Archives For Neopaganism

SOUTH AFRICA — Members of the South African Pagan Council are celebrating the organization’s decennial this year with a variety of festivities. It is also an opportunity for Pagans worldwide to learn about the efforts of this one organization, and to gain a greater understanding of the nature of modern Paganism in South Africa. Leaders of the SAPC opted to answer questions from The Wild Hunt as a group because of their organizational structure, which they explain in their responses.

Rainbow_BlackThe Wild Hunt:  How does SAPC fund its activities?

South African Pagan Council:  Currently it is done through contributions and payments by individuals, regional events that fund successive events, and the SAPC 10 year Commemoration T-Shirt, the sales of which will go towards funding bigger things.

TWH:  What benefits does someone gain by becoming a member?

SAPC: The members of the SAPC have at their disposal expert advice, trauma councillors who regularly assist members of the community, lessons, intervention on part of the organisation in cases of religious discrimination at school and in the work place, committees and subcommittees that take care of the spiritual needs of the community, spiritual and moral support, discussion groups, lessons from the high priestess, Pagan Freedom Day celebrations as well as the opportunity to take part in the advancement and upliftment of the Pagan banner through personal involvement in the various committees and subcommittees, becoming RMOs [registered marriage officers] for an officially recognised and registered religious organisation, having officially designated clergy to solemnise legally binding marriages and civil unions and affiliated groups to choose from when networking. The SAPC is run on the Arthurian round table principle. We advocate power with, rather than power over. Community building, bridge building, education, academic research and the presentation thereof in summits and conferences presented by the authorities, involvement with the media, are amongst some of the benefits the members of the SAPC enjoy.

TWH:  Has the face of Paganism in South Africa changed in the past ten years? If so, how?

SAPC: The key role players are still there, but there are a myriad of people out there, solitaries and independents that have met on forums/cyber and which have banded together as small covens and those who have maintained their solitary status but exchange ideas and request for assistance over the internet.

TWH: Is the membership of SAPC racially diverse? If it isn’t, is that something that you’d like to see change? Why or why not?

SAPC: Yes, we have several African, Indian and Coloured members but would (without proselytizing) see more folk from various backgrounds, identify as Pagan and join our organisation. We are not Eurocentric or neo-colonialist as many have intimated. The statistics are what they are because we’re still in a phase of education and introduction, but it is already clear that more and more folk find that they find themselves at home under the Pagan banner irrespective of their cultural or racial background. They find that the possibility of eclectically marrying their ways to the celebration of the days in the wheel of seasons and rites of passage, opens up new horizons.

It is for all of us (the Rainbow Nation) a matter of “coming home.”

TWH:  Do you have any information on the number of Pagans in South Africa, and whether that number is growing or declining? How does that compare to the number of members in SAPC?

SAPC: No proper census has ever been done by the authorities as this alternative option is not present in census forms. Any census done on line, between the various groups, is therefore only a marginal indication and cannot be considered to be accurate. Not all Pagans are cyber active. What we have noticed is that there are more and more applications and more and more online members, in our and in other groups. It is evident, therefore, that the movement is growing by leaps and bounds, but we cannot provide exact figures. I would be comfortable in saying, however that the numbers have trebled in the last ten years.

TWH:  Where in South Africa is Paganism most highly concentrated, to your understanding?

SAPC: We would say in the big cities, because there are more people in the cities, but we have members even in the remotest little towns in the countryside. Paganism is said to be the fastest growing religion in our campuses, but once again, we have no figures. Just some sporadic reports in newspapers at University Cities.

TWH:  As for the Pagan Freedom Day Movement events, how many people do you expect to attend these?

SAPC: This depends on many things from weather, the political climate within the Pagan community, funds available (our country is currently in a bit of pinch) and where people decide to attend the event. Some folk have taken to travelling to far-away events in order to meet friends for the first time, to see how it is done in that part of the country, etc. Some travel because they are curious about the activities advertised and decide that because these appeal to them, that they will support those regional organisers on a particular year. Johannesburg is by far our best attended event, every year. Ryan Fallon Young and his wife Nicki Lunawolf Young are absolute gems and the true experts at event organising.

TWH:  What kinds of activities will be involved? Is there included some kind of education component, such as what might be found in Pagan Pride Day events in the USA?

SAPC: The activities include stalls, meditation, competitions, sword fighting, musical entertainment, dancing and drumming around the bonfire, ending off with a circle and spiritual gathering. Talks on Paganism open the event and continue, in the form of demonstrations and lectures during the course of the day.

The events take place in open and public areas so the public at large joins the crowds, participate and of course learn from the talks and from making acquaintances with the Pagans at the event.

TWH:  For those of us unfamiliar with South African geography, would it be possible for an individual to hit all six event sites in one day?

SAPC: No, not unless he has mastered instant teleportation.

South Africa is a medium-sized country, with a total land area of 1 219 090 square kilometres, or roughly equivalent in size to Niger, Angola, Mali or Colombia. It is one-eighth the size of the US, about a third the size of the European Union, twice the size of France and over three times the size of Germany. [Ref: www.southafrica.info/about/facts.htm]

TWH:  What would you say the major SAPC accomplishments have been in its first ten years?

SAPC: SAPRA were the first officially registered organisation in Africa and the SAPC second. We were the first officially registered Pagan Religious Organisation to have a designated Marriage Officer. Clients of the LHRC and key interested party and role players in the field of equal religious rights along with SAPRA, CRL and SALRC. We have taken on schools and corporate companies on the matter of religious equality and succeeded. Our membership has loyally supported our endeavours, such as the exhibition of Art for Human Rights in 2013, part of our support for SAPRA’s 30 Days Advocacy Against Witch Hunts campaign, which we have supported since its very start. We have alongside SAPRA, also been instrumental in stopping the Mpumalanga Witchcraft Bill in 2007 and in working towards the CRL’s proposal this year, for the scrapping of the 1957 WSA. We have published several volumes of Pagan Literature, ipods and mini videos.

We can proudly say that we have spent the last ten years educating people in matters Pagan and occult, participating in symposiums and publishing papers with University Departments of Missiology and Religion countrywide, fighting against human rights abuses, standing up against misinformation in the media, fighting off the waves of Satanic panic, addressing with SAPRA smearing campaigns by religious extremist and the statal bodies which support them and within which they operate, as well as the cancer of exclusivity within our own community, in order to function as the intended umbrella, and operate as per our motto of “Unity Through Diversity,” a reality in which every affiliated group has autonomy and manages itself independently.

TWH:  What would you like to achieve during the next ten years?

SAPC: We would like to continue striving to outdo what we have so far delivered but most of all, of having a central place where we can run a community garden, a soup kitchen and offer low cost accommodation for Pagans and their families who have been hard struck by unemployment and homelessness.

The Convener has also gathered a library of over 5000 Pagan and Esoteric books which would be housed in a library at this centre.

A Pagan temple is also our oldest yet not forgotten dream.

Last week we reported that the website Lilith’s Lantern had been shut down. Founded in 2003, the site was run by the members of Mandorla coven, many of whom had worshiped with Feri tradition founders Victor and Cora Anderson. It was considered to be a resource that reflected a line of teaching that came directly from their mouths. Also called the Anderson tradition, and Faery and Faerie, the practice was eventually called “Feri” by Victor Anderson himself, and these varied names reflect the way this Pagan path has grown and evolved.

Victor and Cora Anderson, c. 1944 [Courtesy Lilith’s Lantern]

Victor Anderson’s story of being initiated as a boy in the 1920s by a “tiny old woman” sitting in a circle he found one day in his native Oregon was recounted in Drawing Down the Moon. The book includes details of the vision he received of a goddess and god during that process, and what came next:

We sat in the circle and she began to instruct me in the ritual use of each of the herbs and teas in the circle. Then I was washed in butter and oil and salt. I put my clothes back on and made my way back to the house. The next morning when I woke up, I knew it had really happened, but it seemed kind of a dream.

Cora Anderson had learned from her root-doctor grandfather, and grew to become known as a kitchen witch. As recounted by initiate Corvia Blackthorn, the sense of recognition the two felt for each other when they first met in 1944 was so strong that they married only three days later.

When Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today, the Andersons decided to become more public about their own practices, and began initiating people. These included Gwydion Pendderwen and Starhawk, who each went on to expand awareness of emerging Pagan traditions through initiation and public work, including Pendderwen’s music and Starhawk’s books.

