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There are many surviving ancient and sacred spaces around the world. Some are protected and used for spiritual practice; some have become popular tourist destinations; and some are left to the whims of a changing culture. These sacred spaces range from human constructions to natural lands built only by the elements. From the ancient Greek temples in Agrigento, Italy to the ruins in Arizona’s Wuptaki National Monument, these spaces resonate with many contemporary people in their work to honor, reconstruct, practice and celebrate time-honored religious traditions, the associated cultures and surrounding ecology.

Unfortunately, many of these unprotected spaces, whether purely natural or human-engineered, are open to threats posed by modern construction in the name of so-called “progress” and industrialization. One such place that has recently drawn international attention is the mountain of Mauna Kea on the “Big Island” in Hawai’i.

"Mauna Kea from the ocean"[Credit: Vadim Kurland, Lic. CC Wikimedia]

“Mauna Kea from the ocean”[Credit: Vadim Kurland, Lic. CC Wikimedia]

Mauna Kea rises over 13,000 feet above sea level and is a dormant volcano with surrounding lands that feature native species of plant and animal. The area has long been held sacred to the native Hawaiian people and is a definitive part of ancient religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, the mountaintop was discovered to be one of the best places on Earth to study astronomy. These two realities have to come into conflict.

Today, Mauna Kea has 13 observatories on its summit funded by over 11 countries. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists discovered Mauna Kea’s optimal conditions for telescope viewing. When it was finally possible to reach the mountain, the University of Hawai’i (UH) was granted a 65-year lease to develop the land for research. By the late 1970s, other organizations began to request authorization to sub-lease that property. Those agreements are what has led to the large number of telescopes on the mountain today.

Protests began almost immediately after the first UH telescope was completed. Locals were concerned not only about the destruction of a sacred religious space but also about disturbances to the indigenous wildlife, some of which is native only to that area. In the 1980s, the state published a development plan and environmental impact report. In 2000, the plan was updated “to include community involvement” and the Office of Mauna Kea Management was established.

However, it was only a few short years later that a new $1.4 billion Thirty-Meter Telescope was proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea. This colossal telescope, called TMT, would be the largest and most advanced in the world with an optical ability 10x greater than any working telescope. According to an AP report, “The telescope should help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.” Headed by Caltech and the University of California, the project is being funded jointly by interests from the United States, Japan, Canada, India and China.

Proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope [Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation  via Wikimedia]

Proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope [Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation via Wikimedia]

In 2011, the Hawai’i Board of Land and Resources gave preliminary approval for the sub-lease and construction of the telescope. Despite legal actions and protests from locals, the Board gave its final approval in April 2013. The date for completion would be 2022.

Opponents filed an appeal in May 2013 in yet another attempt to stop the project. The appeal reads:

Mauna Kea advocates are seeking justice in Hawai‘i courts … It is unfortunate when public citizens are forced to go through court proceedings when developments such as the TMT Project are systematically granted permits by the BLNR despite these projects not meeting the criteria as outlined in Hawai`i State law … We must proceed ahead and be idle no more. Mauna a Wakea is still sacred.

One of the laws that is being broken is a building height code. The proposed TMT would become the tallest building on the island. Along with environmental concerns and a destruction of sacred space, opponents also point to a direct violation of state codes.

The first appeal was eventually denied when the courts upheld the Board’s decision to allow the sublease. According to reports, four individual opponents, Kealoha Pisciotta, Clarence Ching, Paul Neves and E. Kalani Flores, were not giving up and have since decided to take the issue back to court in four separate cases representing only themselves. Despite the threat of future court action, the TMT Observatory Corporation felt comfortable moving forward and set the groundbreaking ceremony for Oct. 7.

What the TMT Observatory Corporation didn’t expect is what happened on that day. Protestors blocked the road leading up to ground-breaking ceremony site. They spoke out, chanted and held signs that read things like “Your Mother is Not a Commodity” or “Too Many Telescopes.” The vans carrying attendees were forced to slow down or stop entirely. Much of this was captured on video:

Later the same group of protestors interrupted the ceremony itself. Led by Pua Case and Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, they stood before the crowd of attendees and addressed investors. In a desperate emotional appeal, one woman says to a group of Japanese men, “You let Mount Fuji stand; Mount Fuji is sacred. Our Mauna Kea is just as sacred as Mount Fuji. Please hear us. Hear us … She protects us.”  This was also caught on video:

The protests were echoed in Palo Alto, California where a group of people stood outside of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation offices. The Foundation is one of the American investors backing the TMT project. The California protest was led by Kauʻi Peralto, a Hawaiian cultural educator at Stanford University, and was also supported by the Santa Cruz Indigenous Solidarity, the Wintun tribe of Northern California and many other concerned individuals.

In a blog post, Kealoha Pisciotta a native Hawai’in, local activist and president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, described best the meaning of the mountain and why all of these people have come together to stop a project that would otherwise seem beneficial to human understanding and scientific discovery. Pisciotta describes Mauna Kea as the “temple of the creators,” which is home to the deities that gave birth to the Hawaiian people. It is the meeting of Earth Mother and Earth Father. She writes, ” Mauna Kea in every respect represents the zenith of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral ties to Creation itself.”

The mountain is featured in many Polynesian myths and religious stories. It is considered a place of calm and a place of peace. She writes:

When we look to Mauna Kea, we look from Mauna Kea and we look within ourselves to find our responsibility to Mauna Kea and hence our place in the world. We move through time and space back to our beginning, to the time when the Pō (darkness of creation) gave birth to the Ao (light of creation) … We feel honored that we are allowed to be there, humbled by the majesty and greatness of Mauna Kea.

Another activist, one of the protest leaders, and a Hawaiian cultural educator, Pua Case regularly incorporates the mountain into her own personal spiritual practice. She told a San Francisco reporter:

Almost no matter where I look, there’s something foreign there. I can never just pray as you would in a forest where there are just trees — where no matter where you faced,  it would be just you and your forest, you and your gods, you and your spirit. I’m afraid if there’s one more thing, I can never really look at my mountain and pray without having to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ 

Case was unfortunately unavailable for interview but did briefly say that the spiritual practices of her native people are very complex and connect deeply to this mountain.

Last week’s protests did successfully halt the TMT groundbreaking. However, the project is still moving forward, if only delayed. Case, Pisciotta and many others pledge to continue the battle to save their mountain, their sacred space, their protector and, in doing so, preserve a specialized local ecology and a piece of native Hawaiian culture.

When people think of anthropological museums, they might recall the famous British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Smithsonian in WDC, or New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Very few people would consider Atlanta, Georgia home to a place that cradles any of the treasures of ancient civilizations. But it is. Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum is one of the country’s top small anthropological museums. Its area of focus has captivated local Pagans and Heathens for years.

[Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University [Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Founded in 1919, the Carlos Museum has been growing its collection of art and cultural artifacts for nearly a century. Its beginnings can be found with a collection of Asian works brought back by Methodist missionaries in the 1870s. Over time, Emory University grew and along with it, the museum. Today it houses over 16,000 art objects from “ancient Egypt, Nubia, Near East, Greece, Rome, ancient Americas, Africa, and Asia as well as a collection of works on paper from the Renaissance to the present.”

In displaying these pieces, the museum says, “[We show] meticulous care for the legacy of ancient civilizations and the learning opportunities innate in each artifact.” In its Greek and Roman exhibit, you might see a marble “Statue of Venus” (Roman, fourth century B.C.E.) In its Asian exhibit, you might find the red sandstone “Figure of Ganesh” (India, eighth or ninth century).

Over the last 15 years, the Carlos Museum has become known particularly for its impressive and sizable ancient Egyptian collection. Originally, the exhibit centered on artifacts acquired in the 1920s, including the oldest Egyptian mummy in the Americas. Then, in 1999, its collection grew substantially after the purchase of 145 artifacts from the now-closed Niagara Falls Museum.

