religion doesn’t appear to be “receding.”

Dennett’s analysis is based on the more traditional monotheistic models of organized religion and does not take into account the individual-based models that we often find in Paganism, Heathenry and Polytheist movements and beyond. Pew’s research does appear to show a decline in adherence to the older models of religious practice within the U.S., as exemplified by decline in specific Christian affiliations. However, there is also an increase in the more individual-based models, as shown by the increase in “other faiths” and “unaffiliated” categories.

Regardless, even this decline is limited to by regions and cultures. While Dennett may be absolutely correct in noting a religious shift based on security and access to information (or education,) the conclusion that religion’s future is bleak is not exactly accurate. The future of the older models of religious practice may be uncertain; but not religion as a whole.

One last point to note is that Pew indicates that the reporting on religion and projections is complex and often flawed. Religious surveys can be significantly influenced by politics, social or family pressures, cultural expectations and other external factors. Ultimately, the Pew studies provide broad suggestions of shifts and trends.But they do not indicate true religious belief, something personal that can be deeply hidden and something that is constantly changing.

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I’m not a historian and I don’t play one on the Internet. I do think it’s good to have some knowledge and understanding of the history and development of our religious traditions, as mysterious, complex, and convoluted as they are.

There’s an increasing number of material available around the history and development of historic and contemporary Paganism and Witchcraft in Europe and the U.S. Ronald Hutton and Margot Adler, for example, have given us valuable scholarly insight.

We don’t hear very much about Australia, and I wasn’t sure where to start looking. Thankfully, a few Aussie friends have pointed me in the right direction, sharing some fascinating stories that highlight a few of Australia’s most important and colourful characters.

[Courtesy Tasmanian Pagan Alliance]

[Courtesy Tasmanian Pagan Alliance]

The Witches

Rosaleen Norton (2 October 1917 – 5 December 1979) may be Australia’s most famous Witch. Norton scandalised conservative Australia during the 1940s and 50s. Her art, which contained supernatural and sexual themes, was treated harshly. Police removed her work from exhibitions, confiscated books that contained her images, and attempted to prosecute her for obscenity. She was arrested countless times.

When Witchcraft was still illegal in Australia, Norton openly declared herself a Witch and a Pagan. She was an occultist devoted to Pan and led a coven in the bohemian area of Kings Cross in Sydney, where she lived. She was often at the centre of police and tabloid scrutiny.

Norton died in 1979 from colon cancer.  Interest in her life and her work hasn’t waned. A number of books about Norton have been published over the years. Most recently, Sonia Bible has written and directed a new documentary called The Witch of Kings Cross. Norton remains a key influence in Australia’s Pagan landscape. For more on Norton, read the two-part Wild Hunt series published last month.

81hGHd2uexLRhiannon Ryall is the pseudonym of an English-born Australian Wiccan who established a coven-based tradition in Australia. Ryall asserted that, at the age of 16, she and other youth in her village were initiated into a local, pre-Gardnerian, Wiccan tradition in West Country, England during the 1940s. However, as I’ve been told, historians and Aussie Witches are skeptical of her Ryall’s assertion. Her tradition appears to be a blend of Gardnerian and Alexandrian practices.

Ryall published a number of books, but her most important and best known work is West Country Wicca: A Journal of the Old Religion. Like Norton, she was no stranger to the media. After the unexpected death of her daughter in 1991, Ryall and her husband abducted their granddaughter. The saga lasted for years, and the couple, already in their sixties, served some jail time. It garnered media attention and public praise for the father, the man who rescued his daughter from the Devil-worshiping witches. The event inspired a made-for-television movie in 1999.

I don’t know when Ryall passed away. Despite having been known as “a bit of a fibber,” and her legacy being tarnished by the kidnapping, Ryall was involved in several traditions and left behind a number of students and initiates. I’m told she was a lovely woman who is missed by many.

Simon Goodman (16 September 1951 – 23 September 1991) may be one of the most enigmatic figures in Australia’s magickal landscape. It’s hard to separate the facts from mythic history, but it’s safe to say that Goodman was the main promoter and initiator of Wicca in Australia in the late 1970s and 1980s.

