Archives For Heather Greene

Last week notorious “witch-hunter” Helen Ukpabio, known as Lady Apostle, arrived in London to hold a 3 day revival meeting called a ”Season for Disconnections From All Spiritual Attack.” Ukpabio’s message is made very clear in a widely circulated poster that asks “Are you under Witchcraft attack? Mermaid Attack? Ancestral Spirit Attack?” It adds: “Come and be disconnected” a service that is “free of charge.”

Helen-Ukpabio-in-London2

Ukpabio is the founder of Nigeria’s Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries which claims to have more than 150 churches in that country alone. Allegedly Ukpabio is looking to open one in the UK to serve its large African-born population. More specifically she is targeting its large Nigerian-born population which has grown over 110% since 2001.

Unfortunately for Ukpabio, the UK did not welcome her with open arms. When the event was announced, there was immediate backlash. The planned venue, Albany World Music Theater, canceled her booking due to its content. In a statement, the Albany said:

We only cancel bookings in very exceptional circumstances. In this instance we were not given full information about the nature of the booking by the booker, which is at odds with our terms and conditions and ethical policies as an organisation. As soon as we became aware of the full details of the booking, it was canceled and the booker was issued with a full refund.

The Witchcraft Human Rights and Information Network (WHRIN), The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) all reportedly contacted Home Secretary Theresa May and requested that Ukpabio be deported and permanently banned from the UK. Why? Gary Foxcroft, Executive Director of WHRIN explains:

We believe that her presence in the UK is pursuant to section 3(5) of the Immigration Act 1971 on the basis that her presence here is not conducive to the public good and request that she is immediately deported and has her UK visa revoked. There have been numerous cases of children in the UK being tortured and sometimes killed due to the beliefs that Helen Ukpabio espouses … We cannot afford to wait for another such case before the Government takes action to put a stop to such preachers.

For many Ukpabio is the one performing the “spiritual attacks” rather than saving anyone from them. In March, WHRIN released its “2013 Global Report” to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council on faith-based, witchcraft-related violence. During that year Ukpabio’s home country of Nigeria along with South Africa had the highest number of reported acts on the African continent. Unfortunately the statistics are flawed because there is “considerable under reporting, particularly when children are accused.” WHRIN explains:

These figures are inconsistent with the experience of organisations providing support to child victims in these settings. It may be that such accusations have become so common they cease to attract attention. It is also possible that previous unwelcome international media coverage discourages local or national reporting.

This past week’s events in London certainly did stir the international media. Despite all that attention and outrage, Ukpabio successfully held her meeting in an small, undisclosed venue. A group from IHEU discovered that location and managed to stage a small protest. In an interview with Channel 4 London, IHEU’s Bob Churchill called Ukpabio’s work a crime because it “incites people to abuse.” The TV station sponsored a short but comprehensive report on the subject:

Ukpabio has since left the UK. However many are hoping that the government will permanently ban her from the country. Foxcroft says:

The issue of children being abused due witchcraft accusations in the UK has been recognised by the Government who established a National Working group to tackle the problem. However, as yet, there have been no successful convictions of pastors whose preachings are known to lead to child abuse and there is no law in place to stop such harmful practices.

London’s Metro Police operates a special task force called Project Violet to interface with local communities and organizations specifically working to prevent abuse. Additionally the national government has created an “action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.” It states:

This action plan is intended to help raise awareness of the issue of child abuse linked to faith or belief and to encourage practical steps to be taken to prevent such abuse … The beliefs which are the focus of this action plan are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide among Europeans, Africans, Asians and elsewhere as well as in Christian, Muslim, Hindu and pagan faiths among others. Not all those who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession harm children.

Within the UK there are also a number of charitable organizations, like Afruca, who work to raise awareness within African immigrant communities as well as in Nigeria itself. Afruca has offices in both London and Lagos, where it operates the Foundation for the Protection of the Rights of the Vulnerable Children. When Ukpabio left the country, Afruca tweeted:

It is the right direction for the UK and does send a message to the  international community. However the problem in Nigeria persists. Within the borders of her home country, Ukpabio is not only a respected minister but also a celebrity, a musician and a filmmaker. Her film production company, Liberty Films, is a household-name and a force in Nigeria’s film community Nollywood. Like her books and broadcast sermons, Ukpabio’s films are a delivery method for the anti-witchcraft message.

In a 2010 New York Times interview she defended her films saying, “It is only because I am African that people who understand that J. K. Rowling writes fiction would take literally Ms. Ukpabio’s filmic depictions of possessed children, gathering by moonlight to devour human flesh.” In another 2012 interview with Nigerian Yes! International Magazine, Ukpabio blames atheists for the continued backlash saying, “I marvel at the way people can easily use their demonic wisdom to kill, murder and slander another person.” When asked why she has so many enemies she says:

 I think [they fight me] because I preach the truth. Because I don’t compromise … So, people want to see me fall, people want to see me compromise … and I’ve refused.

Yes! International Magazine and other similar Nigerian pop media give Ukpabio a positive public voice in a country where she has millions of followers. However they do not speak for the entire country. The recent buzz on social media, blogs and in the Nigerian general media demonstrates that Ukpabio faces strong opposition among her own people. Here is a tweet from a mother and business woman residing in Lagos,

In addition there is a growing Nigerian child rights movement supported in part by international organizations such as UNICEF and Stepping Stones Nigeria. Ukpabio’s followers were caught on tape disrupting a meeting held by one these organizations.

As the fight for Africa’s children continues, the global community appears to be closely monitoring Ukpabio and other Pentecostal ministers like her. In 2008 Mags Gavan and Joost van der Valk released the documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children which focuses on the dangers in Ukpabio’s ministry. The film was broadcast internationally over several years. In the U.S. it appeared on HBO in 2010 while Ukpabio happen to be in the States. When she tried to return in 2012 the U.S. refused to grant her a VISA.

UNICEF Nigeria has posted a series called Radio by children accused of being witches which catalogs the experiences of the child victims in their own words. As we reported Wednesday, South Africa Pagan Rights Alliance is now holding its yearly 30 Days of Advocacy campaign to raise awareness in its own country  – another hard hit by these witch accusations. The list goes on.

While the world grapples with this wide-spread problem, it raises many questions concerning religious freedom and more. Where does religious practice end and child abuse begin? Who gets to draw that line? Even if Ukpabio and others like her are stopped, there are still millions who have been raised with this very real cultural fear of witchcraft as defined by those teachings. Where and how does the process of effective education start in order to prevent future abuse by new ministers who could easily step into Ukpabio shoes?

30days

On April 6 South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) held a 35th anniversary event to commemorate the death of freedom fighter Solomon Malanghu. Several national politicians spoke including President Jacob Zuma. The event turned “surreal,” as described by The Cape Times, when the National Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula labeled opposition party members “witches.”

The ANC is currently the controlling party of South Africa’s national government. However the country’s provinces are independently run. While the ANC maintains control over most of these provinces, its opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is the controlling force in the West Cape. The two parties regularly engage in heated political debates, street conflicts, marches and rallies.