Most of new pieces were funerary in nature including, in part, 10 mummies and 9 coffins. The items had originally been acquired by a collector in the 1850’s and placed on display with what, National Geographic called, a “tacky, freaks of nature”  exhibit at the old museum. After examining the pieces, Emory professors discovered that one of the artifacts was the lost mummy of Ramses I. Emory returned the mummy to Egypt “as an act of goodwill.” An Canadian Egyptologist told National Geographic:

Ramses was from northern Egypt, and the family’s god was Seth, the god of storms. The night of the reception [to open the new exhibit] there was a powerful storm, with thunder and lightning and hail; a tornado just missed us. It was a very unusual storm for Atlanta. I think it was Rameses, letting us know that he’s happy to be going home.

In addition to its remarkable permanent collection of ancient cultural artifacts, the Carlos Museum also sponsors exhibits that celebrate contemporary cultures through art. For example, in 2012, the museum sponsored an exhibit on Tibetan Sand Mandalas created by Buddhist monks. A talk was given called, “Reflections on Artistry, Spirituality and Community.”

In a similar exploration of spirit and expression, this year’s visiting exhibition is called “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon: Wixárika Arts of Modern Western Mexico.” In a press release, the museum says:

[The Wixárika's] stunning beaded objects and pressed-yarn “paintings” span the sacred to the secular, from prayer bowls used on their pilgrimage ceremonies to masks made expressly for collectors. Brightly colored, precise, dynamic and detailed, these works depict their sacred sacrament, the peyote cactus, the deer, the sun and the moon, shamans, maize plants, jaguars and scorpions.

 

Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

This new exhibit celebrates the Wixárika people, “often known as the Huichol, the indigenous people of modern western Mexico.” The museum explains that local artisans often sell copies of their sacred objects in order to maintain their lifestyle and culture, and to remain on their lands. The museum goes on to explain:

The Wixárika strive toward balance in themselves, between humans and nature, and in the spirit world. Their ritual life is oriented toward maintaining harmony. All phenomena are considered interrelated– particularly humans, maize, deer and peyote– and interchange forms. For instance, in mythic times deer became the peyote cactus, which now is “hunted” on the annual pilgrimage to the northern deserts. Shamans (mara’akame) mediate the natural balancing of the cosmic realms and the transformations that occur in other realities. Art is used in rituals, its bright colors meant to attract the attention of the spirits that are believed to control all natural phenomena including rains, the crops, time, and the sun and moon.

As the literature and its employees will remind you often, the museum’s primary purpose is one of education and conservation. With the help of Emory University faculty, museum curators work to provide a public resource and learning center, as well as a student research and teaching facility. The museum offers regular lectures, symposia and brings in special exhibits, like “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon.” For children, they offer camps and classes. This fall’s lineup includes subjects like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, an introduction to the sacred heroes of Mayan culture, or the Manifestations of Vishnu.

For those not in Atlanta or those not able to attend events, the museum sponsors blogs managed by archaeologists in the field. Currently the museum’s website is hosting “iSamothrace: Framing the Mysteries in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.” In June, several archaeologists blogged from Israel on “iTell Halif.” Last winter, the Senior Curator of the Egyptian collection and the assistant curator of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, both blogged from a dig “iMalqata.”  In addition, the museum maintains an online in its digital gallery.

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

It doesn’t stop there. The Carlos Museum also sponsors podcasts that “use works of art in [its] collection to spark conversations between distinguished members of Emory’s faculty … Each podcast brings together experts from different disciplines to look at museum objects in new and unusual ways.” Past podcast topics include: “The Shock of the New: Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and the Religious Imagination,”  “The Power of the Goddess,” “Seeing Shamans,” and “Drinking with a Siren.” These interdisciplinary podcasts have won local awards. For the younger set, the museum has created Odyssey – an interactive journey into the ancient worlds.

Not everyone has the means or ability to visit the sacred sites of the ancient worlds in order to enhance religious practice, or to experience the beauty of distant cultures. Not everyone can witness first-hand the lands that were once, and still are, attributed to their own Gods, or experience the powerful rituals and cultural expressions of indigenous societies. Fortunately for those living in the American southeast, the Carlos Museum attempts to bring a taste of those wonders to Atlanta. Through the the cultivation of ideas, conversation and research, the museum gives locals and visitors the opportunity to explore and to be inspired by the spirit and culture of ancient worlds and modern cultures through its art.

For only the second time in its 16 year history, the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER) issued a Declaration. ECER is an international body composed of delegates from 12 different countries which assist European ethnic religious groups in opposing discrimination. The organization focuses on ethnic or indigenous religions, not modern occult or syncretic neo-religions. ECER was founded in 1998 and drew up its first declaration, with a second addition, in the same year.

ECER decided to write a new declaration after the death of krivis (supreme priest) Jonas Trinkūnas of Lithuania, who was ECER’s founder and first president. The group wanted to restate its mission and renew its commitment during a time of transition. It also wanted to address some of the problems that ethnic Pagan groups in Europe still face.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Andras Corban-Arthen, current President of ECER and delegate from Spain, about the declaration. We placed the full declaration below in bold; intersected with it are excerpts of our interview with Mr. Corban-Arthen which clarify or address the section preceding it.

Andras Corban-Arthen addresses the ECER meeting held in Lithuania [photo credit Corban-Arthen]

Andras Corban-Arthen addresses the ECER meeting held in Lithuania [Photo Credit :Mapiva Yapakn ]

A DECLARATION FROM THE EUROPEAN CONGRESS OF ETHNIC RELIGIONS (English Version)

We, the delegates from twelve different countries convened at the European Congress of Ethnic Religions in Vilnius, Lithuania, on this 9th day of July 2014, join our voices together to make the following declaration:

We are members of diverse European indigenous ethnic cultures who seek to revitalize and reclaim our ancestral religious and spiritual traditions. We honor those who went before us, who gave us our life and our heritage. We are bound to the lands of our ancestors, to the soil that holds their bones, to the waters from which they drank, to the roads that they once walked. And we seek to pass that heritage to those who come after us, whose ancestors we are in the process of becoming – our children, our grandchildren, and the many generations yet to be born. We send solidarity and support to those other indigenous nations, races and religions who are also engaged in the struggle to preserve their own ancestral heritages.

Our ethnic religions are the product of the history of this continent; they are the living expressions, in the present, of our most ancient traditions and identities. At a time when the world is precariously balanced on the edge of environmental and economic upheaval, largely as the result of imbalanced individualism and rampant greed, our religions promote very different models of spiritual and social values: living in harmony, balance and moderation with the Earth; the importance of family and cooperative community; and respect and honor for all forms of life.

Yet, in many countries of Europe, the practice of our religions is impeded, restricted, and sometimes forbidden.

Cara Schulz: In the declaration you note that, in some European countries, the practice of indigenous religions is impeded. Are there particular countries where this is so? And what challenges, specifically, are faced?

Andras Corban-Arthen, President of ECER: The situation in Europe is complicated. On the one hand, in some countries — such as Greece, Russia, Lithuania — opposition against paganism is spearheaded by mainstream religious entities, particularly the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The impediments can range from the purely bureaucratic — religious authorities privately pressuring government officials to deny legal status to a pagan religion; to the publicly hostile — vitriolic condemnations of, and false accusations against, pagan religions by prominent Christian clergy, often right from the pulpit, which can profoundly sway public opinion; to outright physical violence against pagan individuals as well as sacred sites by religiously-fueled groups of thugs who, in some cases, appear to have been (unofficially) incited by the churches, as has happened in Italy, Poland and Ukraine.