It appears Goodman was initiated into Alexandrian Wicca in Sussex. He met and corresponded with Alex and Maxine Sanders, who gave him their blessing and a charter to initiate others. Goodman made good use of the photocopier at his workplace, copying entire books for his network of covens across Australia. When he died, he left his collection of documents to Murdoch University. According to Douglas Ezzy, in his essay “Australian Paganisms,” Alexandrian Wicca is the most numerous initiate tradition in Australia mostly deriving from individuals who trained with Goodman.

The Scholars and Storytellers

9781472522467Douglas Ezzy is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania. His contribution is mainly academic with a number of studies and essays appearing in other works aside from his own books. His work includes Sex, Death and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival, a look at one of Australia’s more well-known and controversial festivals, Faunalia.

Lynne Hume is a University of Queensland anthropologist who published the first and major defining academic study of Australian Paganism. Unfortunately, Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia is out of print, but can sometimes be found from second-hand book dealers.

41U3NdnPE5L._SL500_BO1,204,203,200_Nevill Drury (1 October 1947 – 15 October 2013) was an English-born Australian editor, publisher, and author of over 40 books on subjects ranging from shamanism and western magical traditions to art, music, and anthropology. He has many titles worth exploring, but one book of special interest here is Other temples, Other Gods: The Occult in Australia, which is also out of print. He is also the author of “The Magical Cosmology of Rosaleen Norton,” published in Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies in 2010.

Peregrin Wildoak is the blogger behind Magic of the Ordinary. He is doing important work cataloguing material that Simon Goodman left behind, as well as recording memories and wisdom from Perth Wiccan elders from the 1970s and onward. His work will be invaluable to those collecting the history of Paganism and Witchcraft in Australia.

Brittany McCowan is a young aspiring documentary filmmaker from Lennox Head, Australia. She is currently working on directing her first feature length documentary called Modern Witches and Paganism in Australia. You can read my interview with McCowan on my blog and find out more about this project by visiting her website or her GoFundMe page.

Australia does have a story to tell. It has people worth knowing, and a history worth recording for future Pagans and Witches.

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[Today we welcome guest writer Lilith Dorsey M.A. Dorsey hails from many magickal traditions, including Celtic, Afro-Caribbean, and Native American spirituality. Her traditional education focused on Plant Science, Anthropology, and Film at the University of R.I, New York University and the University of London, and her magickal training includes numerous initiations in Santeria, also known as Lucumi, Haitian Vodoun, and New Orleans Voodoo. Lilith Dorsey is a Voodoo Priestess and is the editor/publisher of Oshun-African Magickal Quarterly, filmmaker of the experimental documentary Bodies of Water:Voodoo Identity and Tranceformation, author of Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism, 55 Ways to Connect to Goddess, and The African-American Ritual Cookbook, and choreographer for jazz legend Dr. John’s “Night Tripper” Voodoo Show. You can find on her blog Voodoo Universe.]

Possession seems to be all the rage lately, well maybe it always was. People are in awe of the power to connect with the divine. As a Voodoo/Vodou practitioner and priestess for over two decades I have seen many possessions both real and exaggerated. I have seen possession as a way to connect, to heal, to receive blessed messages from the divine, and unfortunately I have also seen people feign trance in an effort for attention.

One particularly powerful ritual I attended many years ago was for Ogou, the Vodou Lwa of Iron and the white hot forge. Ogou is a warrior, and I knew the night was going to be an interesting one. I stepped on a carpet tack fairly early in the evening, and the blood coming from my foot was a “red flag”  for me.

[Photo Credit: Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com CC  via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com CC via Wikimedia]

There were several possessions that night. The first, I remember, was from a friend to whom I had passed the ritual machete. He later recalled that he was instantly transported to the trenches of World War I with his life on the line, like he was living out an old film. He felt a great insight into himself and into the past after that moment.

