Archives For Neopaganism

Last month The Wild Hunt asked five members of the community — Thracian polytheanimist Anomalous Thracian of the blog Thracian Exodus; Mambo Chita Tann of Sosyete Fos Fe Yo We; priestess, author, blogger, and Solar Cross Temple board member Crystal Blanton; OBOD Druid and Under the Ancient Oaks blogger John Beckett; and Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) Druid Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh — for their thoughts on sacrifice. The following continues the conversation with part two of that interview.

How is sacrifice separate from blood sacrifice? Does blood sacrifice include personal blood offerings or is it limited to animal sacrifice?

Anomalous Thracian

Anomalous Thracian

“Blood sacrifice is not a term that I use and I would argue it as vague and somewhat useless. Ritual bloodletting would be more appropriate in this context, if I am reading the question correctly, as it is general enough to include many things, such as: ritual cutting of one’s own flesh to create a bond or pact with a spirit; ritual cutting of a sexual partner’s flesh in a ritual or ceremony; ritual cutting of an animal (not for the purpose of killing, but for producing the essence of a specific animal’s life force); “marking” a person with your own essence under certain ritual circumstances, whether for positive (protective, warding) or negative (hostile, magically infectious) reasons. Similarly cutting one’s self to feed one’s own blood to a specific deity — exactly as you might use, say, a goat, but without an immediate death — could be considered a sacrifice, and is still generally categorizable as “bloodletting.” I would hesitate to call anything that does not involve intentional death a sacrifice, in personal use of the term, but I would consider “the feeding or offering of blood, without death, to a deity or spirit” to be a form of sacrifice when circumstances call for it. Note: In many traditions, there are HEAVY restrictions upon forms of bloodletting of this sort, as the spirits and deities in question will take this as indication that the person being bled is “food,” and they will be regarded as such.” — Anomalous Thracian, Thracian Exodus

Mambo Chita Tann

Mambo Chita Tann

“We do not ever offer human blood in Haitian Vodou, despite stereotypes to the contrary. Blood can be offered in the rituals around making animal offerings, which almost always become food for ritual participants, once the spirits have taken their share. It is possible to consider sacrifice in the sense of other offerings of great worth that are given to the spirits, such as the great amount of effort, money, resources, and time an entire Vodou sosyete will dedicate to initiation ceremonies or annual observances of special ritual, but we still do not place these offerings as being more precious or higher than the ultimate sacrifice of an animal’s life to provide protection, blessing, and sustenance for that sosyete and its members.” — Mambo Chita Tann, Sosyete Fos Fe Yo We, Haitian Vodou

Crystal Blanton

Crystal Blanton

“There are many different types of sacrifice, and it is not limited to blood sacrifice. Different traditions access this differently. I personally do not practice blood sacrifice, but I have made personal blood offerings. I honor the life force of the individual, and the power of the divine within me, adding magic in the process.” — Crystal Blanton, Daughters of Eve

 

John Beckett

John Beckett

“Blood sacrifice is a subset of sacrifice, a particular form of sacrifice. It can include personal blood offerings or it can include animal sacrifice.” — John Beckett, Under the Ancient Oaks

Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

“Sacrifice often is confused with “blood offerings.” Blood sacrifice really doesn’t have a place in a modern Neopagan context, yet there are established cultures that still perform blood sacrifices. In a modern Druid context, sacrifices are often things such as whiskey, grains, flowers, prayers, poems, songs, and anything else that is a tangible item used to give to the gods. There are instances where Neopagans will sacrifice some of their own blood as a form of blood oath, but that is a rare instance. Killing of a live animal is another form of archaic sacrifice or offering that really is not something that is all that common in a Neopagan context. Most of us purchase our meat already slaughtered for consumption, but there are ways to offer a portion of that meat as a sacrifice in the form of the shared meal.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh, Druid, Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF)

Do modern Paganisms stand to gain anything positive from giving offerings and sacrifice to the Gods? What about blood sacrifice?

“As a Polytheist who does not really identify as a Pagan, I can’t speak for “modern Pagans.” I believe that authentic religious traditions — rather than psychological models drawing from religious terms or structures, or social movements similarly using the aesthetic of religion for artistic, activist, or community-centered reasons, etcetera — should have trained specialists who handle the navigation of sacrifices to the respective gods of said group, assuming that said gods request, require, or even accept sacrifices. Not all gods like bloodshed or death. As for “blood sacrifice,” I will take this to mean “ritual bloodletting” (as indicated above), and again say, that while I cannot speak for Modern Paganisms, I can state that magically and religiously there is great potency in these technologies which can be certainly used for ‘gaining something positive.’” — Anomalous Thracian

“Giving offerings to the gods cannot possibly be a bad thing. Like prayer and interaction with one’s religious community, I tend toward the belief that you can’t get enough of it. Giving special offerings that take effort, non-blood sacrifices, are just more of the same. I do not believe that Pagans need to give blood sacrifice unless and until they understand the context of that act, have trained personnel who can perform it for them, and have a distinct need to do it: either because they need to share ritual food, they are in a place where they need to butcher their own meat and they choose to sacralize that act by offering their food animals to the gods, or their gods demand it of them and no other options are satisfactory. Even in the last case, I still believe it is imperative and necessary for context and training to occur first. As I stated in the PantheaCon panel, I expect that most modern Pagans, living in countries where they do not have to butcher their own meat and practicing religions that have lost their connection to customs where blood sacrifice was practiced, will never need to do this, and their deities would not ask it of them as a result.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“Our relationships with the Gods dictate the value of sacrifice within a particular context. Much of what we would gain would be within the relationship itself, and that would depend on the practitioner and the God(s) in question. To make a broad, sweeping statement here about gain or loss would be devaluing to the individual and cultural relationships of varying practitioners of the craft.” — Crystal Blanton

“I have mixed feelings about blood sacrifice. On one hand, it would do us all good to get a first-hand understanding of where our food comes from and a first-hand understanding that what we are eating was itself alive only a short time ago. On the other hand, butchering animals requires skills you just don’t learn unless you grow up on a working farm and the only thing worse than not sacrificing is sacrificing clumsily – the animal should not suffer needlessly. Beyond that, I look at the community and legal problems blood sacrifice brings to some of the Afro-Caribbean religions – that’s not a battle I care to fight. But when you move beyond the issue of blood sacrifice, there is unquestionable benefit from sacrificing to the Gods. It brings us into closer relationships with Them, and it forces us to consider our relationships with food and with the non-food offerings we may be asked to give.” — John Beckett

“Absolutely, yes. We gain their blessings and we build our relationships with them through sacrifice. As far as blood sacrifice goes, in my years as a pagan and decade plus in ADF I have rarely heard it mentioned. I think we as Neopagans should focus on how we can use practical items to sacrifice in ritual, rather than trying to focus on something that is uncommon.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Where does volition and willingness come into sacrifice?

“Pretty much everywhere. Consent is sacred at every step; consent of the person performing or contemplating the sacrifice, consent of the sacrifice itself, consent of the one who raised or produced the sacrifice, consent also of the spirit or deity in question.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Constantly. If a thing is done against one’s will, it cannot be a sacrifice, period. If a person is forced to make an offering, that is no sacrifice, it is compulsion, and no good spirit or deity accepts that as sacrifice. In Haitian Vodou and in all the other traditions I know of where animal sacrifices are performed, no one would ever offer an animal without that animal’s permission; again, to do so without it would be compulsion and would not be a proper sacrifice. Even in halal and kosher ritual, from Islam and Judaism respectively, the animal must be awake and willing to be sacrificed; it cannot be knocked out before the knife is used. This is causing some issues with animal rights activists, most recently in Denmark, for example; but the alternative, to knock an animal unconscious and then kill it, would be completely wrong in that sacrificial tradition — while it may appear to the untrained eye of an animal lover looking at a video to be “kinder” to do this, an unconscious animal is unable to give consent and thus it is both cruel and, from a sacrificial standpoint, unholy/wrong. Those who understand butchery know that there are techniques to kill an animal without pain, and all who perform halal and kosher rituals must be certified as trained.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“Volition means the act of making a decision, and willingness simply means being prepared to do something. As in all rituals, we have to properly prepare ourselves. In many traditions it means putting on special ritual clothing, setting up an altar, smudging ourselves, ritual bathing, and other things to prepare us for the act of ritual. In ritual, we decide who we are going to sacrifice to and why. We always need to enter ritual with a purpose, and we should always have a reason for sacrifice—even if it is just to build a better relationship with our gods. A ritual without a purpose is a waste of everybody’s time.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Does volition come into play in animal sacrifice, does it matter, and if so, how is it obtained?

