Welcome to Canada – a country rich in natural beauty and natural resources. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, travelers may overdose on pristine wilderness and breathtaking landscapes. Each region of Canada has it’s own unique features and riches, but many of those riches are being extracted and exploited at an increasing, and for many, alarming rate.

Western Canada is rich in oil. By now most North Americans have heard of the oil sands in the province of Alberta and the various schemes to extract the oil and move it out of Canada to the United States and beyond. Recently the actions of Kinder Morgan have created a protest movement, which has managed, for the time being anyway, to stop this corporate giant.

Kinder Morgan is the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, with a natural gas network consisting of 68,000 miles of pipelines moving one third of the natural gas consumed on the continent. They possess the only oil sands pipeline serving the West Coast. Kinder Morgan wants to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline system, which moves both crude oil and refined products from Alberta, through the Rocky Mountains to the province of British Columbia and the city of Burnaby, where the pipeline ends. The oil products are then transported in tankers, via the Burrard Inlet, across the Pacific Ocean.

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Burnaby. Simon Fraser University campus sits atop of Burnaby Mountain, with the city below

Nestled among the mountains, Burnaby is located directly east of the city of Vancouver and is considered a part of the Metro Vancouver area. With a population just shy of a quarter of a million people, it is the third largest city in British Columbia, covering 38 square miles, or 98.6 spare kilometers.

The problem is that the City of Burnaby, the City of Vancouver, First Nations groups as well as countless residents and concerned citizens oppose Kinder Morgan expanding the pipeline. In a letter to the people of Burnaby, Mayor Derek Corrigan wrote:

The City of Burnaby is officially opposed to this proposal because of the damage it would do to our city –during and after construction – and because of the long-term safety risks it poses to residents and the environment.

The protests began in September when Kinder Morgan cut down 13 trees on Burnaby Mountain, in order to perform a survey. This act broke the city’s by-laws and proper permission had not been sought or granted.  Kinder Morgan’s plan was to bore holes into Burnaby Mountain, right in the middle of a thriving residential neighbourhood, near a conservation area and the bustling campus of Simon Fraser University. Kinder Morgan is trying to sell this plan as “twinning” the existing pipeline which has been in the ground since 1953, but this is not so, as Mayor Corrigan also explains in his letter: 

In fact, in Burnaby 90% of the proposed line would follow a completely new route. It would carry unrefined oil products, not the refined (and less toxic) products carried in the existing line. It would result in a tripling of the capacity of oil stored on Burnaby Mountain and seven times the number of tankers carrying the oil (up to 580,000 barrels in each tanker) through Burrard inlet. The 890,000 barrels-per-day of oil it would carry would be for export, not for use anywhere in Canada. In no way would this pipeline resemble the existing line.

6_TWH Dec 20_14Two of the residents involved in the outcry against Kinder Morgan are Sparrow and Mojo, co-hosts of the popular Canadian pagan podcast The Wigglian Way. They identify as Wiccan, and the podcasts reflect this, but they strive to be as inclusive to all Pagan paths as much as possible and to honor the spiritual journey of all Pagans. Mojo is also an accomplished musician, having performed with the group Chalice and Blade as well as a solo performer. The couple lives within sight of the original pipeline and mere minutes drive away from the holes being bored through their mountain home. They were motivated to get involved and forced to take action in ways that, until very recently, they would never have guessed.

In a telephone interview earlier this week, Sparrow opened up about her experiences at the protest site. She started off by saying:

This is my home, I love it. When people come to this mountain you can feel a spirit, especially in that park where the drilling was done. We have held so many rituals at that space. You can see the sun set from that space, there are totem poles there, we have had so many gatherings, it is one of our sacred spots, it holds so much spirit. So I went up there, (to the protest site) and started doing it.

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Sparrow & Mojo’s street . Yellow and white posts mark existing underground pipelines

The Wigglian Way motto is “Its all about the love”, and that is certainly evident from the obvious love and affection that both Sparrow and Mojo convey in their work for their community, their environment and each other.

On November 14, Kinder Morgan was granted a court injunction against the protesters. It had been determined that their camp fell within the designated area that Kinder Morgan was working in and the protestors had to move or face arrest. This was also the site of a sacred fire that had been lit by an aboriginal woman named Sut-Lut, an elder from the Squamish Nation. The intent of this fire was to provide a sacred space for people to gather and speak as equals.  Her efforts were respected by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) onsite and they even helped tend the fire and ensure that Sut-Lut was free to come and go, despite it being on land assumed to be off limits to protesters.

On November 20 Sparrow headed up to the protest camp, which remained, despite the injunction, set up by the roadside. This was the day that Sparrow’s life changed.  She recounts what happened next:

When everything happened I said I was going to protect this land and I was going to protect the mountain and I was prepared to do whatever I had to do. Well, we had certain plans, but those didn’t pan out because while we were standing in the camp, the RCMP opened the gate and barreled in and started surrounding us. So we linked our arms, and it just happened, all of a sudden, and there was about nine of us. Brigette De Pape was one of the women with us, and my sister, and a lady named Maxine and some other people. We started singing and chanting and all of a sudden – what am I doing? I ‘m surrounded by RCMP! And they were saying, “You can leave, we’re going to give you a few options here. We have read the injunction to you, and you are in this space you are not supposed to be in, you can leave”

My sister decided that she would leave, for her reasons, so she went and documented everything – you need documenters too! So it got down to six of us. They started removing people quite forcefully and it turned out that I was the last one, or, as Mojo called me – the last Warrior. I was sitting there and there were people taking pictures and flashing me the peace sign and saying they loved me. One of the fire-keepers started drumming for me, and this incredible thing happened. I started looking around at the forest, which is my home, and I was looking at the sun dappling through the leaves, and I was looking at the moss and the ferns and all the beauty around me and smelling the rotting, gorgeous, loamy smell and I listened and I could not hear any birds. That’s one thing on this mountain, you will always hear birds, there are so many, but I couldn’t hear any birds. I was thinking.

If Kinder Morgan comes in here, this mountain won’t hear birds any more, they won’t see the bears anymore, the coyotes won’t sing at night. All these wonderful things that ARE the mountain could be devastated. There was kind of a meeting of the mountain spirit and my spirit and I knew at that moment I would do whatever I needed. That’s the moment when I realized my life was different. This is what I was going to do and I had to protect this Earth. We only have one Earth. We are ruining it for ourselves. At that moment I became a different Sparrow. The words that came were Earth Warrior.

The Last Warrior. As the RCMP moves in to arrest Sparrow, a woman named Clarissa drums and sings in support [Photo Credit: Tara Anderson]

And then the RCMP moved in, and arrested Sparrow. She became one of the first six people to be taken into custody by RCMP officers. Over four days almost one hundred more people were arrested, including an 84-year-old librarian, a mother with her 11 year old daughter, a young man named Tamo Campos, the grandson of famous scientist and environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki, and many other people from all walks of life.

Mojo stands against the tape which marks the injection zone. The RCMP sent their biggest officer to keep him company

Mojo stands by tape marking injection zone. The RCMP sent their biggest officer to keep him company

As Sparrow suffers from Lupus and was concerned for her health, she stood up and walked with her arms outstretched in a gesture of peace into her arrest. The RCMP officers escorted her to their car, searched her and tied her hands behind her back with zip ties. Sparrow was then loaded in to the back of the police van, or as she now calls it “The really great drumming acoustics van” where she and her five companions treated their captors to singing and drumming with there feet.

She found herself in the company of Brigette DePape, an activist who became a national underdog hero when she used her position as a page in the Canadian parliament to protest our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, by holding up a stop-sign style sign which had been customized to read “Stop Harper”.

According to Sparrow “It was such a beautiful and loving experience in the police van.” Maxine, a Quaker and the oldest woman of the group, did not have her hands bound and was able to unzip Sparrow’s jacket when she got too hot, and adjust DePape’s cap as it slid over her eyes. The captives sang and reassured each other as they were transported to the temporary RCMP detachment, only 35 meters away from Kinder Morgan’s site headquarters in a parking lot, where they were processed, charged with civil contempt and warned that if they were to return to the encampment it would be a much more serious charge.

In the end, all of the civil contempt charges against Sparrow, the five others she was arrested with, and the almost one hundred others arrested after them, were dropped.  It turns out that the arrests were made illegally. Kinder Morgan had based the injunction on their GPS coordinates, which turned out to be inaccurate – they could not prove the protesters were actually trespassing.

Brigette DePape became a household name when she used her position as a page in the Canadian parliament to voice a popular opinion of Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Brigette DePape voices a popular opinion of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Canadian parliament

One has to wonder: if Kinder Morgan can’t give accurate GPS coordinates for a court injunction, should they be drilling a tunnel, through a mountain, in an earthquake zone to transport toxic petroleum products through a residential neighborhood and wildlife conservation area? Is there any wonder that the civic governments in the area as well as the First nations, residents and environmental groups are protesting?

As a Pagan, Sparrow believes that she needs to be a good steward of the planet and take care of it, and act on behalf of all of her ancestors, both in the past and in the future. Her decision on Burnaby Mountain to participate in the protest and do whatever needed to be done was her commitment in action, her gift to the place she calls home.

Mojo drumming his support to those being arrested

Mojo drumming his support to those being arrested

When asked if Canadian Pagans are political enough about the environment, Sparrow’s response is an enthusiastic “No!” and she goes on to say:

Everybody has to work to their own ability and they have to be able to come to their own place. My place was that I could get arrested, but some peoples place is make sure you are recycling and not consuming as much, that’s a really great place to be. Whatever any individual can do – that’s what you can do.  Until Idle No More about a year ago, I had never protested or rallied or anything. It’s Idle No More that got me going and then this protest just got me – I call it Instant Activist! It propelled me into a totally different world. I have a whole new group of friends with a whole new group of ideas and energy and events. It’s quite amazing.

In conclusion, it is so important for Sparrow that everyone understands that Kinder Morgan are still going to try to tunnel through Burnaby Mountain and that they need to be stopped.  Why are we building this infrastructure for such a dwindling resource? Why are we not focusing on alternate, renewable energy sources?