Minister Mbalula at CHAN 2014 media briefing, 16 Jan 2014 [Photo Credit: Government ZA Flickr]

Minister Mbalula at CHAN 2014 media briefing, 16 Jan 2014 [Photo Credit: GCIS]

The anniversary event was held in a community center in the township of Nyanga in Cape Town which is located in the DA-controlled West Cape. Speaking to ANC supporters, Minister Mbalula took a direct shot at the opposing party when he said:

This thing of witchcraft is when a witch does nothing for the people but they still get re-elected. This is what we find ourselves in here in the Western Cape. We are being governed by witches. (As quoted by The Cape Times)

Later in the speech Mbalula adds:

These witches are oppressing us, they are trampling on us. Where are the tokoloshes and the (sangomas) so that we can chase these witches away? It is witchcraft to let people live with feces inside their own homes and have no proper toilets. This is the same province where farmworkers are not paid with money but in the dop system … It is the same place where our people are called refugees. What do you call that? Witchcraft … (as quoted in the Citizen Daily)

Witchcraft accusations are a serious business in sub-Sahara Africa. As described in this Daily news report, a lost grandmother can be accused of witchcraft and consequently in danger of being physically assaulted. Through his words Mbalula called up a deep-seated cultural fear surrounding occult practice.

In the weeks prior to Mbalula’s speech, the DA had publicly challenged President’s Zuma’s fiscal policies and accused him of corruption. In response the ANC demanded a legal retraction. Mbalula’s witchcraft accusations may have been a direct response to the DA’s claims.  All of this is happening only a month prior to general elections.

As explained in an opinion piece published by mainstream media site eNCA, a South African 24 hour television news station:

The ruling party seems to have deployed the Minister of Sports and Recreation to bring inflammatory and incendiary ideas and practices from the fringes into mainstream political debate… This was a role played by the party’s Youth League leaders not so long ago: making statements so provocative that the party elite could maintain a safe distance from any fallout yet benefit without necessarily disavowing or disciplining the errant figures. 

Mbalula’s speech may not have been completely a party play. He has a history of publicly lashing out. In a recent interview he called the South African media “losers” for criticizing his plans to shape South African athletics. In a tweet he likened his dreams to that of Hitler’s.

110414tweet

When soccer fans booed President Zuma, Mbalula called these fans “wolves and hooligans” whose “plans, infused in Satanism at best, will never succeed in the future because their plans are nothing else but filled with evil.”

Minister Mbalula appears to have a propensity for using inflammatory language. However in the case of his witchcraft accusations, the words are more than just offensive.They are illegal as defined in the Witchcraft Supression Act of 1957 & 1970. Making this point is South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) director Damon Leff,

We remind the Minister and the ANC provincial secretary that according to Act 3 of 1957, accusations of witchcraft are punishable by a fine of up to R400,000 or imprisonment for up to 10 years. Accusations of witchcraft amount to incitement to violence in South Africa. ANC members therefore contravene the electoral act by inciting violence (as quoted in the Citizen Daily)

Leff was interviewed about this subject by Talk Radio Host Kieno Kammies:


SAPRA has called on the ANC and the national government to apologize and condemn the ongoing, dangerous witch accusations. Since this call-to-action there has been no response from either party.  

These recent political events happen to coincide with SAPRA’s yearly “30 Days of Advocacy” campaign to raise awareness for and end the notorious witch-hunts in the country. SAPRA and other similar organizations have been regularly engaged in a cultural struggle and daily conversation with media, law enforcement and government.

30daysIn early 2014 the South African Police Occult Crime Unit revealed that “occult” related crimes were rising. In reaction:

[Unit] investigators [will be] doing awareness workshops that are being presented at various schools, churches, police stations …  A network of prayer groups from different church denominations where establish to assist with the problems.

In a press release SAPRA noted that the Unit has designated the warning signs of Occult “dabblers” as:

Personality changes including rebelliousness, boredom, low self-worthiness, difficulty relating to peers, a change in friends, secretiveness, a drop in academic performance, loss of interest in extra-curricular activities, avoidance of their family, drug and alcohol use, and withdrawal from their family religious heritage and a lack of church attendance … an unusual interest in books, films and videos with an occult theme…body markings, including the Pentagram 

In February SAPRA protested by lodging “a formal charge of hate speech against the SAPS Occult Crime Unit and its members, with the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, and the South African Human Rights Commission.”

Fortunately all of SAPRA’s work isn’t defensive. Just today Leff announced that SAPRA is being consulted in the amending of the country’s Witchcraft Suppression Act. The final paper will be submitted directly to the Law Reform Commission by May 30. It is SAPRA’s hope that the Commission will make some distinctions in Witchcraft practices that will support South African Pagans and curb the destructive witch-hunts.

In the meantime charges of witchcraft continue even at the highest level of public politics. The eNCA’s opinion piece concludes:

We can ill afford to either tolerate or entrench vilifying political speechifying which deploys tropes designed to provoke communities into moral panics. In March it was Satanism; in April it was witchcraft. What will May bring? …As for the appropriateness of calling people witches at a memorial for Solomon Mahlangu, one recalls the words of Joseph Welch from the United States’ anti-communist ‘witch-hunts’ during the 1950s: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?

While SAPRA will continue to wait for an apology from Mbalula and the ANC, it is not expecting to receive one.  The organization will be focusing its energy on the Commission’s reform work. A full article and update on that effort will be published in Penton Media’s Minority Review blog near the end of April.

Over the past three weeks, two Wiccan Police Officers have filed suit against the City of Los Angeles in response to workplace discrimination. On March 26 Officer Victoria DeBellis filed her complaint charging the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) with “harassment, discrimination and retaliation” due to her “sex and religion.” One week later her husband Sgt. A.J. DeBellis filed a similar suit.

Both officers are veterans of the LAPD. Sgt. DeBellis joined the force in 1990 while his wife joined in 1996. During the time of the reported problems, the couple worked in entirely separate divisions. Sgt. A.J. DeBellis was stationed in Devonshire. Officer Victoria DeBellis worked in North Hollywood and was later transferred to West Valley.

downloadOfficer DeBellis’ story begins in March of 2011 with what she describes as “severe sexual harassment.”  During that time, an unnamed fellow officer made repeated inappropriate propositions and engaged in unwelcome physical touch.  After filing a complaint with Internal Affairs, she was granted a request to move departments. However the harassment only followed her from North Hollywood to West Valley.

According to the report, DeBellis endured another two years of sexual harassment at the hands of one particular officer, Thomas Tenney.  At first it was limited to sexual harassment. Tenney allegedly admitted to having a “dislike and disrespect for women, including his own wife, mother, in-laws, and several ex-female officers Tenney supposedly tried to have fired because of their incompetence.”  DeBellis claims that Tenny even bragged about hitting another female officer with a basketball.

Within a few months of transferring to West Valley, DeBellis became the target for Tenney’s abuse. For example, he allegedly would shoot her with rubber bands followed by “inappropriate sexual and gender comments.” She endured the harassment over the next year and throughout her pregnancy.

Upon returning from maternity leave, DeBellis claims that she was hit immediately with both Tenney’s harassment and departmental discrimination due to her decision to breast feed. She requested daily personal time as afforded her by the Police Department’s Lactation Accomodation Policy.  At first she was denied this request causing physical pain and “embarrassment.”  After some struggle, she was eventually given the time. Before one lactation break, DeBellis recalls Tenney making the offensive remark,  “Are you going to milk it?”

LAPD Police Cars [Photo Credit: Flickr's 888BailBond]

LAPD Police Cars [Photo Credit: Flickr's 888BailBond]

In March 2013 Tenney discovered that DeBellis was a practicing Wiccan Priestess and a Buddhist. He allegedly said, “Woman can’t be Priests” and told her that she “could not switch religions.”  He also told her that she would “burn in hell” and allegedly warned other officers not to trust her. On one occasion Tenney hung a Blues Brothers poster near DeBellis’ work space. It read, “We are on a mission from God.”

In her filed complaint DeBellis describes the various ways in which she attempted to mitigate the situation. She met with superior officers, attended meetings, spoke with Internal Affairs, and repeatedly asked for assistance. DeBellis maintains that the Department did little to alleviate her problems and in some cases even made it worse.

