Michael York at the Parliament and other Pagan News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 6, 2009 — 11 Comments

Top Story: I’m very pleased to present, as part of my coverage of the Pagan presence at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, an interview with Pagan scholar Michael York. Michael York is Professor of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at Bath Spa University College, UK, an instructor at Cherry Hill Seminary, and author of “Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion”. We discussed the evolving place of modern Paganism at the Parliament, the importance of the Pagan voice in interfaith interactions, and how polytheism promotes democracy.

If you are a Pagan podcaster, or host a Pagan-friendly radio show, you are welcome to download this file to play on your program. Be sure to credit the Pagan Newswire Collective as the audio source. For more Parliament-related audio, check out my discussion with Ed Hubbard, a PNC correspondent, as well as host of MagickTV and Pagans Tonight. There are more scheduled Parliament interviews, so stay tuned to the Pagans at the Parliament blog for the latest news.

In Other News: William Booth at the Washington Post looks at the oft-misunderstood cult of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. An anthropologist interviewed for the piece makes the argument that this growing, and controversial, faith is a true reflection of contemporary Mexico.

“The authorities have condemned Santa Muerte as a “narco-saint,” worshipped by drug traffickers, cartel assassins and dope slingers. But the worship is more a reflection of contemporary Mexico, says the anthropologist J. Katia Perdigón Castañeda, the author of “La Santa Muerte: Protector of Mankind.” The cult is an urban pop amalgam, New Age meets heavy metal meets Virgin of Guadalupe. It is no accident that it is also cross-cultural — that the centers of worship are the poor, proud heart of Mexico City and the violent frontier lands of Laredo, Juarez and Tijuana. The cult borrows equally from Hollywood and the Aztec underworld. Altars, necklaces and tattoos honoring Santa Muerte also make appearances in Mexican American neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Boston. “The believers may be drug dealers, doctors, carpenters, housewives. The cult accepts all. No matter the social status or age or sexual preference. Even transsexuals. Even criminals. That’s very important, that the cult of Santa Muerte accepts everyone,” Perdigón told me, “because death takes one and all.” Where mainstream Mexican Catholicism promises a better life in the hereafter, “central to the devotion of Santa Muerte is the fact that the believers want a miracle, a favor, in the present, in this life, not when they are dead,” Perdigón said.”

I find it very interesting that while many modern Pagan religions are quite self-conscious of mixing pop-culture with our Paganism, or of modernizing ancient sacred imagery, the followers of Santa Muerte seem to do it instinctively. Focusing more on necessities than proprieties. I wish I could read J. Katia Perdigon Castaneda’s book, but it appears to be only available in Spanish, a language I have not mastered.

I have an update on the case of Ali Sibat, a former Lebanese television presenter who was arrested and sentenced to death for sorcery in Saudi Arabia by the Mutaween (religious police) in Saudi Arabia, but I’m afraid it isn’t good news.

“He was condemned to death last month, and the religious court may confirm the sentence as soon as Thursday. The family’s lawyer, May Khansa, has tried desperately to persuade Lebanese politicians to intervene to save Mr Sbatt’s life – the Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, and President Michel Sleiman are aware of his case and so is the Sunni Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan – but so far without success. Sheikh Qabalan did, however, say that what Mr Sbatt did on television was merely psychological help for people who have lost hope and did not involve black magic. The family wisely appealed to Sunni prelates for help rather than dignitaries from their own Shia background. Their local member of parliament has been asked to assist – uselessly, it appears – and Ibrahim Najjar, the Minister for Justice, has said he has done “the necessary”, whatever that is.”

Saudi lawyers have asked for a million dollars to make a legal appeal, and it seems only the intervention of King Abdullah could save his life at this point. I’ll have more on this case as it develops, but it looks like another innocent person will soon be killed by a government for alleged supernatural crimes.

Why do white supremacists feel the need to subvert Pagan, Heathen, and Christian faiths? Because their own sad attempts at building a “religion” are so transparently political that federal district court judges have no problem denying them equal treatment in court cases.

“In Conner v. Tilton, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111892 (ND CA, Dec. 2, 2009), in a decision unusually detailed in its analysis for a case brought by a prisoner pro se, a California federal district court held that the White supremacist Creativity Movement is not a “religion” for purposes of the First Amendment or RLUIPA. In the case, an inmate sought the right to practice various aspects of his purported religion in Pelican Bay State Prison. In deciding the case, the court relied on the definition of “religion” articulated by the 3rd Circuit in Africa v. Pennsylvania.”

In short,”what’s good for white people is good” just isn’t a comprehensive world-view that addresses “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters”. There may be (and are) racist Heathens, Pagans, Muslims, and Christians, but they at least have the fig-leaf of an actual faith-tradition when considering legal matters. This sadly means that racists will continue to distort our faiths for their own ends, but at least the misguided may have some chance of interacting with genuine non-racist permutations of those faiths as they move through life.

In a final note, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, who has been covering the plight of child witches in Nigeria, brings us the news that notorious (and popular) witch-hunting mega-pastor Helen Ukpabio is suing a local activist and witch children charity. Why is she suing them? For making Ukpabio look bad when her followers raided a conference on Witchcraft and Child Rights.

“Helen applied to the Federal High Court in Calabar for the enforcement of her fundamental rights. She claimed, among other things,that the conference on Witchcraft and Child Rights, held on July 29 in Calabar – which her members disrupted- and the arrest of her church members on the said date constituted an infringement on their rights to practice their christian religious belief relating to witchcraft. She asked the court to issue perpetual injunctions restraining me and others – From interfering with their practice of christianity and their deliverance of people with witchcraft spirit … From holding seminars or workshops denouncing the christian religious belief in witchcraft … From arresting her and her church members etc.”