The practices that the Andersons taught included concepts such as the triune soul and honored deities, including the Star Goddess, that they considered to be separate and distinct from humanity. Elements from a number of cultures were also included, as Blackthorn explained; she uses the name “Vicia” to refer to the tradition here:

Polynesian lore and magic is woven through Vicia, as is Vodou. Other strands include Kabbalah, Gaelic lore, European and American folk magic, as well as Native American concepts. Victor’s personal heritage was diverse, and included Scottish, Spanish, and Native American ancestry (among others). As Cora phrased it in Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition, Victor was “a regular League of Nations.” Starhawk once said that Victor “was allied spiritually with all the indigenous traditions of the planet; a true shaman.” Victor honored all his ancestral ties and teachers. Victor also encouraged his students to explore their own cultural roots and the magical lore of their personal heritages, as “a Witch’s power is in their blood.” This is not a hard-and-fast rule however. Each person is an individual, and each person’s pathway into the mysteries is unique.

It is perhaps because of that unique nature, according to Aline “Macha” O’Brien, that Victor Anderson in particular didn’t teach the tradition the same way to all of his students. That fact has contributed to the rich tapestry of practices now followed by those claiming ties to his teachings. O’Brien said:

Anderson Feri (spelled variously Faery, Faerie, Fairy back when I first encountered it) is intimate, individualistic, idiosyncratic, and mysterious, as much so as each practitioner, individual coven, and line. I see Feri as an exotic vine, sending out tendrils seeking habitable places to propagate. In the places where the stolons find hospitable ground, they flourish and put out flowers of various colors, intensities, and configurations — some deep, intense, highly saturated, and flamboyant; others paler, more subdued, subtler, and very private.

One thing Feri is not is monochromatic. Neither is it orthopraxic or dogmatic. Some plants (individuals, covens) may sever the vine from the original plant. For others the connection may weaken, while others grow more strongly attached to the matrix. Lilith’s Lantern arose from the last coven of founders Victor and Cora Anderson, and thus avoids distortion and offers a purer picture of the wild garden that Feri has grown. Lilith’s Lantern offered an inclusive perspective and reliable resources. I am sorry to see it fade from cyberspace.

41r0hm6ViOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The sense that Lilith’s Lantern was a good reflection of those core Anderson teachings was echoed by others who commented on its shuttering. Soulfire, a member of Mandorla who had helped maintain the site, said of his teachers, “Through the work of the Andersons’ initiates, particularly Starhawk, the Craft has grown tremendously. The Andersons’ influence, albeit indirect, cannot be overlooked.”

Storm Faerywolf founded a school in the tradition, BlueRose, and said that Lilith’s Lanters was a site that he’s relied on. He said:

Lilith’s Lantern has been a staple site for students and seekers of traditional Faery/Feri witchcraft for more than a decade, offering insight about our tradition as well as the wisdom of the founders, Victor and Cora Anderson. Unlike the vast majority of other websites and public practitioners of our tradition, Lilith’s Lantern was a unique window into the practices and philosophies of the founders, which were often much simpler than those of the many covens and lineages that stemmed from them.

With the closure of this site we have one less perspective to offer to the rich and diverse tapestry that is Faery, and it will be sorely missed. While the tradition will continue ever on its journey of evolution and growth, this is definitely the end of an era.

Although the site is gone, it has not been forgotten, as it has also been archived and is accessible through the Internet Wayback Machine. The most recent version, prior to the closure, can be found here. The fact that it’s still accessible pleased Valerie Walker, who said that other Feri sites have completely disappeared from the internet when discontinued. She said, “I think that the tendency toward secrecy in all things great and small is a plague on Feri, and leads to silliness like removing things from archives, as if the people who got hold of the material while it was up hadn’t archived them already. All that does is discourage newcomers, which may be the point.”

As for its usefulness across the many Feri traditions, Anaar Niino said, “It was politically neutral and respectful of the variant lines. It was also very friendly to curious Witches who may not have enough information to even ask questions about Feri.” Niino also said, “This was as close to sitting next to the Andersons as you could get without actually being there.”

In short, while Feri is most predominant on the West Coast, it has influenced many forms of Paganism practiced today. Lilith’s Lantern shone a light on many of the core teachings of its founders, Victor and Cora Anderson, who died in 2001 and 2008, respectively.

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Update 3/31/2016: When we initially asked “why” the site was shutting down, we did not receive an immediate response in time for publication. The organizers of Lilith’s Lantern have since responded, simply saying that “they want to be more private.”

Attacks on identity are not just hate crimes, they are war crimes. They are assaults on the most basic sense of self whether the target is a person, culture or religion. These types of attacks are designed to undermine legitimacy with objectives that range from oppression to obliteration. They are among the most heinous of attacks.

But sometimes these wars storm quietly. Sometimes they rage for centuries, using imagery and innuendo to suppress ideas and populations, but happen so subtly and infrequently that we catch only glimpses of battle. Salvos of marketing and advertising lay the groundwork for cultural hegemons to marginalize and eradicate people, societies and even faiths.Then they turn to politics, spinning to wipe away evidence and reframe the aftermath as a great work for a better future or a common good. It all happens with rhetoric and magniloquence, because in this kind of warfare words are weapons, and they matter a great deal.

We have been cautioned by many faiths, avatars and gods that words have deep power. In Odin’s discovery of the runes, he comments during his self-sacrifice, “From a word to a word I was led to a word, from a deed to another deed.” (The Poetic Edda, c.1200 CE)  The apostle John affirms to Christians that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (The Gospel of John 1:1)  Words organize intent and expose new gateways into the mind and the spirit, and while we often take them for granted, they are the basic tool of ritual work, the basic tool of change and the basic tool of control. They are also the foot soldiers that both convey and condemn identity.

[photo credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

The town of Nemi, Italy.   [Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

Science gives us some insight into how words become more important than even the actual, physical objects that they represent. Recently Edminston & Lupyan (2015) conducted a series of experiments to examine how words and ideas co-inform us about our environment. They argue, as an example, that the idea of “it’s snowing” or “snow” can be activated by different cues like the word “snow,” the crunch of snow underfoot, witnessing flurries or a snow-dusted sidewalk. Our brains can identify “snow” many different ways and by any one of these cues. However, the question is whether there is something unique to the word “snow” that is different from the evidence of it. In other words, do we have a mental representation of “snow” — from the word itself –– that is more powerful than, for example, witnessing the event that is called “snowing,” or even holding some in your hand.

What they hypothesize is that our category labels are more important than other sources of information – like watching those flurries — to activate and access our conceptual knowledge of the thing we’re experiencing. That is to say, verbal labels are more important to triggering our knowledge of topics than other modes of experiencing a phenomenon.

A different example of what they are getting at is the word “dog.” That word evokes more knowledge of canines than hearing, say, some barking by those animals. The label “dog” is more important for accessing our information than the sound of barking.  And, thus, we are more adept – faster as measured in their experiments — when we use the word “dog” rather than when we hear a bark, or perhaps even see a dog.

Now that idea of “dog” that we access in our mind from the word may be general. It’s not a corgi or a basset hound or a retriever, it is the general idea of dog. We might think of those breeds collectively as the category of “dog.” It doesn’t evoke a specific one. It’s a generalization from which we can pull specifics if we choose. However, it does open a deep cognitive path that allows us to access all our information on the object, as well as our prejudices. It demonstrates the extraordinary power – even magic — of words.  Those words — and the act of labeling — bypasses the circuitry of the object (i.e., the dog) and goes directly to our idea of “dog,” and in doing so reinforces all those cognitions and predispositions we have about the object: we like dogs, we hate dogs, “who’s a good dog?”

Why this is important is that this new understanding of these psychological pathways has direct implications for our understanding of human perception. These findings suggest that, while we may perceive information with our senses, the labels we use will always frame our awareness of that information. Words buoy our prejudices and, through them, frame our views of others and things whether they be culture or identity-based. And that could have more serious implications about how our implicit biases tint not only our mental impressions but also how we understand the people and world around us.

Understanding a word means an automatic instigation of our mental construct that it represents for us in its fullest form. Words buttress our personal architecture of the universe around us, the good and the bad, and using them strategically can bless or malign our representations of our inner world that becomes the reality around us.

*   *   *

A few days ago, I was visiting the temple of Diana of the Wood in the town of Nemi, Italy. It is a stunning and sacred place; Diana’s presence is immanent and palpable. The temple – now ruins – is on the north shore of the lake for which the town is named. The lake itself is volcanic, surrounded by the crater walls and filled only by rainwater. Wind will cause it to shimmer, but it has no real waves; there are long moments where it becomes absolutely still, reflecting the surrounding woods and crater. Even today, it lives up to its Roman name, Speculum Dianae, the Mirror of Diana.