On the other hand, in countries such as Germany and especially France, which have become largely secular, there has developed a widespread cynicism and mistrust toward religion of any sort, including paganism. The impediments found in such countries have more to do with apathy and dismissiveness than with outright hostility, but they are impediments just the same.

We urge all European governments to fully comply with, and actively enforce, the provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion to all citizens as stipulated in the Treaties of the European Union, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the European Convention of Human Rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other similar conventions and agreements, and to refrain from granting preferential treatment to some religions over others. We also ask that this equality of religious preference be reflected in the European educational systems.

CS: Do you think the EU will take practical action to help those who practice indigenous religions?

Corban-Arthen: That is certainly one of the outcomes we would love to see. For a nation to join the European Union, its constitution must first meet the Copenhagen Criteria, which ensure the freedom of religious choice and practice. In theory, a country which fails to comply with the protection of such a fundamental human right can be sued in the European Court of Justice. In practice, that’s far easier said than done. The EU is much more of an economic than a political union, and the enforcement of human rights has been very selective. A pagan group would need to have incontrovertible evidence, a large enough organization and membership, really good legal resources, and substantial funding for such a lawsuit to be successful. Needless to say, there don’t appear to be any pagan groups in Europe — certainly no ethnic ones — that meet those criteria. Part of our plan for the ECER is to start compiling some of the necessary resources so that eventually we might get to the point where some agency of the EU will respond favorably toward us.

We urge all our governments to actively engage in the preservation and protection of European indigenous sacred sites – be they human-made structures or natural settings. We further ask that free and open access to those sites be given to ethnic European religions which seek to use them for the purposes of worship and spiritual celebration.

CS: You’re asking for access to religious sites – are there specific sites you have in mind that you can’t access for religious purposes?

Corban-Arthen: There are lots of sites in many countries which, while open to the public for educational or touristic purposes, are off-limits for religious observances — any who attempt to engage in ceremony are customarily forced to leave by the police, and in some cases have even been arrested. Then there are those sites which remain completely unavailable, mostly because they are controlled by the churches. An example that comes to mind right away: the largest known altar dedicated to Perkūnas — the Baltic god of thunder — in Lithuania, lies in the basement of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Vilnius, and the church refuses to grant access to it (even just to see it) to anyone, often to the point of denying that it actually exists. Romuva has been lobbying for years to gain access to it, without success. A couple of years ago, a large number of young Romuva members organized a flash mob to temporarily block access to the cathedral, in the hope of galvanizing enough public sentiment that the church would be forced to grant access to the shrine; unfortunately, that didn’t work, either, though it did start some public debate about the issue.

We do not seek ownership or exclusive rights to those sites – the land does not belong to us, we belong to the land.

We object to the use of the term “pagan” by extremist political groups of any kind, as it reflects negatively on our reputation.

CS: You object to the term Pagan – why is that?

Corban-Arthen: We don’t object to the term “pagan” — in fact, both the ECER as an organization, as well as many of the ethnic member groups, have been using it for a very long time. Our objection is to the misappropriation and misuse of that term by extremist right-wing groups throughout Europe (neo-fascists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, skinheads, etc.) When such people openly label themselves as “pagans,” the churches, the politicians, and the media have a field day tarring religious pagans with the very same dirty brush. We felt that it was important to include some allusion to this in the declaration, if nothing else to create some distance between us and the extremist factions. I understand that the language we chose has been somewhat unclear, since I have now fielded this same question several times. Unfortunately, when you have a group of people who speak a variety of different languages, and you are trying to come up with wording that is understood by and acceptable to everyone involved, sometimes the result will be less than ideal. I hope this clarifies our intent.

Finally, we urge all peoples and all nations to place the well-being of the Earth – who is, literally, our Living Mother – above any and all other priorities.

We send this message in kinship, love, and respect.

Andras Corban Arthen (President), Anamanta, Spain/U.S.A.

Ramanė Roma Barauskienė, Lietuva
Martin Brustad, Norway
Nina Bukala, Werkgroep Hagal, Netherlands
Alexander Demoor, Werkgroep Hagal, Belgium
Valentinas Dilginas, Kuzšei Žemaicĭai, Lithuania
Sören Fisker, Forn Siđr, Danmark
Federico Fregni (Board Member), Societas Hesperiana, Italia
Marianna Gorronova, Czech Republic
Lars Irenessøn (Board Member), Forn Siđr, Danmark
Irena Jankutė-Balkūnė (Board Member), Romuva, Lithuania
Runar Kartsen, Forn Sed, Norway
Daniele Liotta (Board Member), Movimento Tradizionale Romano, Italia
Silvano Lorenzoni, Federazione Pagana Italiana, Italia
Anna Lucarelli, Movimento Tradizionale Romano, Italia
Sachin Nandha, United Kingdom
Zdenek Ordelt, Czech Republic
Elisabeth Overgaauw, Werkgroep Hagal, Netherlands
Eugenijus Paliokas, Šventaragis Romuva, Lithuania
Staško Potrzebowski, Rodzima Wiara, Polska
Prudence Priest, Romuva, U.S.A.
Marina Psaraki, Y.S.E.E., Greece
Vlassis G. Rassias, Y.S.E.E., Greece
Valdas Rutkūnas, Romuva, Lithuania
Ignas Šatkauskas (Board Member), Romuva, Lithuania
Øyvind Siljeholm, Forn Sed, Norway
Dovile Sirusaitė, Lithuania
Eleonora Stella, Societas Hesperiana, Italia
Inija Trinkūnienė, Romuva, Lithuania
Ram Vaidya, United Kingdom

In our interview, Mr. Corban-Arthen discussed ECER’s focus on ethnic religion. That focus can make Americans uneasy as media reports often conflate anything that focuses on specifically European ethnicity with racism or antisemitism. Corban-Arthen says that’s unfortunate, because “while there are certainly some people who fit that pattern, there are far many more who don’t.”

Ritual at ECER, [photo credit Vytautas Daraskevicius]

Ritual at ECER, [photo credit Vytautas Daraskevicius]

He also says that many people are unaware of just how much of indigenous Paganism survives in modern Europe. “…particularly in remote rural areas, which are not only outside the typical tourist routes, but also quite outside of the modern mainstream culture of the countries in which they exist. Some of them have been, to varying degrees, syncretized with Christianity, though it is often not difficult to separate the two. Some have survived as folklore. Some, much harder to find, appear to be unbroken survivals largely untainted by Christianity.”

Identifying and preserving those remnants of ethnic religions is important not only to those reviving the religions, but also to those wishing to incorporate indigenous practices in various forms of neo-Paganism. Corban-Arthen says that we need to realize the changes brought about by modernity which threaten to destroy what remains of European indigenous traditions. He says, “The Lithuanians and the Basques, for instance, are struggling to preserve their cultural identities, including what survives of their ethnic religions and their sacred places, just as the Lakota and the Wurundjeri are struggling to do the same.” Corban-Arthen sees hope, though.

He says indigenous peoples from around the world have started to invite representatives of European ethnic traditions to their gatherings and conferences. Large interfaith organizations such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions are now including European ethnic traditions in their indigenous assemblies. The same goes for intergovernmental, social justice and human rights organizations such as the United Nations.

“We may see, in coming years, an increased awareness of the survival of European indigenous religions, of the difficulties they face, and of the circumstances that led to their near-extinction. The European Congress of Ethnic Religions is committed to help that happen,” notes Corban-Arthen.

Nearly daily there are news reports on abuses inflicted on people who have been accused of witchcraft. Just today the Zambia Daily Mail reported that a man was killed and another beaten over such accusations. These horrifying cases occur all over the world with a concentration in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Nepal.

