Pagans and the AAR Annual Meeting: Chaplaincy, Sex, and Indigeneity

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 20, 2012 — 43 Comments

[This is the second post on my trip to the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago, for yesterday’s post, click here.]

My first session on Sunday covered material that I was pretty familiar with, the Pew Forum’s Religion in Prisons survey, a groundbreaking work that gave some key data points concerning minority religions in prison that before we had only speculated on. You can read my initial analysis of that data, here, and Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum’s views on the survey, here. This special topics forum featured two researchers who worked on the Pew survey, and chaplains with direct experience either in prison chaplaincy, or working with minority religions.

Special Topics Forum: Pew Forum's Survey on Religion in Prisons.

Special Topics Forum: Pew Forum’s Survey on Religion in Prisons.

Patrick McCollum’s initial comments seemed to set the tone for much of the panel, and the questions that followed, when he talked about the “dominant religion lens” that Christians view minority religions, particularly in prison. Many working prison chaplains had some very critical things to say about how the data might be skewed by the opinions of a predominantly conservative and Christian chaplaincy body. From what I’ve heard, Pew is very interested in doing a follow-up study on religion in prisons, something I welcome. The role of a Pagan, McCollum, in shaping this discussion shows just how vital we’ve become in this process.

After that forum, I attended the second Contemporary Pagan Studies panel entitled “Sex, Metaphor, and Sacrifice in Contemporary Paganism,” which featured very diverse papers from Jone Salomonsen on the religious writings of Oslo mass-murderer Anders Breivik, which fused Christian and Pagan elements, Jefferson Calico, on how the Heathen mead hall operates as a central metaphor for interaction between the gods and humanity, and most interesting, Jason Winslade’s “When Pan Met Babalon: Challenging Sex Roles at a Thelemic/Pagan Festival.”

Jason Winslade presenting his paper.

Jason Winslade presenting his paper.

“Concentrating on ritual performances around the bonfire at Babalon Rising, a yearly festival in Indiana whose attendees follow a mix of Paganism and Thelema, the teachings of Victorian magician Aleister Crowley, this paper will demonstrate how participants grapple with challenging sexual roles, manifested in their dances and their ritual play as deities from Crowley’s mythos. Chief among these is his version of the Pagan god Pan who, at Babalon Rising, engages with participants, intentionally pushing boundaries, and creating a setting for festival goers to more freely explore these issues. What results is a messy mix of progressive and regressive attitudes towards sexuality as a metaphor and a vehicle for transformation that potentially challenges essentialist notions of gender and sex in contemporary magickal practice.”

Winslade gave an engaging and interesting presentation, and while this panel seemed not a thematically cohesive as advertised, all the subjects covered were certainly important and fascinating.

The final Contemporary Pagan Studies session I attended was on Monday morning, and it was, by far, the most important and exciting of the weekend. Held as a joint session with the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group, “Contested Categories: Indigenous, Pagan, Authentic, and Legitimate” struck right at the heart of the some of the most vital questions modern Pagans face collectively. All the papers presented, from Koenraad Elst’s exploration of The Gathering of Elders in India, to Sabina Magliocco’s (author of “Witching Culture”) examination of authenticity within modern Paganism (read by Chas Clifton since Sabina couldn’t make it) pointed out the very real hurdles we’ll collectively face as we decide how we’ll define ourselves in the years to come. However, my two favorite paper presentations were Mary Hamner’s “Middle-Class Vodou: Spirit Possession and Marginality in the United States,” and Thad Horrell’s “Becoming Indigenous in a Reconstructed Ancestral Tradition.”

Thad Horrell and Mary Hamner at the Pagan Studies and Indigenous Religious Traditions joint session.

Thad Horrell and Mary Hamner at the Pagan Studies and Indigenous Religious Traditions joint session.

“This paper will investigate the contemporary Heathen project to create an indigenous identification accessible to White Americans, asking to what degree this project escapes the critiques leveled against other attempts to develop White indigenous identifications. Being rooted in European indigenousness rather than an appropriated American Indian indigenousness, does Heathenry escape the usual post/anti-colonial critiques commonly leveled at such projects? How are “indigenous Europeans” in the United States different from White “wannabe Indians?” What, if any, commonalities do they share? Are the differences sufficient to overcome the usual criticisms, to produce a more healthy and respectful cognitive relation between White Americans and American Indians? Or, do contemporary Heathen claims of indigenous identity continue to reify White racial conceptions of dominance over the racially-other Indian?”