[photo credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

Lake Nemi: The Mirror of Diana [Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

We were visiting the lakeside museum that exhibits the remains of famous Roman ships used by emperor Caligula to cool off when he visited Lake Nemi during the hot Roman summers. He was a devotee of Isis, but also venerated Diana Nemorensis (Diana of the Wood). Why he built the ships as floating palaces (complete with heated baths, mosaics, and plumbing, galleys and sleeping quarters) is unknown, and apparently the subject of much debate. My husband concluded that Caligula was no fool; all you have to do is look around. The area is idyllic and under the watchful patronage of Diana.

And then it happened. While we were exiting the museum, a German-speaking traveler standing close to me spoke to her family member, and I overheard, “Nemi See ist in der Mythologie von Rom erwähnt…. In den kurze Geschichten über die Göttin Diana.” (Lake Nemi is mentioned in Roman mythology. Short stories about the goddess Diana).

So there it was. Just like the word “dog” discussed earlier, the word “mythology” triggered abstractions that were trying to overtake and degrade the magical experience of place. “Mythology” was trying to make it “fake.”  And, “short stories” reinforced the abstraction of simple-mindedness; as though there was a puerile, even naïve, element to them. For a moment, the place became mundane and the stories — the parables of Diana — lost their theism. The lake had become a place in literature like the Marabar Caves or Elsinore.

This traveler reduced — most likely inadvertently, but echoing centuries of cultural reinterpretation — the Roman religion to fables learned in high school. It brought into relief how language has slowly been used to relegate Pagan and polytheistic beliefs from religious discourse to adolescent literature. Thus those gods become undeserving of veneration because they evoke fiction, not religion.

Now, I’m neither a classicist nor a Roman theologian. The closest I got to those areas academically were Latin classes. But I do know that Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes and Bulfinch’s Mythology were both required reading in high school as introductions to ancient belief. And I distinctly remember that we approached these texts as fiction. As Merriam-Webster puts it, myth is “an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true… a story that was told in an ancient culture to explain a practice, belief, or natural occurrence. Looking at the full definitions offered by that dictionary, we can see that myth seems to have nothing to do with religion.

From the same source we see that examples of this usage include, “Contrary to popular myth, no monster lives in this lake.” The language underscores the fictional aspect of the story and undermines the identity of believer for those who may hold those stories as sacred. We are — at best — being encouraged to understand the stories as false.

Members of our broader society would be scandalized if we used the same language in reference to the stories or central figures of monotheistic faiths such as Jesus of Nazareth or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). We are taught that Moses and the prophets of Judaism are historical persons. The Gospels are not myths, neither is the Quran nor the Torah.  As Mircea Eliade noted, “The earliest Christian theologians took the word in the sense that had become current some centuries earlier in the Greco-Roman world, i.e., ‘fable, fiction, lie,’” (p. 162) and that the myth is “a false account portraying truth,” whereas the narrative — like Biblical stories — are accounts of “descriptive of events which took place or might have taken place.’”

[photo credit: S. Ciotti]

Remnant of a Statue of Diana [Photo Credit: S. Ciotti]

If we visit Wikipedia and search for “Christian Mythology,” we do not get Christian doctrine. Instead, we are given a long list of beliefs that are apocryphal to Christianity, and we certainly don’t see the image on the right hand side of the page denoting the section as “part of a series on” Christianity, Islam or really any of the modern major faiths. For Islamic mythology, Wikipedia informs us that, “This section improperly uses one or more religious texts as primary sources without referring to secondary sources that critically analyze them.” Norse Religion, on the other hand, is described as part of the “Norse Anthropology” portal. Type in Paganism, and you get a pictures of Venus and comments about antiquity. Type in “NeoPaganism” and you get an underdeveloped “Part of a series on” with one link. We are not only underrepresented there, but the language in Wikipedia diminishes us and our beliefs.

Now I am completely aware that Wikipedia is built on contributions, but the editors and contributors are mimicking the longstanding semantic favoritism toward the major faith traditions. It is the use of language to segregate that which is acceptably believable and part of religion from that which is dramatized and belonging to literature. It highlights the institutionalized bias toward monotheism and marginalizes Pagans and Polytheists as aberrant or antiquated or ill-informed or even immature.

My mistake at Nemi was silence. I had an opportunity to reframe “mythology.” I could have answered, for example, “But they are important stories. Many people still find strength in them.” But I didn’t. The unintentional attack on identity and faith did not get a response. In fact, I didn’t realize the scope of what had happened until I spent some time sitting by the lake shore almost an hour later. But we can respond. And we should.

Doing so is an act of reparation and affirmation. We can knit together the story of our identity as both new and ancient faiths. Through the tiniest of steps, we can re-frame a word at a time to a person at a time. And we can unlink associations that have undermined religious identity even in societies that favor no religion. We need some courage, but we’ve never lacked that. We need to take advantage of that moment of opportunity and share of the responsibility. We can each be weavers of language to knit new meanings to old words that will slowly but unfailingly becomes the tapestry of our identity while restoring unity with and honoring our ancestors.

It’s not about anything remotely related to evangelism; that’s not within our traditions. But it is about giving voice to identity. It’s about honoring our ancestors, and the importance of Pagan and polytheistic beliefs in the present day and in the present moment. It is about unifying the past and the present, and demanding that belief and identity not be casualties of linguistic wars.

At that moment in Nemi, I lost two opportunities. One opportunity was to educate about identity and the other to start re-knitting the association of “mythology” from fable to faith. But I’ll work on doing better.

Ubi concordia, ibi victoria.  Where there is unity, there is victory.

Citations

Edmiston, P. & Lupyan, G. (2015).  What makes words special? Words as unmotivated cues.  Cognition, 143, 93-100.
Eliade, M. (1963).  Myth and Reality”  Harper & Row: New York.

AMHERST, Mass. — Ellen Evert Hopman first collected the interviews in her new book, A Legacy of Druids, in 1996. She did so using methods that might seem antiquated in today’s fast-paced world: by having conversations in person, and by asking questions by mail. The fact that it took twenty years to publish the results of her work echoes the words of the late Isaac Bonewits, “as fast as a speeding oak.” Some things simply should not be rushed.

A Legacy of Druids coverBonewits, who founded Ár nDraíocht Féin in 1983, is one of the people that Hopman spoke with to create this book. Because he and others interviewed, including Lady Olivia Robertson, have since passed away served as an impetus to get this book published, Hopman told The Wild Hunt. “I had a sense that it was historically important,” she explained.

However, the technical hurdles were not insignificant. Much of the original work was saved on floppy disks that were inaccessible because it’s all but impossible to find that kind of drive anymore. Hopman had to resort to scanning transcriptions of the interviews, which she had originally done on a typewriter. This created other issues. As can happen when text is scanned, it “was full of weird symbols, it was just a terrible mess,” she recalled. The entire document had to be carefully reconstructed to make to readable again.

But reconstruction, in another form, is something quite familiar to Hopman. Her approach to Druidry is Celtic reconstructionism, which seeks to build upon the oldest written sources to learn about Druidic ritual, belief, and philosophy. Since that tradition was oral, the best sources available are the writings of Christian monks who recounted the stories of the Druids in the seventh century.”It’s honoring what the ancients did,” she said, but it’s not the only way to follow the path. A Legacy of Druids shows that such diversity is as much in evidence a generation ago as it is today.

Phillip Carr-Gomm, longtime leader of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD), weaves together the many perspectives in his foreword:

. . . when I read the interviews Ellen has collected here, I realised that they articulate most of the issues contemporary Druidry is still concerned with today, and the insights they offer are as valid now as they were twenty years ago. This in itself would be sufficient justification for publication, but in addition I found I could engage with the material in another way. In reading the interviews, I had the benefit of hindsight – twenty years on I could see what ambitions had been realised, and whether any fears had proved justified. In addition, I could imagine how a similar collection gathered today might differ, and I could start to get some sense of what legacy modern Druidry might be leaving the world.

Many of the Druids interviewed for the book are from Britain, which is why Hopman opted to go with a British publisher, Moon Books, at Carr-Gomm’s suggestion. “They accepted it in 24 hours,” she said, and that interest seems to be reflected in the fact that Amazon is showing it as a bestseller, even though it’s not due to be released until April 29. According to Moon Books’ Nimue Brown, “I can only think that’s people pre-ordering copies – and to a degree that we just don’t normally see this far ahead of a book’s release. And of course rankings are all relative – if five people all bought Ellen’s book in a short time frame when no one else was picking up Druid titles, it would put her high on the list for a while.”