In most of these attacks, the victims are not Pagans or Witches in a western sense and are not likely practicing any form of witchcraft. The accusations are simply used as weapon against the unwanted who are more often than not women. Fortunately with the continued growth of the international women’s movement, these acts of violence are becoming the subject of real concern and decisive action.

Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank SB-NP01

Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank SB-NP01

Today we can report that Nepal, the country with the highest concentration of attacks, has taken some concrete steps to curb and, hopefully end, witchcraft-related violence. According to the Republica:

The government is working to finalize a draft of the ´Witchcraft Act (Charge and Punishment) 2014 to take stringent action against those involved in the inhuman treatment of females accused of practicing witchcraft. 

The new Witchcraft Act was prepared by Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MoWCSW), a federal department dedicated to the legal protection that particular segment of the population. On its website, the Department states:

Its mandate is to empower women especially those who are economically poor … socially deprived or at a disadvantage.

The most recent draft of the Witchcraft Act states that the accuser can be fined up to 1,050 USD and given up to a ten-year jail sentence.  According to the Republica, the act makes it clear that “torturing women through thrashing, slandering, smearing them with black soot, pouring acid on them or forcibly feeding them feces, on the charge of witchcraft, will be considered a crime.”

This is the first time that the Nepalese government has legislated the meaning of the term witchcraft. While that definition may be a far cry from that found in the U.S. or Europe, the effort will potentially alleviate some of problems and, thereby, open opportunities for more progressive and aggressive work towards eradicating the problem.

A good example is South Africa which has had a Witchcraft Suppression Act since 1957, later revised in 1970. According to this law, accusations of witchcraft carry with them a fine of over 30,000 USD and up to ten years in prison. While the law has certainly not stopped the problem, it has provided a legal grounding that serves to elevate the conversation within the country. Today South Africa has an active Pagan organization, South African Pagan Right’s Alliance, that can openly fight against these senseless accusations as well as work with government officials towards a legal dissection of the modern meanings of witchcraft.

Nepal hasn’t reached that point in the process. Like the original South African law, the new Nepal law makes the accusations illegal but also fails to specifically recognize or allow for Witchcraft as a legitimate magical practice found within folk religious traditions or modern Paganisms. According to the Republica, the new Act will permit police investigations of those legally accused of witchcraft.

As with many of the areas that suffer from witchcraft-related violence, Nepal’s problem is grounded in deeply-rooted cultural beliefs. As reported by the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), the “belief in witchcraft” is embedded in the country’s “strong animistic and shamanic tradition.” Nepalese Shamans work with the spirit world to heal and assist the living but bokshi or “witches” are considered detrimental influences who only can bring harm to society.

The report also cites the problematic influence of the so-called Witch Doctor who often holds a good deal of power over a village. For the right price, these men will perform spiritual investigations to locate the source of a bewitchment. Their accusations are often guided by the whims of their clientele and not a concern for the general well-being of the population. (WHRIN 2014 Country Report: Nepal)

womenfoundation_logo

Currently there are multiple organizations in Nepal fighting to protect women from the horrors of witchcraft-related abuse. One of these organizations is The Woman’s Foundation of Nepal founded in 1988 by a group of concerned female college students. While its mission is to help Nepalese women in general, the organization is an active participant in the fight against witchcraft-related violence. Its website states:

Often widows in Nepal are termed “bokshi”, or witches, and are subject to extreme abuse and discrimination. Many of the victims have led very difficult lives, and once accused of being a ‘bokshi’, are beaten, tortured, or forced to commit degrading acts such as eating human waste, or the meat of other humans … In cases where women are being abused for “practicing witchcraft,” WFN directly supports the victims by removing them from that dangerous situation, treating them medically if necessary, and supporting them legally to file a case against their accusers.

The Forum for Protection of People’s Rights, Nepal (PPR Nepal) is another similar organization who worked closely with WHRIN to produced the 2014 Nepal country report. PPR Nepal says, “The magnitude of gender-based violence in Nepal is extremely high. Among the various forms of violence, witchcraft related violence especially against unprivileged women e.g. widow, poor, helpless is widespread in the country.”

As with other countries experiencing high levels of witchcraft-related violence, Nepal continues to struggle with extreme poverty, lack of education and sub-standard medical care. Advocacy organizations are not blind to the bigger problem within that bigger framework. Therefore their work often incorporates education, medical treatment and job placement.

With the new Witchcraft Act in place, the NGO advocacy groups and the Ministry will have another tool in their pocket to support their work. While the law is certainly not a panacea, it does provide the legal fuel needed in their fight to protect the rights and health of the women of Nepal. Over time, this Act and others like it may lead to opportunities for inter-cultural work and inter-religious education that will grow a better global understanding of the many meanings of Witchcraft.

 

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

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  • Climate Progress reports on efforts by an alliance of Native American nations, activists, and environmental groups, to stop the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline through Lakota land. Quote: “In the wake of the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statementfor the Keystone XL pipeline which sparked nearly 300 protest vigils across the country, a group of Native American communities have added their voices to the calls to reject Keystone XL. In a joint statement — No Keystone XL pipeline will cross Lakota lands — Honor the Earth, the Oglala Sioux Nation, Owe Aku, and Protect the Sacred announced their intention to peacefully resist the construction of the pipeline slated to cut through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.” You can read the full statement, here.
  • Amnesty International has released a statement saying “after 38 years time to release indigenous leader Leonard Peltier.” Quote: “It is time for the USA authorities to release Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota Native American and leading member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who has been imprisoned for 38 years despite serious concerns about the fairness of proceedings leading to his conviction. Leonard Peltier was arrested 38 years ago today in connection with the murders of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, during a confrontation involving AIM members on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in June 1975. While he admits to having been present during the incident, Leonard Peltier, who in 1977 was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murders, has always denied killing the agents as alleged by the prosecution at his trial.”
  • A woman charged with the sexual abuse of children allegedly tried to silence victims by saying she was a witch, and that she would utilize spells against them if they talked. Quote: “Shocking is perhaps the best word to describe the allegations against Jessica Smith. But perhaps it also best describes her self-proclaimed job title. “Ms. Smith led the children to believe that she was a witch, a practicing witch. [She]would place hexes or spells on the children if they revealed any of the facts that had happened,” Richmond said. “Of course, these children are young and they believed her. As if what [the victims] witnessed at that point wasn’t enough, now they think someone is going to cast a spell on them.” There’s no confirmation of whether she actually adhered to some form of religious witchcraft, or if it was merely a ruse.
  • “Conscience” laws are redundant, and largely politically motivated, and even lawmakers in South Dakota realize that. Quote: “As Americans United has pointed out several times, the First Amendment already protects members of clergy from being compelled to officiate at marriage ceremonies. Why can’t a same-sex couple demand a church wedding? For the same reason that a Protestant couple can’t just walk into a Roman Catholic church and demand that the priest marry them. Members of the clergy have an absolute right to determine the parameters for the sacraments they offer. If a couple doesn’t meet those criteria, the pastor is free to show them the door.”
  • Religion Clause reports that a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in State v. Armitage says Native Hawaiians are not infringed on by making them obtain a permit to enter an island reserve. Quote: “The Hawaii Supreme Court held that the rights of Native Hawaiians are not infringed by a statute limiting entry into the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve only to those who obtain authorization to do so through a written application process.  Defendants claim they were traveling to the island to proclaim the right of the “Reinstated Kingdom of Hawaii” to the island. The court rejected defendants’ arguments that their entry was protected by the Art. XII, Sec. 7 of the Hawaii Constitution which protects the right to engage in traditional and customary Native Hawaiian subsistence, cultural and religious practices.”
A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