DeBellis says that LAPD “denied her a work-environment free of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.”  As a result her “career has been materially and adversely affected, irreparably harmed and damaged by the conduct of the Defendants” including both the Department and a number of unnamed individuals.

A week after Officer DeBellis filed suit, her husband, Sgt. A.J. DeBellis filed his own complaint charging the LAPD with religious discrimination.  He specifically cites an incident that occurred in December of 2012.  His department held a mandatory training session at the Church of Rock Peak.  According to the report, the meeting included prayer and religious music. The filed complaint reads:

As a practicing Wiccan, (DeBellis) was deeply offended by the department’s decision to conduct the training session and holiday gathering at a religious facility and reasonably believed that the event violated the Establishment Clause and separation of church and state.

Over the next year, DeBellis became the target of further religious-based harassment which he believes was in retaliation for his initial internal complaint. On one occasion, someone placed a sign on his desk reading, “One Nation, Under God.”  In addition Sgt DeBellis states that he was forced into meetings without his lawyer and denied disability insurance and more.

The Los Angeles Police Department has declined to comment on either case at this time. However the Department does maintain strict policies regarding discrimination and harassment. These policies are publicly available for review on their website.

It is the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department that discrimination in the workplace on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. 

A Department employee may file a complaint on any action, procedure, practice, or condition of employment which the employee believes to be discriminatory on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, including sexual harassment; age…. [and more]

officers of avalonFollowing the case with interest is The Officers of Avalon, a nationally-based fraternal, educational, and charitable organization that provides community and networking for Pagan first responders and military. Currently the organization does “not have an official position regarding this issue as [they do] not know all the facts and circumstances surrounding this dispute.” However the organizers did say:

We stand in support of our fellow officers and hope that soon an understanding will be reached … While working in law enforcement, you must put your life in your co-workers hands and be able to trust that they will do all they can to get you home safe after your shift. You must also take the responsibility for their lives and safety. Trust is paramount, and there is no room for prejudice. No matter what sex, color, creed or religious calling, we all bleed blue.

Both cases are filed with the Superior Court of California, City of Los Angeles. The DeBellis’ and their attorney have declined comment. We will continue to follow this story as it develops.

On Thursday, April 3, 2014, two Pagans were inducted into the Martin Luther King, Jr. International College of Ministries and Laity at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Andras Corban-Arthen and Phyllis Curott were given this honorary designation for their ongoing efforts in the interfaith movement namely for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religion. The special ceremony was one part of a much larger event celebrating Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion.

downloadIn 2008 Karen Armstrong, author and fellow at the Society of Literature, received a $100,000 TED prize for her global messages of peace and compassion. Dr. Armstrong took that money and launched a campaign called the “Charter for Compassion” which would embody her message and grow a movement. The Charter is described as:

a cooperative effort to restore no only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems.

In February 2014 the city council of Atlanta joined the movement by unanimously voting to become a “Compassionate City.” The declaration was the result of a grassroots effort by a group called Compassionate Atlanta. The local movement garnered a number of supporters including The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and the Martin Luther King Jr International Chapel at Morehouse College.

Dr. Lawrence Carter

Dr. Lawrence Carter

Dr. Lawrence Carter, the dean of the Chapel at Morehouse, happens to also be a Parliament trustee. As Andras explains:

Through his involvement on our Board, Dr. Carter, who has been Dean of the MLK Chapel since its inception, felt that it would be significant for the Chapel to recognize the longstanding interfaith efforts of the Parliament, so he proposed that the current trustees be inducted as honorary ministers. 

Dr. Carter scheduled the “investiture ceremony” to coincide with Atlanta’s “Celebration of Compassion” and the honoring of Dr. Karen Armstrong. All events were held on Morehouse College’s campus in downtown Atlanta.

Prior to Thursday’s ceremonies, Andras and Phyllis met with local Pagans and Interfaith representatives to discuss “Pagans in the Parliament.” This talk was held north of the city in Sandy Springs at The Phoenix and Dragon, a local metaphysical bookstore and Charter for Compassion Partner.

Phyllis Curott and Andras Corban-Arthen at Phoenix and Dragon Bookstore, Atlanta

Phyllis Curott and Andras Corban-Arthen at Phoenix and Dragon Bookstore, Atlanta

After a digital slide-show highlighting the 20 years of Pagan involvement in the Parliament, the elders discussed the positive effects that global interfaith work has had on Paganism in general.  Lydia M. N. Crabtree, author with Immanion Press was one of those in attendance. She said:

It was interesting to see where much of interreligious tolerance for Paganism has come from. Without Phyllis Curott, Andras Corban-Arthen and many other, often unnamed and unrecognized leaders, working on a global level, interreligious work done by Pagans at the local level would be a pothole-riddled road to try and travel upon.

10152674_850351721648798_1602302713_n

Then on Thursday morning, Andras and Phyllis gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr International Chapel for their induction ceremony. Andras says:

I feel deeply honored and also overwhelmed, since MLK was my childhood hero, someone I’ve looked to for inspiration all of my life. It’s truly a humbling experience to walk down the photo-lined halls of the Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel, seeing all the faces of the remarkable women and men who put their lives on the line in the struggle for civil rights.

As part of its interfaith programming the Chapel has been “conferring honorary inductions” to those people whose work is “congruent with the principles set forth by Gandhi, King and Ikeda,” as Andras explains.  He and Phyllis became the first two Pagans, of any tradition, to receive this honor. Andras adds:

To have two of us welcomed into the ranks of a storied Southern Baptist institution; to sit on a stage along with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Catholics, Indigenous, Hindus, Sikhs, and Bahá’ís while the first African-American bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta stirred up the audience with all the zeal of an old-time black preacher; to be treated not just with openness and respect, but with actual deference by everyone at Morehouse — it really brought home just how far we’ve come. That scene would not have taken place as recently as 20 years ago, when the Parliament, much to its credit, first let us in the door.

Later that evening at the same Chapel, Compassionate Atlanta held its own reception and ceremony to honor Karen Armstrong and her work. Mr. Ajit Jumar of the consul General of India, Mr. Martin Luther King III, son of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mr. Shigeo Hasegawa, Vice President of Soko Gakkai International presented Dr. Armstrong with three different peace awards and an honorary degree. In addition, they unveiled a commissioned painting of her which will hang in the King Center Hall of Fame Gallery.

Andras Corban-Arthen at the Celebration of Compassion

Andras Corban-Arthen at the Celebration of Compassion

Sitting on the stage during the evening ceremonies were both Andras and Phyllis as trustees of the Parliament. Andras says:

It’s not every day that I get to share a stage with both the son of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi — a fascinating, educational, inspirational and productive visit to Morehouse College in Atlanta! 

Several local pagans attended the event including Eibhlean, Priestess and member of the Interfaith Community Initiative in Atlanta. She says:

Dr. Armstrong was engaging and thought provoking as she cited example after example of the existence of Compassion as a core tenet in religious faiths around the world. She ended her presentation with a statement that we could move closer to God by opening ourselves to seeing the Divine in everyone’s eyes – most especially in those who have caused us the most heartache. Compassion is not comfortable – it is standing in integrity and strength to embrace the world in its entirety. It was an honor and a joy to feel that embrace include me as a Witch and Druid.

Compassionate Atlanta has a complete overview of the entire event including photos, music samples and prayers read.  Want to know if your city is Compassionate? Go to the Charter for Compassion to see which cities have signed up for Dr. Armstrong’s “Compassionate City Initiative” and which local venues are Compassion Partners.  