That’s something Hopman finds gratifying. One of her other dozen books, Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today, was included on a Huffington Post list entitled “27 Essential Texts About Paganism For Your Bookshelf.” However, she hasn’t seen that translate into sales. That text is the intellectual ancestor of A Legacy of Druids as it follows the same interview model, one that Hopman decided to use for her own Druidic path as it matured and grew. As Hopman wrote in her introduction:

As Druidism slowly gained recognition, I saw that a forum was needed where Druids too could express themselves so that the public would come to know us more fully. At this time in history Druids are still a small sub-set of the current Neo-Pagan revival, with many different flavors and beliefs within each sect. . . . The one thing we all have in common is our reverence for nature and a passionate desire to protect our Mother Earth.

Hopman told The Wild Hunt that she was never trained as a writer, and that she sometimes feels like her projects are directed by a divine force. That sense was especially strong when writing the first of her Iron Age Druidic fiction trilogy Priestess of the Forest. As she explained, “Writing it felt like watching a movie; I was just the scribe.” That might be an apt description, because a screenplay is currently being written based on that book, with Elyse Poppers already having been cast to play the female lead. “That’s new ground for me,” Hopman said. “I’m just lunging ahead.”

While the official release of A Legacy of Druids is April 29 to coincide with Beltane, Hopman does have signed copies available through her web site right now.

SOUTH AFRICA — After years of lobbying by Pagan groups in the country, the South African Law Reform Commission has determined that portions of that nation’s Witchcraft Suppression Act are unconstitutional. Witches should be able to identify themselves as such, the commission found, as well as practice divination. However, the proposed replacement law still has its problems, according to members of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, because it singles out “harmful witchcraft practices” for regulation on the basis that they can cause “intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror.” SAPRA members are drafting a response to the bill and hope to see changes in it before it becomes law.sapralogoThe Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 is, like most similar laws in African nations, based on 1735 Witchcraft Act of the United Kingdom, which was itself repealed in 1951. SAPRA requested a review of this law in 2007, an effort which was joined by the South African Pagan Council and the Traditional Healers Association. That slow process has finally resulted in the release of a lengthy issue paper by the SALRC, an independent body created in 1973 to investigate South African laws and make recommendations to the national and provincial governments for reform.

In that issue paper, members of the SALRC agreed that by making it illegal to identify as a Witch, the act violates the right to religious expression guaranteed in the South African constitution. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that there is no definition of Witchcraft in the legislation. In other words, Wiccans and other Pagans fell into the same category as those who are more traditionally considered Witches in sub-Saharan Africa, a place where the word “witch” is often associated with people who use supernatural powers to cause harm.

Where the SALRC paper deviates from the hoped-for outcome is in how it tries to make distinctions between the different uses of the word “witch.” According to Damon Leff, who has been working on this cause for years, “The draft bill is focused on preventing accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts, human mutilations and ritual murder, and what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices.’ ” In Leff’s view, that lumps together actions which should be unacceptable for any person to commit with beliefs that are protected.

We believe that existing laws may be used to deal with human mutilations and ritual murder – we already have a Human Tissues Act which prohibits the harvest and sale of human body parts, and murder is already illegal. We also believe that what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices,’ in the absence of actual demonstrable criminal activity, cannot be proven in any court of law to exist without reference to belief, and since the Bill of Rights protects the right to belief, ‘witchcraft beliefs’ aught to play no role in the determination of actual criminal guilt.

The bill has apparently been structured to address concerns that the widespread belief in malevolent magic makes it possible for one person to cause very real harm to another by convincing them that they intend to cast such a spell. Leff provided a copy of the response that SAPRA is drafting, which lays it out thus:

Whilst certain crimes may indeed be motivated by belief, those crimes identified in the Commission’s definition of alleged ‘harmful witchcraft’ practices, specifically, intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror, may be committed by a member of any (or no) religious faith. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to show that some Christians and Traditional Healers have in the past attempted to justify their criminal acts by appealing to their beliefs as motivation for such acts.

Traditional healers may also underlie muti murders, committed to obtain a specific human body part for the purposes of healing another. Children, the elderly and disabled are most susceptible to these kinds of attacks. The draft response reads:

SAPRA must argue that since the perpetrators of such practices, specifically those who trade in human body parts, do not self-identify as Witches or as practitioners of Witchcraft, but have in the past been identified as traditional healers or as practitioners of traditional African religion (who do not self-identify as Witches), the application of the term ‘witchcraft’ to such practices constitutes an equally inaccurate misnomer. Muthi murders have nothing to do with Witchcraft, because actual Witches are not the perpetrators of such crimes.

Instead, they argue, such crimes should be enforced under the existing Human Tissues Act, which was passed specifically to prevent such crimes.

From the SALRC issue paper, it appears that the Traditional Healers Organization has pushed for a clear definition of Witchcraft in a new law, and regulation of the harmful practices associated with it. Traditional healers, according to Leff, would never identify as “Witches” because of the strong cultural bias against the term, which has only been challenged recently with the spread of Wicca and related religions.

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Pagan Freedom Day in South Africa [Photo Credit: Ginney May / Wikimedia]

Another problem with the replacement bill, insofar as Pagans are concerned, is that while accusations of Witchcraft are banned, it doesn’t go far enough to protect those accused. The existing law has even been flouted by public officials. SAPRA’s draft response asserts, “Such a Bill must however not merely prohibit accusations of Witchcraft and punish those who do make accusations of Witchcraft which lead to harm against the accused, it must also provide the victims of accusation, living refugees of accusation, with access and means to victim support and restorative justice,” Since the lifting of apartheid, restorative justice has become a powerful concept in South Africa.

In short, SAPRA’s position is that laws should be based on verifiable evidence of wrongdoing, and no crime should be associated with a belief system such as Witchcraft, since heinous acts can be committed by anyone regardless of their religion or lack thereof. The comment period on the draft bill and related issue paper ends in April, and it could be another year before it is presented as a white paper, and submitted to parliament for consideration.

“If the SALRC goes ahead with the proposal, the Bill will be sent to Parliament for review before it is published, and only after that, could it become an Act of Parliament,” explained Leff. “We plan to stop that from happening.”

DALLAS, Texas –Last month we reported that Morgan McFarland, founder of what eventually came to be called the McFarland Dianic tradition, had died. As she chose a solitary practice for herself nearly 40 years ago, few people today are familiar with her contributions to Wicca. In fact, McFarland helped shape a debate over the nature of the Dianic path which continues today. The Wild Hunt sought out those who knew her well, to better understand how her influence continues to be felt in the 21st century.

Morgan McFarland [credit Mark Roberts, deceased]

Morgan McFarland (1941-2015) [Photo Credit Mark Roberts]

Also known as Johnnie Lee Myrick-Haynes, McFarland was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1941. While it’s unclear what first put her on that path, she was already performing rituals on her own thirty years later when, in 1971, she met Mark Roberts, a man who had been initiated into a British family tradition by his former wife. The two began a partnership that was to last for several years, combining Roberts’ contacts in the nascent Pagan movement with McFarland’s willingness to be the public face for their covenstead to build the new tradition.

According to a chronology provided by Monica Granath, a member of the tradition, it was Roberts who discovered the term “Dianic cults” in Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe, and McFarland chose to adopt it because “it spoke to her beliefs and practices.”

Both McFarland and Z. Budapest have claimed to be the first to use Dianic to describe their work, but no matter who deserves that credit, the two traditions have clear differences. As it is said in the McFarland tradition chronology:

Although McFarland Dianic covens espouse feminism as an all-important concept, the exclusion of men from any coven is solely the choice of its individual High Priestess.People of all genders have always been welcome initiates to Old Dianics, a designation used by some to separate the two Dianic philosophies.

Shari Tripp was one of the earliest people initiated into the tradition. After having been introduced to McFarland by her sister Renda, she joined the mixed-gender coven. “Renda was Morgan’s ‘first born,'” she said. “I was living in Houston working with a gentleman with Craft connections and Renda told me about Morgan and her tradition and covenstead. I met her and began training in early 1973. At that time I traveled from Houston to Dallas once a month and trained directly with Morgan and sometimes Mark. I was initiated in December of 1973 and started passage to become a High Priestess in January of 1975. Renda went through passage earlier than me and was Morgan’s first High Priestess. I was Morgan’s 2nd High Priestess.”

Granath, who knew McFarland well, said that she “was an amazing woman, my dearest friend, my Craft Mother and mentor. I miss her every day, but I know she was welcomed into the Summerland with open arms and her memory will always be in my heart.”

Tripp observed that the gender dynamics definitely changed how the 13 moons were celebrated. “I can say that the energy between the covensteads was quite different. Neither was ‘better’ but as you can understand, women create a different energy than adding the masculine aspect to a circle. When I hived off and started my own circle, it was a mixed one as I had men that wanted in and those men were definitely an asset to the group. Later, I ended up with only women but would have been open to a man coming in if all was right [with] the man and the timing.”