  • Global Post has a photoset up focusing on Palo in Cuba. Quote: “The cultures of Cuba’s many African descendants run deep across the island. They blend with the country’s traditional Roman Catholic practices to create vibrant mixtures. Photographer Jan Sochor captures the ritual scenes here in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, in particular capturing Palo rituals. A religious practice often confused with Yoruba religion (Santeria), but distinguished by more underground practices and initiations.”
  • Is cultural Christianity dead? That’s what  R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asserts. Quote: “There was in the center of the country — and I don’t mean that geographically, but culturally — a cultural religiosity that was, in the main, a cultural Christianity that trended in one direction for the better part of 60 to 70 years, and it had a kind of moral authority that is disappearing before our eyes.” 
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t deface ancient rock formations. Quote: “Prosecutors have filed charges against two former Boy Scout leaders accused of toppling one of the ancient rock formations at Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. State Parks officials say Glenn Taylor is charged with criminal mischief. David Hall is charged with aiding criminal mischief, another felony.”
  • Early Americans really didn’t like the Quakers much. Quote: “Known today for their pacifist and quietist ways, Quakers had an altogether different reputation in the seventeenth century: belligerent and boisterous rabble-rousers. Fueled by evangelical zeal, and asserting radical ideas for the time, the Quakers were aggressive proselytizers. As a result, they faced violent persecution in England and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands, where many migrated. News of their beliefs (e.g. equality for women, refusal to swear oaths, etc.) and their tactics (e.g. preaching loudly and publicly, disrupting worship services, etc.) reached the colonies before the Quakers did. Connecticut, in fact, banned Quakers in October 1656—prior to any Quakers having ever reached the colony.”
  • What’s it like being a Pagan at Penn? Pretty lonely, it seems. Quote: “Deidre Marsh, a College senior, founded Penn Wheel a semester ago in order to build a community for earth-based religions and paganism. But even in a school of over 10,000 undergraduates, Marsh has been unable to find anyone else who shares her religious beliefs.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Shinto and Politics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 5, 2014 — 14 Comments

Back in November I pointed to an article in the Japan Times on the recent ascent of a politically oriented brand of Shinto, the indigenous faith of that island nation. Because of the role Shinto played in Japan during World War II, this has made some people very nervous, despite protestations from organizations like the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership that their mission is merely “renewing spiritual values” in their homeland.

“In the past, Ise Jingu (shrine) was the fountainhead for unifying politics and religion and national polity fundamentalism,” author Hisashi Yamanaka recently told the Asahi newspaper. “Abe’s act is clearly a return to the ways before World War II.”

After I linked to that article,  P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a polytheist who has participated in many Shinto ceremonies at a local temple in Washington state, warned against engaging in “Shinto-y slope arguments.” 

“I don’t think that a better understanding of Japan’s Shinto cultural and religious heritage being given to students in modern Japan is a bad thing at all–in fact, they would greatly benefit from knowing more about the symbols and phenomena which their parents revere but are often at a loss to explain, particularly in the post-World War II period for the reasons described above. There is no “Shinto-y slope” involved in knowing more about this religion, which could provide an important corrective to corporate greed and environmental degradation not only worldwide, but also within Japan specifically (especially in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster), which is sorely needed in the world today. The people who advocate such a return to their indigenous values do so in a context in which the questions of religious and cultural separation are not as clear as they are in Western contexts, nor are they as relevant. And, I really don’t think that the people involved, no matter how stern and formal they may be, are foolish enough to suggest some of the excesses that occurred in earlier State Shinto contexts be replicated today–or, at least, let’s hope they aren’t thinking in those directions, and attempt to assume the best of intentions meanwhile until proven otherwise rather than resorting to the fallacious “slippery slope” arguments, no matter how tempting and popular they may be.”

So, with the qualification that we shouldn’t rush to judgment, it’s time to revisit the issue of politics and Shinto, this time involving our own Vice President, and the issue of diplomatic relations between Japan and other Asian powers like South Korea and China. It all revolves around a visit to the politically volatile (even in Japan) Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine

“U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spent nearly an hour trying to persuade Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, two weeks before a trip there sparked a furor in Asia, diplomatic sources said. Abe visited the Shinto shrine, where convicted wartime leaders are honored along with war dead, on Dec. 26, triggering fierce criticism from China and South Korea, and leading Washington to express disappointment at his decision in an unusually explicit manner. With U.S. President Barack Obama expected to visit in April for talks with Abe, the rising tensions between Japan and the two neighboring nations will likely be high on the agenda. The turmoil, which undermines American interests in the region, could dash Abe’s hopes of boosting Japan’s U.S. security alliance.”

As noted in the Japan Times piece, Prime Minister Abe is deeply invested in the revitalization of Shinto within Japan, and sees Shinto as a way of restoring an essential “Japanese-ness.”

“This group is dedicated to “restoring Japanese-ness” by promoting Shinto values. They oppose female imperial succession, promote official visits by prime ministers to Yasukuni Shrine, and oppose the construction of a non-religious site of war commemoration and the ‘removal’ of the spirits of  war criminals from Yasukuni, push for constitutional revision and patriotic and moral education, oppose free trade of agricultural products because of what they describe as traditional ties between rice cultivation and Shinto, oppose giving permanent residents the right to vote in local elections and the sale of forest land, water resources, or ‘important property’ to foreigners, and oppose separate family names for married couples and “gender free education” which they see as examples of support for equality between the sexes gone too far.” – Matthew Penney, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Concordia University, Montreal

In short, they’re the rough Shinto equivalent of culturally conservative Christians here in America. But why is Joe Biden interfering? Why would the American embassy in Japan make plain their disappointment in Abe’s visit to this controversial shrine? Because it is destabilizing relations with other Asian powers, who see these moves as overtly political, a return to a Japan that once invaded their territory. The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading newspapers, issued an editorial advocating for a secular war shrine, noting the ramifications of having political leaders visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Prime Minister Abe

Prime Minister Abe

“The world is feeling uneasy as Cabinet members and other senior government officials of Japan and China trade barbs at international conferences over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s views about history-related issues. Abe has stressed his willingness to hold talks with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts, repeating, “The door is always open for dialogue.” But such overtures alone cannot make a difference. It is time for the Japanese leader to start taking concrete action to treat the festering sores in Japan’s relations with these countries. [...]  We also ask people who support the prime minister’s visits to the shrine, especially young generations, to listen to our thoughts about the matter. The feeling of mourning over the deaths of war victims should be respected. But Yasukuni Shrine cannot be described as a simple place for praying for the spirits of the war dead. It is a religious facility burdened by its past links with Japan’s wartime militarism. If the prime minister or other Japanese political leaders visit the shrine, their acts hurt the feelings of many people in Japan as well. Yasukuni is fundamentally different in nature from the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. Those who don’t learn from history will suffer reprisals from history. And young people with hopes for a bright future will suffer the most from such reprisals. We hope this will not be forgotten.”

Meanwhile, the United State’s involvement in this issue has not gone unnoticed here at home. Tez M. Clark at The Harvard Crimson advocates a “hands-off” diplomatic strategy, saying the government went too far in publicly chiding the Prime Minister for his visit to the shrine.

“What makes Abe’s most recent visit unique is the fact that the Ambassador Caroline B. Kennedy ’80, newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Japan, issued a statement condemning the visit, stressing that “the United States is disappointed.” Personally, I agree with the U.S.—and with the 69 percent of Japanese who said Abe should have considered diplomatic relations—that Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni shrine was rash and insensitive, given the current political climate in East Asia. Unlike Germany, the other major Axis power, Japan has not sincerely made an effort to apologize for its brutality during the war. Despite numerous apologies by the central government over the decades, Japanese politicians have been consistently insensitive to the countries harmed by the Japanese Imperial Army—one of the more recent examples being a Japanese mayor who referred to the wartime rapes of thousands of East Asian women as “necessary.” But while Abe’s actions were not optimal, the U.S. overstepped its bounds by issuing a reprimand for his conduct. Kennedy’s statement was especially impolitic in tone, treating a head of state as though he were a petulant child.”