“Yes. There are various methods for this, from speaking with the animal directly and observing its behavior (or hearing back, if the asker can communicate with animals directly), and so forth. The ritual structure being employed should provide the structures for ascertaining this. If they do not, they should maybe be reevaluated in order to ensure that they are completely understood and trained.” — Anomalous Thracian

“In terms of how we obtain it: In Haitian Vodou, animals are raised explicitly for the purpose of food and for ritual-related food or ritual purposes where the animal cannot be eaten afterward. These animals are raised by hand, by the community that will sacrifice them. Before they are sacrificed, they are washed, decorated, and prepared by the community. They will be led into the peristyle (the Vodou temple), and presented with a number of various foods. One of these foods is chosen ahead of time as being the official sacrificial food. The animal is told what will happen, and that if it is willing to be sacrificed, that it should eat the official food to signify this. Only if the animal eats the special food will it be presented to the spirits for sacrifice. If it eats anything else first, it must be let free because it is not willing to do the work. It has been my experience that the willing animals not only go immediately to the official food, they will eat all of it, and not even touch the other food (which will be the same: for example, three identical piles of corn for a chicken). They also act like they know what is happening, and they do not fight when they are picked up by the butcher, etcetera. It is a profound experience that is observed with the greatest amount of kindness and dignity. The animal has one life, and is being willing to give it up for us — how could we be less than respectful of that?” — Mambo Chita Tann

“It would have to come into play. A person has to choose to sacrifice an animal, and that is the very definition of volition. In a Neopagan context, I find the notion of animal sacrifice not necessary except for rare exceptions.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Should animal sacrifice have a place in modern Paganisms, reconstructionisms, and Witchcraft?

“As I am none of these things, I do not feel that it is my place to answer for them. That said I believe that animal sacrifice should have a place in any authentically lived religious tradition which has spirits or gods which request or traditionally receive such things.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Until and unless those practices have a stated need for animal sacrifice – and I believe that most of them never will – I would say no. Should that become necessary, for logistical reasons (i.e., not living in a land with easy access to food animals, refrigeration, etc.), or should the gods require it, then I would believe that those same gods would provide access to the proper context, training, and ability to do so. Vodouisants themselves have this situation. Very, very few individual Vodouisants perform animal sacrifices, and even those who do, do not do it on a daily or regular basis. In the cases where that is a necessary event, there are trained personnel that one can go to, who will perform it on your behalf. I rarely perform that act in the United States; it is simply less necessary here, given our modern conveniences when it comes to food. Even in Haiti, I do not perform it often, and in all cases, I have access to trained personnel who can help me with the sacrifices I am not trained to perform myself. Everything is community-based. Modern Paganisms would have to define the same sorts of communities before they would even know if that was something they were going to need to do. If it ever happens, I believe it would be a long time in the future.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“In general, it could have a very important place, but unless it can be done right it shouldn’t be done at all.” — John Beckett

“In most instances I do not think animal sacrifice really has a place in modern Neopaganism. I do know of a heathen farmer who raises his own pigs and ritually sacrifices one, but this is a rare situation. In a modern context, there simply are alternatives to sacrifice that are every bit as effective.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

What is the nature of sacrifice in terms of transactions between spirits, Gods, and other entities?

“Sometimes sacrifices are a form of payment. Other times they are a form of celebration. Sometimes it is a transaction, sometimes it is praise; always it is reverent.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Depending on the context and the nature of the sacrifice, the sacrifice can reinforce connections by being a thanksgiving for help that has been given; it can be made as a promise for future action; it can be given as a substitute for someone else’s life (as I mentioned above). Sacrifice can represent a total offering of the self to the deities or spirits, or it can be a payment for an expected reciprocal benefit. There is no general meaning that applies to all sacrifices from all people to all spirits or gods – each one, like its nature as a unique and special thing, has a unique and special meaning.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“The nature of sacrifice is that which defines our relationship with the gods (and Kindreds). There are many reasons for sacrifice, and that defines what exactly is being asked or expected in the transaction. Here are few types of sacrifices as our Arch Druid Kirk Thomas has discussed in his various works:

1. Transactional sacrifice is the most common form of sacrifice where the sacred object is offered, and in the nature of hospitality, a gift is given in return. The basis of ADF’s Return Flow portion of ritual is “a gift calls for a gift.” The best one can offer is given, and the blessing and gratitude from the gods is given in return. 2. Piacular Sacrifice was a common Roman offering given during ritual to ask for recompense in case the offerings given weren’t enough or good enough. It is based on the fact that humans are inherently flawed, and the offering is given to acknowledge that. This type of sacrifice is still seen in the Roman Catholic Church. 3. The appeasement sacrifice is a type of offering given to a being or god to leave you alone. It is literally the “take this and leave” offering. Generally, this type of offering is given to beings not aligned with the ritual being worked, and they are given an offering out of respect to acknowledge they exist, but they are not part of the work being performed. 4. The shared meal is a type of sacrifice where a portion of the cooked food is offered to the gods. This is a very common ancient and Neopagan practice. 5. Chaos mitigates cosmos is a type of sacrifice that uses a series of offerings to recreate the cosmos in a ritual setting. This type of sacrifice goes back into the pan Indo-European creation story of Man and Twin. Man kills Twin and Twin is dismembered to create the world and cosmos. The chaos is the unknown or Otherworld, and Man takes his place as king of the Otherworld. This type of offering is meant to recreate this, but without any actual bloodshed.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

What about relationship; how does it play into the idea of sacrifice?

“I cannot imagine giving a sacrifice without having a relationship both with the being receiving the sacrifice and the community that would benefit from it; either in the form of food/reversion of the offerings, in the benefits gained from the sacrifice, or both. One might give a random gift to a stranger, for example, but it would be unlikely that one would give a random stranger the most expensive, most wonderful thing one owned. Sacrifice is a special event in the already-existing relationship between beings.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“Sacrifice strengthens relationships: between worshipers and their Gods, and among members of a religious community.” — John Beckett

“Sacrifice is as much about building relationships with the gods as any other reason. It is an act of hospitality. When we open sacred space, we invite the Kindreds into the ritual as family and kin. That relationship is built on sharing and trust. We sacrifice to solidify our relationships and make them stronger. Sacrifice allows the gods to give us their blessings and strengthens their bond with us.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Reclining Pan

Eric O. Scott —  March 7, 2014 — 6 Comments
Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Pan lies at the end of a hallway on the first floor of the St. Louis Art Museum, stretched out on his back on a bed of stone. In his right hand, he holds his pipes, ready to bring them to his lips for a song; he rests his head against his other arm, his left hand toying with the head of a goat whose skin the god wears as a cloak. Bunches of grapes rest between his shaggy feet. A tiny salamander crawls near his right hoof. I cannot read his absent gaze; while he would seem to be reclining in leisure, something in the way the god’s lips hang just slightly agape makes me think he is in some sort of sublime state, either pain or rapture.

This Pan is a statue, of course – Reclining Pancarved from a discarded chunk of marble, and once used as a fountain. (Water would have poured from the bag under Pan’s back, which seems highly impractical.) He was carved in the Renaissance, probably by an artist named Francesco da Sangallo, sometime around 1535, and spent most of his half a millennium of life in the collection of the Barberini family, whose members were princes and cardinals. He came to America, and to St. Louis, two years after World War II, where he has been ever since.

So far as I know, Reclining Pan is not considered one of the great works of Renaissance sculpture – not bad, but not one of the masterpieces. But you would not know that from the way my family treated it whenever we visited the Art Museum while I was growing up. We did not always go immediately to Pan, but inevitably, our labyrinthine paths through the museum would lead us to the hallway where he lays. My parents love art, and would happily observe and discuss nearly anything in the museum collections, but Reclining Pan merited a special reverence. He was our icon, our site of devotion.

But he was not alone. In the rest of the European art, there were other works that featured the gods of antiquity: Bartolomeo Manfredi’s Apollo and Marsyas was always a favorite, with its vivid colors and the wonderfully expressive faces of its subjects. If we wandered downstairs to the Ancient Art section, we found other pieces that usually caught my eye: small statues of Horus, Osiris, Ma’at and Thoth in the Egyptian cases, two headless statues of Artemis, an amphora showing the meeting between Heracles and Apollo at Delphi. A young Pagan could spend all day scouring the collections, looking for traces of the gods, and I often did.