Part of how her presence is felt is in the rituals and mysteries which she handed down to all the high priestesses of the tradition she founded. That information is copied by hand from one book of shadows to the next, preserving and oral tradition that McFarland kept until she decided to write it down when she began working with Roberts in 1971. They created the tradition with just one other person joining their original covenstead, called Morrigana, but it soon grew into three groups: one was exclusively female, a second was mixed gender, and the third catered to families with children.

Roberts opted to take a different path in 1977, but the Morrigana covenstead continued until 1979. McFarland had always expected its existence to be limited to training high priestesses for descendant covens, and there were six of those in existence when Morrigana finally did dissolve. That was also the year that McFarland opted to retire as leader of the tradition.  In her honor, tradition members decided to dub themselves McFarland Dianics to distinguish themselves from other Dianic paths. Even after retiring, McFarland continued to serve as an advisor on the McFarland Dianic Council.

While she took a back seat in the tradition in her later years — largely interacting only through Granath and by monitoring emails, according to Tripp — McFarland did continue to care about tradition members. Tripp shared an anecdote, from when the Bastrop wildfires destroyed her own home in 2011. ” I only had 30 minutes to leave my home which only allowed me to take some of my animals. All my Craft/Wiccan things were lost along with everything else in the house. Morgan took on the task of organizing the members of the tradition to help me with the things I needed. Specifically, to replace and restock my Craft things which meant a lot to me. Morgan called in energy and love for me subordinating her own needs and situation. A selfless, pure action. She wrote me letters which I still cherish. She also sent me a blank book and copies of the rituals so I could re construct my Book of Shadows. Morgan had a talent in writing of conveying emotions and transferring love and energy; her writings touched anyone deeply.”

What is remembered, lives.

ORANGE, Conn. — Harvest Gathering is not the only Pagan festival to welcome participants home upon arrival, but its staff put a lot of energy into the idea. The theme came up again and again over the course of the four-day event, and it was evident in the increasing spring in the step of many an attendee. How many harvest events open the first feast to all comers, whether or not they paid for the meal plan? This one does, and it not only helped this first-timer feel welcome, it set the tone of “harvest event” from the outset.

Perhaps Harvest Gathering had exactly the right number of people in attendance, at 163, which is right around Dunbar’s number. Maybe it was the weather, which fell short of oppressively hot thanks to the trees and only smelled of rain once. Or it could have been the “astral car wash” upon entry, where bewinged organizer Gina Grasso smudged my Volkwagen Beetle, Bucephalus, and all that was within. Whatever combination of people, place, and things that contributed to it, Harvest Gathering resonated a warm, welcoming magic that made the best moments more intense, and the inconveniences nearly unnoticeable. (An event at a campground, even one with some amenities, will always require participants to face insects, weather, and walking to a greater degree than modern life generally prepares us for. Inconveniences come with the territory.)

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[Photo: T. Ward]


This is an event with a strong, unapologetic witchy feel. It permeated the rituals, the workshops, the energy of the newly-reconstructed fire circle, and the kinds of vendors who hawked their wares. The depth of that witchiness was hinted at in the workshop schedule itself. For one program slot, both Ronald Hutton and Raven Grimassi were presenting.

However, Harvest Gathering is not an exclusively Wiccan event, and there were rituals and workshops alike which came from very different traditions. The sense of welcome was in no way diminished for those who followed other paths. Those who ran the event walked the walk that matched their talk in an authentic way.

The spirit of community and authenticity could be seen in multiple ways. This was the first year that recycling was implemented for the festival, and it seemed to be a rousing success. With no existing infrastructure, event staff organized the source separation of garbage from recyclable materials, and reusable wine and mead bottles from that. Brewers were invited to collect the bottles from the latter supply, and all attendees were asked to take bags of material home. People recycled with gusto, ensuring that the experiment would continue in future years. At another point, a piece of glass caught my eye on the trail. I stooped to pick it up, and as I rose I saw two people who had been walking ahead of me each bend down to pick up a piece of trash.

One morning I found myself, not surprisingly, gathered around the coffee urn with other devotees of Caffeina. One of these early risers was expressing a longing for more advanced material than is generally found in books on Pagan religions. She found that the ADF curriculum was sufficiently challenging for her intellect, but nearly insurmountable for her pantheist worldview. It turned my own experience on its head, and reminded me that all Pagan religions still have much to learn from one another, despite differences in theology.

Such was the nature of this festival. I found myself hanging on the words of an esteemed scholar one afternoon, and a few hours later having a serious discussion with a ten-year-old boy about the types of spirits he’d encountered in his life. Anyone could, and did, strike up a conversation with anyone.

Classes with class

Faced with the impossible choice of attending a workshop with Hutton or one with Grimassi, I hedged my bets by choosing the third option, a seidh ritual by Patricia Lafayllve. References to this trance practice are scant in the historic record, and Lafayllve explained that absent a clear idea of what the Norse people actually did, she incorporates aspects of her shamanic training to fill in the gaps and perform oracular work. This session proved to be both workshop and ritual, with Lafayllve giving a history of seidh as it is known and a play-by-play of what she and her assistant would be doing during the rite before beginning.

I attended the Grimassi class called The Cord of Greenwood Magic & Working with Plant Spirits.It was a workshop in the truest sense as attendees crafted a magical tool and were instructed how to use it. Research into the consciousness of plants “is not particularly good news if you’re a vegetarian,” explained Raven Grimassi as Stephanie Taylor-Grimassi cut and handed out cords for the work. “We use ourselves for a model of reality,” including an assumption that a being must have a brain and central nervous system to feel and be aware. Studies measuring plants hooked up to lie detectors and other instruments suggest that they are aware of harm on some level, and work to counteract it. In step with that emerging science, the Grimassis helped their students knot magical intention into that cord, to tie it into the life cycle of plants, and then used those new talismans to connect with the spirit of a particular plant known for its spiritual aspects.

Hutton was the talk of the festival in his tweed jacket, but he did strip to just his waist coat in the 90-degree heat of the day. However, summer in New England was not enough to keep him from donning his tweed cap to guard against the sun. He explained that he had grown up in British-colonized India and was, as a result, quite used to the heat. The temperature dropped noticeably after sunset, so perhaps he felt more secure keeping his jacket near to hand.

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Cori Taylor and Ronald Hutton [Photo: T. Ward]

One of the professor’s lectures, The Return of the Horned God, drew heavily upon material from his book, Triumph of the Moon, which sets out the very real historic roots of Wicca. While these are not as tidy as the mythic tales of an unbroken tradition, they are nevertheless deep and genuine. Hutton traced the interest in a horned god in Europe from rumblings in the Romantic era to the resurgence of Pan as the quintessential nature god, only to have the focus shift by the 1940s to a celebration of Cernunnos. The popularity of Pan among European thinkers of the Victorian period came in part from the convenient double nature of his name, which also means “all” in Greek, making it possible for “pantheism to become Pan-theism,” in Hutton’s words. Those sorts of accidents, choosing a rustic Arcadian deity to stand in for all male divinity while at the same time forgetting the hundreds of local gods whose shrines dot the British landscape, Hutton suggestion may itself show the hands of the gods. “These are the names that destiny, or the gods themselves, decided we should have,” he said.

Rich in Ritual

Friday and Saturday nights each featured rituals, which were quite different but not entirely so. The Novices of the Old Ways led the Well, the Forge, the Song, which explored three aspects of Brigid as healer, empowerment, and inspiration. The following night was Awaken the Warrior, organized by Stephanie Woodfield and a group of Celtic practitioners. How these groups set sacred space, invited in the presence of deity, and confronted participants with lessons was very different, as different as Brigid is from Macha and the Morrigan, whom the latter ritual was focused upon. As they both drew upon Celtic tradition and lore, the underlying power felt in some ways the same: many people were bowled over by the force of emotion during each ritual.

The fire circle which was focus of much of the ritual work, as well as bardic and drum circles, was entirely rebuilt this year through the efforts of the community. Some $1,700 was collected to obtain and place stout sitting logs, dancing-grade sand, and rocks to form a clear barrier between embers and bare feet. Fire tenders were vigilant in putting out stray sparks in the path of dancers, but their role was more than safety alone. The flames blazed purple, blue, and green under the ministrations as shining bodies danced to the beat of tireless drummers.