The intersection of religion and politics will never be simple, especially when something as seemingly simple as a temple visit can ripple out into damaging international relations. This story about the politics of Shinto in Japan should be sign that we all need to understand religions that fall outside the monotheistic norm far better, especially for those who engage in religious journalism. Most of the time, Shinto is presented an entertaining cultural sideline for foreign reporters in Japan. Focusing on the dances, movements, music, and spectacle, with very little understanding of the context. This needs to change. Shinto is as important a topic in Japan as Christianity is here in America. It is a faith that helps define the nation, and is key to understanding motivations that can seem baffling to an outsider.

“A survey by the Asahi Shimbun last week showed that 46 per cent of Japanese thought that he should not go there, while 40 per cent said it was not a big deal. What mattered most for Abe was quite simple — 56 per cent of those who voted for the Abe administration supported the visit, while for 35 per cent it was a no-no. For Japan’s domestic consumption, Abe’s visit has given him a much-needed boost as he continues to struggle to beef up the country’s economic growth. He has added a new arrow — the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games stimulus — to the three-arrows package of fiscal incentives, monetary loosening and structural reforms. Unsettling mood However, the mood is unsettling within the region. The further deterioration in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea could have far-reaching economic repercussions for economic integration in Asean and East Asia.”

For modern Pagans, a deeper understanding of Shinto is also beneficial, not just as a study of a non-Christian indigenous faith that has survived into the post-Christian modern era, but in understanding what a revival of modern Paganisms (and polytheisms) could mean. What will the beliefs and religious structures we endorse translate into once we have a taste of real power? Are we ready not just for infrastructure, but for the way shifting beliefs shifts a culture? Japan is a nation wrestling with how best to engage with Shinto in the modern world, and different factions have different ideas of how that should happen. This diplomatic incident gives us an opportunity for deeper thought and study, calling us to pay closer attention to faith outside our own borders.

Of Apologies and Eagles

Heather Greene —  September 8, 2013 — 5 Comments

This coming Friday and Saturday will mark the most sacred of yearly Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur. As a child, I remember my mother explaining that Yom Kippur was “a day to atone for our sins.”  Having grown up only culturally Jewish, I stared back blankly.  A what? Sin?  She eventually clarified by saying, “It is a day to say you’re sorry.”  That I understood.

Courtesy of Flickr's runran

Courtesy of Flickr’s runran

In a recent Huffington Post article, lawyer Diane Danois contemplates the words “I am sorry” in relation to her Jewish faith. Using a lyric written by Sir Elton John, she asks why, “sorry seems to be the hardest word.”  But then she offers her own prescription for an effective apology:

(1) Recognition. There should be an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing.
(2) Selflessness. It should be more than an act of words, and given from the heart and soul;
(3) Specificity. The receiver should understand the nature and sincerity of the apology; and
(4) Act. It should be accompanied with an action, such as a modified behavior or restitution.

She adds,

“I am sorry” alters the way we interact with someone. It diffuses tension and makes available opportunity for better communication. “I am sorry” acknowledges a hurt, regardless of fault or intent. Given genuinely and received graciously, “I am sorry” is the pathway for new beginnings.

Yom Kippur is a day set aside to do just that – forge new pathways through apology. Applying Danois’ formula to a Pagan theology, a true apology could be considered transformative magick. Words and actions lead to change. However, Pagans generally may not have a “day of atonement” or a single specific religious holiday set aside for apologizing.

Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, LA Photo by Scott Whitlock, USFWS

Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, LA
Photo by Scott Whitlock, USFWS

Despite that fact, there are a multitude of opportunities throughout the year to spiritually or mundanely perform this magickal apologetic act to self, to others and to Deities. But what about to the Earth? Do we ever stop to apologize to the land?

Last week, Shauna Aura Knight made a rather direct statement on her blog Pagan Activist:

If you call yourself Earth-centered…or if you turn and face the North in ritual and invoke or honor the Earth, and you are littering like this, if you aren’t sorting your trash and recycling, if you are drinking bottled water and not making any attempt to begin to live more sustainably, you have no business standing in ritual and calling Earth, honoring the Earth…

Without a doubt, humanity’s unsustainable processes have created irrevocable damage to the Earth’s natural ecosystems. Should we apologize for these transgressions? If so, how do we make restitution? Is it even possible to sincerely apologize to the Earth, to fix our errant ways and thereby transform our future?

The answer to that question is in the story of the Bald Eagle, the messenger of the Gods.

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham UK [via Wikimedia Commons]

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham UK [via Wikimedia Commons]

In 1782, the Bald Eagle was chosen as the national bird of the newly formed United States of America over the Wild Turkey. Today images of this majestic bird decorate government seals, documents, flags and are used many other official places. But how many of us have seen a real Bald Eagle flying free? 

In 1940, the U.S. Government created the Bald Eagle Protection Act to legally protect the bird from hunters. Despite this protection, the Bald Eagle population continued to decline at a rapid pace. In 1963, there were only an estimated 417 breeding pairs left in the continental U.S. Because the Eagle is at the top of the food chain, only humans could be the cause.

Rachel Carson, Author "Silent Spring"

Rachel Carson, Author “Silent Spring”

Precipitated by the landmark book Silent Spring by Rachael Carson (1962), it was discovered that agricultural pesticides like DDT and Kepone were the main culprits of the population decline. Such chemicals interrupt the bird’s calcium metabolism, rendering a female virtually infertile. Fortunately, by the 1960s, the ecology movement had gained enough momentum to garner the attention of the U.S. Federal Government. In 1970 Richard Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and then in 1973, he signed the Endangered Species Act.  These two governmental provisions allowed for the strict legal protection and conservation of many threatened plants and animals.  The Bald Eagle was on that original list.

These collective and aggressive attempt to bring this magnificent bird back from near extinction worked. In 1972, the chemical DDT was banned and active conservation measures were put into place. By 2007 the Bald Eagle population had rebounded to such a degree that it was removed from the endangered species list.  Today there are over 10,000 or more breeding pairs and the numbers are only expected to grow.  In a recent NPR report called “Bad Eagles are Back in a Big Way,” conservation biologist Bryan Watts says:

The greatest thing about that [is] that it was our society that brought them back… Bald eagles have become our nation’s best conservation success story… Now’s the time to see the birds in action, and discover what they’re really like.

Could the actions taken to save the Bald Eagle be considered a human apology to the Earth; a recognition of a wrong-doing resulting in acts that will eventually bring back a natural equilibrium?

2244221823_b33200a012_mUnfortunately a secondary problem evolved from these well-meaning conservation efforts. Since 1973 Native American groups have had to fight for their rights to use Eagle parts in religious ceremonies. In many traditions, the bird is sacred and its parts are used in ritual. Under the 1940s act, exceptions were made for “Indian Religious Use.”  However, these exceptions were null and void under the ESA.  As noted by Antonio M. DeMeo for the Animal Legal and Historical Center,

While these statutes provide necessary protection for a magnificent bird, they also infringe on Native Americans’ rights to religious freedom.

Religious Freedom vs. Ecological Protection?  The apologetic act is never easy, is it? Retribution means sacrifice and difficult choices. Perhaps now that the Eagle population has rebounded some restraints will be lifted to allow for the limited use of Eagle parts for Native American religious ritual. 

Thus far the work done to save the Eagle is uplifting at a time when so many other environmental and social projects seem to be struggling. Could the Eagle’s success story be a message that we can atone for our transgressions and make those retributions? Shauna Aura Knight writes:

It’s hard, and my greatest fear is that it’s not going to have enough of an impact. But I’m going to try my best, because, I am Earth-Centered. I value the Earth and my relationship to it. I consider it a contract, a sacred trust. It’s my job to live in better harmony, to reduce my use of resources, and to help others do the same.

bald-eagle-bird

I remember the first time that I saw the Bald Eagle. It was in the pacific North West while sea kayaking. The guide said, “Just look for a coke bottle with a golf ball on top.”  And,there they were – giant birds at the tops of the tallest trees watching us from above; the messengers of the Gods.