Kinder Morgan applied for an extension to extend the injunction to keep the protesters away from the two drilling sites but was rejected by the provincial Supreme Court.They were forced to clear out by the December 1st expiry date. The data they were able to collect will be presented to the National Energy Board in hopes of approval to proceed with expansion plans.

If the outcry against the test drilling was this extreme, what will happen if the project is approved? Only one thing is for certain: Earth Warriors will be there to protest.

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This year has brought about many challenges within our communities and across the world. The closing of 2014 highlights what has seemed to be a complex year of politics, celebrations, complicated dynamics and transitions. As the Solstice is near, and 2015 approaches, people are looking for ways to recuperate, rejuvenate and internalize the rebirth of the sun as we move forward.

The longest night of the year, on the 21st of this month, represents the rebirth of the sun in many different traditions. This natural transition has many different spiritual significances, including the sun as a symbol of hope and growth. And the Gregorian calendar restarts one week later on New Year’s Eve, giving people this same sense of transition and hope.

Courtesy of pixabay.com

Courtesy of pixabay.com

In these times of civil unrest, many people are looking for a chance to recuperate from the on-going challenges and to prepare for new opportunities. One of the most important concepts in doing that is self care. This is the mental, spiritual, emotional and physical support that comes from specific actions, events, and activities that are personally fulfilling and intentional.

Self care, as an act, is something that is often instrumental in healing work, and balancing personal energies to prevent or decrease burnout or emotional fatigue. People  of many spiritual paths discuss having a daily spiritual practice or routine, as a form of self care. Some Pagan traditions stress this point for practitioners and, especially, students, but others do not.

Regardless, activism, teaching, Priest or Priestessing, and other forms of manifested spiritual activities can take an additional emotional toll.  When you add these additional tasks to the intensity of jobs, children, the holidays, and the everyday routines that challenge our minds, bodies and spirits, we see how self care becomes a needed act of health.

It is often understood that Pagan leaders have fallen into the traps of burnout, and many have decided to leave the community or have become ineffective leaders as a result. Recognizing the importance of having intentional activities and moments of release to support homeostasis is vital to the sustainability of personal health and community health.

Self care is not just about meditation and mindfulness, although these things are often included, but it can also include everything from good sleep and eating patterns, exercise, routine social engagements, to self imposed moments of time out.

While anyone is susceptible to levels of burnout, or emotional fatigue, service professionals are trained in this concept to help their clients and to increase their own job effectiveness. Several professionals within the psychology, social work and behavioral science fields shared their thoughts and insights on the importance of self care and the intersection of spirituality. Lupa Greenwolf has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and is a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Jacki Richardson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Missouri, and Elizabeth Rose is Master’s level Social Worker (MSW) in Southern California.

[Photo Credit: B. Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net / CC lic.]

[Photo Credit: B. Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net / CC lic.]

Lupa Greenwolf

What would you say are the reasons someone should identify effective self care techniques?

Preventative care is gaining wider acceptance in the medical community in general. For mental health care, self care is one of the best forms of preventative care there is. Many of us suffer from stress on a daily basis, even if we don’t have any other mental health concerns, and over time that stress can really wear us down. It has measurable effects on our mind and emotions as well as on our bodies. So one of the best things you can do for yourself is regular self care.

By self care I don’t just mean taking a week-long vacation somewhere; while vacations are great, most of us can only take one or two a year at the most. Instead, I’m talking about regular, even daily practices to reduce stress and otherwise increase mental well-being. For some people that’s meditation; for others it’s quality time with family or friends. Do you exercise a few times a week? That’s self care, too–physical exercise has been shown to boost psychological health. And if you exercise outside, as opposed to in a gym, you get the positive benefits of nature, even if it’s in a city park.

Self care isn’t just good for shaking off everyday stress, though. We all have times in our lives where things get really tough–the death of a loved one, a lost job, medical issues, all of these can make your life a lot harder to get through. And for people who have other mental conditions like anxiety and disorder, life can sometimes be a bit of a roller coaster when symptoms increase. So for the times when you’re knocked out of your usual comfort level, self care can help to keep you from feeling even worse until you can get your equilibrium back.

Finally, there are people who put themselves deliberately in situations that can increase the stress in their lives. When you go to a protest, both the activists and the police on duty are in high-stress positions, and over time continuing to be in the role of activist or officer can lead to burnout and other products of this immense amount of stress. In fact, anyone working a job or other activity where you’re subjected to spikes in your stress level on a regular basis–firefighters, teachers, people working on fishing boats, and more–can find their psychological reserves worn down faster than the rest of us, especially if they’re also experiencing potentially traumatic situations as part of the normal course of their work. For these people self care may need to include more intensive tools such as therapy, or good books on trauma work like Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship, not just when they’re traumatized, but before it happens (there’s that preventative care again.)

As a professional, what do you find are some useful ways to identify and cope with end of the year burnout?


Lupa Greenwolf

The burnout associated with this time of year has several signs you may notice. You may feel physically or mentally tired, and the idea of getting up to go to work or school yet again just makes you want to roll back over and go to sleep (more than usual!) Once you get where you’re going, you may find yourself unable to focus on the tasks at hand, whether that’s responsibilities at the office or caring for young children as a stay at home parent. Some people become more irritable when they’re burned out and may snap at small provocations. Others find themselves crying for no real reason, or just feeling “off” in general. And it’s not uncommon to zone out, daydreaming about being anywhere except where you are now, even though you have a deadline to meet and entirely too much work to get it done. (Note: if these symptoms last for more than a few weeks or if they keep coming back you may wish to talk to a mental health professional about the possibility that there may be more than burnout going on.)

Just taking a little time each day–or even a moment every hour–to take a break from the usual stuff we do can have a big positive impact on our mental health. Think of it like having to work outside all day in really cold weather, but every hour you come back inside to warm up for a few minutes before you head back out. You can also make better use of your time off. Do the things that need to get done–make sure everyone gets fed and that everyone has clean socks (or ask someone else in your household if they can help or do it themselves.) But don’t feel you have to go above and beyond. And let yourself have at least one genuine day off a week if you can. Don’t just zone out in front of the TV; that’s doing the same old, same old. Instead, take the opportunity to get a change of scenery; go to a museum, or a park, or even just a walk in your own neighborhood if you can.

How can spirituality play a role in this process?

Spirituality is the art of feeling you are a part of something greater than yourself. Whenever I get stressed, I remember that I am just one tiny bit of a highly complex, interconnected universe made of intricate bits and parts ranging from atoms to galaxies. This reminds me that there’s a lot more going on than just my own concerns, and it inspires me a sense of wonder and awe that I am privileged enough to be a part of this amazing reality. It doesn’t take away the problems I face, but it puts them in perspective.

Actively participating in your spirituality, even in small ways, can help you feel more grounded. It gives you some sense of routine and predictability. Burnout is often accompanied by feeling out of control of one’s life, and when you’re able to regain some control in one part–like spirituality–it can help reduce the stress associated with other areas that are still largely out of your grasp.

The winter solstice is a particularly nice time in the Northern Hemisphere for shifting your energies (figuratively or literally) as it marks the time when the sun starts to head back north, signifying a return from darkness. (In the Southern Hemisphere, you may wish to see it as the beginning of a respite from the heat of summer, reflected in one’s own burnout.)

[Courtesy of Pixabay]

[Courtesy of Pixabay]

Elizabeth Rose

What would you say are the reasons someone should identify effective self care techniques?

What follows is a mixture of my clinical training, mostly as it supports my spiritual practices. I was a priestess before I was a therapist and social worker, and, lifelong, I’ve been a healer on my own journey. The best reason for self-care would be self-love or, to be more accurate, self-preservation. Of course, helper-types are notorious for thinking that the advice “be kind to yourself” applies to everyone BUT them. So, if I’m dealing with one of those (and I am one of those), I talk about “putting on your own oxygen mask first”. Most people generally understand that, to be prepared for the worst, you have to be able to breathe, to function mentally and physically.

Generally I strive for some degree of ongoing self-awareness of the condition of my body, mind and spirit, to catch problems before they debilitate me. In other words, I self-monitor. It can also mean making sure my timecard at my job is filled out and submitted 1st thing Friday morning, BEFORE I start taking calls, setting appointments or seeing clients. Worrying about how to make ends meet is not helpful for staying stress-free. A poor relationship with money (and the self-value connected to money) is also an area where many “helpers” struggle. For someone who likes to help,  it requires a conscious effort not to overextend one’s boundaries and to put personal priorities first. Doing so really helps decrease stress, however.

As a professional, what do you find are some useful ways to identify and cope with end of the year burnout?

I know, going into the holiday season, that I’m more likely to be tired, or stressed and make a point of observing myself for this – being more reactive, moody or achy. Having a mindfulness practice really helps. Checking myself, using a chakra model, helps me. Making sure my basic needs are taken care of, starting with the foundation: 1st chakra – “How well am I grounding whatever is coming to or through me?” “Do I have the basics: enough money, food, safe/quiet space just to be?”; 2nd chakra – “How am I nourishing myself or getting nourishment from others?” “Do I have any moments of joy or play in my day?”; 3rd chakra – “Am I able to positively influence my environment? If not, why not?”

On the therapeutic side, a formula from the recovery community, HALT (“Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?”) is really helpful and covers all these areas as well. If any of these are “empty” or in poor condition, go remedy the problem before proceeding further.  Getting regular massage, spa-time (even if it’s just my bathtub and some Epsom salts), more sleep, yoga and healthy food can help address those “lower chakra” issues. So can telling people who are crossing your boundaries to “step off”, as this can be a serious energy drain. During holidays, family often presents these sorts of challenges and navigating family boundaries can take a lot of awareness and energy management.

Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose

Doing a basic grounding and protecting process if I sense I’m getting shifted off my center is almost a reflex now. I was trained by Petey Stevens of Heartsong in a very useful model, although my Traditional Craft training used some similar methods. I’d also recommend practicing energy movements, in the manner described by Julie Henderson. Her book The Lover Within is a simple, basic text in energy work, a sort of Western Tantra. Learning how to condense overly-diffuse energy is really helpful for most empathic types. For protection, I simply connect to Earth and Sky, letting go into the  ground what I don’t need.