When I was perhaps eleven or twelve – just beginning to understand what my religion was, and how it was different from what most of my peers at school practiced – I remember looking at the scenes painted on the case of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht’s mummy, detailing the path his soul would take in the afterlife. I looked at the gods – Osiris, Isis, Anubis, and many more – painted on the casket, and I recognized some of the scenes from the Book of the Dead. Then I looked at the information placard; it said that Amen-Nestawy-Nakht had lived during the 22nd Dynasty, sometime around 900 BC. I paused, and read the placard again. I don’t have the proper metaphor for how this revelation hit me: this person had lived a thousand years before Jesus. A thousand years! I was closer to the Renaissance than this priest of Amun had been to the birth of Christ. And yet we had statues of these gods on our family altar; I may have even had my own statue of Horus in my bedroom by that point. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to know that, in some way, I was connected to something so ancient.

I look at certain things in the Art Museum more critically now than I did as a child. I can’t help but be aware of the colonial stigma attached to the mummy of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht, for example, who had once been interred in the Theban necropolis and would, I am sure, have preferred to stay there, rather than passing into the hands of French collectors and eventually a museum on the other side of the Earth. I notice that the two statues of Artemis on display are both missing their heads, and I wonder what happened to them, whether some patriarchal malefactor destroyed the face of the goddess in an attempt to show his domination of her. And I can’t help but note the irony that Reclining Pan was carved for the family of a Catholic cardinal, the very embodiment of the religion that displaced the worship of gods like Pan.

But still, when I am home and have the time, I make this tiny pilgrimage. Part of growing up Pagan was learning to take comfort in the little reminders of my faith that infiltrated the world around me. I kept my chapels hidden in plain sight. Other visitors to the Art Museum might only have seen a statue of a strange-faced faun reclining on a comfortless bed of stone. I saw a god, and something more than a god.

I saw the face of an old friend.

 

Alone in the Garden

Eric O. Scott —  February 14, 2014 — 6 Comments
The Three Graces. Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

The Three Graces.
Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

 

St. Louis summer: not just hot, but humid, sticky, “muggy,” as we, the low-born of the south side, tend to call it. The world seems to glow orange under the proud gaze of Father Sun. On August days like this, sometimes the death of the Sun King doesn’t seem so tragic after all. He has it coming.

It is a little past eleven, and I am standing, alone, in the English Woodland section of the Missouri Botanical Garden – “Shaw’s Garden,” the other gift of our local saint, Henry Shaw. The year is 2007; I am twenty-one years old.

The English Woodland Garden doesn’t seem traffic like some other spots. It is a quiet, mazelike place. Although there is one asphalt road that splits it in half, a necessary blemish so that the trams and tractors can get across the garden, most of the paths in this garden are made of red cedar chips spread on the ground. They wind and twist around plots of dirt and greenery; black metal signs stick out of the ground and give names to the plants: a swamp white oak here, a dogwood there, a collection of bishop’s hats by your left foot. The dirt and the cedar steam in the heat, enough that my glasses fog up. The Three Graces, Zeus and Eurynome’s bronze daughters, dance together atop a stone on one side of the garden. Squirrels rustle past in every direction.

At the edge of this garden sits a wooden bower. In my memory, this bower was made of rough timbers, lashed together with ropes, the bark barely stripped from the still-round branches. The peak of its sloped roof was decorated with branches spread out like the World Tree. It felt like a tiny Viking hall in the middle of my city. I have been there in the years since, and that is not the building that stands there now. The gazebo that stands on top of my memory is sturdy and made of weather-treated four-by-fours and has metal brackets held together with rivets to brace its angles. Perhaps I remember it wrong; perhaps they tore the old down, or it fell apart during a rough winter. Perhaps I dreamed my Viking hall into being. Perhaps it knew why I was there.

I had no other temple. I needed a place to pray.

I stop at the threshold, place my hand on the rough frame of the doorway. Inside are two wooden benches, one to each side. The back of the bower has a railing and overlooks the last few trees and shrubs in the English Woodland Garden before the landscape melts away and becomes Japan. I first found that place the year before; I had come with friends from my coven. We were smitten. Sarah ran her hand across the tall beams of the frame and looked back at me; she seemed to radiate light. “I need you to build me one of these,” she said.

“Buy a house first,” I said, but I agreed to do it.

I sit down on one of the benches and look at my hands. I haven’t cried yet. I feel like I should have by now. That would be the human thing to do.

Two hours before, I had kissed you goodbye for the last time. I doubted I would ever see you again. We had been standing in the airport with your parents; you were boarding a plane for Washington, DC, en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You always said you were going into the Peace Corps: it was one of the first things I ever heard you say about yourself. You never said anything different, even after we found ourselves staying out talking at restaurants until we were forced out by the wait staff, even after I took you to a dance while dressed as a giant mouse, even after you realized I would never be bold enough to kiss you and so you kissed me yourself. I knew this.

You said you would be there for two years at least, but probably three. We had been together for nine months. The literary critic in me has always rankled at the symbolism.

I kissed you goodbye, and I watched you wheel your suitcase away into the bowels of Lambert International, and I rode in your parents’ SUV back to their house in North County, where my car was parked. I hugged them both goodbye – also for the last time – and drove back into the city, to Shaw’s Garden.

I shut my eyes, at last. Sweat pooled on my forehead. I sit in the muggy heat and try to focus. I begin to chant the names of the gods: I pull their names from my diaphragm like ohms, warping and shaping their names until they are pure notes that stretch as far as my lungs will take them.

I pray to Odin, wanderer. Frigg, all-seeing. Thor, protector. Tyr, oathkeeper.

I pray to Freyr, sower. Idunna, youth. Balder, martyr. Loki, changer.

And I pray to Freyja.

Freyja’s name rises from my belly. My eyes are clenched and my hands are clasped and I am not crying but I wish I were.

I pray to Freyja, and I think about you, and I wonder about what will happen to me now.

There’s a feeling, like a gentle brush of fingers against my hands, and I hear a woman’s voice in my ear. Trust me, she says.

If you say so, I say back.

I don’t think of Freyja when we begin to send each other letters that say how much we miss one another. I don’t think of her when my parents pull together the money for us to spend a week together a year into your term of service. I certainly don’t think of her when we break up two years into your time in Kazakhstan and I try – poorly – to start seeing other people.

It isn’t until you appear in the baggage claim at Lambert Airport and I see your face for the first time in two and a half years and we kiss each other good night on your parents’ front step that I think of Freyja.

Trust me, she says.

Last year, when I bought your engagement ring, I wondered where to keep it until I asked the question. I decided to keep it next to the statue of Freyja on my altar. Perhaps “decided” is not the right word; really, she insisted.

(Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.)

(Also, today is the first day of Pantheacon! I’ll be there! Will you be there? We should give each other high-fives.)

2011-year-resolution-400x400The New Year often comes with resolutions, promises, renewed dreams, and interest into the unfolding of the future. It is the time of year when mainstream society tells us to invest in the concept of a healthier self and a healthier world.

New Year’s resolutions range from weight loss to spiritual rededication; some people approach it with a belief of possibilities previously not available. It is a magic fueled by individual and collective belief, cast forward for the year.

I find this subject very interesting, and find that I was quite curious about other’s New Year’s beliefs, practices, and resolution magic. The roots of New Year’s resolutions can be traced back to the Pagan practices of the Babylonians, making offerings to the Gods in exchange for the fulfillment of wishes for the coming year. Some researchers say that the Romans changed this practice to January 1st, to honor the God Janus, and thus the association with New Year’s itself. Janus, the two-headed God, often is revered as a God of beginnings and endings, with one head facing the past and one facing the future. Suitable for a practice of resolutions for the coming year, right?

Offerings to the Gods are nothing new, and exist in many cultures. The beliefs of reciprocal relationships often dictate an offering or sacrifice to solidify and strengthen the relationship between human and the Divine. In A World Full of Gods, An Inquiry into Polytheism, John Michael Greer (2005) talks about reciprocity and sacrifice as a part of the interpersonal exchange that happens in relationships with deities. “For the core of Pagan sacrifice is participation and celebration, not appeasement or renunciation. Making offerings to the Gods is central to Pagan religious practice because it allows human beings to respond to the generosity of the Gods with gifts of their own. Prayers are accompanied with offerings, or with promises of offerings to come, to reaffirm that Gods and humans both participate in the web of reciprocity, celebrating their friendship with an exchange of gifts” (p. 122).

This practice of resolutions at the turn of the calendar year has continued to transform with the times, becoming a part of mainstream culture and yet strangely continues to hold a potentially spiritual element that is reflected through its magical past. In the article New Year’s Resolutions: The History and Psychology Behind Them, author Sinpetru noted the transformative changes throughout the years simply by stating, “So all in all, the idea of promising to do this or do that at the end of each year is nothing new. The only thing that has changed is that, rather than making promises to gods, we make promises to ourselves.” And while this does not apply to everyone, I tend to agree overall.