Karen Armstrong at Compassionate Seattle (Photo Credit: Seamus Rainheart via Flickr)

Karen Armstrong at Compassionate Seattle (Photo Credit: Seamus Rainheart via Flickr)

Crisis hit the Florida Pagan community this week when locals became aware that Gavin and Yvonne Frost, founders of the Church and School of Wicca, were scheduled presenters at the annual Beltane Florida Pagan Gathering 2014 (FPG.)  In the past, the Frosts’ presence at FPG has generated a moderate number of complaints. Attendees and past headliners, such as T.Thorn Coyle, have expressed concern over specific content in The Witch’s Bible (reprinted  later as The Good Witch’s Bible) describing the religious initiation practices for sexually-mature minors. This year the Frosts FPG invitation sparked more than just voiced concerns. It led to decisive action.

1521719_10152394557671754_1775384618_n

Ray Romanowicz, former Division Coordinator, explains:

Monday I was checking with the workshop coordinator to see if she was doing OK … and she mentioned that the only issue she has [was] figuring out which of the preferred workshop locations to put the Frosts. I was stunned and taken aback to hear the Frosts were coming back …

In 2013 Romanowicz openly stated that if the Frosts ever returned to FPG he would resign as coordinator. On April 1 that is just what he did. He explains “I could not in good conscience be a part of any entity that allows [the Frosts] … A stand must be made someplace and I see it as here for me.” He immediately informed his community saying, “I really felt I had no other choice other than going as public as I could to shine the light on who would be speaking at FPG.”

As word spread Florida Pagans began to organize over social media. Discussions were hosted in a new private Facebook group called FrostFreeFPG. It was later renamed to Pagans for Change to reflect a more positive and global intent.

Rayna Templebee

Rayna Templebee

Concerned attendees also expressed their concerns directly to the Board via email. As Rayna Templebee describes, the response was always “the same generic reply that dismissed [their] concerns.” Rayna goes on to say, “I asked the TEG board to open their hearts to the many members of the FPG community who have survived abuse or had it touch their lives and to create a safe space by dis-inviting the Frosts to present. I never asked for them to be banned from the festival, but I respectfully suggested that they not be given an official platform for teaching as leaders or elders.”

Over the next 24 hours Rayna helped facilitate the writing of a “joint resolution to the FPG Board.” Using contributions from over a dozen people, Pagans for Change authored this official resolution stating in part:

We stand together, as modern Pagans, to urge the FPG Board to listen to our concerns and to help host and foster discussion about this critical issue. We call for a removal of the Frosts as presenters at FPG and a ban on any distribution or vending of their materials. It’s past time that our beloved community take a stand against those who advocate abuse. Silence = complicity.

While that was in process, a heated debate erupted on the the FPG Facebook page. On April 2 the Board opted to delete all of these posts saying:

Hot button issues tend to attract spectators and it has always been one of our greatest duties to protect the anonymity of our guests and staff especially those who are still in the broom closet. This is not an effort to prevent anyone from expressing their feelings about this issue whether positive or negative and we will not attempt to prevent people from posting elsewhere.

Later that same day, the FPG Board published its own statement in response to concerns stating:

Florida Pagan Gathering Beltaine 2014 will be hosting all of our headliners and workshop presenters currently signed up to present workshops, events and concerts. We want to assure everyone that FPG and TEG never has, and never will condone assault of any nature, be it verbal, physical or sexual. When our guests and staff are at FPG we work with our Guardians and fellow staff members to keep everyone as safe as possible and we respond to threats immediately.

Meanwhile Pagans for Change created a new public Facebook page in order to gather support for their cause. To date the joint resolution has been “signed” by 254 individuals and organizations including The Treasure Coast Pagan Pride Project, Everglades Moon Local Council (CoG), Moon Path Pagans, Officers of Avalon, Circle of the Moonlit Sea, Central Florida Pagan Association and more.

10176106_261906210659016_1855122944_nThe situation turned into what appeared to be a standoff as frustrations mounted on both sides. Florida resident and FPG Board member, Medea described the crisis as a “moral panic” saying, “What’s ironic is that the very thing [moral panic] that caused FPG to come into existence is the same thing that the community is facing today.”

As the hours ticked by more and more people voiced their opinions via social media. Vendor and presenter Gypsey Teague announced that she would no longer be attending FPG on ethical grounds. Orion Foxwood signed the resolution and added:

Orion Foxwood

Orion Foxwood

Some reactions to the resignation of a Florida Pagan Gathering staffer have been very narrow in their understanding of the impact a leader or author has on its community. The undeniable publishing of statements that encourage sex with minors as a “supposed traditional practice” encourages those who have these tendencies to follow them and feel they have an endorsement for it. Waiting for an arrest to stop such behavior is like saying that we need not prevent war until a bomb is dropped. With all due respect that approach is ill informed. There are two types of social change agents; activists and planners. The FPG staffer’s resignation became an activist’s call to action. Now, comes social planning where we all must foster systems to prevent harm and encourage well-being.

Then the standoff broke when an unknown individual took it upon himself to directly contact the host facility, Retreats By the Lake. Using both Twitter and Facebook, this person informed the facility’s owners that “Florida Pagans [were] embracing Sex-With-Children Advocates.” His very public statement understandably caused real concern for the child-friendly camp facility. They immediately contacted the FPG Board who then issued a second public statement:

Originally, we had a resolution where instead of hosting workshops there was going to be an open discussion with the Frosts … Unfortunately with the attack on the camp, and its owners, we cannot, in good conscience, allow the Frosts to come, even as private guests.

In response Pagans for Change emphatically stressed that this unknown person was not one of them and that his approach was “damaging to the entire community.” They added, “We support the Board’s request that it handle its relationship with the camp… We agree with the FPG Board that we need to offer each other love, support, compassion and honesty.”

After the latest turn-of-events, Ann Marie, President of the board of directors of the Temple of Earth Gathering (TEG), stressed the need for community healing in a final statement sent directly to The Wild Hunt. On behalf of the FPG Board, she said:

At the coming festival, in place of workshops that will now never be presented, we instead will attempt to hold some workshops and rituals focused on healing the community, because the pressing need right now is for us all to remember we are about one another, and our collective care for our community.

Many locals agree that the healing process does now need to begin. FPG has been and still is a beloved Florida event that is one of the center pieces in Florida’s Pagan festival life. However not everyone knows how to proceed or is even ready. Coral Bruce, a member of Spiraling Heart Coven, says, “I think [the Board] handled [the situation] poorly. They did not respond appropriately to the concerns of the community. Yes, there needs to be healing. I want to heal but I don’t know how yet.”

Camping at FPG Samhain 2013

Camping at FPG Samhain 2013

Marla Roberson, a Georgian elder and regular attendee from South Carolina agrees saying, “I have a lot of sympathy for the Board – what they have to put on and what they have to do. But I think they need to listen to their attendees … [Now] We do need to heal but I also don’t know how.” Neither Marla or Coral plans to attend FPG this year.

Rayna Templebee, on the other hand, will be attending. She says:

I had a workshop accepted that was already going to touch on sexual boundaries and ethics … so I look forward to offering that to the community.  I want to work from the inside to model a healthy and safe sexuality for the modern Craft.  I honor the work the TEG board and staff do to put on FPG and I know we can all help improve the way communication … is shared with attendees.

The situation is still on-going as new threats of lawsuits begin to appear in social media. Yesterday on Twitter the Frosts’ daughter called the protesters’ actions “illegal and bigoted.” The Frosts themselves have yet to respond to the situation on their own blog. As for Florida Pagans, FPG will go on as planned April 30-May 4 while its broken community finds ways of rebuilding and healing.