I also use music, sound and dance to shift my energy and recommend this for people who are strongly auditory or kinesthetic (as I am). I find the vibrations of certain sounds, like mantras, overtone chanting or singing songs that have positive resonance can work very well (and you can do them in the car or on a walk). Surrounding yourself with colors that shift your mood is beneficial too. You may find it humorous, but since, as a social worker, my job involves a lot of computer time, I do my nails with colors and designs that make me happy, since I look at my own hands …a lot. My inner priestess loves ornament! It raises my sense of joy. .

How can spirituality play a role in this process?

Spirituality infuses everything I do, but making time away from the rest of my work and family life is very important to what I like to call my “sanity-maintenance program”. Like any good Ban Drui, getting nature time is one of my most important spiritual tools. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to head up to Mt. Tamalpais and just take naps. Seriously. Allowing that Mother Mountain to just seep into me, through the fine osmosis of lying on Her sacred earth,  worked amazingly well.  Now that I live in Los Angeles, I walk in our accessible, local mountains, sometimes seeking a prayer spot, where I make offerings and ask for guidance. I allow the Divine to speak to me, whether God/dess or nature spirit. This brings a sense of the timelessness and grace, which puts my daily work or problems in perspective. Similarly, when I’m working, and feeling stressed or challenged, I reach into that spiritual place I’ve strengthened in nature and ask for help.

I also find some form of metta practice helps me do my work from a healthier place: wishing well for others and for myself, as a spiritual practice. The history/folklore-loving Trad Witch side is pretty practical and “ecumenical” in my practice, so I’ll use many kinds of practices and prayers that work for me.  Any way you can find a breath, a prayer, a tree, bird or breeze that calls you- even if only for a moment – away to the Fair Lands of magic, of creation and of dream, take that instant and recall your soul. Seek someone who supports your spirit and reach out to that person, if only for a brief phone call. A chat at the water cooler with a soul-friend can be a lifesaver when you are stressed. This is why our spiritual families are so important. We require reminders to feed our own souls, so we can keep doing what we must:  to survive and to remake the human world in the ideals of joy, healing and peace that are the true spirit of this deep season. This is the Light, the Sun, that must be reborn, first, in us, at this time of year.

[Photo Credit: Ashley Coombs / CC lic. - edited to fit space]

[Photo Credit: Ashley Coombs / CC lic. – edited from original]

Jacki Richardson

What would you say are the reasons someone should identify effective self care techniques?

As clinicians, our job is to keep our lenses as clear as possible so that we are not projecting our “stuff” onto clients. The more we take care of ourselves, the better we are able to really see what is going on with others (rather than what we want or don’t want to see in ourselves).

As a professional, what do you find are some useful ways to identify and cope with end of the year burnout?

There are two ends of the spectrum – being exceptionally irritable or impatient or negative (it may be different for others, however that negative, flattened emotion shows up for people individually) and the opposite – being unable to enjoy the things that I usually enjoy.  A subtle but important “red flag” for me is when I get “overly upset” when someone I’m working with doesn’t do what I see as in their best interests – self determination is key and my role is to facilitate growth and understanding. If I get overly emotionally attached to a specific outcome then it is a sign that I am missing a “hook” (or trigger) that has more to do with me than with the client.

As difficult as it may be to sustain over a lifetime, making a goal of journaling or self-reflection (meditation, prayer or otherwise) on a daily basis, and keeping a record/track of that is helpful to identify “burnout” earlier so that it can be addressed earlier (particularly before doing something regrettable).

My first mentor in social work talked to me about finding volunteer work completely outside the circle of my “professional track” – at times this has been working with animal rescue, a soup kitchen or toy drive. This year I am working on helping others to be able to give to even others. Whatever brings simple joy, even if only felt “remotely” at first.

How can spirituality play a role in this process?

Spirituality encompasses a lot. I find being able to share and release the burden to generate change in difficult situations (through meditation, visualization, prayer) to be very helpful. I had one client who made heart breaking choices around the holidays – she got on a bus and fled to another  state, leaving her children behind. After speaking with everyone involved she was given the opportunity to come back (she had left her children with her sister).  She ended up deciding to not come back. I remember after the call I visualized packing up a backpack with the blessings and what I hoped and wished and handing it to her.  I visualized her walking away from me on her own path. Being able to bless her and wish her well allowed me to release her emotionally but also hope and believe she could find her own way around a curve I was not able to see.

As we move deeper into the shadow months, inching closer toward the stressful holidays and the finality of 2014, how can concepts of self care result in healthier transitions? How can we use the momentum of the coming new year to identify healthy skills that will support healthier communities? What are the ways that self care activities can make us more capable of enduring the stresses of activism, teaching, and manifesting a healthy society and Pagan community?

As we move into another year, we reflect on the many ways that our version of Pagan spirituality, activities, choices, and responsibilities intersect with personal health, spiritual community, cultural obligations and societal expectations. Those in the field of social sciences are trained to understand that we are no good to our clients if we are not healthy within ourselves. This concept is something often neglected by people within the modern Pagan community, and within many other spiritual cultures.The importance of self care equates to personal and community accountability.

As 2014 comes to a close, the sun is reborn and 2015 greets us on the first of January remember to increase your sleep, eat healthy foods, spend quality time with the people you love, read a good book, practice mindfulness, go for a walk in the elements, watch a good movie, increase your daily spiritual connections, and find ways to give yourself some much needed time to rebalancing.

May we all transition into the New Year with a renewed sense of self, a clearer purpose, and an ability to embrace hope.

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The New Alexandrian Library, a research and reference facility focused on magic and the occult, is another step closer to opening its doors. In early December, the library received its certificate of occupancy and is now ready to move its collection of rare papers, artifacts, and artwork onsite. The library is located near Georgetown, Delaware and is named after the Great Library of Alexandria famed throughout the ancient world as a seat of knowledge and a gathering place for intellectuals. The New Alexandrian Library (NAL) hopes to follow in those footsteps.

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

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

It’s taken the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the group spearheading the creation of the library, 14 years to raise the funds and build the first building in the library complex. The lengthy dedication needed to sustain an effort for this long was praised by Peter Dybing in his post on 10 Pagans Who Made a Difference in 2014.

In activism, it is always tempting to move from one popular cause to another as time passes. Few individuals have the dogged determination to take on a project that many see as “undoable”. Ivo [Dominguez Jr., Elder in the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel] has done just that, with his unwavering efforts in manifesting the New Alexandrian Library. This is no small task, building real infrastructure that will last for generations. In this library a legacy has been manifested for Pagans around the world. It is an outstanding accomplishment that will benefit the entire community. Let me also say that there were many people involved in these efforts, but being a list of “Ten Pagans” Ivo gets the nod for this effort. I suspect he will share the recognition around widely. The Pagan community will be filled with gratitude of their own for decades to come.

Michael G. Smith [courtesy photo]

The Wild Hunt talked with Michael G. Smith, an Elder of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel and Treasurer of the ASW’s Board of Trustees about the library, its upcoming opening, what precious and rare items patrons will be able to see, and what future expansion plans look like.

The Wild Hunt: The physical space is ready for shelves and books, how long has it taken, from conception, to get to this point?

Michael G. Smith: While the concept of the library began before then, we made the first announcement to the larger community at our 2000 Between The Worlds Conference. At the time we had a ten-year plan. Unfortunately, with the economic crash in 2008 many organizations experienced a sharp drop-off in donations and the NAL felt the pinch. This created a delay in our start of construction by several years. We held our groundbreaking ceremony in December 2011, poured the foundation in July 2012 and received our Certificate of Occupancy in December 2014. So, from the first announcement to completion of construction took 14 years.

TWH: The building was built in a modular fashion, so this building is just the first of several planned – what will be housed in this building and what will be housed in future sections?

MGS: The initial building will house the Library’s collection, its museum, space for meetings, workshops, and rituals along with space for the restoration and preservation and administrative functions. The plan, as time goes on, is to expand the Library collection into its own building(s) and the museum into its own building. There are ideas for housing for visiting scholars and practitioners, separate spaces for ritual and other magical experimentation, and additional meeting space. With this anchoring building as a foundation, the Library will expand to meet the needs of the community and the collection. It will be interesting to see what the future both brings and requires.


Interior space [courtesy photo]

TWH: What do you consider some of your most precious pieces the library will house?

MGS: That is a very difficult question to answer. We have been given so many rare and one-of-a-kind pieces that it is hard to say what is most precious. How do you compare the elemental paintings created by Dion Fortune for her first Temple to 3000 year old Egyptian votive statuary? How does one compare the Rosicrucian Edition of Manly P. Hall’s “Secret Teachings” to a Monica Sjoo original painting of the Goddess Brigid? How does one compare decades worth of private newsletters and documents of long-gone pagan organizations to each other? All of the items that the Library will house are precious in their own way.

TWH: You are planning on cataloging the library books, pamphlets, etc. Do you have staff that are librarians? And are they paid staff?

MGS: Fortunately there are several members of the ASW who are professional librarians. Their services and guidance will be invaluable in the coming years. At the moment all people working to get the NAL set up are volunteers, though there is a plan to have at paid Chief Librarian sometime in the future to more directly manage the Library’s collection.

TWH: I’ve read on your website that you plan to accept, and restore, rare documents. Document restoration is a very specialized field. And preserving documents creates special challenges. What resources do you have to do this?

MGS: The NAL is within easy access to the University Of Delaware which offers a superior art and document restoration degree. We have been in contact with UD in hopes of creating a working partnership between the NAL and that program. In addition, the NAL currently as several friends who do the kind of restoration work we that is an important part of our function. We must start off slowly, of course, and it will take time to get such a program up and running now that there is a facility which can house the needed resources.

Top floor of the New Alexandrian Library [courtesy photo]

Top floor of the New Alexandrian Library [courtesy photo]

TWH: How much has been raised, and spent, in total for the NAL so far?

MGS: As for raised and spent so far, I am doing a final construction audit at the moment for the Board of Trustees. That said, it has taken approximate $250,000 to build the NAL building to fulfill the environmental and structural requirements needed to house such a collection. This has been done solely with the donations over the past 14 years and the ASW has no loan against the facility. The building itself sits on land donated to the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel which is currently valued at around $300,000. Both the building and the land are free and clear of any lein or debt.