I felt both of these papers were so compelling that I spoke with Mr. Horrell and Ms. Hamner after the session about presenting their research here at The Wild Hunt. Both seemed open to the idea, and I hope that this will not only expand the coverage of Contemporary Pagan Studies at the AAR Annual Meeting, but introduce productive dialog on issues that have provoked a lot of debate among modern Pagans.  So stay tuned!

Once I get home later today I hope to start a longer rumination about the important conversations that happen between the panels and presentations, how the AAR Annual Meeting provides fertile soil for future collaboration and helps sustain Contemporary Pagan Studies. Conferences are often about who you meet, who you connect with, as much as the paper you present. As I said before, Pagan scholars are like a microcosm of the Pagan community as a whole: diverse thoughts, theories, and ideas debating, interacting, and spinning off into new directions. Interactions that could provide a road-map for the larger community to move forward. I feel lucky to have been a small part of these discussions, and to have attended these sessions.

I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the campaign to send me to AAR, including the underwriters who joined us during that time: A Modern DruidAssembly of the Sacred Wheel,Brotherhood of the PhoenixEgregoresIx Chel WellnessMill Creek SeminarySolar Cross Temple,Stone City Pagan SanctuaryTeo BishopThe SummerlandsUrania’s Well, and Wiccanwoman. Thank you. You make this possible.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • PhaedraHPS

    Your coverage has been so intriguing; I am so happy that you were able to get the support to attend. We need bridges between our academics and people in the field (i.e., the rest of us).

    “Conferences are often about who you meet, who you connect with…” indeed, which is how the festival movement transformed American Paganism. It’s also what is missing from the cult of the Solitary, in my opinion.

  • Kilmrnock

    I must also agree good coverage . These types of conferences are necessary and good for us pagans , in so much as making new information available and also getting the word out about us . One other group i’d like to see brought into the indeginous religions discussions is CRs , Celtic Reconstructionists . We too are participating in and reconstructing native European beliefs/and or religions . Kilm aka Donnacha

  • Ursyl

    I look forward to reading more about the indigenous concepts, because even as I explore my ancestral pre-christian religions, I am not indigenous to Ireland or Korcula or Spain or Slovenia. I was born here, though am not of Native American ancestry.

    • RevEllen

      I understand what you’re saying. I wasn’t born in Iceland, but everytime I see the beautifully rugged glaciers and volcanos, my heart is pulled there. I can’t really be called indiginous anything. But what does that make me?

      • Kilmrnock

        If you are of Icelandic or even Norse decent you are a person born in the Diaspora no matter where you were born , particularly if you practice the religion of that land or are proud of your ancestry . I feel the same way when i see pics or films of the hills and glens of Scotland , altho i’ve never been there , my heart wants to go .Having ethnic pride and/or practicing authentic ethnic ways makes one fond of where it all began . Wouldn’t you say? Kilm

  • Thanks for the coverage, Jason, and thanks for inviting Horrell and Hamner to present here. Good research and analysis needs to be accessible to the Pagan community and not locked up in academic journals. We’re still trying to figure out what Paganism(s) is going to look like when it grows up – we need to be informed by the best.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I don’t see how anyone born and living in the USA can claim to be an indigenous European.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I think Horrell points to the ethical underpinning of the claim by describing Heathenry as “[b]eing rooted in European indigenousness rather than an appropriated American Indian indigenousness[….]” The key word is “appropriated,” the sense that a white American is not appropriating European indigenousness but claims it by right.
      Although not a Heathen myself, I’ve been known to point out that Euro-American Paganism points up that what we call “eurocentrism” was inflicted on Europeans first.
      We can pick this up if Horrell accepts the invitation to guest-post here.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I’d say that a White American would be appropriating European indigenousness. The label ‘American’ says it all, really.

        • Kilmrnock

          LS, I beg to differ those of us in the Recon groups are working on our own ethnic ancestral religions . Most if not all Heathens , Asatru are of nordic ancestry , Just as CR’s are of Celtic ancestry . I’m not sure how us being born in the American Diaspora excludes us from practicing the religions of our ancestors . Most ” White Americans ” are of European decent , how is taking up the beliefs of our ancestors appropriating anything?In the case of CR , we in the US are helping re establish a almost lost religion . An effort that may not be impossible , but would be harder w/o our help . in the case of the Celts , there are more in the Diaspora than in the ethnic homelands ……due to famine and relocation . Many not by choice, was forcibly done, in the case of the Scottish Clearances. Kilm