I imagine that the New Year’s resolutions of fellow Pagans are as diverse and broad as our practices. Whether by making personal sacrifices, promises to the Gods, or commitments to others, there are no clear rules for how one comes to resolutions, nor that everyone has to set them either. As multifaceted human beings, we associate importance on tasks and practices differently – which you can see in the diversity of responses below.

Oseaana December

Oseaana December

“I believe that tapping into certain collective energies is beneficial to magickal and spiritual growth. New Year’s is a time when many folks around the globe are closing down energy of one cycle and making plans to manifest goals during the next cycle. I use that global energy to put power into my own goals for the coming year. Long ago I gave up on what people first think of when they think of New Year’s Resolutions ( lose weight, stop smoking, etc) and instead make my goals more spiritually based. For example in 2014 I asked my Spirits to guide me to those things I need to make my body more healthy. I see New Year’s resolutions as commitments or contracts and because everything I do is from a spiritual place, then these commitments/contracts are made with my Spirits. This past New Year was around a New Moon, so the energy of new beginnings was very strong.” – Oseaana December – owner of Pumpkin Cottage Conjure

Melissa Murry

Rev. Melissa Murry

“Yes I do practice this cultural celebration as part of our family traditions of creating prosperity and good health for the new year coming in. I have made a resolution to travel more. Also, to prioritize things better in this coming year. And to maintain a workout routine. Yes I do this in conjunction with my spiritual path because my Tradition focuses on bettering one’s self and by doing so our reality becomes better…I look at the cultural group mind and intent as giving my resolutions extra “umph” in the coming year!” – Rev. Melissa Murry – Priestess, activist.

Lydia M. Crabtree

Lydia M. Crabtree

“I do not practice New Year’s resolutions because it feels like a lot of pressure. For those of us who struggle with feelings of inadequacy I think that setting New Year’s resolutions is a recipe for a further breaking down of esteem. I believe they are limiting as well. I try to remember that every day is as fresh and new as New Year’s Day. Therefore, ANY day is a good day to set myself into new behaviors that permit me to make changes in my life. New habits can begin on any day. My spiritual practice is part of this thinking. With the New Moon, Full Moon, Samhein and even the forth coming Imbolg, all can be seen in that lens of life, death, rebirth cycle that I find so pivotal to my practice as a pagan, witch and Wiccan. Given this view, limiting myself to one day in a year negates the very cornerstone of my belief system. I can have a New Year start on any number of days coming to me. Further if one resolution or chosen course of action does not succeed, the very next day is a New Year day that I can start a different resolution or course of action.”  - Lydia M N Crabtree – author, priestess.

Jelen

Jelen

“As I have grown older, I find that resolutions like losing weight are not as important as “being happy” or “being positive” or “feeling good about myself.” I could be thin, but would it matter if I was blind to my blessings or feel miserable? No, it would not. Therefore each New Year’s Day I reflect on what I am grateful for. Throughout the previous year I have written down things I am thankful for – sometimes many things in one day and maybe one thing in an entire month. But at the closing of the Julian Calendar, I read these love notes to myself, “I am grateful I still have a job. I am grateful for the smell of a puppy’s head when it first awakens from a nap. I am grateful for my loving husband. I am grateful for tea. I am grateful to be alive.” These things bolster me and I not only see the beauty in my every day existence, but I have taken a moment to remember to slow down and feel and love and admire my year and plan for all of the wonders the next year may hold. That is what New Year’s means to me.” – Jelen  - author, priestess

Lady Amber Dawn

Lady Amber Dawn

“I don’t create nor make resolutions. I find them to be filled with failure and are a waste of time in general. I do clean my house including all of my eight altars. I eat the traditional meals as well but no resolutions.” -  Lady Amber Dawn – priestess.

 

This type of practice, adopted by the overculture, becomes a powerful spell of magic that has the potential to ride the collective excitement and focus of the many. The combination of old magic, new magic, hope, dreams, and a snapshot of the future can give a powerful push to individual and collective casting.

For me? I have set some simple manifestations of health, love, and service. Be well within myself, well within my space, well within community, well within mission and in love with the world. How about you?

Nadirah Adeye, writer with Daughter’s of Eve blog on Patheos Pagan, wrote a clear welcome and some sound support in her post The Sacred Sensualist’s Guide to New Year Resolutions. “Welcome to 2014! Happy New Year and New Moon and Super Moon and the BEST YEAR EVER that EVER happened in the history of ever before!”

Happy New Year’s magic to those who choose to employ it.

 

 

 

 

Nature’s Social Union

Eric O. Scott —  January 10, 2014 — 12 Comments
Photo by author

Maiden, Mother, and Crone

My fiancee and I have been waffling about making exact plans for our wedding since May, when we were engaged. This is mostly because of our odd living situation – for a variety of reasons, we have been together for nearly eight years but have only ever lived in the same city once, at the very start of our relationship, and that situation doesn’t seem likely to change soon. But we have finally made up our minds to get things in order. So what if we still live in different states? Are we not moderns?

The idea is to have the wedding in St. Louis at Tower Grove Park – the same park that my parents were married in, and the park where I proposed to her. I like the idea of being married under the branches of those trees; Tower Grove was the park closest to my parents’ house while I was growing up. It was where I took the dog on walks, where I learned to ride a bike. Growing up in the city, Tower Grove was the closest place I could visit to experience nature. Even now, on the occasion that I consider the idea of a Summerland, really I’m just thinking of an eternity laughing on the grass of Tower Grove Park.

Which is odd.

Despite the trees and the flowers and the duck pond, there’s nothing “natural” about Tower Grove Park, nor most other parks in cities across the US. City parks, with a few historical exceptions, are a product of the Industrial Revolution just as surely as factories or high rise apartment buildings, and indeed, rely on those things for their very origins. It was considered important for the physical and spiritual health of industrialized workers that they had an opportunity to spend their leisure time in nature; otherwise, the dehumanizing, “unnatural” urban environment would wear them away. City parks were seen as the solution to this: an area of the city that was reserved away from the weary ugliness of urbanity and instead given over to greenery, where people could interact with the earth in the ways they had since the dawn of the species, according to nature’s design.

Tower Grove Park, in particular, was a bequest from Henry Shaw, who also donated the grounds for the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, which St. Louisians to this day still call “Shaw’s Garden.” It took decades to improve the property to meet the needs of visitors: there were pavilions to be built, bronze statues to be erected, and the earth itself to be molded, irrigated, and forcefully acquired in order to complete the park. Even today, nearly a century after the last tract of eight acres was added to the grounds and the park declared “complete,” Tower Grove requires a small army of groundskeepers, botanists, and rangers to maintain the buildings, plant the flowers, and keep the grass cut low enough that the insects don’t annoy the patrons.

Of course, in “real nature,” the grass grows tall and in the summer the air is thick with bugs. In “real nature,” the greenery isn’t bounded on four sides by major streets, nor are there life-sized statues of Shakespeare, Rossini, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The city park is an architectural space just as surely as any civic center – it just happens to be sculpted, in the main, with trees and grass as opposed to concrete. To put it another way, urban parks may be “nature,” but they are not in any sense “wild.” They exist because of human design. They are hardly what nature intended, except perhaps in the bizarre alternate reality of the Victorian mind.

This fascinates me, because – despite the debates the community has had over the legitimacy of this definition – my Paganism is, at its core, nature worship. Sometimes when I pray, it’s to the disir or the land-wights or to the gods; but sometimes I just pray to the trees, and that seems like it’s enough. But the way I think of nature – the way I think of “trees!” – has been buttressed by all those afternoons in a heavily cultivated city park, a tamed form of nature where every plant sits according to the plans of human beings. Does that taint the legitimacy of my connection to the earth? Can I really be said to worship nature if my idea of “nature” resembles a Victorian greenway?

Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps not. I have Annie Dillard on my mind right now – I’m teaching Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my Introduction to Nonfiction course this semester – and the central theme of that book seems to be the presence of nature in all her beauty and all her savagery all around us, everywhere we would care to look. There’s a famous passage near the beginning where Dillard sees a frog eaten alive by a giant water bug, which bites into the frog and devours its insides while leaving the empty skin-sack intact, like a deflated balloon. To Dillard – and to me – it’s an otherworldly, terrifying scene. But it’s just the way those two creatures interact: the giant water bug eats the frog, just as the frog eats the fly. Dillard’s Tinker Creek isn’t a finely sculpted civic attraction like Tower Grove Park, but it’s still shaped according to human intentions – there’s a cattle barrier doubling as a bridge slung over the creek, for example. But if the presence of humanity has made any impression on the frog and the giant water bug, they make no sign of it. Nature – “real nature” – goes on regardless.

“This place look like public property to you, bucko?”