TWH: Although several people have planned to leave the proceeds from their estate to the library, the NAL may not see those funds for several decades. How will the library keep its doors open in the meantime?

MGS: There is still a need for ongoing fundraising and we will continue to do that work. The ASW hosts a variety of smaller events each year and the 2015 Between The Worlds Gala is a fundraising event for the NAL, for example. There are also people who make regular monthly and annual contributions to the Library. The nice thing about all of these donations is that now construction is completed such funds will be shifted over to the functions and maintenance of the Library proper. There are also plans for more permanent income streams, such as the launch of a small press and building relationships with other organization to provide services. In the near term, with volunteer help and very low maintenance costs, we have the income to fulfill our responsibilities and plan for the future.

TWH: How soon until the library has its Grand Opening?

MGS: A good question! We are looking at sometime in the Spring 2015 though an exact date has not been set. If anyone would like to see the Library before then they should contact us and we will see if we can arrange something.

TWH: Is there anything you wish to add?

MGS: In our Tradition the hard work that a person does in preparation for initiation brings that person to a new beginning. The Initiation is the start of the work, not the end. All of the hard work that so many people have done in support of the New Alexandrian Library, to bring this dream to life, has brought us to Initiation of the real work of the Library. This is a beginning, not an end, and there is so much work for the NAL to do for the broader magical communities from which it sprang. We are certain that the NAL will provide much needed resources and that in doing so will encourage more and more people to be a part of its work, both for themselves and for their communities. Let us be about it.

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The library has launched a new fundraising campaign for its 2015 Gala to be held at Sacred Space on Mar. 7 at the Hunt Valley Inn in Maryland.

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

At this time of the year, perhaps more than any other, it becomes very apparent that we live in a multi faith world. Whether the shows of diversity are in public displays leading to debates on religious freedom or the variety of holiday wishes and celebratory rituals, December brings a very visible demonstration of the breadth of religious belief in the U.S. and, even, worldwide. With that spirit, we have collected a number of religious news stories that have been making headlines over the past few weeks.

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[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

At a Dec. 11 meeting at the United Way of Greater Cleveland, the Ohio Department of Education hosted an information session on the state’s new Community Connectors program. Established by a legislative vote in the spring and then signed into law by Gov. John Kasich (R), the program aims to bring together community organizations and businesses with school systems in order to assist at-risk children and strengthen districts with high poverty and dropout rates. The underlying belief is that direct community involvement and mentorship will help children succeed in school and in life.

However, directly after the United Way meeting, the program drew criticism because of its alleged new focus on faith-based organizations. According to The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Buddy Harris, a senior policy analyst for the Ohio Department of Education, told the gathering of church and non-profit representatives that each application must include a school district (or charter school) plus a business and a place of worship or faith-based organization in its partnership.

The original legislative bill, HB 483, did not include this requirement. According to the state’s website, the law reads, “Eligible school districts shall partner with members of the business community, civic organizations, or the faith-based community to provide sustainable career advising and mentoring services.”  To date, the program’s promotional material also doesn’t suggest any religious requirement. However, according to news reports and Americans United (AU) the Governor only recently changed this detail.

If the news reports are correct and this new policy is in place, then, as noted by AU, “this is a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”  The organization goes on to suggest, ” … if he really wants to improve the lives of Ohio’s students, he can start by respecting their right to an educational environment free of religious coercion. ”

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As reported by The New York Times, the U.S. Senate approved, in a 62-35 vote, the appointment of Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador-at-Large, or head of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. When Saperstein was nominated in July, Secretery of State John Kerry said, “Religious Freedom is human freedom. … When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard.”

Why is this particular appointment significant? Rabbi Saperstein is the first non-Christian to hold that particular office. His initial nomination happened during the buildup of tension and violence in Gaza. This suggests that the choice may have been a calculated political message or move. However, the Senate’s approval, which came Dec. 12, may also demonstrate something more significant about the U.S. cultural landscape. Judaism may be a monotheistic faith; but it is still a minority religion. How will having a member of a minority religion in a prominent position change U.S. religious freedom policy both nationally and internationally? Time will tell.

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Mt. Soledad [Photo Credit: Kathleen Gorby [Public domain], via Wikimedia]

Mt. Soledad [Photo Credit: Kathleen Gorby [Public domain], via Wikimedia]

In another religious freedom battle, U.S. Senate approved a “defense policy bill” that may allow a large cross to remain at the top of the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, California. According to the L.A. Times, the legal battle over this cross has been on-going since 2006. Proponents claim that the bill will end the conversation because the Senate approved the sale of the property to private investors. Once sold, the cross can no longer be considered a “church-state violation.” However, opponents don’t agree and promise to continue the fight.

For Pagans and Heathens, religious freedom in the Military has always been a major concern. This month, AU released a response document called “Clear and Present Falsehoods: The Real State of Religious Freedom in the Military.” This publication mentions a number of religious freedom cases, including one in which a cross was “placed inside the Wiccan circle used by Wiccan cadets.”

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As this is a holiday season roundup, it would not be complete without a few stories on religious displays in the public square. Each year this particular conversation is reborn, ironically, with the erection of nativity scenes, menorahs, Fesivas poles, gigantic illuminated letter As and the like.

As is typical, Atheist organizations have been sponsoring billboards around the country to counter overt religiosity. For example, in Arkansas, American Atheists sponsored a billboard that reads “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON.”

As we reported last week, The Satanic Temple takes part in this holiday tradition. Along with its Florida display, the organization is preparing one for the Michigan capitol. To be erected on Dec. 21, this particular holiday presentation is called a “Snaketivity Scene” and will contain a snake, a book and sign that reads “The greatest gift is knowledge.”

While most of this activity centers around conflict and debate, the Wisconsin legislature has chosen to take another more positive approach to holiday displays. Since 1998, it hosts a yearly “Interfaith Awareness Week,” during which representatives of organizations can sponsor an informational holiday display in its capitol’s rotunda. Circle Sanctuary has been part of this tradition for 16 years. This year was no exception.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

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Do dogs go to heaven? After a Dec. 11  New York Times article, many Catholics believed that the long theological debate was finally settled. Dogs do go to heaven. However, The Times and other media outlets have since corrected their original articles saying that the Pope never made any statements about seeing our pets in eternity. In its correction, The Times admitted that it had not verified the quotes with the Vatican before publication.

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Replica of Hogwarts at Universal Studios Orlando [Photo Credit:  Rstoplabe14 en.wikipedia]

Replica of Hogwarts at Universal Studios Orlando [Photo Credit: Rstoplabe14 en.wikipedia]

While that particular theological question may still be unanswered, another, far less theological one has been definitely cleared up. There are no Wiccans at Hogwarts. When a Harry Potter fan asked via Twitter if there were Jewish characters in the popular series, author J.K. Rowling tweeted back, “Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.”

Apparently, this set off a discussion on the religious views represented by students at the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In response to that debate, Rowling tweeted:

To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts: the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans.*

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Finally, last night was the first night of Hanukah. Many Pagans, Polytheists and Heathens with Jewish heritage enjoy celebrating the Festival of Lights or simply spending time with their Jewish families. May those readers enjoy the warmth and light of the holiday.


* UPDATE 1:50pm EST: Rowling defended her tweets about Wicca. The Independent quoted her as saying, “It’s a different concept of magic to the one laid out in the books, so I don’t really see how they can co-exist.”

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The English language is in the midst of a gender revolution – one that began the first time someone questioned why the default state of every noun and pronoun was masculine. Since that point, “humankind” has gradually replaced “mankind,” and the male-centric generic “his” has given way to “hers or his” or (the still grammatically incorrect) “theirs.” Gradually, the language has moved toward treating both genders equitably.

Wordle: Pronouns

However, the preceding statement presumes that there are only two genders, and highlights a very real gender gap remaining in the language: the presumption that gender has only two variants, and thus requires two, or perhaps three, pronouns to reflect reality. Like the generic “he,” the use of these gendered pronouns is so commonplace that it’s all but invisible, except to the people who don’t fit either one and their allies. These people have chosen a more suitable set of pronouns, either based on existing words or new ones that have been invented for the purpose.

Perhaps it makes more sense to call it an evolution than a revolution, since it has been in-progress for decades and isn’t likely to be settled in the near future. To get a sense of what the language might look like once the question of pronoun use is settled, The Wild Hunt asked a number of Pagans and polytheists about their own use of, and attitudes about, pronouns in English. Because the Polytheist and Pagan communities are generally more supportive of transgender people, than what is seen in the overculture, it is possible to speak to a selection of people who have, at least, a passing familiarity with the issues involved.

Generally, it’s considered polite to ask a trans* person what pronoun e prefers. E, em, and eir comprise one set, the old Spivak pronouns, which have the advantage of sounding similar to common English pronouns, unlike zie and hir, which are also deemed too feminine-sounding by some. On the other end of the spectrum is the use of the word “one” to denote a person without referencing gender. While this has been argued as perfectly practical, no one interviewed for this article uses that form. There are those who use “they,” despite the fact that it sounds incorrect to many a grammarian’s ear, and others think “it” is the most appropriate descriptor.

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

While seemingly inconsequential to the cisgendered, binary-gender pronouns have a very real impact on those who don’t identify as one, or the other. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a metagender person, said that the simple act of filling out an online form can be incredibly frustrating. E explained:

[A]ny online form that forces me to choose either male/man or female/woman for a gender, and does not allow me to proceed without making that choice, isn’t something I can fill out … I do not mark them on forms at doctor’s offices and such any longer, either.  Any online forum, survey, or anything else which requires it isn’t something I can participate in. This is what kept me from joining the Polytheism Without Borders project last year when it started; when I raised this point with the creator of the group, I was told, ‘Can’t you just pick one for convenience?’ Nope.

To take this trend to its natural conclusion, the expectation would be that all people have the right to choose the pronouns that are most suitable, and the assumption that the preference is “he” or “she” unless otherwise stated would have to fall away. Is that a realistic or practical outcome?