Another incident that I recall from that night was even more powerful. I probably wouldn’t even be speaking of it had it not occurred so many years ago and with such healing results. The next person to wield the machete had been experiencing some powerful transformations the week before. Unknown to most of us, he had tried to take his own life with a blade only days before. As he held the ritual iron, he later said, that he felt not the damage the weapon could do, but only the good. This force had changed for him in that single moment to one of protection and healing. I am happy to say he is still with us today.

I have also been party to many ridiculous possessions. At one Lucumi (more commonly referred to as Santeria) ceremony in Harlem, a few of the women in attendance grabbed their breasts, shouted unintelligibly, and demanded everyone’s complete attention. Attending Santeros and Santeras called these “possessions” visitations by Santa Borraccha  or Saint drunk woman.

Unfortunately, these type possessions are not limited to the Afro-Caribbean pantheon. One fond memory comes from a Pagan event where a friend and I listened to someone perform a session of amateur mediumship and, then, answer questions from the crowd. My friend fell asleep., Then, woke up several minutes later and said out loud, “This is crap.” That was one of the best moments ever – hands down.

These are humorous moments; however, they bring up real questions about spiritual possession. Who are we connecting with? Why? And, how are the safest ways to get there in a genuine and respectful way? Entire books can and have been written on this subject.

In anthropology the phenomenon of possession has been studied almost from its very beginnings. It is an elusive topic however, and how people create magick and meaning from it is always changing as well. Some like to academically classify it by its function, comparing it to a form of group therapy where public witnessing can perform a public good. There is an argument there, but for those who have actually been party to it, it is so much more than that.

Avant-Garde filmmaker, anthropologist and Vodou Priestess Maya Deren called possession the “white darkness,” and positioned it as the ultimate goal of practitioners. It is truly both a fusion and a blessing with and from the divine. For her it is about sacred thresholds and entrances.

As someone who has experienced it first hand, possession is a reciprocal, mutual, and inter-dependent abiding. A genuine blessing for those to watch and experience. Many of my colleagues feel the same, and I am fortunate enough to be able to share their experiences and thoughts about possession, proof, and prophecy with you here.

Lou Florez

Lou Florez [Courtesy Photo]

Lou Florez (Awo Ifadunsin), an internationally known speaker and lecturer of folk magic traditions of the South,  is a deeply rooted spirit worker, priest, medium, and witch. He has studied with indigenous elders and medicine holders from across the globe. Florez shared:

I view the practice less as “possession” and more as form of spiritual incorporation. Meaning that the experience isn’t about the violation of my inner sense of sovereignty, or dispossession, but rather that Spirit and I become incorporated into each other. For a brief moment there is a permeability and a dissolution of the boundaries that signify my individuated sense of self and that space allows for the reunion to occur.

Author Diana L. Paxson, an elder of the Covenant of the Goddess,The Troth and the American Magic Umbanda House, pioneered the recovery of “high-seat” seidh, the oracular tradition of ancient Scandinavia. Paxson has written works on various aspects of Pagan spirituality, including Trance-Portation and The Way of the Oracle and Possession, Depossession and Divine Relationships. Paxson said:

Diana Paxson

Diana Paxson

The fact that possessory experiences are found in every culture suggests that the capacity to experience such states is wired into our brains. What distinguishes possession as an ecstatic religious experience from possession as a personality disorder is the community context. For it to be productive, however, both the medium and the supporting team need training. With practice, it can be a valuable addition to the ways in which we connect with our gods.

Gavin Bone and Janet Farrar, Pagan legends and authors of the upcoming Lifting the Veil: A Witches’ Guide to Trance-Prophesy, Drawing Down the Moon, and Ecstatic Ritual, said:

One of the things that has surprised us most since we went down the path of exploring Trance-Possession is the level of fear that surrounds it; and this is not just coming from people who are new to the pagan path. Often suggestions that what we are teaching is ‘dangerous’ in some way has some from experienced leaders and teachers in the community.

Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone

Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone

We believe that much of this fear stems from the christian culture which many of us have grown up in. As hard as many try, it still bubbles up from our own shadows on occasion when that emotive word ‘possession’ is used. We believe the lack of experience and knowledge gained from exploring this area derives from the Judeo-Christian influenced western occult tradition which has labeled it as ‘left hand path'; as something evil and to be avoided.