          • Kilmrnock

            What most consider Cultural Appropriation would be someone using rituals or ways from another ethnic group . Like European decented ” Whites ” doing Native American rituals such as sweat lodges, or rain dances . A case such as that is clearly Cultural Appropriation and rather upset Native Americans . I believe rightfully so , to my way of thinking doing that is clearly wrong . Now someone taking up ways and rituals from thier own Ethnic group/ ancestry wherever they are now ………..i’m not sure how that could be called cultural appropriation , as long as proper research is done and the beliefs are followed correctly.In the case of Celtic Pagan beliefs our native culture and religion was decimated by invaders and missionaries . Those of us in the CR movement here and in the homelands are carefully reconstructing the beliefs of our pagan ancestors w/ archeological and scholary sourses, remaining ancient texts etc .Also learning our ethnic homelands lanquages .to my mind that is NOT cultural appropriation. Kilm, sorry i went on a bit , this issue is near and dear to my heart

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            You are tying ethnicity to culture. That is something I just cannot do.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I don’t accept this version of “appropriation.” Thanks to the very human trait of rifling the contents of one anothers’ traditions, we can be sure that no spiritual tool used by a particular group — like sweating or smudging — was invented by that group. All such spiritual tools are the common heritage of the whole human race.
            Culpable appropriation is the pretense that one is doing the ritual of a particular people of which one is not a member. That is disrespect, and rightly resented.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Simple. I see culture tied to land. Americans are not Europeans, in the same way that Europeans are not Africans.

            Where your ancestry is from has little relevance to where you are.

          • Deborah Bender

            Does that mean that the Cherokees and all the other tribes that were driven out of their ancestral lands should not practice their tribal religions where they are living now? The land, plants, animals, weather of Oklahoma are nothing like the Carolinas. If a family of Creeks or Blackfoots fetches up in California, should they adopt the religion of the Modocs/Ohlone/Pomo? Should they abandon the drum and use clapper sticks instead?

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Well, if the land is different, the practices will obviously need to adapt.

            Of course, I think that the ‘natives’ should get the land back.

          • Folcwald

            Adapting practices is not the same as magically morphing into a completely new culture. Whether Natives should or should not get their land back is an irrelevant dodge. They are not going to get their land back anytime soon. Does that mean they are no longer who they claim to be? Your position would seem to indicate that it does, a position I guarantee most Natives would take a very dark view of.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Do they live the same way as their ancestors did? I doubt it. In the same way that I am not a Victorian or a Saxon.

          • Folcwald

            They live the way their ancestors would had they had to adapt to new situations. That’s the thing about culture – like any living, organic entity it is always in a kind of flux, but at the same time it is held down by being an identifiable entity. In most ways, I live differently than I did when I was three years old and lived in a different city, but I am nonetheless still me. Cultures, too, change constantly, even when they sit for millennia in the same place. That change is not the same as their ceasing to be what they are.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Cultures may change, but, when people move, they often become something else. A British person, for example, is not defined by the colour of their skin.

          • Deborah Bender

            I also agree with what Baruch said, “Culpable appropriation is the pretense that one is doing the ritual of a
            particular people of which one is not a member. That is disrespect, and
            rightly resented.”

            Sometimes the distinction is not clear cut, when the relationships between the two groups include elements of both cooperation and exploitation, and when the boundaries of the cultural group are fuzzy and permeable. Jazz music, for instance.

          • This doesn’t work as well for Heathenry since we know the various tribes took their culture with them where they roamed, even if we just look at the migration patterns of Viking tribes alone.

            I do not agree that culture is completely tied to the land; certain religious workings, shrines, etc. are. There is no Uppsala here in America to sacrifice at. Hell, the shrines that used to be at Uppsala are no longer in use as they used to be. Does this make all Heathens, here and there, pretenders as so many groves and shrines are gone and no longer used? What happens to European indigeny, if it exists, if it merely tied to the land and the culture, broken as both ties were by the conversion period? Is it not rather, a process of adopting a Weltanschauung?

            Diasporic Hindus make it work here in America. There is a Hindu temple just down the road from my home. They may not be on Indian soil, making pilgrimages to the Ganges, or to other temples, shrines, etc., or celebrating the same festivals as they do in Indian cities, but they are no less Hindu.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            We also see that the tribes adapted and changed their cultures to suit the land or (in the case of the Americas) they simply leave.

            There is no hard evidence to show an unbroken cultural lineage between the Heathenry of ancient Europe and contemporary Heathen practice.

            Diasporic and reconstructed systems work, but they are hardly indigenous.

            What you are saying about American Hindus is that they are not Indian Hindus. They have changed and adapted their culture. How much change happens before a term is no longer relevant?

          • Deborah Bender

            Why is it? Because of unequal power relations. When two cultures of roughly equal power and status are in contact with each other and adopt some of each other’s practices and ideas, that is a cultural exchange.