Melissa ra Karit, a genderqueer priest/ess in CAYA Coven’s Wildflower tradition, said:

Personally, I would love to see preferred pronouns becoming an automatic part of introductions. ‘Hi, I’m Mary, I use she/her pronouns,’ and, ‘I’m John, I use e/eir pronouns’ seem simple enough to add. I don’t actually think remembering someone’s pronouns would be much if a stretch once we got beyond the assumption that someone who appears female uses female pronouns and someone who appears male uses male pronouns. (What do we mean by “appears female/male” anyway?) We routinely remember all sorts of information about people, such as jobs, their families, their food allergies, their birthdays, and so on. For those who tend to forget such details, I imagine they would use the same sorts of memory aids, such a cell phones and calendar reminders, that they do for everything else. (Can you imagine if your phone popped up a message that said ‘John, e/eir, is texting you?’ I can!)

While zir may feel that learning preferred pronouns is simple, not everyone agrees. Autumn Pulstar, who identifies as a cisgender woman, admits, “I find it hard to use the nonstandard pronouns, even when referring to someone who prefers them. Being in my 50s, old habits die hard. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but it is something that does not come naturally … and the awkward pause is often more unsettling than saying what comes natural. Fortunately, I have very cool friends.”

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

Speaker and ritualist Shauna Aura Knight, a ciswoman, also admitted that she finds the various pronouns confusing. She added, “One piece of advice I was given by a genderqueer activist was to just use people’s names.” That advice is helpful, but Knight has other limitations that reduce its usefulness: she’s not terribly good remembering names. And while she didn’t say so, avoiding all pronouns in lieu of a person’s name can lead to speech or writing that feels clunky or contrived.

Lupus recalled a relationship that went south over eir desire to use Spivak pronouns to describe emself. It was a surprising case, e said, involving “a trans*woman, who was also not going to go through with any surgical interventions or procedures, who said that I confused her and that the mental gymnastics required to conceptualize my gender as non-binary were not of enough interest to her to do to make any effort toward, and therefore she’d just consider me however she wanted to despite my asking otherwise.”

Diane Verocchi, a cisgender woman, does make sure she uses pronouns of choice, although some of them feel more awkward to her than others. “I don’t know if ‘hir’ would stand out less to me if it were in common use,” she wrote. “I encounter zie/zir online a lot, so they don’t particularly jump out at me. Hir looks like a typo for either him or her and sounds closer to her, so I find it puzzling that some prefer it, but if I know that is their preference, that is what I’ll use.”

Familiarity breeds comfort to ciswoman and writer Jolene Poseidonae, who acknowledges that she doesn’t have much occasion to become familiar with alternative pronouns. She said:

If they were more widely used, I certainly believe that gender-neutral pronouns would be easier for me to see and use and not feel like I’m making up words. If they were something that were more widely used just in my own life, it would be easier — but again, it’s not a huge issue. I won’t say that most of my friends are cisgendered, but those who are not have expressed the desire to be referred to by one of the two gender specific pronouns. That very well may be because those are what’s available, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Jaina Bee, a metagender priest/ess of the CAYA Wildflower tradition, added, “If we really care about each other, we will pay attention to the things that matter to each individual, whether it be a religious observation, a dietary restriction, a differently-abled physical or mental condition, or a set of pronouns. This is not inconvenience, this is common courtesy.”

Wordle: pronouns

An alternative to personalizing pronoun choice is to adopt a more inclusive set, one that either ignores or more fully embraces gender variation. Given that the spectrum of gender includes metagender, intersex, feminine cismales and masculine cisfemales, androgynes, genderqueers, and gender-fluid people, among others, a theoretical group of pronouns that acknowledged all possible genders may be too large to be manageable. Pronouns that do not acknowledge gender at all can also be used if the gender of the person is not known or is irrelevant, but that doesn’t mean there is anything like a consensus to adopt that particular standard. And which ones should become the norm?

“When I look at myself in the mirror and think of what I’d most like to be, I don’t see ‘he’ or ‘she,'” said Lupus, “nor do I see ‘ze/sie,’ I see ‘e.'” Others, however, “prefer the plural-as-singular, which actually has Victorian precedents. Still others I know prefer to be called ‘it,’ since that is a de facto neutral pronoun.”

Hearthstone, a ciswoman writer, remarked, “You’d think it would be possible to adopt a neutral pronoun since English uses natural gender rather than grammatical gender.” She added that she would be fine with being addressed using a neutral pronoun, “if it was a pronoun understood to mean a human being. I would feel dehumanized if someone called me ‘it,’ but that’s because “it” is so strongly contextualized as non-human.” Pulstar also said she would be offended if someone were to call her “it.”

Poseidonae was mindful that, as part of the cisgendered majority, she has choices others do not. She said:

In theory, I’m not sure that I would care if someone referred to me with a gender-neutral pronoun. As much as I’m cisgendered, it is mostly something I’m not overly attached to — which I understand is part and parcel of the privilege of being cisgendered. I wouldn’t hate for us to be more gender neutral when talking about people we don’t know well, but that’s me wanting more of a clear delineation between the public and private realms in our lives than what society currently tolerates.

Verocchi said that her reaction would “depend entirely on situation and context.”  She said:

If they didn’t know which pronouns I prefer, then it I think it would be no different than correcting the pronunciation of my last name (something I do all the time) to respond to that, if I even felt it was worth doing so.  If they knew that I am a cisgender female who prefers feminine pronouns and were using neutral pronouns with the intent of misgendering me, I’d be annoyed or possibly offended.  In either case, I don’t think I’d be as offended” as transgender people have told her they feel when others misgender them, out of disinterest or malice, “probably because I don’t experience it on a regular basis.

A cisgender woman who identified herself as Juni also didn’t want to be misgendered, saying, “I would be fine with it if someone used [a neutral pronoun] to refer to me, though it would probably feel a little odd; I think the only pronoun that would actually make me uncomfortable would be he/his. I would be perfectly comfortable with gender-free pronouns as a general rule.”

Knight agreed that context is important in accepting someone’s use of a gender-free pronoun for herself. She said:

For instance, when I’ve gone to a store or answered the phone and been referred to as ‘sir,’ I’ve been offended. I don’t think I particularly look male, but I’m pretty tall and I have a deeper voice. In retrospect, I’m aware that that has much more to do with my body image issues around weight/attractiveness to men. It was a hit to my self esteem since it told me, in a nutshell, that I was obviously not attractive (as a woman) to these men.

If I were at a Pagan, spiritual, or activist event and I were referred to by gender-free pronouns, I probably wouldn’t necessarily have any negative feelings around it, since it doesn’t really impact my identity in that context. I grew up in a gender binary environment so using the gender-free pronouns might itch a little. That’s the best word I can use to describe it.  It’s not me being offended so much as me not being used to something.  It’s like moving into a new house and I’m not sure where things are and I have to think about everything more.

Knight also said that she wrestles with how to incorporate gendered language into ritual. “There’s a general axiom that multi-syllable words that come from a Latin root tend to have a more clinical sound than the more onomatopoetic words that come from the Germanic,” she explained. “The problem is that Latin has better gender neutral words.” The Germanic words are more primal, and help participants get out of “thinky headspace” but are less inclusive. She cited examples such as “parent” instead of “mother” or “father,” and “siblings” as a more clinical but also more inclusive substitute for “brothers and sisters.”

CAYA Coven Wildflower initiate Verity Blue said:

I would love to see us collectively move to a inclusive/neutral set of pronouns. I think the hard part would be changing habits, but we aren’t really getting any useful info out of she/he her/him. Gender is not the physical sex of a person, it is not the chromosomal sex of a person, it is a complexly layered part of identity that is often beyond describing. Basically our current system is ones and zeros when what we need is more a robust, elegant language. Personally, I enjoy what I call ‘zednouns.’ Zie walked down the street singing zir favorite song quietly to zirself. In my understanding it is the evolution of creating pronouns that start with xy, like the human sex chromosomes. Zie is the collective of all gender expression.

Others are not so sure that separating gender from pronouns is preferable, much less possible. “As for moving the language toward an all-inclusive, neutral-gender pronoun system, there are many considerations that lead me to think this goal is not only improbable, it is also undesirable for many reasons,” said Bee.  “As we’ve seen in recent public discussions of racial issues … [there has been] essentially a denial of the distinctions between people, their diverse concerns and needs, and tends, in practice, to lead to a default that erases those who don’t fit into the conventional definition.”

Ruadhán J McElroy

Ruadhán J McElroy

Trans*man Ruadhán J McElroy also isn’t sold on divorcing gender from pronouns.

Every language [that] I have some familiarity with acknowledges gender, and most societies pre-Christianity, in some way, recognise more than two genders. Ergo, it really upsets me when I see others, especially my fellow trans people, talk about abolishing gender from society. While different cultures recognise a different range of non-cis genders, and hold different standards for all genders recognised, one thing is clear: human beings are a gendered species …

Furthermore, it strikes me as highly dismissive of the issues faced by people based on gender, and the suggestion to ‘abolish gender’ as little more than a cop-out to justify doing nothing; it’s ridiculous and potentially evidence of deep internalised transphobia coming from other trans and non-binary people, and infuriating coming from cis people — the former people are saying that gender for non-cis people only makes life harder, potentially to the point that giving up on a central aspect of a person seems preferable to the headache it causes, but the latter group is basically saying that the former group’s concerns aren’t worth addressing in any way, much less a productive one.

Like the use of preferred pronouns, adopting a set that does not take gender into consideration would require buy-in from the cisgendered majority to gain traction. Hearthstone pointed out, “There needs first to be willingness on the part of cis-folks to use nongendered pronouns and so forth for ourselves, I think, rather than only using them for non-binary folks. Otherwise, it’s still exclusionary.”

Karit agreed, saying that even zir idea of introductions that include pronoun preference that ze imagines needs a generic option. “I see the second part of such a system as moving to a gender-neutral set of pronouns to describe anyone whose pronouns we don’t know. That, I think, would take a big cultural shift. I think anything like that is a ways off in the future.”