If saving the Eagle was an apology, we did this as a society, as noted by Watts. Through recognition, selflessness, specificity and action, we “righted a wrong.” As such, we transformed our relationship with the bird, its place within our shared land and in our collective future. Our children will be able to see the Eagle grace the skies. Practitioners of Indigenous traditions may be able to once again use the bird for religious rites free from legal entanglements.

If we did it once, we can do it again. In this way, the Bald Eagle is indeed a messenger. Our national bird is proof that we can make a difference.  We can say sorry and be transformed.

On August 19th, Lee Thompson Young, a television actor who starred in the police procedural Rizzoli & Isles, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Lee Thompson Young

Lee Thompson Young

“We are beyond heartbroken at the loss of this sweet, gentle, good-hearted, intelligent man. He was truly a member of our family. Lee will be cherished and remembered by all who knew and loved him, both on- and offscreen, for his positive energy, infectious smile and soulful grace. We send our deepest condolences and thoughts to his family, to his friends and, most especially, to his beloved mother.”Official statement from the TNT cable channel.

When a young person with a promising career kills themselves, a natural instinct is to ask why this has happened. Sadly, E! News decided to make wrong-headed and ignorant speculation based on Young’s religious practices.

“Those close to Young noticed things ‘really changed’ a few years ago when he began practicing Yorùbá, an Africa-based religion which has a saying, “iku ya j’esin”, meaning  ‘death is preferable to ignominy.’ Some have questioned whether this means that suicide is an acceptable way to preserve personal or family honor in the face of public shame.  However, Yorùbá culture icon and Chief Priest of Osogbo, Araba Ifayemi Osundagbonu Elebuibon, told the National Mirror earlier this year that the religion ‘[does] not support suicide. Their belief is that if somebody commits suicide, they will be punished in the hereafter.’ The Famous Jett Jackson star ‘took [his religion] to the next level and started wearing white all of the time,’ says a source, adding, ‘This religion was everything to him.’  Although he reportedly took a break from practicing Yorùbá, he recently returned to the religion. Just before his death, he visited a small village in Africa for something reportedly related to the religion.”

E! News, being a gossip tabloid, obviously went for the “weird religion” angle, complete with anonymous sources. Amazingly, they went with it even though they partially debunk their own theory. This prompted pop-culture/celebrity/fashion blogger Luvvie to blast E! for the irresponsible and ignorant assertions made.

“Yoruba is not a religion. Let’s get that straight out of the gate. Yoruba is the name of a people; Yoruba is a language; Yoruba is culture. Yoruba people are MY people and that’s MY tongue and that’s MY culture. Yoruba is NOT a religion! [...] Ifá is the traditional religion that you probably meant, but assuming that a majority of Yoruba people practice it is incredibly pinhole-minded. Just like we speak different dialects of the language, our beliefs are diverse. Us Yorubas are a religious people and most of us practice Christianity or Islam. Even if Lee was practicing Ifa, he would not be encouraged to take his own life. So let me shut this line of reasoning down now. I’m so upset that it even comes up!”

Clutch Magazine picked up on the story and added that “when covering a topic as sensitive as a man’s death, there is no place for cultural insensitivity and ignorance.” Both Clutch and Luvvie noted that a subsequent clarifying update to the story was not sufficient, and the E! News writer apologized and says she wants to dialog with Luvvie about the issue. That dialog must have been successful, because a followup report on Young’s funeral service was far more accurate and sensitive to the subject.

“Young’s practice of the West African religion Ifa was also highlighted throughout. Dancers dressed all in white performed to the beat of live drum music and the actor’s former karate teacher entered the room ahead of Young’s mother, writer Velma Love, blessing the ground in front of her as she walked in. Some of the mourners were dressed all in white, too, as a nod to Young’s Ifa practice.”

The ray of light in all of this is that some education was able to happen, and the story of Young’s death was not further tarnished by lurid speculation into religions the reporters don’t understand. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream news sources still treat indigenous and traditional religious practices from the African continent, and the faiths that they helped spawn, as suspect or primitive. I hold out hope that some promising signs of increasing interest will yield more understanding and respect.  As for Lee Thompson Young, my deepest condolences go out to his friends and family. What is remembered, lives.

[The following is a guest post from Andras Corban Arthen. Andras Corban Arthenis the founder and spiritual director of the EarthSpirit Community, an international religious and educational organization, established in 1977, which is dedicated to the preservation and development of Earth-centered spirituality, culture and community with a special focus on the indigenous European pagan traditions. He currently serves on the executive committee of the board of trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the oldest and largest interfaith organization.]

Andras_and_Jonas

Jonas Trinkūnas & Andras Corban Arthen

EarthSpirit recently sponsored a series of performances in Massachusetts and Vermont by Kulgrinda – the ritual performance group of Romuva, which is the name given in modern times to the revived ethnic pagan religion of Lithuania. Jonas Trinkūnas, the krivis (supreme priest) and founder of Romuva – who took part in those performances – is an old friend, someone I’ve known and respected very highly for some twenty years. Jonas attended Rites of Spring back in the nineties, and I have visited him, his family, and his community in Lithuania. In 2008, when the Parliament of the World’s Religions put me in charge of finding representatives of the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe to attend the upcoming Parliament in Melbourne, Jonas’ name was the first on my list.

A few days ago, on 6 July, Jonas had the distinction of receiving the prestigious Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas, one of Lithuania’s top civilian honors. The award was personally bestowed by Dalia Grybauskaitė, the president of Lithuania, who praised Jonas for his involvement with the underground resistance against the Soviet regime which ruled Lithuania for over forty years, as well as for his work in preserving traditional Lithuanian religion and literature.

(l. to r.) Inija Trinkūnienė, President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Jonas Trinkūnas

(l. to r.) Inija Trinkūnienė, President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Jonas Trinkūnas

Lithuania was the last country in Europe to officially become Christian – a change which took place mainly for political reasons, and which was not completed until the beginning of the 15th century. The pagan religion co-existed with Christianity for a very long time beyond that, and continued to survive even after Catholicism became dominant and gradually attempted to assimilate and eradicate the remaining pagan practices. But paganism still lived on in the countryside: a large sector of the peasantry, though nominally Catholic, kept alive their traditional pagan spiritually which was deeply ingrained in their everyday lives. A very strong folkloric movement which began in the 18th century helped to keep alive, in the urban centers, an awareness of Lithuania’s pagan roots.

Kulgrinda

Kulgrinda

Jonas Trinkūnas immersed himself from an early age in the myths and folklore of his native land, and by the time he’d finished his university studies in the early 1960s, he had published a number of articles as well as a dissertation on pre-Christian Lithuanian religion. He became a researcher and professor of literature and ancient cultures at the University of Vilnius, and during that time he founded a very popular folkloric organization which presented a variety of traditional folk music and dance events; he also began making extended visits to the countryside, to learn directly from rural villagers what still survived of the original pagan traditions.

Jonas’ activities brought him afoul of the Soviet authorities, who feared that his religious and folkloric pursuits were fomenting nationalistic sentiments which could lead to acts of sedition. He was interrogated by the KGB, and subsequently dismissed from his teaching position at the university, and forbidden from holding any kind of teaching job; for many years, he was forced to do various kinds of menial work in order to support his growing family. His folkloric organization was officially suppressed, and he could only engage in his religious practices clandestinely.

Romuva and President Dalia Grybauskaitė.