Space for Self

Many festivals and conferences are moving toward larger periods of time between class sessions, and Harvest Gathering is no exception. Not every morning was an early one, and there was sufficient time to walk from building to building, even with a pause to visit the flushing toilets. Plenty of people chose to forgo a session or two to make or reforge connections, so meal times were not the only opportunity to catch up with old friends. The roads looping around the camp property provided plenty of space for quiet walks in the woods, when that was what the spirit asked for.

Harvest Gathering is neither the largest nor smallest outdoor Pagan gathering I have attended. Likewise, I’ve been to events that are both newer and older. For me, it stands out by being one of the most sincerely magical events I’ve been to in 2015. The feeling I was left with was not dissimilar to how I feel after I pick up my weekly farm share: weighed down with bounty, and wondering how I can possibly consume it all.

btw2015logo-tshirt-3_med-2HUNT VALLEY, MARYLAND –When at any single Pagan conference with a robust lineup of workshops, panels, and rituals, a participant might find it difficult to choose what to attend and what to pass on. When two conferences join forces, those decisions become, at very least, four times as difficult to make. Such was the experience for 3-400 people who attended the combined Sacred Space and Between the Worlds conference in Maryland this past weekend.

These two events became one this year through a combination of cooperation and astrology. Sacred Space is an annual conference which is held around this time. Between the Worlds — not to be confused with an identically-named Midwest spiritual event — is scheduled astrologically, and like Sacred Space, takes place on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. This year, the stars aligned so that the two conferences would be in competition for attendees, speakers, and even organizers, as they have long had at least one board member in common. Instead of cannibalizing resources, the decision was made to combine the two into one whopper of an experience.

Between the Worlds won’t happen again until 2020, and it’s unlikely to ever overlap with Sacred Space again. The events have some common elements, which made the mashup manageable. Both have highly selective processes for choosing teachers, and require the content to be intermediate to advanced. Between the Worlds has handpicked teachers, while Sacred Space combines invited headliners with a proposal process designed to highlight local talent for a wider audience.

A harsh winter storm delayed many arrivals on Thursday. However, with only a few minor scheduling adjustments, the conference kept humming along. Friday and Saturday, the two full days, started with a plenary session during which a panel discussed a single topic before the bulk of the attendees. Friday’s topic was “alliances with the spirit world.” On Saturday a different panel discussed the nurturing spiritual communities.

Each panel was nearly two hours long, with a combination of debate, insight, and wit that highlighted the different perspectives of the panelists. Listening to Archdruid Kirk Thomas and respected author Diana Paxson debate why Odin seems intent on recruiting followers captured the Friday audience’s attention. Is he gathering fighters for Ragnarok, or trying to forestall it?

Ivo Dominguez, Jr, Michael Smith, and James Welch at the gala

The next morning’s discussion on community was equally as engaging. Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki explained that for all the dysfunction in American Pagan communities, they are far more evolved than what she is familiar with in England, where, “we Brits keep a stiff upper lip,” and don’t see much value in community at all. After identifying herself as the oldest person there, Ashcroft-Nowicki said, “I’m here to learn.”

Just as the days began with a single big session, they ended with the same, but those endings couldn’t have been more different. According to Sacred Space organizer Gwendolyn Reece, both Friday’s main ritual and Saturday’s gala were largely Between the Worlds in origin. Sacred Space does not have a large, main ritual at all, and of the gala, she remarked, “Between the Worlds does that better,” in part, because it costs extra to attend, allowing for live entertainment and plenty of food.

The entertainment came in the form of Tuatha Dea, a band that set the tone by musically calling the quarters and raising the energy in the room to a pitch that was joyous, but not so intense as to be overwhelming. In addition to a deep book of original and lively tunes, this band was able to perform everything from “Whiskey in the Jar” to “White Rabbit” with panache and flair. Their work complemented a silent auction to benefit the New Alexandrian Library, which included an astounding variety of items ranging from original art to gift baskets themed around popular Pagan holidays to ritual jewelry of exquisite beauty.

The main ritual, held Friday night, was a very different kind of energy; one that highlighted the strengths of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. Attendees were encouraged to participate in a preparatory class, during which chants were taught and the layout of the ritual was explained through guided meditation.

The ritual itself began on time, characteristic of an organizational decision to reject “Pagan standard time” out of hand, with the doors being sealed against latecomers. The theme was one of personal transformation as expressed by the “Witch’s Pyramid.” It was built on the astrological significance of the event, which was scheduled during the seventh of a rare series of Pluto-Uranus squares that represent the deep transformation of Pluto coming together with the explosive change represented by Uranus. While much time was spent laying those foundations, when the energy did start flowing, the call to move beyond one’s comfort zone and act for change in the world was unmistakable. By the time the seals upon the ritual gates were opened, this energy could be seen burning in many an eye.

Altars at Sacred Space.

Altars at Sacred Space.

But the choices beyond those big sessions are always difficult. Preparing for possession or oracular work with Diana Paxson? The sorcerer’s tongue or journeying to the phosphorous grove with Christopher Penczak? Deepening understanding of the witch’s pyramid with Ashcroft-Nowicki, or Ivo Dominguez, Jr?

Monika Lonely Coyote tackled the difficult question of differentiating mental illness and spiritual experience in one session, and how to act as a psychopomp for a dying individual in another. There were classes on hexes, breaking curses, alchemy of breath and alchemy of sex. Kirk Thomas offered a class on sacred gifts, which discussed reciprocity with the gods and its relationship to hospitality in ancient cultures ranging from the Greek to the Irish. Byron Ballard’s “Hillfolks Hoodoo” couldn’t have been more different than T. Thorn Coyle’s idea of “Practical Magic.”  However, each teacher brought deep wisdom and displayed a mastery of the craft. Dorothy Morrison offered a class on money magic that was both practical and earthy. In short, when all the choices are beyond “Grounding 101,” every decision is a difficult one to make, an opportunity cost by which one piece of knowledge is gained, and another left behind.

In that way, this idea is similar to a point that Morrison made about magic, and why she does not include “an it harm none” in her spells. She noted that all magic comes at a price.

“If you work a spell to get a job interview, someone else’s resume fell into the trash,” Morrison said. Requiring that a spell harm no one takes away its power, she observed; better to understand that no magic is without consequence. Or, as Coyle put it at one point, “You have to own it.” That’s the kind of lesson taught at this conference: very little in the world is black and white, and the burden of the adept who walks in sacred space is to take responsibility for the many gradations between the worlds.

NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS –For Pagans who love to spend time celebrating the wonders of nature under sunny skies or dance the night away around a bonfire, New England in February can be disheartening to say the least. That’s where A Feast of Lights comes in. The midwinter festival, hosted by the EarthSpirit Community, is designed to be a “weekend of warmth at the coldest time of the year – a festival of community and hope, of tradition and creativity, of Earth spirituality and the arts, of community and hope, of tradition and creativity.” That promise was fulfilled, and then some.

feast of lights header

Warmth
While the temperatures outside hovered well below freezing, the hotel was comfortable. Some participants even took to the indoor pool, which beckoned from under a stupendous glass dome that allowed the winter sunlight to stream in and reminded swimmers of the warmer days to come.

However, the warmth of A Feast of Lights was better measured by the warmth shared between old friends and new acquaintances alike. Much of that was expressed in song, as longtime attendees raised their voices to join in familiar tunes, or teach the melodies and words to newcomers.

In that sense, “warmth” is closely associated with…

EarthSpirit bannerCommunity
EarthSpirit does community well, and that fact shone through during the entire festivals. Music, as already noted, weaves its members together, creating and strengthening bonds in a way that touches a deeper part of the self.

So too was community evident in the Stag King’s Masque, the annual ritual and ball that plays central to this festival. This first-time visitor was captivated by the flow of the ritual as it moved from storytelling to chanting to the highly-choreographed mock combat, which culminated in the crowning of the Stag King. Easy-to-learn songs and wassails removed barriers to entry for newcomers. The look in the eyes of regulars made it clear that this was not a stale ritual, but something greeted with excitement anew each year.

One possible reason for that enthusiasm was the promise of….

Hope
This is a feeling that is sorely needed in this time and place, when bitter temperatures and biting blizzards curtail activities and threaten life. Hope was expressed in the sharing of memories forged at this and other EarthSpirit events. These stories of hope were told over the breakfast tables and in the coffee nook; through story and song about the role of winter and the promise that it always comes to an end.

At A Feast of Lights, much of that hope is rooted in…

Tradition
Among the many attendees, one could find Wiccans and Hellenists, Heathens and Druids, people without a named practice and those who follow a path without a name. Despite that diversity, the underlying traditions common to EarthSpirit offered a framework in which different perspectives and experiences could be shared and compared in a safe space. An apt phrase of how tradition was shared here might be “share what you will, learn what you must.”