To compound this misunderstanding further, film and television has regularly portrayed possession as process of violation where a spirit attempts to ‘own’ us body and soul. The reality is of course very different as anyone who has experienced it knows. It is in fact a deeply spiritual act where the spirit does not so much ‘possess’ the body but briefly makes use of it with the permission of the individual. In over 20 years of teaching Trance-Possession both privately and publicly, we have yet to see any form of genuine possession which resembles anything like the imagery described by the church or the media. But what we have seen is disturbed individuals in a psychological fugue state, which is very different to a genuine case of ecstatic communion with the divine – true possession.

tehroncolor-225x300

Tehron Gillis [Courtesy Photo]

Tehron Gillis, a poet and New Orleans Voodoo devotee, added:

The term is misleading. Ownership, to who does a body or its actions belong to are irrelevant. Possession is not a physical state of being but a settlement between the self within and the self without on a common goal that neither can accomplish without the grace of the other. The cup is without purpose without water, the water is without form without the cup. Only when they are in service wholly to each other can they accomplish something greater.

Who knows where possession will take us next? At best it is a transformative ride for both the horse and rider, or human and Gods respectively. May your rides be smooth, informed, and lead you just where you need to go.

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GREAT LAKES, Illinois – The Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command (RTC), where enlisted Navy recruits go for Basic Training, has stopped religious services for six minority religious designations. This includes “Earth-Centered” worship. In place of the weekly community worship service led by a volunteer civilian faith leader, trainees have been told that they will have an hour of private “contemplation and reflection.” In response, Pagan civil rights group Lady Liberty League is working to change what they, and other religious rights groups, consider a discriminatory practice.

Other trainees affected by the change are those of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian Science, Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist faiths. Religious services for more mainstream faiths have continued uninterrupted.

Heathen comment

Not the first time that the Navy has stopped minority faith services
This is the second time that the Great Lakes Command Chaplain Ted Williams has dismissed civilian volunteers who lead minority faith religious services for recruits. The first time was in May 2014. At that time, the Muslim and Seventh Day Adventists were affected, in addition to the six affected now. The May 2014 decision was rescinded by the Base Commander less than a month later.

Then, in June of the same year, a new Base Commander took command of the training facility. On April 3, 2015, the civilian faith volunteers were again notified the services would no longer be offered by civilian volunteers. Unlike the previous time, the Muslim and Seventh Day Adventist were not included.

“Oh no, not again,” thought John Chantry, the volunteer who lead services for over 100 Earth-Centered recruits each week. “We’ve been through this already,” said Chantry, who describes himself as a Christian Druid. He has led services for Pagan recruits for over four years. He is a member of the Lake Spirit Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and Ár nDraíocht Féin, A Druid Fellowship (ADF).

Chantry said that worshiping with other Pagans is important to trainees. “Trainees have told me they’ve been practicing Wicca or Asatru or Paganism privately because they were afraid to be more public about their faith. This is the first time they’ve been able to worship in community and they said it’s such a joy.”

Comment from the Navy Times article "Cancelled services at Navy boot camp spark outrage"

The Navy said that its new policy is temporary. They will first check to see if there is a Navy Chaplain able to lead those services for recruits. If not, then it would look for a uniformed military member who is certified by their faith to lead the religious services. If those options aren’t available, then the Navy would once again bring in volunteer civilian faith leaders.

The Navy hasn’t given a time estimate of how long this process will take. Until these minority religions have a designated faith leader, trainees cannot meet in a group to practice and do not have a place to practice.

It’s unclear if this policy is being applied across the board as there are unconfirmed reports there is still a civilian faith leader allowed onto base to minister to a smaller Christian denomination. As of publication, Navy Public Affairs has not responded to The Wild Hunt’s requests for comment or clarification.

Chantry said that the Navy believes solo prayer time is equal to the multitude of services led by Christian Chaplains offered in chapels. However He doesn’t see it that way, explaining, “It would be the same as saying to Roman Catholic trainees that praying by yourself for an hour is just as equal as attending a Mass led by a priest in a chapel, taking communion, and going to confession. That isn’t equal.”