Will concerns raised in the sunshine state follow the Frosts throughout the year as they travel to other communities? Will these global ethics and safety concerns raised by Pagans for Change unleash a dialog elsewhere? Will event organizers nation-wide reevaluate their own communication processes and their relationship with their attendees to allow for more open communication concerning ethics and safety?

As the story develops, we will continue to keep you informed

Full statements:
Joint Resolution to the FPG Board
FPG Board Statement #1
FPG Board Statement #2
Pagans For Change Response
FPG Board Statement #3

In Canada’s Quebec Province, there has been an on-going debate over the teaching of a government mandated Ethics and Religious Culture Program (Programme Éthique et culture religieuse.) The ERC school curriculum was created and implemented in 2008 by former premier Jean Charest. Since that point it has caused multiple controversies and court cases which have now taken the debate to the steps of Canada’s highest court.

Canadian Supreme Court (Photo Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson, cc lic. Wikimedia)

Canadian Supreme Court (Photo Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson, cc lic. Wikimedia)

According to this mandate all Quebec schools, private and public, must teach a prescribed Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum or an equivalent. The province’s website explains:

For the purposes of this program, instruction in ethics is aimed at developing an understanding of ethical questions that allows students to make judicious choices based on knowledge of the values and references present in society. The objective is not to propose or impose moral rules, nor to study philosophical doctrines and systems in an exhaustive manner.

Instruction in religious culture, for its part, is aimed at fostering an understanding of several religious traditions whose influence has been felt and is still felt in our society today. In this regard, emphasis will be placed on Québecs religious heritage. The historical and cultural importance of Catholicism and Protestantism will be given particular prominence. The goal is neither to accompany students in a spiritual quest, nor to present the history of doctrines and religions, nor to promote some new common religious doctrine aimed at replacing specific beliefs.

To summarize, the program’s goal is twofold:  to expose children to aspects of Quebec’s own culture and to engage in a type of diversity training. Religions included are Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Judaism, Native spirituality, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and “other religions.”  The aim is not at all spiritual instruction. Author Brendan Myers, a Druidic Humanist and Philosophy professor explains:

Quebec was, up until around 50 years ago, a Catholic theocracy in all but name. Several Christian institutions, most prominently the Catholic Church, were the main taxpayer-funded service providers in education, health care, low-income housing and the like … The Quiet Revolution changed that and now most Quebecers want a vigorously humanist state. [The]  “Ethics and Religious Culture” course is in some ways a continuation of Quiet Revolution values. Its purpose is to expose students to a lot of different ethical world views from a lot of different religions, and thus continue to move the culture further away from the Catholic lock-step of life before the Quiet Revolution. 

In other words, the ERC is aimed at building a better secular state by educating its youth on the religious diversity found within its borders.

Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers

This government educational requirement is applicable even to the province’s private institutions. As Myers explains, Quebec regulates private schools with a “light tough.” For example, it might offer partial tuition subsides for “students attending schools meeting certain regulatory criteria.” However the ERC mandate has been handled differently. Myers says, “A private school which doesn’t offer this course won’t get its tuition subsidies for its students and might have its charter revoked.”

Since implementation in 2008 the program has come under considerable fire from both secular and religious communities. Should the government be allowed to force private religious schools to teach ethics that are contrary to their own belief structure? Should parents have the right to exempt their children from the program if its teachings are contrary to family belief? Should the teaching of religion and ethics instruction be allowed in secular schools at all?

The most recent battle began when a Montreal-based Catholic high school, Loyola, challenged the l mandate by asking the government for an exemption. The school does not want to include what it considers to be a “neutral” teaching of Christianity.  In its place the school would teach the ERC material but from “its own Jesuit style” that would be “respectful to [its] Catholic faith and morals.”

In 2008 the Quebec government refused the school’s request for exemption which sent the case to court. In 2010 a provincial Judge upheld the request saying, “The province’s order places Loyola in an untenable position: either it teaches the ERC program required by the Minister and thus violates its religious precepts, or it teaches the ERC course with its own program and thus violates the Act.”

In 2012 the province won an appeal which eventually led to the current Supreme Court case:  Loyola High School, et al. v. Attorney General of Quebec. According to reports, the debate is now centered on a new issue – one that is particular to the reading of Quebec law. In its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms religious rights are granted to “every person” and to “human beings.” The Charter never refers to institutions. Are the same religious freedoms, protections and rights granted to organizations such as Loyola?

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic Wikimedia]

In support of Loyola, various organizations have recently come forward. The World Sikh Organization of Canada said,

Freedom for collective religious activity is important to Sikhs in Canada as it is impossible to be a Sikh by oneself but only as a part of a larger community of believers. A broad interpretation of freedom of religion is critical for the protection of minority religious groups which are more vulnerable to government interference in their internal functioning.

Other groups acting as interveners at the March 24 Supreme Court hearing were The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada, Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada and a variety of Christian-based organizations. The CCLA wrote:

This appeal is of particular importance to the CCLA as it could determine and clarify – for the first time – whether and when a body corporate can invoke freedom of religion against the State. This is an increasingly pressing issue at the national and international levels

Should the school, as a “corporate body,” be granted the same religious freedom as an individual?  Should it realize that freedom by way of exemption from teaching a mandated ethics curriculum that is in direct conflict with its own belief structure but aimed at the betterment of society?  Can the celebration of religious pluralism within a multicultural environment overstep its bounds?  These are the issues now facing the Canadian Supreme Court. The debate will continue as the province and country now await on the Court’s ruling.

(Webcast of hearing available.  French only)

 

Before beginning I’d like to express my enthusiasm for the future of The Wild Hunt. Writing for and about this extended community has been both challenging and invigorating. One of the perks of the job is in the education. Every time I write an article or retell someone’s story, I learn something new. That’s the gift that I receive in return for my time and effort. In addition, I am ever thankful to Jason for instilling his trust in me to help usher in a new decade for this amazing resource.

That brings me to the subject for the day: resources or, more specifically, archival resources. Over the past 10 years Jason has been cataloging Pagan news. The Wild Hunt has become an historical archive containing data on many past events. Each post is a point in time providing a snapshot of what’s going on – the good and the bad; the progressive and the not so progressive and the downright ugly. It catalogs our successes and our failings as well as capturing the whimsy in celebration and expansion.

Photo Credit: Flickr's timetrax23

Photo Credit: Flickr’s timetrax23

Archival research has always been essential to much of my work and that remains true to this day. As I child I was told to never make a statement without 3 supporting facts. My teacher would often say, “Prove it.” I took her advice to heart and will do an excruciating amount of digging before making any type of claim. Now I find something very exhilarating in the finding of the “tiny needle in a haystack” after hours digging through archival material.

However the preservation of historical data serves more than just research junkies like me. There is a higher purpose. The founders of The Adocentyn Research Library explain, “We are living in a period of growth, diversity and change akin to the first few hundred years of Christianity. Future scholars shouldn’t have to rely on the discovery of a future Nag Hammadi library in order to understand our diversity and our history.” This is a project whose time has come.

Here’s an example from my favorite subject: film history. At the turn of the 20th century, movies were considered lowbrow entertainment or sideshow novelties. Nobody thought much more about the filmed product. Technical innovators focused on production while producers focused on the building of a commercial venture. Nobody stopped to catalog or archive the footage being shown. Nobody considered or knew how highly flammable the early celluloid material would be. The American film Industry focused on the doing and not the archiving. Consequently most early films are lost in whole or in part. The historical data contained in those early film reels and in the production processes are completely gone. That’s nearly 40 years of lost material.