            When one culture is dominant over the members of another culture, when the dominant culture denigrates the other culture and suppresses or interferes with the religious practices of the other culture, and then members of the dominant culture adopt some version of those same practices, that’s cultural appropriation.

            Cultural exchange is normal and often benefits both parties. Cultural appropriation is a one way street and is often regarded by members of the suppressed culture as adding insult to injury.

          • Kilmrnock

            well , i believe any ethnic group should be able to call out appropriation when i occurs . It just seems here latly some new age gurus are borrowing Native American rituals . And also the N.A, groups now have the power to raise ruckus about it .For example that recent mess in Cal. with the improperly run sweat lodge , people died in that one .Granted there is no unbroken Cultural lineage in present day heathenry and paganism . The spread of conqueres and Christianity saw to that .Those of us in the Recon traditions , Heathen and CR or pagan here and in the homelands are re establishing these pagan traditions . And for all intensive purposes ethnicity is culture . In Nordic and Celtic migrant groups we brought our traditions with us . American halloween is a prime example of this , all celtic traditions brought to the US by Celtic migrants .Altho many of our families have been in the US for quite some time , We havn’t lost our Celtic traditions and feel, .We are proud of our heritage , what we are .Our food, music , Ethnic and cultural history matter to us a great deal .Those of us that are taking back up the Pagan traditions and lanquages of the homelands have made yet another set of connections . I’ll agree not all Celt and or Nordic decented Americans feel this way but many do. The main issue many of us feel is we have no real identity here , particularly as pagans . With present day America being what it is , ones ethnicity/Culture is ones identity . I can’t agree taking up the pagan ways of your ancestors and native homeland can be called Cultural Appropriation . Kilm

          • Kilmrnock

            We aren’t taking anything from anyone else . CRs , Heathens and other recon groups here and in the homelands are taking back up what is rightfully ours , from our ancestors . It is a proven fact when a people move from one location to another , they take their beliefs and way of life with them .That really is what we recons are doing .

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            You will find that a lot of Europeans disagree. I live in the ‘homelands’, remember.

          • Kilmrnock

            Going to our ethnic homelands is on most recon pagans bucket list . In the US altho not all most people self identify by thier native ethnic heritage or nationality . Even city neiborhoods and set up that way , for example little Italy, Irish etc . Many Americans know and have pride about their ethnic heritage . With modern American being what it is , a ever increasing ethnic melting pot , many myself included more identify with ethnic heritage rather being an American . In a nation of imigrants from almost every corner of the globe what exactly does being American mean?Many more in the pagan ranks , particularly recons self indentify in this way .And as i previously mentioned in the case of the Celts , Scotland and Ireland there are more Celt Decended people here in continental North America than in the homelands or as we call it the Diaspora .Many of our families were brought or came to these shores not of our own chosing , forcibly . We are studying , learning the languages taking back up our ancestral pagan ways and faiths . And in most cases our families brought our ways ways with us . In learning of actual Celtic ways and traditions i can see much of it in my own family.Altho rural the part of the country [US] my family is from most of the population is Scot, Irish and English and have carried on those traditions w/o calling it such or even realising it , but all the same are Celtic. In the US most Scottish emigrants went into the countryside , whereas most other ethnic groups stayed in the cities . There are more Scots here than anyone realises. Particularly on the East Coast US and Nova Scotia Canada . But you probably already knew all of this .These reasons and what i already mentioned on this thread is why we don’t consider what we are doing Cultural Apropriation because our own ancestry is of these places and culture. Sorry Teo, for kidknapping the discussion but i feel this needed to be dealt with/discussed .

          • Kilmarnock

            i meant Jason , sorry

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            And, yet, you will find a great deal of disagreement (over here) as to whether that makes you Scots.

            A moving little short movie springs to mind:

          • Kilmrnock

            Altho most of the CR groups here in the US are inhabited by Celt decended people , none are descriminatory in nature .Even the CR based religion i belong to is not descriminatory. And for the record i wasn’t speaking of Wicca or any other pagan groups i was just speaking of recon and heathen groups .Altho many are Celtic in focus most Wiccan groups have no specific ethnic focus other than the British influenced groups and as far as i know none limit membership based on race .Some outsiders want to claim racism occurs in CR or Heathen groups but that is not by design , just happens most of the folks interested in these religions , paths are white . Some of the Asatru groups have a problem , but that is being dealt with from within.European feelings about us yanks, fellow pagans is a shame , quess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.Just for the info , is there a healthy Recon movement in Europe? Kilm

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I would say that, yes, there are healthy movements for reconstructionism in Europe (and Britain, not much of a Europhile.) I get the impression that a fair amount of the Recons are also involved in Historical Re-Enactment.