I proposed to my fiancee at Beltane last year. In the days leading up to the sabbat, I made a habit of going over to the spot in Tower Grove Park where I planned to ask her. Without fail, every day I was visited by a cardinal bird. He was a feisty young buck, bright red and full of the warrior spirit. He seemed to take offense at the presence of my car sitting underneath his tree, and would swoop down onto the hood to peck at the windshield glass – probably, I suppose, thinking that his reflection was an intruder on his territory, though I like to think he just thought he was tough enough to scare away even a creature as big as a Chevy Cobalt.

The tree that cardinal lived in was planted by humans, kept up by humans, and was meant for human use. But the cardinal didn’t know any of that. To him, it was simply his tree, just as all his forebears had before him.

Perhaps, if the world were still in its primal state and the hand of humanity had never touched this acre of Tower Grove Park, the tree wouldn’t have been there, nor the cardinal, either. But they are here, and they’re true enough.

santaControversy hit the airwaves this month when Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly referred to Santa as being white. She was responding to an article on Slate magazine, by columnist Aisha Harris, about the complications of having a white Santa in a multicultural society, and suggested he should instead be no race, like a penguin. Kelly responded to this by having an on air discussion about the “Attack on Christmas”, and her views of the “facts” that Santa is indeed a white man.

“For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is maybe just arguing that we should also have a black Santa. But, you know, Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we’re just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.”

Not only did this incident cause a stir in mainstream media, it also appears to have created some colorful conversations within social media. Some of those conversations have filtered onto Pagan blogs, articles and Facebook threads, striking up conversations about who Santa is and who he is not. Is Santa really a depiction of Odin? Or is Santa a folkloric icon that has been commercialized in American culture? Are the roots of Santa Claus coming from the stories of good old Saint Nicholas, or is he a generated figment of our cultural imagination?

The responses have been vast, and opinions vary based on many factors, including a person’s belief of whether or not Santa is totally made up, or that he is a part of the historical mythology of the Norse. One of the biggest questions might be whether it matters at all. Is the issue arising from Santa’s potential race about preserving folklore, opening up holiday lore to be inclusive of Black and brown people, or trying to be too politically correct in our multicultural society? Questions with many different answers.

While there are a myriad of different thoughts on the place of Santa Claus in the lives of children, especially within Pagan homes, there is something to be said for how powerful messages of overculture can be in defining our belief systems. Consistent images of the white faced, bearded man in red, often connects to childhood memories, feelings of family, and emotions associated with this time of year. While associations of this time of year are not joyful for everyone, there is power in the image of Santa. Jason Mankey, writer of the Raise the Horns blog on Patheos Pagan Channel, wrote about this magic in his piece on the history and origins of Santa Claus, “It’s a magical memory, the exact type of thing that the image and myth of Santa Claus should conjure up. Santa Claus has power and an energy all his own. To say that Santa “isn’t real” completely misses the point. Few myths are as universal in the Western World as that of Midwinter gift-bringer, and it’s a myth that speaks to the best of who we can be as people. Santa is the spirit of giving and child-like wonder, two impulses that are often in short supply”.

As I see it there are a plethora of issues in potentially conflicting matters like this, individual and familial culture, religious beliefs, mainstream culture, appropriation of ancestral mythology, and the implications on overall current racial tension. The intersectionality of these various issues can create a lot of challenging perspectives.

All of the aforementioned areas add to the Pagan community’s ability to question our collective identity within the overculture of Americanized holidays and values. How do the Americanized holidays affect the practices and beliefs of those who walk a Pagan path?

Upon watching the Megyn Kelly segment on Fox News, I personally struggled with two different, and sometimes conflicting, elements of my personal identity; valuing the mythology that intersects with Pagan beliefs, and the need to challenge the often harsh reality of exclusions within our American stories.

So what do Pagans think about this Santa, Norse, fictionalized conflict, and is it important? Does it matter more to some subsets of Pagans over others? I asked a couple of Pagans some questions on these exact things.

jonathan korman

Jonathan Korman

Santa has a great bushy beard and a sled drawn by reindeer and a magic bag of wonders; that such a figure would not have some kind of connection to Norse myth seems … implausible.

But there is no tidy answer to such questions.

Is Hermes “really” a figure from Egyptian mythology because Hermes is “really” Thoth?

The gods and spirits and so forth are refracted through a cultural lens, and they do not break crisply from one another. The Hermes of my practice both is and is not the same entity as the Hermes an ancient Greek would have encountered. The Santa Claus I encounter both is and is not the same as the Santa encountered by a Christian Minnesota six-year-old in 1890. – Jonathan Korman

Melanie Moore

Melanie Moore

I suppose American Santa has roots in Odin but most of them are completely twisted and watered down. I don’t desire to use him in my family’s traditions.

In fact, I decided even before I had children that I would not do Santa. I feel badly for parents who get roped into buying their child’s secret expensive gift in the name of Santa. And the “naughty” manipulation. If Santa doesn’t bring your expensive gift – is it because you’ve been naughty? – Melanie Moore – midwife, dancer

Lupa

Lupa

The Santa Claus we think of here in the U.S. may resemble his pagan forebears, but at this point he’s become his own icon. I think it’s important to allow there to be a modern mythology, especially in a culture that often feels it doesn’t have one. This is especially important for Santa Claus since the prevailing theme is “Believe he’s real as a child until someone tells you otherwise, and then he’s just a marketing strategy”. I think looking at Santa as his own mythical being and taking him a little more seriously can reintroduce some of the wonder and magic of the Christmas season at a time when the holiday has become heavily commercialized. That doesn’t mean that every American has to become pagan, of course! But just as we have the mythos of the Rugged Individualist here, I think we could also use a more solid buildup of Santa mythos as it pertains to American culture–generosity, good humor, and a healthy dose of wonder and little-m-magic.

I don’t think it impacts us more than it impacts anyone else. We all are affected by the craziness of the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, more and more, we’re seeing Christmas decorations for sale in mid-October!) I do see the desire to “reclaim” a more pagan Santa to be something of a backlash both against that commercialization and Christianity on the part of some pagans, though there are also just those who are curious about his roots. But I don’t think that images of the jolly old man in red and white affect pagans specifically either way.

I grew up with a fairly typical roster of Christmas celebrations–the tree and ornaments, presents, carols, etc. It’s something that’s invested with a lot of fond memories and good feelings, and it’s something I carry on even today. Santa is a part of that, though I suppose if I had children he’d be even more present.

I do recognize that for the most part Santa is depicted as a white guy. However, I personally feel that he can show up as any race–there are old men with white hair (and sometimes beards) all over the world. I think the problem is more that “white” is the default race for depicting all sorts of individuals (look at the situation with Jesus, for example). And yes, the original St. Nick wasn’t white. However, I feel Santa Claus, through means good or ill, has again become his own being, and I feel that because of his popular appeal among Americans of many different races, he should be depicted with more diversity himself. By this I mean being depicted as being of all races in turn, not just one. (And not just a case of “when he’s going to a white family’s house he’s white, when he goes to a black family’s house, he’s black, etc.) He could potentially be a mythological figure who can be for everyone, and carry that holiday spirit of “peace and love for all your neighbors”. – Lupa, author

Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey

Santa Claus is an American phenomenon, this is where he got his name, his modern look, and his red suit. Without America there is no Santa. Of course Santa Claus has roots in other cultures and other things. The Christian tradition and mythos of Saint Nicholas is a building block, and I think Norse/Germanic mythology is another building block.

I know that there are a lot of Pagans who resist celebrating Christmas because they think of it as a “Christian” holiday. Santa being such a visible figure can make that difficult, so that’s way he impacts Modern Paganism. I’m a firm believer in Christmas as a mostly secular Midwinter celebration with pagan and Christian influences. As such, it’s something I enjoy celebrating and I like seeing Santa involved in it. When it comes to inescapable modern icons, Santa with his message of giving, isn’t a bad one to have plastered everywhere for two months out of the year. Now if we could just popularize Befana and Krampus – Jason Mankey, author

While I feel that Kelly’s comments on her television segment were culturally insensitive, biased and racially provoking, there is room to question how mythology, present culture, political factors, and cultural capital all play into the individual and collective needs of the Pagan community. For those who are people of color, there are a multitude of layers to unpack around the continuous stream of American folklore, mythology, holidays, and bringers of hope that are always white faced heroes. This lack of multiculturalism trickles down into the many subsets of our general society and directly impacts perceptions of the status quo.

With that in mind, I specifically wanted to ask Pagans whether they thought the race of Santa had any impact on community.