Knight looks to altering the entrenched rules of accepted sentence construction. She said:

I think that one part is doing whatever is necessary to change the rules of grammar that say that his/her is appropriate and ‘their’ is not. Going further, if we’re going to use gender neutral pronouns, I really feel that there needs to be a consensus on which ones.  I see ‘hir’ with some frequency, probably because it’s the most [common], but that doesn’t bear up in speech because hir and her are virtually indistinguishable. I kind of like the old Spivak ones because they sound like ‘their,’ but without the consonant. Speaking as a language nerd, the lack of initial consonant makes it a little more difficult for English speakers, or more specifically, it’ll sound like we’re mispronouncing him/her, etc. However, to my eye they look and sound good.

High-school English teacher and ciswoman Robin Ward resists the idea that “their” can or should be used as a singular pronoun, but pointed out the important role teachers play in any change in the language. “People didn’t start accepting ‘his or her’ in place of ‘his’ until teachers started expecting it,” she said. “I’ve thought about introducing my students to alternative pronouns, but to be honest I’m worried about pushback from the parents.”

Changing language changes how the speakers of that language think. Whether those thoughts are guided by an implicit assumption that individuals get to control what pronouns are associated with em, a widespread agreement to adopt one set of pronouns over all others, or a combination of these approaches, it seems apparent that such change will only occur when the cisgendered majority adopts it with intent. So long as these alternatives are only utilized by transgender people and a few allies when referring to those trans* people, it will not be a movement, but the quirk of a small subculture.

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

Pagans in WDC March Dec. 13, 2014 [Photo Credit: Jen Huls]

Pagans in WDC March Dec. 13, 2014 [Photo Credit: Jen Huls]

Protesters continue to fill the streets of cities, large and small, across the county. Many Pagans, as collective units, have been joining these efforts in order to lend their own voices or assist those protesting. As noted last week, the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood used very strong words in their public call-to-action. Over the past three days, the group has taken their own words seriously and has been attending the protests in both Berkeley and Oakland. In addition to marching themselves, members of the Priesthood have also brought medical aid and similar services to those in need.

On the other side of the country, a group of east coast Pagans organized themselves into a unit to join the Dec. 13 march on Washington D.C, which is now estimated to have included over 25,000 people. The photo shows several of these marchers. The small group of around 15 Pagans stood with that crowed, holding up signs and chanting for change.

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PEN-logoThe Pagan Educational Network , based in Indiana, continues its preliminary research for a possible new “clergy” conference. Organizers want to create a focused event that will help “teach clergy to become better at their calling.”

The idea was originally announced last summer, when PEN informally asked for feedback on the concept. Now organizers are asking for proposals from potential presenters. They said, “Examples of workshops would be/but not limited to: Life transitions, Hospital visits, grieving, counseling both individual and couples, interfaith,group administration, community relations, just to name a few.”  All proposals should be sent to: Rev. Dave C. Sassman, Pagan Clergy Conference, PO Box 24072, Indianapolis, IN 46224 or RevDavecs@gmail.com

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Circle Sanctuary logo

Circle Sanctuary logo

On Sat. Dec. 13, Circle Sanctuary participated in the national “Wreaths Across America” program that “lays wreaths at grave sites honoring deceased veterans.” Circle Cemetary is listed on the main website among the many other sites that also participate in this yearly interfaith memorial event.

Circle Coordinators said, “At Veterans Ridge of Circle Cemetery, wreaths [were] placed at grave sites of Pagans from across the nation who served in the U.S. military. These Pagan veterans include those who served in national guards of several states and those who did active duty service in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.” The wreaths themselves were blessed inside the temple space before being carried out and placed on the graves.

In Other News:

  • On Nov. 20, the San Francisco Chronicle published an obituary for Louise Muhler born in 1920. The obituary caught the eye of several Pagans, who shared it on blogs and social media. As it turns out, Muhler’s birth name was Astarte Lulu Panthea. She was the daughter of famed occultist Aleister Crowley. According to the obituary, Muhler, a practicing Christian, lived a full and very active life that took her around the world and back. May her family find peace in its loving memories.
  • Over the past month, The Earth Spirit Community, based in Massachusetts, has been holding its annual fundraiser to support events, interfaith outreach and other community-based work. To kick off the drive, the organization published a Samhain newsletter detailing a year’s projects, including those done locally, nationally and internationally. Since that point, it has been sharing photos and testimonies on its Facebook from new and longtime supporters.
  • On Dec. 5, shortly after author Raven Grimassi’s personal page was challenged Facebook, he and his wife, Stephanie, were in a car accident due to ice and snow. According to reports, his car flipped twice after sliding down an embankment. When he was finally able, Grimassi announced that both he and Stephanie were physically fine, aside from a few aches, but their car was totaled. He has since launched a Go Fund Me campaign to help offset the financial burdens caused by the accident.
  • There are many Yule events being planned for the next week. One of the, perhaps, more unusual celebrations is organized by Chalice of the Willow, a CUUPS chapter. The group is holding an overnight event starting at 6 pm on Dec 20 through 8 am Dec. 21. Organizers said, “The popularity and great response from last year’s event has brought on a new tradition. We will be having food, fun, and friendship! There will be workshops and discussions on various topics through out the night.”  Details, admissions costs and a schedule are posted on its Facebook event page.
  • For fans of Pagan Singer/Songwriter Arthur Hinds, his song “Set Your Spirit Free” is available for free on his CDBaby site. He says that he has released this song as a yuletide gift to his fans.
  • On Nov. 26, Sannion at The House of Vines blog announced the release of his latest book Thunderstruck with Wine: the hymns of Sannion. Now, just 18 days later, Sannion has posted that he has only two copies left. But he says, “I plan to order more copies of Thunderstruck as well as my other Nysa Press titles after the new year, so don’t despair if you miss out on this batch”  Thunderstruck with Wine is a collection of “31 poems honoring the god Dionysos in his multitude of forms.”

That is it for now.  Have a nice day.


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Niklas Gander [Courtesy Photo]

Niklas Gander [Courtesy Photo]

[The following memorial is a guest post written by Niklas Gander’s husband and partner of 23 years, Willow Moon]

Dr. Thomas Johnson, also known as Niklas Gander, died Oct. 5, 2014, in Seattle, Washington. As he took his last breath, Willow Moon wiped the tears from his eyes and immediately performed the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Powa. This was to ensure Niklas’ rebirth in the Buddhist paradise of Dewachen or “The Land of Great Bliss,” a place of solace and comfort. There, he will meet his teachers and peers to gain greater knowledge and peace before moving on to another, better life.

As per his wishes, Niklas’ body was kept at home, undisturbed for three days while his spirit finished a Buddhist meditation on death. Friends visited during the day, and Willow Moon kept him company at night, performing regular Buddhist prayers and meditations. When a slight warmth over his heart area moved to the top of his head on the third day, Willow Moon knew that he had completed his meditation.

Niklas was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, Oct.13, 1959. He was the son of Swedish immigrants Elmer and Britta Johnson. After high school, Niklas attended North Park College in Chicago, where he earned a B.A. degree in music and Swedish. He then went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Washington in 1986, in German Linguistics and Swedish Literature; and a Ph.D. in Swedish Folklore, Old Norse Language, Literature and Culture from the same institution in 2010.

Niklas was fluent in several languages including English, Swedish, Old Icelandic and German. He taught Swedish language classes at UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and privately. He could communicate with just about anyone who spoke a Scandinavian language. He could translate Old Norse immediately as he read it; he also learned some Faroese and worked hard to acquire an intermediate fluency in Tibetan.

IMG_0651Niklas was also gifted musician. He started playing the violin in the seventh grade, and after one year, he made the district orchestra. In addition to winning competitions and receiving awards, he played with the civic orchestras in Attleboro and Chicago, where he eventually acquired the second violin chair in the Chicago Symphony orchestra and toured the country.

The violin was not the only way he expressed his musical talent. Niklas had a rich, trained baritone voice. Consequently, he was instrumental in starting the singing group “Our Pleasure” which still performs to this day. One of the reasons he liked the Anderson Faery Witchcraft tradition so much was because there is so much music and singing during the creation of sacred space.

Although Niklas was a gifted linguist, musician, teacher and scholar, his real love was the study and practice of Witchcraft. When he was asked what he would like to do for his dissertation, he immediately replied that he wanted to collect, translate and analyze Swedish Black Art books (svartkonstböcker).

In 1992, as a visiting fellow at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, Niklas found the remnants of many Black Arts books in both libraries and homes throughout Sweden dating from 1693 to the 1950s. None of these books had ever been completely translated or even published. No studies had been done on these books for over 50 years and they were rotting away.

Niklas rescued a huge portion of Swedish folklore for future generations. He brought his insights gleaned from the old books into his own teaching of Swedish, Swedish folklore, sagas, the Eddas or Old Norse literature, archaeology, religion and mythology. He was even known to sing Swedish songs in class to teach his students “the language of the soul.”

After completing his research, Niklas gave two guest lectures on the material: one at the Folklore Society in Stockholm and one at the Swedish Women’s Educational Association in San Francisco. Additionally, he presented a conference paper at the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study Annual Conference in Salt Lake City. This paper was titled, Something Queer in Images of Old Norse Myth and Magic. It focused on a philological study of the concept of ergi (queerness) as a constellation of related concepts throughout the Germanic region, all of which suggest a greater semantic field than a simple description of unprivileged sexual behavior.

His other writings include: Klokskap eller Häxeri?, which contrasts the traditional cunning folk and the archetypical Witch in Swedish folklore; the book The Graveyard Wanderers (Kyrogårdsgångarna): The Wise Ones and the Dead in Sweden; and his dissertation titled Tidebast och Vändelrot: Magical Representations in the Swedish Black Art Book Tradition.

IMG_0386Niklas’ love and knowledge of Witchcraft was profound. He received full initiations, elevations and training in the NROOGD tradition, the California Gardnerian tradition, the Gardnerian tradition, the Alexandrian tradition, the Minoan tradition, Bill Love’s hereditary tradition and the Anderson Faery tradition.

Of all these traditions, Niklas preferred to practice and teach the Anderson Faery tradition. He felt that, with the Anderson Faery tradition, there were no gender checks. He could give back by teaching and creating new material based on previous work, and also be respected as an equal. He and his husband could form a coven together. They never had to pretend to be something they weren’t; they could just be themselves and no one ever said they could not stand or work together. In private, the couple continued to practice their own hereditary tradition.