While it was impossible to attend every one of the many offered workshops, the overall event didn’t lose its cohesion. There never was a sense that attendees were experiencing vastly different conferences in the same space. This is perhaps due to the the venerable host community tossing its tradition of welcoming over the entire festival.

And, perhaps because Earth Spirit’s way is rife with…

Creativity
This is manifested in music and song, in dance and the telling of tales, and in many other ways. The art expo, headlined by Martin Bridge’s eye-popping Vision Keys paintings developed in collaboration with Orion Foxwood, added color and life in contrast to the dull, frozen palette seen through the hotel’s windows. The ballroom was transformed into a mystical forest seemingly without effort. One could see spinning in the hallways, newly-minted divination systems being tested in the vendor room, and winter dance steps practiced in conference rooms that are more accustomed to PowerPoint presentations.

How this creativity fits into EarthSpirit’s large cycle of festivals was explained by one of the organizers, Donovan Arthen:

Photo by Afon Art, used with permission

Donovan Arthen [Courtesy Photo]

Rites of Spring is a big festival that’s about enlarging and deepening a sense of connection to the natural world. At Twilight Covening we go inward, to look forward to the dark time, and gather the skills we will need to survive. A Feast of Lights is a time to come and warm yourself, and share the tidbits of what those new skills have wrought. There are little groups and events throughout the year, but these are the focal points.

Like any festival where Pagans and other like-minded folk gather, A Feast of Lights was packed with workshops presented by people both well-known and not. The teachers shared their gifts and often learned as much as they taught. There were too many options one reporter to attend, no matter how intrepid. Here are two highlights:

Andras Corban-Arthen [Courtesy Photo]

EarthSpirit co-founder Andras Corban-Arthen gave a talk called In the Spirit of the Earth. He shared stories from the nearly forty years that this group has practiced and sponsored events. Gathered among the long-gone Massachusetts Pagan Federation, a group of people, who would eventually form EarthSpirit, organized a Rites of Spring festival. It was one of the first outdoor Pagan festivals in modern times and it set the tone for the many which came after.

“I had the only drum there,” Corban-Arthen recalled. “No one seemed interested in a fire, but someone had gathered twigs from nine sacred trees, which we used to start one, and I drummed. Some people joined us, but others were almost repulsed, because it wasn’t in the Book of Shadows.”

He further spoke about his interfaith work and quest to find European survivals of indigenous Paganism. He also credited EarthSpirit’s reluctance to rigidly define the word “Pagan” with some of the community’s success. Another wise insight: “Conflict is necessary in community. How you manage it is crucial. The feeling that conflict is wrong feeds it through denial and covering up. Addressing it directly is the key.”

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley [Courtesy Photo]

Wiccan author Vivianne Crowley spoke about Wicca as a Spiritual Path, weaving in tales of her own experiences with various cards from the major arcana of the Rider-Waite tarot. From Crowley’s perspective, one is much like the Fool at the beginning of such a spiritual journey, progressing through points represented by Magician and Priestess, and nearly always facing a point where nothing seems to work any longer. She symbolized that moment with the Tower and Wheel of Fortune.

Her words spoke to a deep truth when she observed, “This is a time when people might decide that a particular tradition is not for them, and go looking for something else, when in fact if they worked a little bit longer, they might get through it.”

Among the many musical offerings was Until the Dark Time Ends: Songs of Winter, presented by Will and Lynn Rowan of the musical group Windborne. Those lucky few who attended were treated to a session which was part concert and part sing-a-long. The Rowans shared wintry tunes from throughout the centuries and the world over. Traditional songs, wassails and recreated boar’s head carols were intermixed with songs of the (original) Wild Hunt, ballads of lonely colonial Vermont winters, songs from Lithuania, Newfoundland and the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The Rowans’ voices, which blend like honey and hot tea, were complemented by a wide array of world instruments, several of which Will Rowan built himself. The set list, which include many opportunities to join in on songs familiar and new, reminded those present that winter is a universal truth for those who live above (or below) a certain latitude.

Winter is indeed a universal truth, an indivisible portion of the cycle of seasons which many Pagans acknowledge or revere. It is often unpleasant, sometimes even dangerous, but so long as there are events like A Feast of Lights held in the coldest days, there will be opportunities to dream again of spring.

Covenant of the GoddessSAN BERNARDINO –In the forty years since Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) was formed, its members have been on the front lines of battles for equal rights as prison chaplains, as veterans, as parents, and as people. The organization has helped to define the Wiccan and wider Pagan communities, has weathered the Satanic panics and the infamous Helms amendment, which threatened to remove tax-exempt status from “occult” churches, and endured the more recent attacks launched by such luminaries as George W. Bush and Bob Barr.

However, in recent months, this venerable collective of covens and solitary practitioners has faced an internal upheaval, which has since become quite public, and could be one of its most difficult struggles to date. The spark which ignited the firestorm was the very current ignition point: race.

Early in December, Pagan and polytheist individuals and groups issued statements of support and calls to action in response to the treatment of people of color in American society. As the Wild Hunt coverage at the time noted, its own columnist Crystal Blanton was the catalyst of this show of solidarity. CoG was among the organizations that released a statement, which began with this paragraph:

We, the members of the Covenant, acknowledge and share the concern that many in our world and within our Pagan communities have voiced regarding inequalities in justice. We find that all life is sacred, and as such, all lives matter.

To say the statement fell flat is an understatement. Critics quickly noted that it avoided any reference to specific events, such as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or Eric Garner in New York City. The statement replaced the viral phrase “black lives matter” with the more inclusive “all lives matter,” which was interpreted by a number of Facebook observers to be code for white privilege.

In that social media venue, comments ranged from people decrying the “whitewashing” of systemic racism to others who took great umbrage at the idea that broadening the scope was inappropriate. A similar debate was also taking place, out of public eye, on one of the Covenant’s internal email lists. These lists were not made available for review due to the expectation of privacy by members.

Tiffani Thomas Parker

Tiffani Thomas Parker [Courtesy Photo]

In reaction to that first statement, several members resigned from the organization in protest. CoG Member Tiffany Thomas Parker, who was not one of those to leave, offered her own perspective. She provided further insight into what led to such a strong pushback:

First of all, I will say that I am happy of some of the things that CoG has done for Pagans as a whole. But with that said, I was very disappointed with them with the statement they originally gave.

My first initial reaction was to reread what I read. Then came disappointment and anger. I was thinking to myself “Of all people, Pagans as a whole should know what it is like to be stereotyped and singled out. They should be behind the movement to ensure that ANYONE doesn’t get targeted like this.”

They should have consulted, asked, or even suggested to get opinions from those of color (regardless of race) to get a better understanding of what was going on to get a better perspective. It may not have happened to those who are the head of the organization, but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. To simply ignore an issue such as this was a slap in the face.

Furthermore, I do think that if they had acknowledged the issue, it would have shown the Pagans of Color that they have our back and it would have given them a light of hope that they felt supported and could have joined CoG. CoG isn’t as diverse as I would have liked it to be, and it would have been a HUGE opportunity and they blew it.

Yvonne C. Conway-Williams, an assistant to CoG’s National Board, also felt the statement came up short, and said so on the internal CoG list. However, Conway-Williams understands the limitations of the organization’s consensus-driven process, saying that “. . . there was a sense of urgency, which is why I think they did not send it to a committee and instead chose to deal with it as a national board.”  She added, “My stance has long been that we are not truly hearing from a vast majority of CoG members on the private elists. One person is required to be on our announcements list per member coven. Other members of a coven might wish to subscribe… Even fewer people are signed up for our discussion and debate elist. What this means is there’s only a select few who are having say and input on these issues. By doing so, I personally do not feel all members are being heard. I think it would be great if more members were involved at a deeper level with national activities such as this statement.”

Public Information Officer Gordon Stone echoed Conway-Williams’ concerns about how representative an e-list can be, saying, “I think it is also important to mention that not every member of CoG is on the e-lists. This is why CoG does not set organizational policy through email discussion.”

Outside of the organization, the board’s statement was also attacked as generic and meaningless. Devotional polytheist Caer said:

The only way we can win this fight is to actively engage in it. We must commit. As above, so below. As without, so within. We can’t just say the words and make the gestures and leave them both hanging there, unsupported. That won’t accomplish anything, brings us no closer to our goals. We have to acknowledge the problem, clearly state our intent, and we have to move from problem to goal by actively doing something.

Longtime CoG member Marybeth Pythia Witt, also known as Lady Pythia, commented more recently about that initial statement, saying in part, “We also learned too late that the all lives matter hashtag is used by a conservative anti-abortion group, ergo, the original post was incorrect for more than one reason.”