Photo Credit: Flickr's Sonear

Photo Credit: Flickr’s Sonear

The Pagan Movement, as it’s been called, is now well beyond the stories of Gerald Gardener, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and the like.  Up to this point the focus has been more on the doing and not the archiving. No doubt much has already been lost. Regardless we still have many long trails of breadcrumbs through our cultural forest that can be captured. Sabina Magliocco, one of the founders of the Pagan History Project says:

It’s clear that we’re now one of the fastest-growing new religious movements in the world. The documentation of our early history is thus doubly important, especially as the movement is changing in important ways. The elders who were involved in the movement’s early days are now in the twilight of their lives; we have already lost a number just in the last year. Recording their histories and archiving documents from the beginning of the diffusion of modern Paganisms in the US will help preserve that history for future historians.

Just in the past two weeks, Judy Harrow’s crossing came as a surprise to many. Director Holli S. Emore says, “At Cherry Hill Seminary we are all too painfully aware of how the loss of someone like Judy Harrow inserts a sort of glottal stop in the narration of how we came to be where we are today. Anything we did not learn from Judy before last Friday is now gone forever.”

There are lessons to be learned from past experience at all levels of practice. What worked and what didn’t? Why did this group fold and this one last for 30 years?  Shauna Aura Knight is an author and presenter whose focus is on Pagan leadership skills. She says:

When I travel and teach Pagan leadership, what I see over and over is reinventing the wheel … I’ve seen local Pagan unity-type organizations–with actual not-for-profit status–folding because the leaders couldn’t sustain the organizations any longer. Thus those resources become lost, and any future group has to start again. 

Fortunately a number of projects have formed or are forming to fill this very need. Located in California’s Bay Area, The Adocentyn Research Library aims to preserve an expansive amount of material from a variety of religious communities “including indigenous, tribal, polytheistic, nature-based, and/or Earth-centered religions, spiritualities and cultures around the world and throughout human history.” They currently have cataloged more than 6,000 books and are working with the “Lost and Endangered Religions Project on conservation and storage of Pagan materials from India, Turkey and Guatemala.”

Similarly, in southern Delaware, the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel is raising money to finish the construction of the New Alexandrian Research Library (NAL). The “Library will be collecting materials from all religious traditions focusing on their mystical and the spiritual writings.” Founders hope that NAL will serve as both a functional community and research center as well as become a “cornerstone for the new magical Renaissance.”

Photo Credit:  Circle Sanctuary, Circle Magazine

Photo Credit: Circle Sanctuary, Circle Magazine

All archiving doesn’t need to be done by librarians and institutions. Several groups have digitized their own newsletters such as the Georgian Wicca Tradition and the Covenant of the Goddess. Back Issues of old print periodicals are available for purchase such as Circle Magazine whose offers issues dating back to 1980 when it was still called “Circle Network News.” The Founders of Adocentyn say “Archiving our history ourselves is important because we take our movement seriously, know how parts relate to one another, and understand it.”

Another recent development is the effort to capture individual stories. Shauna Aura Knight is co-editing a new anthology for Immanion Press has that very aim. She says, “I hope to start collecting the stories of what works and how leaders can use that, but also, what hasn’t worked. What are the mistakes we want to avoid in the future?”

The Pagan History Project has a similar objective. Sabina Magliocco explains:

The Pagan History Project is modeled after other oral history projects such as the American Folklife Center’s Veterans’ History Project. We rely on community members to record oral histories from other community members. These digital documents will be posted on a website and made available to other community members and scholars. … At this point, we are focusing on interviewing elders in our community who were involved with the inception of Paganisms in the US.

The Project seeks to create a “mythic history” that captures our humanity through the recording of voices. Currently organizers are looking for volunteers to go out into their communities and interview anyone willing. In this way future generations can benefit from the experiences of even those who have chosen to lead a quiet, non-public life. Holli S. Emore says,”For the many mystics among us, and most certainly for reconstructionists, an understanding of our historical roots has proven to be a vital part of our spiritual journey …  We are deeply enriched by learning the many layers and traces of Pagan history.”

The preservation of the past serves to not only enrich our present experience but to help build a stronger future. Together all these records will tell the greater story of a Movement or Movements with all the nuance and color one might expect. And, if nothing else, these archives will help future historians, research junkies and Wild Hunt journalists look back and say, “So that’s how it all came to be…”      

On Friday, March 28, Paramount Pictures will release Noah into U.S. theaters after a flood of controversy. Noah, dubbed a biblical blockbuster, was co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, the award winning director oBlack Swan (2010.) Noah has an all-star cast including Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connolley and Emma Watson.

Almost any time a biblical story is adapted to film, there will be controversy. Does the movie adhere to the original narrative? Does it represent its characters and thematics accurately?  Are the creative elements born of the spirit in the original text? These are some of the questions that circle around all biblical films. Realistically these are the same questions that arise with the adaptation of any famous text. However when religion is the story’s birth-mother and caretaker, the questions are far more poignant and the debate more heated.

“Noah’s Ark” is arguably one of the most well-known Old Testament stories and is often used as a children’s tale. It has been re-told in so many formats that it almost transcends its biblical roots becoming a mythical story in our over culture. “Noah’s Ark” has even found its way into the whimsical world of Disney cartoons (Fantasia 2000) and Broadway musicals (Two By Two).

Considering the amount of creative license needed to produce a Broadway or Disney rendition of the story, it may seem surprising that anyone would consider protesting a live-action adaptation by an award-winning director. However that is exactly what has been happening.

To date the film is banned in four Islamic countries (UAE, Indonesia, Bahrain and Qatar) and is expected to be banned in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait. Their objections are based upon the Islamic rejection of “any acts depicting the messengers and prophets of God.” as reported by Reuters.  Paramount expected these bans.

Paramount Films Noah 2014

Paramount Films Noah 2014

Back here in the U.S. viewer complaints center mostly on Noah’s characterization as well as its sub-themes. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a group of Christian viewers invited to test market the film “questioned [its] adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character.” One interviewee described Noah as a “crazy, irrational, religious nut who is fixated on modern-day problems like overpopulation and environmental degradation.” In response, Russell Crowe  has told an ABC interviewer, “This is a dude who stood by and watched the entire population of the planet perish. He’s not benevolent. He’s not even nice.”

Similar complaints have been pouring in since the movie’s inception. In 2012 Brian Godawa coined the now famous title “Noah: Environmentalist Wacko.” After reading the script, he wrote “This movie will be rejected by millions of devoted Bible readers worldwide because once again it subverts their own sacred narrative with a political agenda of pagan earth religion.” Godawa has also been quoted  as saying, “the director had transformed a scriptural story into ‘environmental paganism’ by blaming the great flood on man’s “disrespect” for the environment.”

It is no secret that Hollywood breathes contemporary issues into its adaptations. Was this film project born after an executive finished reading a report on global warming and the potential drowning of populated coastal areas? It is conceivable. The international media has billed Noah as “the original disaster story.” Interestingly enough, a 1928 Warner Brothers version of Noah’s Ark is largely considered the first melodramatic Hollywood disaster movie. There is an undeniable narrative correlation and, realistically, disaster movies are hot box office fodder.

Returning to 2014, Aronofsky’s Noah is just that: Aronofksy’s Noah. As filming progressed, Paramount became increasingly nervous that his creative license would not appeal to its target audience – conservative Christians. They began to test market various cuts of the film at the risk of straining the producer-director relationship. In the end, Paramount has opted to release the director’s cut despite viewer concerns.

According to the Washington Times, Aronofsky calls his film a mythic,“dark parable of sin, justice and mercy.” He also said it is the “least biblical Bible film ever made” calling Noah the “first environmentalist.” However Aronofsky also notes that biblically-based details directly informed the film’s development including the shape of the Ark and Noah’s drinking bout. In a recent ABC interview he said, “You don’t want to mess with it [the story]. You just want to bring it to life and … breathe life into it.”