LaSara Firefox Allen

LaSara Firefox Allen

I believe that Santa as a true entity is beyond race, or religion. Or even gender. But just as “God” (capital G – as in, the Christian God) is presented as a white man in most cases, as a Mystic I believe that the heart of god is inconceivable. I believe that Santa shows up in pop culture mythology as an old white guy because that is what power shows up as in the dominant culture. But I have known since i was young that Santa is an entity that shifts Its presentation. This is why I can still be such a solid believer. If we claim Santa, Santa become a mirror of our own divinity, and we a mirror of It’s. – Lasara Firefox, author

Connie Jones-Stewart

Connie Jones-Stewart

I believe that the Santa Clause of today is a totally fictionalized and secularized character that has developed over time. He may have some elements of Odin, La Befana, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas and others but he is none of those people. I don’t believe that Santa impacts Pagan or Christian culture. He is part of secular Xmas and secular culture. I see Santa as the spirit of giving that comes with the holiday season. He has no race nor religion. – Connie Jones-Steward, Interfaith Minister

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

As a kid raised in an almost all-white school system, in an almost all-white town, seeing images of a non-white Santa might have made me do a double-take. Then again, seeing a non-white Barbie doll would have made me do a double-take. However, I also would have just shrugged and thought, why not. For me, the modern image of “Santa” is something that’s, how to put it…he’s an archetype that should be a mirror, a gift to the community. I grew up with a Santa that looks like me and I’ve always taken that for granted. I grew up with Barbie dolls and toys that look like me. But I also know that Santa comes from an older tradition. Ultimately, one of the sources of what we now call “Santa” may have come from Asian/Siberian shamans bringing mushrooms to their tribe. The modern image of Santa was really branded and solidified by Coca Cola, if memory serves. For me, it’s not important what color Santa is, Santa’s a secular concept that belongs to our culture, and I don’t think it takes away anything to have a Santa that is Black, or Asian, or any race or color. Because, kids should get to grow up with a Santa that looks like them.

Deities and spirits change over time, and based on location. They change to become culturally relevant. I think the modern concept of Santa doesn’t need to be limited to being white; I think a multi-racial Santa is more culturally relevant. Deities and spirits and archetypes change over time, they always have. It’s what makes them live and breathe.- Shauna Aura Knight, author

jonathan korman

Jonathan Korman

What with the sleigh and the reindeer and the furs and the elves and the home as far north as north goes, one might presume that Santa Claus is Norwegian or Finnish. But then Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Smyrna, was presumptively Greek in what is now Turkey; that guy doesn’t sound so … pale. But that misses the esoteric truth of Santa which we only reveal to children when they are ready to hear it, that Santa manifests in our performance of him, be it putting on the costume or delivering gifts under the tree; in that Santa is and must be anyone and everyone.

This lesson, that Santa is a role which anyone may inhabit, is contained in my favorite Santa Claus story, the Twilight Zone episode “Night of the Meek”, in which a department store Santa discovers a magical, inexhaustible bag of gifts and begins distributing them to the poor. Only at the end, at the prompting of a friend, does it occur to him to ask for something for himself — and all he can think to ask for is to be able to do it every year. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_of_the_Meek) – Jonathan Korman

Porsha Williams

Porsha Williams

I feel that the Pagan community would be more wide open to any/many different representations of Santa Claus compared to greater society. As pagans (and to use a term I’ve seen used recently within posts on the Kemetic Tumblr-verse)–”unique personal gnosis” is considered valid, in reference to our experiences with ritual and study of our gods. What feels right, is held in higher regard to our community than greater society. It is respected, vs. ridiculed and discredited because it’s not the norm.

It’s common knowledge that greater society does not accept what’s different without some sort of pushback. In the case of Santa being white or black, I feel that unfortunately it still matters greatly whether he’s portrayed as black or white. Unfortunately, the old guard of baby boomers through Generation X were raised with those “racial boundaries” still firmly intact. As younger generations like Generation Y and the Millennials came up–the time of Jim Crow and it’s customs were more textbook lesson than recent memory. These generations are coming of age with little-to-no boundaries due to social media, shared interest in each other’s differences (vs. aversion) and a lack of fear of any repercussions of racial mixing. While these factors would make a “black Santa” less of an issue for them, the old guard will stick to their learned behavior as they get closer to the end of their life cycle. It’s what’s comfortable and what’s known–sadly yet respectfully, I believe greater society will continue to be impacted in that manner until newer generations come of age. Though the Pagan community does have those few sects of worship who remain firm in their belief that racial segregation is necessary in their chosen path, they are few in comparison to our community as a whole. – Porsha A. Williams, writer of The First Dark

With such a wide variety of associations with the figure and importance of something like Santa Claus, who is to say what he is, who he is, and how important he should be? As we have seen here, the is such a variety of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about this historically significant figure that is is not as clear, as black and white, as some people would like to believe.

blacksantaThe lines between myth and truth, culture and interpretation, race and identity, religion and belief, magic and practice has not always been as transparent from one person to the next. There are a lot of shades of grey within any black and white, Pagan or Christian scenario.  And regardless of the beliefs of origin or importance, we have to admit that Santa is one powerful source of magic to captivate so many people across time. And in my opinion, power has no color or race.

Several recent links on Santa myth and history:

For full statement from Shauna Aura Knight, Jonathan Korman, and Jason Mankey, please click the following link.

Author’s note: A special thanks for the heartfelt, interesting quotes from those who had a moment to respond.

IMG_2836There are so many different ways to celebrate during this time of year, and the plethora of Pagan celebrations go throughout the month of October and through the first week of November. While a large majority of Pagan practices happen on October 31st or November 1st, the actual astrological day for Samhain this year is November 7th, lending for more time to have more celebrations. Festivals of ancestral honor continue in many different traditions and cultures; two of the most known, of course, include Dias De Los Muertos ending November 2nd, and All Saints Day on November 1st.

After writing my ancestral piece last month, we were contacted by a priestess in the Bay Area about her coven’s practices and process of ancestral worship. I took the opportunity to correspond with Cynthia of Circle of Winged Toads, a coven that is a descendant from the Compost Coven started in the 70’s, because I was very moved by the pictures of their elaborate ancestor altar.

Different practices dictate different processes, and the length of time needed for the preparation of any rite; practices at this time of year can take a matter of days or weeks to get ready for.  This is one of the covens that take a lot of time in preparation to put up their ancestor altar every year.  I found the pictures of the altar that were sent to the Wild Hunt fantastic and quite fascinating. Cynthia answered a few questions for me about the altar and ancestral practice during this time of year.

IMG_2835What do you find to be important about this time of year?

I feel connecting with ancestral spirits and my own mortality is important at this time of year. I also want to honor those in the community who have passed. This year I noticed that where as I used to have several people each year who had died from AIDs now it is bicyclists here in San Francisco. So I hung white ghost bikes on the altar.

How long have you been building this ancestral altar?

I have been doing this for around 25 years. It started pretty simple using the buffet in my dining room. As I continued to host our covens ritual each year people would leave things behind. So when I take the altar down I save photos and drawings for the next year. Thanks goddess I have an attic.

When do you put it up and take it down, and how long does it take?

I put it up over 2-3 days in early to mid October. Then fine turn as I meditate with the spirits each evening. I leave it up until early November so I can appreciate the transformation after the covens ritual on Samhain night.

What types of things do you look for in a well-crafted altar and how do you gauge what should go on it?

It’s all about the spirit. Items that belonged to my grandmother always have pride of place. I am fortunate to live in San Francisco within walking distance of the Mission district where I can find many Dia De Los Muertos items that are beautifully made. I like a touch of whimsey too.

IMG_2837Inspiration, creativity, and ideas can be ignited by the sharing of some of the incredible practices of other Pagans.   I hope you enjoy the pictures of this incredible and detailed altar as much as I did.

As the ancestral celebrations this time of year come to a close, I wish everyone a season of love, health, wisdom and guidance. May those who have gone before inspire and inform us on our journeys.

 

Buffalo_reflex_Buffalo_Mo_18690821 (1)

The first issue of the Buffalo Reflex, the object of my desire, from 1869. Ah, for the days when poetry got top billing. Retrieved from the Missouri Digital Newspaper Project.

The research room of the Missouri State Historical Society Archives is not much to look at. It’s a dark room in the basement of the Ellis Library at the University of Missouri, the institution I now call home. The largest section is nothing but work tables and census catalogs, tracking the names of every person who has lived in the state for more than a century. Rows of obscure books stretch off in the opposite direction; I have no idea what any of those books are. I come here for newspapers; the archives have virtually every newspaper ever printed in the state of Missouri since its inception, all maintained in cabinet upon cabinet of black 35 millimeter microfilm. For the third day in a row, I have been sitting here in the dark, staring at the projection of the microfilm on a computer monitor, looking for something I doubt anybody but me even cares to find.