Lady Pythia during an event doing outreach for CoG in 1987 [Photo Provided by Pythia and published originally in the Independence-Ledger of Kentucky, © August 15, 1987]

Lady Pythia during a Wiccan event in which she did media outreach for CoG [Photo Provided by Lady Pythia and published originally in the Independence-Ledger of Kentucky, © August 15, 1987]

The discussion appears to have continued on, largely unabated on the Covenant’s internal debate & discussion e-list. Members of the national board recognized that a different approach was needed to address these widespread concerns. According to First Officer Kasha, after the initial statement was published,

We immediately received feedback from individuals inside and outside of the organization and began to reconsider the content of the statement and its impact on our members. On December 11, we issued an apology, published on our internal announcement list, to those members who were hurt by this statement, explaining that the original statement was created in an effort to express the opinion of our diverse membership, and we realized we had missed the mark.

At that time we solicited members for a committee to draft a new statement to be released internally and then potentially approved at our National Meeting in August. In the following weeks, Gordon Stone, our Public Information Officer, and a committee of volunteers developed the new statement.

That revised statement was released in draft form on Jan. 20 with a note of explanation about the process for formal adoption. It stated, “In order to allow the membership of CoG a chance to have input on this new statement, it was released internally on our organization’s e-mail list last week. The membership will have the opportunity to review, revise, and adopt it as a statement made by the entire organization at the annual meeting in August 2015.”

Peter Dybing

Peter Dybing

However, any fanfare that might have accompanied this new draft was deafened by a blog post written by former First Officer Peter Dybing and published the day before. Writing under the title An Indictment of Covenant of the Goddess, Racism Exposed, Dybing lambasted his fellow members, asserting that his comments on the private list had been censored as part of a wider effort to silence dissent over these issues. He further claims that one of the individuals guiding the discussion was known to use racist epithets in casual conversation.

Let me be clear, there are many great people in CoG that I have worked with over the years. What this post represents is an indictment of the power structures that at all costs will engage in ensuring that the organization does not change. When truth is spoken to power the result is oppression. It is evident that those engaging in these behaviors have little insight into their actions, yet it remains that their actions are sheltering racism within the organization.

Not surprisingly, considerable outcry resulted with some taking to social media to applaud Dybing’s words, and others claiming he had breached CoG’s code of ethics. The two points of that code which appear to speak most closely to that questions are, “All persons associated with this Covenant shall respect the traditional secrecy of our religion” and “Members of this Covenant should ever keep in mind the underlying unity of our religion as well as the diversity of its manifestations.” Dybing maintains he has not violated ethical standards because he has not named anyone.

Whether Dybing was “censored” or “moderated” is also a matter of internal debate. The organization does have a policy covering e-list discussions, and Kasha said, “We did apply our policy uniformly. Many Members were warned about inappropriate posts and, rather than removing members from the list, those not complying with the Net Coordinator’s (Netco’s) requests for civility were placed on moderated status. Posts that continued to violate the Netco’s request for civility were not put through to the list. After 2 or 3 days, when calmer conversation and cooler heads prevailed, the moderation of all subscribers was lifted and the discussion list was reopened to courteous discussion of all topics.” The policy actually allows the Netco to remove offenders from the list entirely, pending an appeal to the national board, but that allegedly did not occur.

CoG member Daryl Fuller, a participant in those e-discussions, publicly published a point-by-point refutation of Dybing’s post, calling much of it “half-truth and rumor-mongering.” In that response, Fuller took particular exception to the allegations being tossed around about another unnamed member. He also admits to being moderated himself, adding “No one is currently being censored on any COG email list.”

When asked about this controversy, NPIO Stone said, “I would respectfully request that your readers bear in mind that these two CoG Members were speaking as individuals rather than as official representatives of the organization. CoG also has ethical standards outlined in our bylaws, and all members are expected to know and adhere to these standards.  I encourage your readers to make a decision about what CoG stands for by speaking with several of our Members, or contacting the nearest local council for more information.”

The second statement, a draft, has also received considerable Facebook attention, and again, reactions were mixed. Comments range from gratitude to expressions that it doesn’t go far enough to complaints that saying that black lives matter discounts the struggles of other groups.

As part of a lengthier commentary, Cat Chapin-Bishop observed, “I am in no way surprised to hear statements from CoG members that seem to deny and minimize the reality of racism today. From the ‘Irish people were discriminated against, too,’ to ‘I don’t see color,’ the whole range of well-meaning white cluelessness is on display. But I’m not surprised or shocked by that, because I have come to understand, since the events in Ferguson this past summer, just how out of touch I, and other white people, truly have become on this subject.”

Penny Novak, a former Second Officer of CoG, acknowledged that there is surely racism within the ranks.  She said that “any organization without a political filter on it has racists in it.” However, she characterized Dybing’s behavior on the e-list as “really off the wall” and “very obnoxious.” What he failed to understand, Novak thought, was that many older people with racially-biased world views are unaware of that fact. “Give them a break, Peter, they don’t even know!” she said. While some of her contemporaries haven’t exactly kept up with the times, she didn’t believe that his “kicking and screaming” approach was likely to change hearts and minds. She explained further:

I’ve been thinking about the many ways in which language around the issue of race has changed during my lifetime. You may feel it’s obvious but it really isn’t. It isn’t even obvious between the generations of the Black Community.  Believe me, when I was young calling a person Black was disrespectful …  Those of us who were white and didn’t want to further the blot of what had been done to those of African-descent in our communities were very particular about the language we used…  

I’m not excusing the use of disrespectful language but when social use of language changes rapidly from generation to generation there will be bleed-over and sometimes what was socially acceptable positions become anathema. If you’re not keeping up, if you don’t keep an eye on the young folks you’ll miss when things start switching …You need to be very careful and you need to step lightly. 

More significantly, Novak thinks that, while questions over race caused this controversy, the issues run far deeper, saying that CoG “has basically been ruined by a few people who want power, and it’s ridiculous because CoG is an organization without power.” The decisions lie with local councils and member covens, she explained, and the national board has little sway. “Look what happens when they try to make a statement like big organizations do,” she said, “complete wimpdom.”

It still remains to be seen what kind of statement this organization will finally release on the subject and how it will move forward with tackling the accusations of racial inequality and systemic racism within the organization. Consensus must be achieved, and that won’t happen until the national meeting in August. That’s what Novak means when she says that CoG has no power.

This is a thread picked up by Kirk White, a former co-first officer who wonders about the covenant’s future. He said:

Rev. Kirk White

Rev. Kirk White

Part of the underlying problem is that CoG is adrift in its purpose and seeking to regain its relevance. Its foundational purpose was “to increase cooperation among Witches and to secure for Witches and covens the legal protection enjoyed by members of other religions.” Back in 1975 it was hard to connect with other Witches, get ordained, and we were still establishing our rights as a valid, legal religion. It was easy to rally the members around clearly Witch issues but now these battles are mostly won, ordination is laughably easy and we have the internet. So there is a struggle in CoG over how to restore relevance and attract younger members. The few younger members we do have and the more liberal members want CoG to be more activist to regain relevance.

But without clear Witch issues, the political polarization of our secular world is invading CoG’s inner processes over which causes to support. Environmental issues, women’s rights, gun rights, and racial inequality have all been split into “liberal” or “conservative” views by today’s media and CoG’s membership, being politically diverse finds itself unable to find consensus — which is how CoG operates — on just about anything. Thus, issues like #blacklivesmatter — originally seen as a “liberal” cause — are almost impossible to agree on quickly, if ever. This is frustrating to those more activist members, and combined with some bad blood left over from previous conflicts, has led to the recent resignations and bitter fighting within some of the more vocal parts of CoG.

Others see hope for the organization’s future. NPIO Stone said:

CoG as an organization is strengthened by the dialogue of our diverse membership. Sometimes that dialogue is easy and sometimes it is challenging; however, in my view, it is always educational. All Board members maintain an open door policy, and members are welcome to email the Board directly when they have concerns or questions. The appropriate Board Member will reply, usually in a relatively short time frame. Keeping that dialogue going is one of the best ways for CoG to insure that the organization will continue for many years to come.

While describing the process of examining issues such as social justice and the path to membership, First Officer Kasha said, “Clearly, the needs of CoG’s membership have evolved over the past 40 years, and our go forward plan is to continue to assess our needs, and ultimately, potentially revise our mission …In a consensus driven organization like CoG, this can take a long time, but our committed membership has been through several tides of change and will weather this one as well, being stronger for the work.”

“CoG is ready to evolve,” said Lady Pythia. “We’re not Witches for nothing.”