Niklas was the kind of person who easily made friends, and who was always willing to help. He also loved people as much as he loved the subject he was teaching, which made it a fantastic instructor. Whether he was teaching music, language or Witchcraft, he would learn and experience as much as he could before passing on knowledge, in order to give his students the best possible education. He didn’t teach things in isolation but pointed out the connections between diverse subjects to create a richer context for understanding. Niklas was a true scholar with a true heart.

All this demonstrates why he had such a profound impact on so many people. Many have said that, although it was obvious that Niklas was talented and knowledgeable, he never made them feel any less than himself. Niklas learned early on that the secret of truly touching people is to show respect. He practiced that and, in return, people respected him. Niklas changed so many people’s lives for the better, not for fame or money but out of love and kindness; so by any measure his was a life well lived.

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My initial approach to this book was … ambivalent. Putting a finger on what caused that reaction was challenging. I was nearly finished with the book by the time I sorted it out. Before I explain, let me get back to the book for a moment.

Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence is another well-researched and well-written book by Marc Bekoff. The idea of rewilding as a means of conservation has become more popular in recent years, and this book is a good introduction into the concepts and work being done. If nothing else, it has more than 20 pages worth of references to books, journal articles, and other sources of information that would arm a person with the knowledge needed to truly understand what is happening to our planet and to the beings that are residents of it.

Nothing about this book should have been difficult. I am Pagan and take my vows as a steward of the Earth seriously. By no means am I perfect, but I do care, and I continue to make changes to how I live and spend my money. I seek information about the impact that my activities, or proposed activities, have on the Earth and Her residents, in an effort to educate myself.  I care. I’m invested. This book should have been an easy read for me.

Bekoff says that rewilding our hearts is about:

…becoming reenchanted with nature. It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathic, and harnessing our own inborn goodness and optimism. In the most basic sense, ‘rewilding’ means ‘to make wilder’ or ‘to make wild once again.’ This means many things, as we will see, but primarily it means opening our hearts and minds to others. It means thinking of others and allowing their needs and perspectives to influence our own.

In contrast, “unwilding” is “the process by which we become alienated from nature and non-human animals; it’s how we deny our impacts and refuse to take responsibility for them; and it’s how we become discouraged and overwhelmed, and thus fail to act despite the problems we see.”

Enter the 10-day break I took from reading. During that time, a broken song lyric began to tease me as I spent some time soul-searching my resistance to Bekoff’s newest publication. It took a while for it to come together enough to pin down but I eventually found it within the words of an Ani Difranco song:

the mighty multinationals have monopolized the oxygen
so it’s as easy as breathing for us all to participate

And therein lies the problem that I had with reading this book. In those words, I found the reason it took me nearly three weeks to finish barely 150 pages of content of which I support. The problems discussed by Bekoff are so big, so pervasive and so ingrained. Is the change that is needed even remotely possible?

Do the small changes really make a difference or am I deluding myself into thinking that those adorable cloth “paper” towel rolls I saw on Pinterest will really save trees, wildlife and the climate on which we all depend? Is my decision to start a vegetable and flower garden for the first time in my life (using heritage varieties of course) really going to make a difference in reducing fossil fuel consumption, improve the health of my family and support healthy environments in which bees can thrive?

Bekoff says small changes help, and he is not alone in this message. Before I picked up this book, I felt comfortable that I was making a contribution, and that my upcoming changes would be increasingly impactful. Now I’m not so sure.

Fish Creek in Hyder, Alaska. [Photo Credit: Matt Lemmon via Flickr]

Fish Creek in Hyder, Alaska. [Photo Credit: Matt Lemmon via Flickr]

In psychotherapy, a theory that is popular in the short-term treatment crowd is Solutions-Focused Therapy. Arguably, the most well-known intervention is the “miracle question:

Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?

In my own practice as a psychotherapist, I have often used this with positive results. It takes the client from being completely mired in their difficult situation to being focused on the things that make them feel better that make their life better that give them a sense of control. People who struggle coping with difficulties often feel powerless and see no way out of their dilemma. Often that powerlessness is an illusion though. As Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

For the past decade or so, I have lived in a solution-focused way where environmental and conservation issues are concerned. I research ways that I can make a difference and implement lifestyle changes. I focus on what I can do and let go of the details that form the bigger, more dismal, picture. But in doing so, I have lost sight of the enormity and entrenched nature of the problem. Reading Bekoff’s book was like hitting a “zoom out” button and seeing the whole complex tragedy at once. Calling this experience overwhelming and discouraging would be putting it mildly and wholly inadequate.

To be clear and fair, Bekoff’s focus was not on everything that is going wrong. Instead he wanted to offer a solution, or at least a pathway to various solutions. He says:

Rewilding Our Hearts is a positive and inspirational book about what we can do, as individuals within a global community, working in harmony for common goals, to deal with the rampant and wanton destruction of our planet and the innumerable and awe-inspiring residents and their homes. We really do need wild(er) minds and wild(er) hearts to make the changes that need to be made right now, so that we can work toward having a wild(er) planet.

Bekoff goes on to explain how his “Eight Ps of Rewilding” – a social movement that is “proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful and passionate” – will help us all engage to create a “contagious and long-lasting” movement.

It sounds lovely. It sounds like something that I would naturally and easily get behind. Except that I see and hear the motives that so many have for money, to maintain their perceived superiority, and to kill animals exclusively for sport without guilt. How could we possibly create a paradigm shift in those people in order “to make compassion, empathy and peaceful coexistence a social value?” Can we even do that in ourselves, let alone others, to make it lasting?

Bekoff provides some suggestions such as, increasing our awareness of how words and media are used to support agendas that “unwild” us; bringing such words to light; working to change our own use of language, photos and videos.

Adding to that, he suggests that children can be raised with less unwilding if we allow more unscheduled, unsupervised, unmanaged play and incorporate “nature time” during school hours. Finally, he also observes that participants in the conservation circles have become more interdisciplinary, creating pathways for professionals in social work and psychology to become more involved. The insights of these professions can shed light on the complex social, economic, and personal issues that act as barriers to change and bring a new perspective on how to rewild humans.

These more tangible interventions felt more manageable to me and helped me remember some of the changes that have already been made. Dam removals, reintroduction of wolves, and the granting of equal rights to nature are just some examples of the changes that have occurred recently. A few days after I completed the book, I searched out hopeful stories about rewilding, conservation, and environmental activism to bring me back to my center; to bring me back to the place where I feel comfortable that my efforts mean something.

Perhaps this is what Bekoff means when he says, “…we know that being positive and hopeful are important for getting people to care and act. Concentrating on successes, on what works, is important for overcoming hopelessness.”

Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence was published in Nov by New World Library. It is available in paperback and electronic formats. Berkoff can found as a regular columnist in Psychology Today and through his regular appearances.


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Óðinsgata street sign, Reykjavík, Iceland. Photo by the author.

Óðinsgata street sign, Reykjavík, Iceland. Photo by the author.

Hallgrímskirkja sits at the center of downtown Reykjavík, a massive gray slab of church that has, to me, about the same level of architectural charm as the Potosi Correctional Center. It rises up from the street in a concrete wave meant to look like the basalt pillars found elsewhere in Iceland; it has no color to it, and given the cloudiness of Iceland’s skies, often it forms a gray wall against a gray curtain. Although Hallgrímskirkja is probably the most famous building in Reykjavík, I found few reasons to visit it. I am told that for a handful of krónur one can go up into the spire and enjoy a wonderful view of the city, assuming that the fog isn’t too dense. Some of my classmates did this, and reported having a lovely experience, but I never made the trip myself. This was, in part, because my Heathen character found the idea distasteful – I mean, I didn’t come to Iceland to spend time in churches. The other part is that I didn’t have any handfuls of krónur to spare.

But I spent quite a lot of time in the neighborhood around Hallgrímskirkja, all the same. The neighborhood around the church is called Goðahverfið, or, as a handy placard notes, “The Neighborhood of the Gods.” The streets to the west of the church are all named for the Norse gods. Not 500 feet from the doors of the most impressive Christian edifice on the island sit streets named for Thor and Freyja. The metaphor almost seems too obvious. I remember something that my friend Kári, a member of Ásatrúarfélagið, said: I think the reason Ásatrú comes so easily to us is because we were never very good Christians in the first place.

I made an afternoon of walking the Neighborhood of the Gods one day after my morning Icelandic class let out, taking pictures of every street sign that bore some relation to the myths. (I justified this as a way of studying noun declensions. Freyjugata – weak feminine noun; you can tell by the way Freyja becomes Freyju. Njarðargata – the ö in Njörður becomes an a in the genitive.) The selection of deities seemed to me odd and fragmentary. Most of the major deities have streets – Óðinsgata, Þórsgata, and so on – and so do many of the more obscure figures – Fjölnisvegur, named for Fjölnir, a son of Freyr named in Ynglinga Saga, and Sjafnargata, for Sjöfn, a goddess mentioned a few times in Snorri’s Edda. But some others are looked over. Freyr himself, for instance, has no street. Neither does Frigg. Urður gets one, but not Skuld or Verðandi. I don’t pretend to have an explanation for this, except that perhaps having Freyjugata, Freysgata, and Friggjargata within a three-block area would have made giving directions to foreigners a nightmare.

Other than the signs, there’s nothing especially significant in the Neighborhood of the Gods to draw the eye of a mythology buff. Even the signs themselves are mostly just fun to look in a scavenger-hunt kind of way, though there were a few intersections and parallels that caught my attention – the intersection of Baldursgata and Nönnugata is sweet in a sad way, and, as Karl Siegfried at the Norse Mythology blog has pointed out, it’s amusing that Lokastígur is hidden behind Þórsgata, just as Loki always seems to be working at something behind Thor’s back. But I never found any hidden statues or secret shrines there; it is, for the most part, just another neighborhood in Reykjavík.

And yet there is something in it that pulls at me. It’s the magic of the names. Óðinsgata is Óðinsgata; it’s a street named for the god I spend the most time thinking about. I wanted to see that street sign with my own eyes almost as much as I wanted to see Þingvellir or Skógafoss. It’s just the name of the street. But that name was enough to lure me to it.