It was not that long ago – just about two months, now – that I spent most of my time in a different basement room, also staring at a computer screen. In some ways, my days have not changed much.

But make no mistake: in the month since I last wrote here, I have changed almost everything about my life.

I don’t say that to brag; when I made the decision to quit my (admittedly awful) job, leave my beloved hometown of St. Louis, and come here for my doctorate, I figured that the odds of it being the worst decision of my life were around 40%. It might still turn out to be – I’m going for a PHD in English, after all, and the job market for that particular specialization tanked over a decade ago and hasn’t yet stopped sinking. One of my classes is, essentially, a semester-long investigation into ways this might turn out poorly.

But in the meantime, I’m having a tremendously good time. I tend to spend about twelve or thirteen hours every day working, and I make less than half of what I did at my “real world” job. But it’s good work, and I feel more welcome here in my new home than I have felt anywhere else in years.

We’ll see how it turns out.

I’m searching in the archives for newspaper articles from the region around Springfield, Missouri, dated late October or early November 1983-84. I’m searching for stories about a fire that would have happened just after Samhain. According to my coven’s legends, we held our sabbat on a member’s farm a little ways north of Springfield, near the town of Buffalo, Missouri, which is small enough that I had never heard of it before despite living in this state my entire life. We had built a cabin on the farm to sleep in after the ritual; after everyone had gone home, someone had burned the cabin to ashes. The person who had owned the cabin told me her sister had seen a story about it in the paper, including the detail that the reporters had discovered chicken bones in the fire pit nearby and declared it proof of animal sacrifice – when in actuality, we had merely eaten roasted chicken for dinner that night and thrown the bones in the fire.

(It strikes me, as I read over that paragraph, how effortlessly I slipped into the first person plural: I wrote that “we” did this. Of course, I had nothing to do with it. If this happened in October 1984, I was still nearly two years from being born. But perhaps that illustrates what it feels like to be a second-generation Pagan. What they have done, I have done; what has happened to them has happened to me. It is impossible for me to think of my family’s history objectively – I know too well how every event in it has shaped me.)

As best as I can tell, the newspaper article does not exist. The universe described by the local paper, The Buffalo Reflex, does not contain witches; as best as I can tell, it doesn’t contain anything except for the school lunch menu and an occasional syndicated editorial about Grenada. Perhaps the story ran in a church newsletter or some other kind of small, barely-circulated publication; perhaps that detail was just an embellishment of the story, now told so often that as far as anyone can remember it actually happened. The first thing one learns in memoir is how fickle memory can be.

What I did find, looking for articles written in the same region and roughly the same time, was one article from the Springfield Daily News, dated Halloween, 1979. Springfield, for those who think of the Midwest as flyover country, is the third-largest city in Missouri, with about 150,000 residents. Lorelei, one of my coven-mates, spent her college years there, and recalls it as a conservative place, not very welcoming to weirdoes like us.

And yet there’s this article, titled “Real witches shatter diabolical stereotypes.” It’s about the writer Kathy Maniaci’s experience meeting with members of Springfield’s Shadow Coven. It’s not a long article, and some of it plays with a vision of Wiccans that must have been clichéd even in 1979. The article begins with Maniaci running late, with the words of an unnamed friend in her mind: “The last thing you want to do is make a witch wait.” Presumably because she would shortly find herself a toad, I suppose. When one of her interviewees mentions how hard it is to find a good robe, Maniaci responds, “I winced, as if I’d just heard a vampire say, ‘You know, a good grave is so hard to find these days.’”

But I am fascinated by the article, nonetheless. While engaging in some annoying spectacle, I am moved by the attempt, however fumbling, to humanize Pagans. The Daily News served a small city in the middle of America, after all; I doubt they had any particular obligation to look out for us. The stereotypes are there, but she allows the members of the Shadow Coven to gently debunk them; at no point does she belittle them personally, nor suggest that they are anything but proud of their identities. Considering this was written on the cusp of the Satanic Panic, I find that commendable.

And considering that in a little over a month we will undoubtedly be flooded with articles not terribly dissimilar to this one, I find that certain things really haven’t changed that much.

The archives close at 4:45 most days, and my time is up. I rewind the microfilm and put it back on the cart to be reshelved, and then head out. Only a few other researchers are still there when I leave; each of them is much older than me. I doubt that anybody but me, outside of the staff, is under the age of 60. They come here for genealogy, mostly, combing through census records and obituaries, trying to fill in the bare spots of their family trees. Trying to figure out where they come from.

And of course, I understand. I spend most of my time trying to do the same thing.

A photo of the farm. Photo by William Scott.

The farm. Photo by William Scott.

I grab two pieces of firewood at a time from Alaric’s grandmother’s pile and throw them into the back of the trailer. Wood lands on wood with a solid clack, like the woodblock in an orchestra.

“Who cut this, anyway?”

Alaric drops a log onto the trailer. He is a few years older than me, old enough that we were never close until we were both adults. “Me and dad. We cut her three cords of wood for heat last winter – this is the leftovers from that. We’ll cut her another three this year.”

“Oh,” I say, setting my last load into the back. “So we’re not really stealing it from her.”

I lumber into the trailer and sit on a bale of straw. Then Alaric starts up the tractor and we’re heading across the grass and down a gravel road, traveling down into a valley, coming to rest at a circle of just-mown grass with a depression in the center.

“Fire pit,” says Alaric with a self-congratulatory grin. “For later. I just made it yesterday.”

It’s Lammas, or the Saturday closest to it, anyway. We’re at Alaric’s family farm, somewhere in Jefferson County, Missouri, where his grandmother and several other relatives live in houses scattered across the property. Alaric lives a few minutes away, on the outskirts of Imperial, but for the past few years he’s farmed wheat and vegetables out here on the weekends and after work at his day job as a tech and data guy for a law firm. Most of his farm equipment is a hand-me-down from his deceased grandfather; he’s constantly taking it apart, rebuilding it, scavenging parts from other machines. His latest acquisition is a new combine. The one he had been using was made in 1955. The new one’s from ‘65. Practically just off the assembly line.

I grew up in the city, and that’s still where I’m naturally drawn to live; when I moved back to St. Louis, a little over a year and a half ago, the idea of living in the suburbs, much less the country, never occurred to me. Alaric, who grew up out here, likes to mock me for my city-boy ways: “You feel okay out here, buddy? I know everything’s not all paved over, the way you like it.”

Still. Riding in the trailer, looking out at the tree line rising up all around us, at the creek, at the weeping willow off in the distance… It’s hard to think anything else.

This place is paradise.

*     *     *

This is the first sabbat we’ve held at the farm, mainly because Alaric’s grandmother is severely Lutheran and would have certain reservations about her property being used as the site for witchcraft. She is at church all day today, though, which is apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Alaric told her he and his wife, Amanda, would have some people over for a party at the barn. Further details were omitted.

After we unload the wood, Alaric drives the tractor across a muddy stream to an ancient barn. Our family has gathered outside, drinking beer and bantering from their camp chairs. Inside the barn, a handful of them set out the feast. There are no lights in there, and shadows overtake the interior even though it’s only six in the evening.

We spend the next few hours discussing the dangers of smoking in the barn and the extent of the property line. There is a brief episode wherein bearded men spirit away the Baby Julian so Amanda, his mother, can have a rest. And then we pile into the trailer, seated on the bales of straw, and ride off to one of Alaric’s wheat fields for the ritual, singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we go.

Most of our rites, it must be said, are citified. We mention the harvest, yes, but usually in a metaphorical sense: we talk about the kinds of seeds we have planted in our lives, the kinds of bounties we can expect to reap. We mention the struggles our forebears endured, but we do not live off the land, as they did. We must find other ways to connect with the meaning of the festival.

This one, however, was different: we were performing it in an actual wheat field. Alaric and Amanda had actually harvested wheat here – the communion bread was made from that crop. For the first time in my memory, our harvest sabbat was literally about the harvest.

I don’t have any illusions about Wicca being an ancient religion; I know the specific things we do were not done by any mythical set of ancestors in the Times Before. But in that bread, made from wheat reaped by my brother and his wife, I could taste just a touch of the life my people must have once lived.

Perhaps it’s coincidence: my father had been telling a story all weekend of a man he’d met at work. He saw the man had a Celtic cross tattooed on his shoulder, and dad congratulated him on our mutual Irish ancestry. Then the man admitted, while rolling up a pants leg to reveal another tattoo of the Red Lion of Scotland, that he wasn’t pure Irish – he was Scots-Irish. Again, just like us. So they started comparing notes: where their families came from, where they settled. The similarities were uncanny: they both had relatives buried in the same tiny graveyard next to the Huzzah Baptist Church, a church that serviced a town that hadn’t been there in decades. “I think we must be cousins,” my father had told the man.