Members of Romuva and President Dalia Grybauskaitė.

Finally, with the loosening of Soviet government controls brought about by glasnost and perestroika in the late eighties, Jonas was able to resume his public activities and to bring Romuva out in the open. Since 1990, when Lithuania achieved its independence from the Soviet Union (the first of the former Soviet republics to do so), Romuva has grown steadily and has achieved a strong presence in Lithuanian culture, though it has not yet managed to gain official government status as a traditional religion.

It may have been an unprecedented event for a pagan leader to be awarded a high honor by the president of his country – it’s certainly something that should make all pagans around the world very proud. Let us hope that the bestowal of the Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas upon Jonas Trinkūnas signals a growing willingness by the Lithuanian government to grant Romuva the official status it has long deserved.

This week my column comes to you from the sandy shores of the Florida coast. For the last ten years, I’ve celebrated the Summer Solstice in the sunshine state with many other visiting “sun worshippers.”  As I’m taking a break from (sub)urban life, I figured that I’d take The Wild Hunt with me on vacation.

IMG_0154

No. I’m not going to make you sit through a slide show of vacation photos.  I would like to take you on a journey to explore one of paradise’s most iconic symbols – the Hula.

I have always loved dance – the sacred, the ethnic, the purely artistic and even the raise-the-roof, pump-up-the-jam variety.  Movement is powerful and magical in all forms.  But up until this week, I never really stopped to consider the Hula – the traditional dance of Polynesian culture.  It is very hard to take a dance seriously whose imagery has found a comfortable home in the plastic form of a bobbling dashboard ornament.  For many people, the traditional Hawaiian dance is never really explored outside of a tourist setting, at luau parties, or on TV.  I speculate that my own introduction to Hula was through reruns of The Brady Bunch Hawaii Bound (1972).

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Despite its place in pop culture, the Hula has a serious and sacred history that tells the story of a culture and a people.  While its precise origin can’t be historically pinpointed, the Hula is indeed a cultural product of the ancient Polynesian societies that thrived on the islands in the Southern Pacific Ocean. By some mythical accounts, Laka, the forest Goddess, gave birth to the celebratory Hula dance.  She is still considered the patron Goddess of the dance.  In other stories, Hula was a gift given to the Goddess Pele by her sister Hi’aka.  And other stories abound…

In all cases, Hula was a dance of the Goddess and of nature. Traditional motions and movements mirrored natural rhythms such as the fluid, hypnotic flow of the ocean or tumultuous, stormy skies. The dance expressed and told the stories of the surrounding island worlds.

As a sacred and respected dance Hula was used for a multitude of purposes.  It was a way by which these ancient people could pass down their traditions, their history, and their religion to the coming generations. It was used to honor deity, local chiefs and important community members.  Hula was performed in religious ceremonies, festivals, funerals, births, and weddings. In 1778, Captain Cook wrote:

Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful.  (From Hawaiian History)

By the 1800s Protestant missionaries began to settle in the Hawaiian Islands.  Their reaction to the traditional dance was quite different from Captain Cook’s.  They considered it sinful – a “heathen” dance of a “pagan” culture.* One missionary wrote:

The whole arrangement and process of their old hulas were designed to promote lasciviousnous [sic], and of course the practice of them could not flourish in modest communities. They had been interwoven too with their superstitions, and made subservient to the honor of their gods, and then rulers, either living or departed or deified. (From Hawaiian History)

In 1830 Ka‘ahumanu, the Queen Regent, adopted Christianity and formally banned Hula. Some scholars believe this had as much to do with economics as religion. The Protestant religious morality and its famous work ethic were exploited in order to maintain control of the local working population. The burgeoning colonial agricultural enterprises needed cheap labor to be lucrative.  Hula (as a marker of traditional Hawaiian culture) was considered to be “adversely affecting the willingness of the [Hawaiian people] to work.”   According to an 1866 local editorial: “Hula … is only for pagans and the …. Hawaiian people are no longer pagan.” (The Hawaiian Journal of History, pg 43)

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's Tom Simpson

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s Tom Simpson

Not long after, the “licentious” Hula became associated with prostitution and other forms of condemned sexual behavior.  Regardless, the Hula was still practiced in private settings.  There were clandestine schools that continued to pass down the traditions of the old ways.  Hula dancers were sought after for private parties and events.  The Hula dance was a sacred part of traditional Hawaiian culture and continued to thrive in any way that it could.  In 1858, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser published the following:

It seems that the practice of hulas, or native dances, is becoming more universal every day. To the countenance and support of the government, through the columns of the Polynesian … it is clearly due to this retrograde movement of the nation towards heathenism. (The Hawaiian Journal of History, pg 38)

Photo courtesy of arielmurphy.blogspot.com

Photo courtesy of arielmurphy.blogspot.com

In 1886 King Kalakaua, the “merry monarch” lifted the ban which instantly revived the ancient dance.  Although negative local press continued through the 1920s, Hula was once again being practiced publicly.

Over the next century, the Hawaiian Islands along with the rest of Polynesia became an increasingly popular vacation destination.  As a result, the Hula dance found its place in world culture as an icon of paradise.  A once sacred dance became a curiosity for waves of foreign tourists.  As Hawaiian cities modernized Hula evolved once again from a simple curiosity to a genuine commodity.

Today there are generally two types of Hula:  traditional and modern. Traditional “Kahiko” Hula is performed to chants and drums beats.  It still clings to the movements of the original spiritual dance and rhythms of nature. The more common Modern “Auana” Hula incorporates elements from other cultures and includes a variety of instruments including song.  Both forms are performed and celebrated at the yearly Hawaiian Merry Monarch Festival.

There is also something called “Hotel” Hula which is generally considered to be purely exploitative entertainment. Although it is a form of Auana, “hotel” hula is often criticized for its gratuitous emphasis on female sexuality in both movement and costuming. Interestingly, traditional Hula is also said to contain  “unabashed expressions of sexuality” such as in the procreation dance (hula ma’i.)  Moreover, in the pre-Missionary days the dance was performed by men and women who were scantily clad. However, unlike today’s “hotel” Hula, traditional Hula’s sexual elements are spiritual and sacred.  As Sarah Neal writes, “the traditional dances were not necessarily sexualized, they were very sensual.”

"Female dancers of the Sandwich Islands'' depicted by Louis Choris, the artist aboard the Russian ship ''Rurick'', which visited Hawai'i in 1816.

“Female dancers of the Sandwich Islands” depicted by Louis Choris, the artist aboard the Russian ship ”Rurick”, which visited Hawai’i in 1816.

The evolution of Hula was clearly the result of Hawaiian cultural and religious change, colonialism, and modernization. The victim was the sacred meaning that lived at the heart of the Hula. This is not an altogether uncommon occurrence.  When the sacred becomes a curiosity to outsiders it garners increased attention.  The sacred then becomes culturally iconic.  At some point, someone realizes that this icon can be monetized and turns it into a commodity.  At that moment the sacred ceases to be sacred. It becomes a product – for better or worse.

Hawaiian history suggests that Hula was always used for more than a religious purpose.  But at the same time it was always treated with reverence. Hula was more than a bobbling dancer on the dashboard of someone’s car or a pretty girl in a tourist poster for Honolulu.

There is a Hawaiian proverb that says, “Nana i ke kumu” (Translation: Pay attention to the source.)  While it is socially acceptable to enjoy Hula in all its evolved forms, it is equally as important to acknowledge its origins. The Hula dance is a connection to that ancient Polynesian culture and the natural rhythms of the islands.

For me, Hula will never be the same.

Photo Courtesy of Andy Beal Photography

Photo Courtesy of Andy Beal Photography

 

*As descriptors, the words “heathen” and “pagan”  in lower case are used within a variety historical texts on the subject.