The name was also enough to make me visit Odin, Minnesota, a postage-stamp of a town about 35 miles north of the Iowa border. Odin was about two and a half hours out of my way on the drive from Minneapolis to Missouri, which was otherwise a straight shot down I-35. I took the country highways out past St. Peter and Mankato and found myself approaching Odin a little after noon.

Nothing in Odin drew a connection between the town and its namesake, except perhaps for a yellow “NORWEGIAN X-ING” sign hanging on one of the electric poles. The Neighborhood of the Gods at least had a plaque and the Guesthouse Odinn; Odin, MN, just had a cheery red-on-white sign that read “WELCOME TO ODIN.” I wandered around for a few minutes, taking pictures of the Odin Community Center and Fire Hall, the Odin State Bank, the Odin Post Office. (Alas, no First Church of Odin, which was of course my real desire.) The town seemed empty – nobody on the streets at all.

I walked over to the Odin General Store and Bait Shop. I opened the door and found that apparently everybody in the city was there too, standing around folding tables; it looked like they had just finished lunch. Perhaps it was a regular Sunday gathering. The room was dark, and even though it seemed like it was the closest thing to a grocery store around, there were only a couple of shelves holding dry goods and a freezer with sodas and Hot Pockets. I drew stares. I don’t think they saw many tourists there. I paid for a Cherry Coke and left.

It’s been six months now since I returned home from my trip to the north, and I still think about that seemingly uneventful visit to Odin, MN, nearly every day. We give things names to connect ourselves to them, because the name has meanings beyond what it appears to signify. Odin is a one-eyed god, and Odin is a town of 100 people in southern Minnesota, and Odin is a street in downtown Reykjavík. And Odin is the space in my mind where these three things, and three thousand other things, intersect, meld, and are sent forth again.

I remember driving away from Odin, a few moments after I took an obligatory selfie next to the welcome sign. I watched that sign recede into the distance in my rearview mirror as I began my journey southward, signaling the end of one pilgrimage, marking the beginning of whatever came next.



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A recent article in the Quaternary International suggests that the myth of Jason and the Argonauts took its inspiration from an actual voyage that occurred sometime between 3,300 and 3,500 years ago. A team of geologists, led by Avtandil Okrostsvaridze from Ilia State University in Georgia, report that they have found evidence that the Golden Fleece was real and was the product of ancient gold extraction techniques.

But did these scientists find definitive evidence? The Wild Hunt turned to a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a London-based archaeologist and historian of religion to take a Pagan-friendly look at the paper.

Jason seizing the Golden Fleece from a fragment of a sarcophagus, National Museum of Rome. [Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

Jason seizing the Golden Fleece. From a fragment of a sarcophagus, National Museum of Rome. [Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

Mythos of the quest for the Golden Fleece
Although there are different written accounts of the quest, the basic myth is as follows. Before the Trojan War, Jason gathered together a group of heroes known as the Argonauts to sail to Aietis’ palace in the Kingdom of Colchis [modern day Georgia] to take the Golden Fleece. The fleece was thought to be from the famed golden-haired, winged ram of Zeus. Jason needed the fleece to restore his father as king of Thessaly in Greece.

Jason and the Argonauts faced many challenges – and fathered many children – during their voyage and received help from Gods and mortals. The most famous person who assisted Jason was Medea, King Aitis’ daughter. After they returned home, Jason sets Medea aside to marry another woman. Medea kills that woman and the children she bore to Jason, and then flees to Athens. Jason’s father takes the throne, but Jason dies, lonely and unloved.

Gold mining theory
In the academic paper, geologist Avtandil Okrostsvaridze stated that the quest was a real voyage to the kingdom of Colchis to learn how they extracted gold from rivers, streams and sand deposits.

The team of geologists carried out an eight-year study to test the theory. They compared geological data and archaeological findings with the myths the kingdom of Colchis. The locals in this region have been using wooden bowls to pour water and sand mixtures over thick sheep’s pelt for thousands of years. The sand, being lighter, washes out, while the heavy gold particles become trapped in the sheep’s wool.

This was not the first time that the “gold mining theory” has been suggested. Back in the second century AD, Roman historian Apian Alexandrine put forth this very theory. Since that time, it has been periodically entertained by archaeologists and historians. Yet this is the very first time that geologists have done a thorough examination to test the theory. Will it hold up to scrutiny?

Ethan Doyle White, is a London-based archaeologist and historian of religion currently engaged in PhD research at University College London (UCL). He has “a particular research interest in the pre-Christian belief systems of Europe and the manner in which they have been interpreted and utilised by contemporary Pagan new religious movements.”  He said:

Having read the original research paper, I’d say that the ScienceAlert article does a fairly good job of accurately summarising its conclusions. However, I must express some concerns regarding the original research paper itself. While I certainly would not go so far as to claim that the arguments presented are invalid, I am concerned by the fact that the paper has been written by geologists and then published in a geological journal. Now, without meaning to knock geology as a discipline, the study of rock strata really doesn’t provide the sort of theoretical and methodological basis needed to analyse the development and origins of ancient mythology, for which a blend of history, archaeology, folkloristics and perhaps also linguistics would be required.

Further, I would pay close attention to the statement in the paper’s acknowledgements: “The authors would like to thank the general director of the mining corporation “Golden Fleece”, Dr Mustafa Mutlu, which has funded this research”. I think that that is potentially very telling; a company with a vested interest in the name and concept of the Golden Fleece was funding the entire project.

Caroline Tully [Courtesy Photo]

Caroline Tully [Courtesy Photo]

Caroline J. Tully, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, primarily focuses on Aegean Archaeology. However, she is “also interested in the reception of the ancient world, particularly the reception of ancient Egyptian religion.” She said:

Like many non-Classicists, when talking about Classical Literature these authors are clumsy and rather cursory. I don’t think there is any point in trying to match the Argonauts’ journey with the alluvial paning for gold in Colchis using wooden utensils and sheepskin. I don’t think there is any point in claiming that the Argonauts’ journey was “real” – it may have been, it may not have been. As far as I’d go would be to say “The story of the Golden Fleece in the Jason and the Argonauts myth sounds like it may have been inspired by actual techniques of gold collection, using a wooden utensil and a sheepskin, by people who lived in the region of ancient Colchis and who still use that method today.

So, I’m saying that the description of a “golden fleece” in Colchis as it appears in the myth of the Argonauts’ voyage may certainly have been inspired by the actual method of collecting gold in ancient and modern Colchis – as Tim Severin suggested in 1984.  

When asked specifically about the geologists’ research approach, Tully said:

While they are rather cursory on their Classical literature, on the other hand, where the authors of this article have expertise, in their sciency approach to the subject, they seem fine and I would cite them myself. They seem to have done the work and know the topic. I, on the other hand, have no science background so I have to take their word for it. But the article is in a peer reviewed journal, which would suggest that it was of a reasonable scholarly standard. I would trust the authors in their expertise re the geology and mineralogy of Georgia / Colchis. What they’ve said in regards to the sciency angle seems reasonable to me.

I’m not saying their claims about the mythology are wrong, just that they shouldn’t bother trying to specifically match Jason and the Argonaut’s voyage – especially because they are not specialists in Classical Archaeology or Classical Literature… They should stick to their specialty – science.

Tully then went on to speculate more deeply on the theory from both a mythological or historical standpoint. She said:

Surely lots of Greeks went to the corners of the Black Sea. There were Greek colonies all around the Black Sea. That is well known. So, Jason and the Argonauts could be a sort of generic adventure that combines stories from all those sailors’ adventures. I mean there might be evidence of “Jason” over there in Colchis, I don’t recall any inscriptions saying “Jason was here” but there might have been and that would be mentioned in Severin’s book

Jason is quite interesting. His name comes from the root for “medicine” or “doctor” or “healing”, that sort of thing, the root being “Ia” as in “Iatros, or any mediciney word that derives from the Greek root “Ia”. thats “i”, not “L”. Anyway, there is talk that perhaps Jason was originally the magical one who had knowledge of herbs and poisons, rather than (or as well as) Medea.

What Tully is referring to here is a theory proposed by scholar Yulia Ustinova in 2004. In her paper titled Jason the Shaman, Ustinova claims that Jason’s mythical biography define him not only as a hero and a father, but also as having a “shamanic personality.”  She concludes, “The most important functions of a shaman are healing, retrieving of the souls of the sick from the malevolent powers, and escorting the souls of the dead to the nether world … These major elements, initiation period under the tutelage of a skilled shaman and seer, a horrible ordeal, healing talents and a voyage to the netherworld in order to bring back a dead soul and a magical object are present in Jason’s mythic personality.”

The Goddess Athena helping Jason's ship, terracotta relief, British Museum [Credit: Townley Collection, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

The Goddess Athena helping Jason’s ship, terracotta relief, British Museum [Credit: Townley Collection, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

Tully went on to say, “The idea that collecting gold with a sheep skin influenced the story of Jason and the Argonauts is perfectly feasible…” because, as suggested earlier, myths can be based in historical fact. She added as an aside:

Speaking of myths being real.. there’s a great new book out by Adrienne Mayor called “The Amazons.” Classicists have always thought the Amazons were completely mythical, but Mayor, who is a classical scholar, interprets archaeological remains of female warriors from around the Black Sea and into Central Asia as what probably were … the “Amazons” of Greek myth. Of course “myth” doesn’t mean “untrue”… but we mainly tend to think that the bulk of myth is just a story. But its perfectly feasible that myth has components of actual events in it.

While Tully believes that the geologists do make a reasonably good case from a scientific perspective, she said that their work would have been more convincing if they were “better writers” or knew more about “classical literature and archaeology.” Tully also would have liked to have seen a photo of one of the collected fleeces. However she also noted that this failing is not unusual in the academic world. She said:

This is a bit like the spate of articles that came out with varying degrees of dry sciency language when it was discovered that there indeed was a crevice that produced psychoactive gases under the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Because the scientists verified it.. but they aren’t very evocative writers.

In the end Tully summed up her discussion of the topic by saying, “Yes, it is a perfectly reasonable claim which seems to be backed by science. (Well, except that I think they can’t possibly say that it is “proof” that the Argonaut’s story was ‘true”. It’s suggestive that  some of the Argonauts’ story may have had factual components).”

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