Although Paramount will be releasing Aronofsky’s version, they are doing so with the following message attached:

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

Paramount’s decision to add this disclaimer was based upon a request from the National Religious Broadcasters, “a non-partisan international association of …Christian communicators coming together to spread the life-changing Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through every electronic medium available.” Having spent a reported $130 million on the biblical blockbuster, Paramount felt the disclaimer was fiscally prudent.

There are many Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders who have come out in support of the film. Most recently, the Pope himself granted Crowe an audience after three requests.  According to several reports, he blessed the film’s release.

Paramount Pictures Noah (2014)  Starring: Russell Crowe

Paramount Pictures Noah (2014) Starring: Russell Crowe

Despite Papal approval, viewer objections still haunt the film. Creationist Ken Ham has asked his followers to see Ray Comfort’s Noah film, being released the same day, “instead of wasting money by supporting a pagan Hollywood Noah movie that really makes a mockery of the account of Noah, the Ark and the Flood.”

Once again the primary accusation is one of fostering “paganism” (lowercase intended.)  In most cases, the word is simply used to refer to “secularism or environmentalism.”  However in many of these reviews, the writers are in fact referring to what they call “pagan earth religions.”

This begs the question: Does the film have Pagan themes?  After hearing such complaints, did Paramount ask the opinion of people practicing “Earth Religions?” If so there are no such indications or media reports.

Will you go see the film? Pagan blogger Jonathan Korman is looking forward to its release. He wrote, “I have been joking that Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming film Noah is a film for which I may be the only audience. I’m ethnically Jewish, a former atheist, and a Modern Pagan, with a fascination with the whole range of religions and myth.”

He may be right in its very eclectic appeal. Compressing the flurry of mainstream articles and reviews, here’s a glimpse at the global scope that has and still is surrounding the film and its production. In the mythic style of Lord of the Rings, Aronofsky’s Noah is a creative retelling of a beloved biblical story written and directed by Jews; containing contemporary Pagan Earth Religion themes; marketed specifically to a conservative Christian audience and banned by the world’s Islamic community.

And they call Hollywood secular.

During my time at PantheaCon, I was fortunate enough to speak with Geraldine Beskin, the owner of the Atlantis Bookshop in London. Like myself, this was Geraldine’s first trip to PantheaCon and we both were amazed and delighted by the enormity of it all. When we sat down to talk, my original intention was simply to ask her about the changes at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, but we were quickly sidetracked discussing everything from the Museum to Atlantis; from the Wildwood Tarot to the Occult in film. When two Gemini sit down for a conversation, the topic never stays constant.

Here is an overview and history based on that fascinating discussion.

Geraldine at work in Atlantis Bookshop Photo: The Gentle Author/Spitalfields Life spitalfieldslife.com

Geraldine at work in Atlantis Bookshop  Photo Source: The Gentle Author/Spitalfields Life

Geraldine Beskin is the longtime owner of the 92-year-old Atlantis Bookshop in London. Located in the Bloomsbury district on Museum Street two blocks from the British Museum, the shop is the oldest and most well-known occult shop in England and quite possibly the world. It was established in 1922 by occultist Michael Houghton. As Geraldine says, “it was founded by magicians for magicians.” Some of the most well-known occultists and witches have passed through its doors including Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, Dion Fortune, W.B. Yeats and so many more.

Geraldine Beskin  Photo Source: The Gentle Author / Spitalfields Life

Geraldine Beskin Photo Source: The Gentle Author / Spitalfields Life

Geraldine’s own history is very much tied to Atlantis. In 1962 her own father assumed ownership of the store. As a result she grew up in and around London’s magical world; absorbing its energy and learning from the people that came and went. She recalls walking past Gerald Gardner on the shop’s stairs as he headed up to a meeting with her father and others. Although she never formally met him, she knew he was considered the “king of witches.” Today as she shares that memory, she laughs saying, “There stood one asthmatic Gemini named Geraldine looking at another asthmatic Gemini named Gerald.”

At the age of 19, she began working in the shop and then eventually took over as owner in 1972. Due to family responsibilities, she sold the shop in 1989; only to return again in 2002. When she returned to town and repurchased the store, news spread quickly that “Geraldine was back in town.”  It was as if the universe was set right again. Geraldine was back where she belonged.

Today she and her daughter Bali together own and manage Atlantis. They give us a tour in the following video taken by Jack Dark, writer of the popular essay: “A Very Brief History of British Paganism.”

After 92 years in operation, Atlantis is still a shop by magicians for magicians. The world surrounding Witchcraft and Witches is a far cry from what it was in 1922. The store has seen an immense amount of cultural change but has continued to play an important role in England’s magical culture. As Geraldine notes, people from all walks of life stop by, just as Crowley did, for a cup of tea and good conversation. In fact, it was a visit to Atlantis that inspired Shai Feraro, the Israeli academic, to pursue  his research on Paganism and Feminist Spirituality. He said:

After a visit to the British Museum, I stumbled upon an occult bookshop on Museum Street. As you probably guess by now, it was the Atlantis Bookshop … This led to my M.A. thesis on the development of the Feminist Spirituality Movement in the United States during the 1970s-1980s.

Authors John and Caitlin Matthews are two regular visitors to Atlantis.  They said:

Atlantis Bookshop is a central point for all who are seekers on the path of occult wisdom. It’s at once a resource, a drop in for Pagans and seekers of all kinds of magical arts. Geraldine is, of course, herself a fount of knowledge and wisdom, and her expertise on Esoteric arts and practices is both practical and informed. … Whenever we have time in London we call in at Atlantis for tea, a chat and a browse … Atlantis is a shining light in the jungle of London.

Today Atlantis publishes its own material under its imprint Neptune Press just as it did in 1922. They also sponsor workshops and launch books. John Matthews says:

When we were making a trailer for a TV show set partly in the 40s we filmed several scenes in the basement and courtyard of Atlantis, which doubled for wartime London. They have been consistently helpful to us, promoting our work and … drawing the attention of customers to our fledgling publishing company, Mythwood Books.

Geraldine herself offers lectures on occult topics such as “Woman of the Golden Dawn,” “Aleister Crowley: The Man behind the Mask” and “Many P. Hall: The Murdered Mystic.”

Atlantis Bookshop Photo Credit: The Good Author / Spitalfields Life

Atlantis Bookshop Photo Source: The Gentle Author/Spitalfields Life

Atlantis has become an important part of British Witchcraft history. Lurking in its walls, there is a treasure trove of stories from times past. It is an artifact in its own right and even a museum with Geraldine as its curator.

In that way it is not at all surprising that Geraldine works closely with the famous Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. Established by Cecil Williamson shortly after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, the Museum was originally located on the Isle of Man.  After a few unsuccessful moves, the Museum landed in the small fishing village of Boscastle in 1960 where it has remained ever since. Like Atlantis, the Museum has survived much change including a devastating flood in 2004. The waters washed away much of the town and buried the Museum’s entire first floor in mud. Despite this devastation, “the museum lost almost nothing,” says Geraldine who calls the cottage magical.

In October of 2013, owner Graham King announced his retirement.  He bought the museum from an ailing Williamson in 1996 and has been running it successfully ever since. His successor is high-profile art director and set designer, Simon Costin. Geraldine herself remarked how thrilled she was with this appointment. She believes that Simon’s modern media savvy will be a refreshing addition to the British landmark.