            I don’t think that the Europeans mind the Paganism, just the claiming to be [insert European nationality here].

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Ethnicity is culture? That mean we can’t have any ‘Wiccans of colour’ or Druids Dhubh?

            I do not feel that it is right to block anyone from embracing a culture they feel a connection to, merely because of their physical DNA. It doesn’t make sense, to me. What makes more sense is context of location. My regional environment includes places such as Avebury, Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Cerne Abbas… Having things things in easy reach gives a different perspective to only seeing images of them.

          • Folcwald

            If culture is tied so closely to land, why does culture change when new people move into an already populated land? Anglo-Saxon England was very little like previous Celtic Britain or Roman occupied Celtic Britain. Roman Gaul was significantly different from Gaul before the Romans. While land must play a role in the development of a culture, there is no way it can be thought of as being all there is to culture.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            If it is tied so closely to people, why does it change when those people move to new lands?

          • Folcwald

            Usually, the changes are adaptations to the environment. Such adaptations are not the same as the culture becoming an entirely different entity.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It often seems that way.

  • Deborah Bender

    I wish it were possible for all or most of the Pagan-related papers presented at one annual AAR meeting to be collected and published online or in print in an edition that would be affordable for ordinary interested Pagans who want to keep up with current research.

    Sort of like the SF-the Year’s Greatest collections.

  • The first person to ever be called a “Heathen” was actually a Semite living in the Levant. True fact. Read your Bible, kids – you might learn something. (Well, your Gothic Bible.)

  • Thad Horrell has a paper in the current issue of the Journal of Religion, Identity, and Politics that is available online in pdf format: Heathenry as a Post Colonial Movement.

    It’s pretty worthless.

    Horrell claims that “the vast majority of Heathens” see themselves and, especially, their religious tradition, in terms of “white racial identification”. What is the basis for this claim? If Horrell wanted to make a real contribution to a scholarly understanding of Heathenry he would do some fieldwork to determine just how prevalent such “white racial identification” is among contemporary Heathens. But Horrell can’t be bothered with doing actual research. Instead he has slapped together a few very carefully (or possibly very carelessly – its hard to tell) selected quotations, without any attempt to assess the sources in any critical way.

    Lets be clear: Horrell is just taking the old racist-baiting attack on modern Heathenry/Paganism and dressing it up with some academic mumbo-jumbo about “post-colonialism”.

    There are, unfortunately, modern Heathens who are promoting a view of Heathenry that is explicitly racial and implicitly racist. But there are also very well established modern Heathen traditions, including prominent organizations, leaders and authors, who explicitly reject the very thing that Horrell irresponsibly ascribes to “the vast majority of Heathens”.

    • Ben

      It’s not Horrell’s job to apologize for Heathenry or explain why something a leader in the Heathen community “isn’t really racist” or otherwise “oh, well that’s not how all of us think.”

      It’s like you think all Academics should be doing is basically doing PR for us poor Heathens.

      No thanks. I’ll take the reality. Horrell is dead on correct. And he should be applauded.

      • The two Heathen sources that Horrell relies almost exclusively on for his misrepresentation of “the vast majority of Heathens” are 1. Stephen McNallen, and 2. Mark Puryear.

        In the case of McNallen is this really breaking news? If Horrell wants to thoroughly document the racist leanings of McNallen and the AFA, more power to him. That kind of systematic, and properly focused, study, would be very worthwhile. But Horrell is too intellectually lazy to be specific – that is, to do actual research.

        As for Puryear and his “Norroena Society”, well, how many people have ever heard of him/them? What makes what they have to say any more significant than any of hundreds of other random Heathen writers, bloggers, etc?

        Real scholars discuss their sources. Horrell just pulls McNallen and Puryear out of a hat. Horrell tacitly admits that he is ignoring huge swaths of Heathendom by including Diana Paxson and Michael Strmiska in his Bibliography, although he fails to cite them anywhere in body of the paper.

        And since Horrell chooses to focus so much attention on the AFA, must either be ignorant of how the AFA came into existence, or he has chosen to dishonestly excise from the history of Heathenry in the U.S. the fact that the AFA’s “race based” Heathenry was rejected by many leading Heathens, including (but not limited to) those who founded The Troth.

  • Kevin Faulkner

    Glad these conversations are happening! Making and finding frith between Euro-american Pagans and Native Turtle Islanders strikes me as something we should obviously be making a priority. Lending our hands and even our privilege to their battles in solidarity feels important and necessary to me.