The activist, Leo Igwe, has sent out a press release regarding the lawsuit. Due to oppressive British libel laws, Bartholomew wasn’t able to reprint the entire thing, so I’m making it available here. I’ll try to keep you posted as new developments in this case arise, but I strongly suggest you also read Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion for the latest updates as well.

That’s all I have for now, don’t forget to check the Pagans at the Parliament blog for the latest updates and links from Melbourne,  and have a great day!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • http://intensedebate.com/people/BryonMorrigan BryonMorrigan

    That stuff about Ukpabio is almost beyond words. It almost makes me believe in the concept of "evil."

  • Caliban

    It is unfortunate that, early in the 20th Century, occultism did seriously consider the metaphysical implications of ethnicity in a racist manner, as that opens the door for contemporary groups to continue to do the same, even when those old ideas are widely discredited elsewhere.

    The Saudi case is also troubling, but the same culture executes far more people for homosexual acts that I personally hold to be sacred.

    The African witch-hunting phenomenon continues to be predictably appalling, and indicates that Christianity has not yet learned to emulate Christ. Poor Africa. I would really like to see things get better there, for everyone.

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  • Christy

    It appears that somebody needs to remind Ms. Ukpabio that her right to extend her fist does not end in sombody else's face. Humanists have a right to hold peaceful events just as she has the right to practice her religion and thier event does not prevent her from doing so. I am sure that Mr. Igwe's lawyers will remind her and the courts of this and probably counter sue for the real and documented damages that her people caused.

  • http://www.lizzclements.com Lizz

    The rights of a Christian to condemn innocent children to torture or death versus the rights of humanists to protect innocent children from a homicidal, misinformed cult; it's not an argument you see everyday, nor one that should be occurring. It never fails that church members protest another group's protest in the name of God. I mean, obviously, their doing it in His name and should therefore have the freedom to continue torturing and murdering these children.

  • Pitch313

    Personally, I do not have any problem combining pop culture imagery with established imagery in my own practice. for example, I call on and venerate both Ganesha and Wile E. Coyote as "destroyers of obstacles"–with the same seriousness of intent. Rubber Duckies are a vital personal mojo.

    Many other Pagans I know do much the same thing on a personal basis or in what we might call "casual Pagan lore." Consider Squat, Goddess of (Aotomobile) Parking. Or various talented and vigorous artists and creators who make new and inspiring works for Pagan uses.

  • Tea

    Here in Texas Santa Muerte (Holy Death) is very popular, and is called upon by both Catholics and Pagans. People invoke her in matters relating to survival. She is known as a powerful protector. The growing number of Mexican Catholics who honor her primarily is becoming a matter of concern for the Church, as she may be the second coming of Mictecacihuatl.

  • Christy

    I like to think the woman is shooting herself in the foot. Perhaps by filing her case, and with a counter suit, it will highlight the horrific acts that she and her group have been perpetuating in "God's name". Loosing her case will hammer home a point that a person's religious convictions is not an excuse or justification for comitting human rights violations. That there is NO excuse for such actions. Such a loss could even set a precident for future cases and help with future civil suits against these groups. It is sad that such a conversation has to happen but perhaps it needs to happen in order to bring about change. I wish Mr. Igwe all all the best in court.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Nope Snoozepossum

    "I wish Mr. Igwe all all the best in court. "

    I hope wads of people send him some serious energy – if she were to win, it would set a policy and precedent nobody sane wants to think about.

  • http://black-john.webs.com/ Luis Abbadie

    While it is widely believed that the Santa Muerte cult originates in the seventies, when she revealed herself to somebody, there are at least a few evidences of her cult dating at least a couple of centuries back. I know of an anthropologist who has rightly identified her as a revival of the cult of Mors, the third of the Roman Fatae or goddesses of Fate. Indeed, la Santissima Morte is venerated by many streghe in italy, and the cult is quite similar, to the point that italian devotees often order effigies from Mexico for their shrines. It seems that la Santisima Muerte developed in Mexico when the Santa Morte was brought by italian immigrants to Tuxtla Gutierrez, in the mexican state of Chiapas, where there was some syncretism with an already existing cult of a (male) saint who was represented as a skeleton.

    Rathen than a pop culture-developed figure, la Santa Muerte became part of pop culture only after writer Homero Aridjis wrote a novel about her, where he exaggerated her cult's ties with drug dealers, thereby causing her current dubious fame. There are lots of drug dealers who worship her, to be sure – but the Virgin of Guadalupe has been known as drug dealers' favorite deity for decades before that, and they even have their own saint, Jesus Malverde, a legendary drug trafficker who actually became canonized by his own peers. I know of people in the government who keep shrines for the Santa Muerte. Also, curiously, many of her symbols are shared by the old cult of Hecate.

    But her cult is indeed syncretic; it has developed directly involving all the elements of the Mexican popular market witch-healers (what some authors in the USA tend to call "brujeria" even though it's hardly a fully-structured system), heavily influenced by Santeria and catholicism. Curiously, some purists become outraged when she is equated with the orisha Oya (both purist santeros and Santa muerte purists!) IMHO, while her identity as Mictecacihuatl is a beautiful concept, she is probably a maniferstation of the roman Mors; at least it is Mors that I see her as.

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