However Simon Costin was brought on for more than just media awareness.  He has a unique passion for the preservation of British folklore and the Museum of Witchcraft fits that bill. Although Costin is not a witch himself, Witchcraft history “ticks his boxes,” as Geraldine described. In a 2010 interview with artCornwall.org Costin said:

I have been interested in Myths and Folk Stories for as long as I can remember … [This interest] is completely separate from my work as a practice but there is a blurring of interests. I have been involved with it for so long now that it’s hard to say where one thing stops and another starts. My early artworks were influenced by fairy stories and folk tales. Much of my work … takes me into mysterious other worlds where changes in scale have echoes of Alice in Wonderland, so I suppose there are overlaps.

In 2009 he started a traveling Museum for British Folklore.

Quite often over the years, I have tried to find a place where I could learn more about Britain’s rich folk heritage only to discover that we don’t actually have any such institution. This is strange really when we produce so much of it.

Today the award-winning Museum stands as one of the most recognizable tourists destinations in Cornwall, if not England itself. Author John Matthews has remarked, “The museum of Witchcraft is a study centre which enables serious students to get beyond the sensational (although there’s a fair bit of that too)… to the real history of Witchcraft.” In December 2013, the museum announced that it is applying for official museum accreditation and will remain in Cornwall for at least the next five years.

Photo Credit: Selbst fotografiert von JUweL under CC lic.

Photo Source: Selbst fotografiert von JUweL under CC lic.

During our conversation Geraldine couldn’t say enough positive things about the future of the Museum. She also added that the cottage “oozes charm.” It appears small from the outside but when you step inside it goes on and on like a “Harry Potter building.” Together the Atlantis Bookshop and the Museum of Witchcraft have become two respected institutions aimed at preserving what Simon Costin called “British folk heritage” and additionally the history of Witchcraft. Going forward both appear to be in very good hands.

Dancing Pan by Woody Fox Willow.  Sculpture is now on permanent display outside of the Museum of Witchcraft. (www.woodyfoxwillow.co.uk)

Dancing Pan by Woody Fox Willow. Sculpture is now on permanent display outside of the Museum of Witchcraft. (www.woodyfoxwillow.co.uk)

 

It is all over the mainstream news from local papers to The Washington Post: “Wiccans Sue City over Ten Commandments.” Yes this story is true. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of two Wiccan practitioners who were offended by the installation of a Ten Commandments monument on City Hall property in their hometown of Bloomfield, New Mexico. The lawsuit went before a U.S. District Court Monday drawing national media attention.

bloomfield nm

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

The narrative isn’t new but the players are. Wiccans fill the plaintiffs role instead the widely expected Atheists or Humanists. In this case, the two plaintiffs are Bloomfield residents Janie Felix and Buford Coone, both members of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Janie is a certified clinical herbalist and High Priestess of the group. In 2000 she moved to Bloomfield New Mexico  where she began teaching Wicca 101 and herbalism at the local metaphysical shop. She says:

I quickly found there were many like-minded folks, some not knowing where to turn, some practicing solitaries and some merely dabbling. Over a period of time we formed a spiritual group, and eventually a formal coven.

Janie Felix

Janie Felix

Janie’s home now serves as the covenstead with a permanent ritual site in the backyard. That site and Buford’s home are both less than 2 miles from City Hall where the problems all began.

On April 3, 2007, Bloomfield’s Councilor Kevin Mauzy “made a presentation of a monument to display the Ten Commandments in front of Bloomfield City Hall serving as a historical and art display for the city.” As noted in the official meeting minutes, the proposal was approved and the funds were to come from “private donations from the community.” In testimony this past week, The Albuquerque Journal reports Mauzy saying, “[The monument] was not for religious purposes. It was for historical purposes and to beautify the city.”

After the approval, the Council adopted a resolution permitting private “citizens, groups and organizations” to sponsor displays on City Hall’s lawn. The official resolution outlined the scope and approval process for such an installation. For example one requirement states that all displays must reflect the “history and heritage of the City’s law and government.”

There was an almost immediate outcry from people of many religious backgrounds. At the 2007 meeting, the City Manager urged the Council to delay the monument’s approval until legal concerns were addressed. Opponents spoke at council meetings, sent letters-to-the-editor and signed petitions. One Bloomfield citizen even launched a blog called: “Bloomfield NM Ten Commandments Monument.” In one of the few entries, the writer includes a published letter to editor of The Farmington Daily Times. His words prophetically state:

Perhaps saddest of all, the City Council will no doubt cost the small town of Bloomfield large amounts of taxpayer dollars in legal fees in an attempt to defend this unconstitutional course.

Despite the myriad protests, the monument was erected in June 2011.

Present at the unveiling was Debra Dogget, volunteer coordinator of Ardantane Pagan Learning Center, former Bloomfield resident and former member of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Debra says, “It was very much a religious ceremony … with a great deal of talk about the Ten Commandments being the foundation of law in the US.”

In the ACLU’s complaint , Buford Coone is recorded as saying the “display shows that the City favors the Christian religion and supports Christianity over other religions [and] … violates the U.S. Constitution and the New Mexico Constitution.” In the same document, Janie Felix says, “[the monument] sends a message of exclusion to those who do not adhere to that particular religion.”

Watching the situation from her own home in New Mexico is Amber K, a Wiccan Priestess and executive director of Ardantane.  She says:

New Mexico is home to hundreds of different religious faiths, traditions, denominations and sects, who should be able to expect that government agencies will perform its duties in an unbiased, even-handed, secular manner, respecting no creed above any other. New Mexicans can be proud that citizens of many cultures and beliefs live together in mutual respect; the Bloomfield monument threatens and disrespects that fine tradition.

Debra Doggett

Debra Doggett

Amber’s statement supports Janie’s own observations about the region. She notes that there are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Atheists, Baptists, other Protestant denominations and, in nearby Farmington, a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. In addition, the region has at least two CUUPS chapters, Ardantane Pagan Learning Center and Covenant of the Goddess’ Albquerque-based local council Chamisa. Janie also adds that the area boasts “a strong presence of Native Americans following traditional paths.”

Despite this diversity, both Janie and Debra agree that the immediate Bloomfield area has become more religiously conservative. Debra says:

The climate in Bloomfield, at least for those who work for the city, is very much controlled by Christianity and those who don’t tow that line are very much in fear of losing their jobs. There [were] many more folks who were approached to be plaintiffs … but several of them work for the City of Bloomfield and they fear for their jobs … They knew they would lose them if they agreed to sue.

But why sue? Why not simply fund a monument per the city’s resolution?  Debra points out that news articles got that point wrong. She says that there “is no longer any room for more” monuments. “The group that funded the Ten Commandments has [used] up” all the allotted space.

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

“That group” is the Four Corners Historical Monument Project which was led by councilor Kevin Mauzy himself. Twenty-one days after the 2011 monument ceremony, the Council amended the 2007 resolution stressing the limits of usable lawn space. Later that year, the group installed two other monuments, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, within that limited space.

Was the original monument actually the city council’s endorsement of the private religious beliefs of its sitting councilors?  The ACLU believes so. The organization has been watching since 2007. After sending letters-of-concern and launching an investigation, the ACLU finally decided to file a lawsuit on Feb. 9, 2014. According to the filed complaint:

The City of Bloomfield accorded preferential treatment to the monument’s sponsors, disregarding many city ordinances and policy requirements that would regulate the monument’s installation. Public records requests also reveal that Mauzy sought and received legal advice on the monument from the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization that often advocates for the merging of government and religion.

On Monday, March 10, the case went to trial before U.S. District Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque. Janie and Buford were both there to testify. The trial ended Thursday but the Judge is not expected to make a ruling for several weeks or even months.

On advisement from her attorneys, Janie was unable to comment further on the case. However she did say that she will be happy to share her experiences with The Wild Hunt at a future date. Until then we will have to wait to see how the next chapter in the story is written.