U.S. Navy Command, Great Lakes IL [Courtesy U.S. Navy/Flickr]

U.S. Navy Command, Great Lakes IL [Courtesy U.S. Navy/Flickr]

Pagan leaders work to change policy
Rev. Patrick McCollum, Minority Faith Chair for the American Correctional Chaplains Association and Chaplaincy Liaison for the American Academy of Religion, said that while the main problem is the unequal treatment of minority faith trainees, more troubling is that the Navy doesn’t appear to understand inequity.

McCollum spoke with the Head Chaplain at the Great Lakes facility and, while the conversation was warm and cordial, he said the Navy’s perspective was that “…one trainee having access to a community worship service in chapel lead by a leader of their same faith was the same as a Pagan only allowed to say a prayer by themselves in their own free time.” McCollum said the Chaplain told him that the Navy wants to give their uniformed Chaplains and other uniformed personnel an opportunity to learn to minister to minority faiths.

McCollum said that Williams offered to set up a phone meeting with the Base Commander, but that meeting hasn’t materialized. Since then he’s not had any further contact with Great Lakes officials.

Rev. Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League, a Pagan civil rights group most known for assisting in the VA Pentacle Quest, is one of the organizations working with the Navy to modify the policy to allow all Naval trainees the same ability to practice their religion. They first became involved last May, when the Navy cancelled worship services for minority faith trainees. On Tuesday, Rev. Fox spoke with Chaplain Williams by phone. “We discussed religious accommodation possibilities for supporting recruits of diverse spiritual backgrounds, including Nature religions. We are continuing to be in solution-focused dialogues with individuals and groups,” said Rev. Fox. She added that she is cautiously optimistic that a solution can be found.

Lady Liberty League (LLL) is also asking for help. They are seeking U.S. Navy contacts at Great Lakes Naval Station and in U.S. Navy administration, who may be able to give them further information and support. They’re also looking for partnerships with other religious freedom organizations in resolving this situation.

Listen to this podcast by Circle Talk concerning LLL’s involvement in the Great Lakes situation

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has also offered assistance and is threatening to sue the Navy, saying, “We have never seen a commander authorize such a sweeping abuse of the religious freedoms of those under their leadership.”

ADF also had strong words about the situation. In a statement to The Wild Hunt, ADF Archdruid Rev. Kirk Thomas said:

It is with great apprehension and concern that we in ADF have learned about a new exclusionary religious policy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Apparently, the policy of allowing civilian minority faith leaders to lead services when no uniformed leaders are available has been discontinued. This has happened even though Navy regulations specifically allow for such activities. These civilian volunteers have been providing religious services for years and now they have come to an end, with only a small room for reflection and contemplation provided to the trainees instead.

We strongly support the US Constitution’s provisions for religious freedom and suspect that the current rule change is based upon an exclusive religious belief. We are concerned that this new interpretation of the regulations will not allow our service men and women to actively practice their faiths, with services now only available for the traditional Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

We call upon the Navy, the Commanding Officer, and the Chaplain at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to reconsider their actions and allow civilian minority faith leaders to once again provide spiritual and religious support for all those who follow minority faiths.

Chantry said that he doesn’t know what the next steps are, but is hopeful Naval Command will see how harmful this policy is to all recruits at the Great Lakes Naval Training Facility, “Recruits can see the difference in how the minority faiths are being treated as compared to how the Christian faiths are being treated. Before they felt accepted and worthwhile as human beings, now it’s as if their religion is treated as something shameful.”

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See related articles on how the other military services treat minority faiths:
Pagans find warm welcome at “Gateways to the Air Force”
Air Force Academy creates culture of religious respect
US Army adds Heathen and Asatru to religious preference list

 

UPDATE 5/14/15 2:51 p.m. EST: There are now reports that the Navy center has, in the last 36 hours, modified its policy. We are confirming these reports with our sources at the center and with the various Pagan religious rights activists that have been involved. 

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