The bread made me think of those Scotts, the line of our tribe that had made its way here, to the heartland of America, who had resulted in me: their lives, and their struggles, and their hopes and dreams and failures. And thinking about that, as it always does, made me think about my other family: my coven, the family of choice that I never chose.

When we finish our bread and wine, Alaric and Amanda send us out to the fields to take some wheat, like the gleaning once allotted to the poor. I take Alaric’s knife and cut nine blades.

I don’t take the hay ride back. I walk with my father back to the barn, mostly in silence. We cross through the woods, over shallow streams and bridges, over grass and gravel. I am thinking about the harvest to come.

*     *     *

Every time I’m near a bonfire now, I find myself singing the runes into it. I don’t have any justification for this, other than it seeming like a thing worth doing. It’s simple: start with fehu, work your way to othala, sending each rune into the flames and then out into the world with the smoke.

I throw each of my wheat blades into the fire as I sang. Sometimes I miss – overshoot the fire, or toss with too little force, so that the blade ends up near the edges instead of the heart. But when the flames catch one, the blade erupts in bright orange light, then blackens, crumbles into the ash. These were my sacrifices, my gifts to the gods. Something for the future.

The fire spreads out of the pit, a tiny orange finger in the living grass. As one of the only people wearing good shoes, I stamp it out before it can get out of control. My friend Megan scolds me afterwards. “Be careful!” she says, pointing a finger from me to the fire. “I saw what you were doing over there.”

I smile and stand next to her. We watch the fire for a moment before she asks the question.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I say. “We’re picking up the U-Haul tomorrow and heading out as soon as we can load up the furniture and the books.”

She nods. “I’ll miss you,” she says.

“Columbia’s only two hours away,” says Web, one of my parents’ generation, on the other side of the fire. “You act like you’re moving to another continent.”

He had a point, of course. The problem wasn’t really the distance. It was what the distance implied about the future.

In the morning I would be leaving St. Louis again, so soon after returning. I was starting a PhD program at the University of Missouri, something I thought I had put behind me until I read the acceptance email while laid over in a Dallas airport en route to Pantheacon this year. The program was scheduled to take five years to complete. After that – assuming the academic job market still exists, which sometimes seems like a big “if” – I would be searching for work any place that would take me. A place that, undoubtedly, would not be St. Louis.

Since I became an adult, since I really understood what it meant to be a second-generation Pagan, I have begun to realize just how wonderful the circumstances of my life are. I knew that I wanted to inherit the coven from my parents, to shelter it, to give it to my own children someday. That’s such a rare gift, to have something like that, to pass it down. I know now that I probably won’t be able to do that, at least not as directly as I had hoped.

But then again, I can look across the fire and see Alaric and Amanda there, cradling little baby Julian.

Families are never about one person; they are about all of us, together. And if it so happens that I can’t be with them as much as I’d like, well, my family doesn’t live in Huzzah anymore, either. This is something every family experiences.

I kiss my family good night, pack up my bags and my trash, and set off towards home. I still have things to throw in boxes and furniture to get ready for the move. I won’t fall asleep until three hours before I need to wake.

It is Lammas, my last night in St. Louis, the night of the first harvest. I pass by the Weeping Willow tree and Alaric’s grandmother’s house. I turn from the gravel road onto the pavement, and make my way out of paradise.

30

Eric O. Scott —  July 12, 2013 — 9 Comments
http://www.flickr.com/photos/harmfulguy/13866569/

The Stone Pavillion in Tower Grove Park. Photo by Brennan O’Keefe.

We are walking down a side street off of Grand Boulevard in south St. Louis, my parents and I. City ordinances typically prohibit the amount of sushi we have just consumed, and absolutely forbid following such gluttony with gelato. But we eat it anyway. It’s a Tuesday, which is unusual for us; we normally have dinner together on Wednesdays. But tonight is special.

“I was just talking about it with Kenny,” my father says, referring to his closest friend. “About the people who were there. It was a completely different universe back then, huh?”

My mother shakes her head. “Not that different…”

“Well, do you remember who was there? Tim and Nancy, Becky, Kenny, Al Lambert-”

Mom cuts him off. “Al Lambert was not there. He hadn’t been around for months by then.”

“He absolutely was,” says Dad.

“No, he was not!” says Mom.

They stop to argue in the middle of the sidewalk, right next to the First Church of Divine Science. They give each other annoyed glances, but they’re chuckling all the while.

“How much you want to bet?” asks Dad.

Mom pauses, thinks about just how right she is. “Twenty.”

“Twenty bucks,” he echoes. They pinky-swear on it, and we’re finally free to move on towards the truck.

Despite the bet, neither of them claims to know where they kept the wedding photos in order actually prove or disprove the presence of one Alvin Lambert. I suspect neither of my parents is sure enough of their memories to commit to an archeological expedition for the photos of their wedding; after all, thirty years is a long time to remember.

*                *                *

My parents were married in 1983. It was not a big wedding; they held it in Tower Grove Park, only a few blocks away from the sushi restaurant where we celebrated their anniversary. They rented the only pavillion in the park with an electric outlet so that they could bring dad’s stereo for music, and the catering was provided by Lee’s Fried Chicken. Mom claims the catering van had a plastic chicken leg mounted to the top, which is one detail I’ve always had some trouble believing.

Dad’s uncle Lark, who had a Missionary Baptist church, did the preaching and the marrying. I think this was a choice borne of practicality and frugality, just like dad getting married in his old gray suit instead of a tuxedo, or having the chicken van handle the food. They didn’t have much money. It wasn’t a perfectly sculpted dream wedding, and they knew that; knowing my parents’ character, I suspect that the ramshackle elements of the wedding were a point of pride for them. They’ve always thought of themselves as more Onslow and Daisy than Richard and Hyacinth.

It was a Christian wedding – because what else could they have had, back then? – but my parents had already been involved with the occult for a few years at that point. They had been going to Golden Dawn meetings since the late 70s, and from there had ventured into Wicca, joining Pleiades, the coven my family is still in today. Most of the elders of my coven were there – not really elders back then, of course. They were barely older than I am now; kids, really.

Did it bother them going in? They had only been Pagan for a few years at that point, I guess; I doubt they could have seen more than a couple of handfastings at that point. And I don’t think the idea of having just a handfasting would have ever been an option for them. Paganism might have been a major part of my parents’ lives even then, but it’s never been the entirety of their identities. It’s not as though they were snakes shedding a skin, after all. They were still the people they were before they found the Golden Dawn and Pleiades. Paganism was an additive, not a substitution.

Almost every day I find myself thinking about how my parents and their friends managed to make those first few brave steps into the Pagan world. I think about all the obstacles they had to negotiate, all the trouble and effort, the plain damned improbability of it all.

And perhaps I think about it even more this year. Not just because of my parents’ 30th anniversary, but because of the impending developments in my own life. I proposed to my girlfriend at Beltane this year, at Tower Grove Park, the same place my parents were married. Now we’re facing many of the same questions my parents did: what sort of wedding to have, which relatives to appease, wondering when we’ll actually have time to do it. (My girlfriend – fiancé now, I suppose, though the world is still strange to my tongue – is probably going off to Central Asia to do her dissertation research in the next year. Whether that means we get married sooner or later is anyone’s guess.) She comes from a very Catholic family, and we haven’t had that talk with her parents yet, and that conversation scares me to death.

These are different problems than my parents faced, and yet very much the same. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I know how my parents dealt with these things when they were my age – I doubt any child ever knows. That’s the story of the species.

I talk here mostly about my childhood as a Pagan, as a product of Pagan parents and a Pagan community. But that can’t be taken in isolation: this person I am, these beliefs I hold, these words I write, they all trace back not just to the religion my parents practiced, but to their working-class childhoods, to the troubles they had with their families, to the chance meetings that became decades-long friendships. I am not just their religion; I am their anger, and their hopes, and their failures. I am the thousand tiny coincidences that shaped them and therefore shaped me.

It is a tapestry whose handiwork I can only just begin to see, much less understand. As for me. As for everyone.

*                *                *

We are in the truck, driving away from the anniversary dinner. It’s the hottest day of the year, and work is terrible, and the waiter never did bring us an extra dish for the soy sauce. But we are full, and we are happy, and we are going home.

I don’t think anybody ever fully understands their parents; I surely don’t. It’s too complicated a relationship, too full of memory. But thankfully, understanding is not a prerequisite for gratitude, much less for love.

Thirty years is a long time. Happy anniversary, mom and dad.

Certain names obscured to protect the guilty.