Archives For Neopaganism

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin

MOSCOW –An influential figure in the Russian Orthodox Church has said he’d like to see “neo-paganism” made illegal in that country. In remarks at the international congress of Orthodox youth, as reported by Interfax, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin declared, “Let’s say that three things – Wahhabism, Nazism and aggressive neo-paganism – should be removed from the country’s life at the level of the law. Let’s not try to be friends with any of that.”

We spoke to Gwiddon Harvester, the national coordinator of the Pagan Federation International Russia. He provided some context for this statement for Western readers.

The Wild Hunt: Is Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin credible enough that his suggestions might be considered by the authorities?

Gwiddon Harvester: Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin is the Chairman of the “Department of External Relations of Church and Society” in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). He is also a member of the National Civic Chamber, a hand-picked counsel of 126 persons, who are supposed to be advising the Kremlin on issues important to the Russian people. He is a member of the “President’s Committee on Liasons with Religious Organizations.” He serves as a parish priest in Moscow. Unofficially, he is regarded by many as a “Church spokesperson.”

Whether he is considered credible enough by the authorities or not is a very open question. Russian internal politics are extremely opaque … Despite a formal separation of Church and State in the Russian Constitution, we have seen a general trend over the past twenty years of gradual merging of the Church into the fabric of Kremlin’s power system. It is not a great stretch to claim that as far as everyone is concerned the ROC is the Kremlin’s “Department of Spiritual Ideology.”

ROC receives significant state funding and forced “shotgun donations” from businesses; holds monopoly licenses on certain sectors of the economy, [and] receives vast grants of land and buildings. The State conveniently allows the ROC to maintain non-transparent accounting and hushes up any scandals related to money-laundering, corruption or pedophilia in the ROC. The Kremlin in turn uses the Church influence on the common folks to translate certain ideas and messages.

I do not believe that everything Chaplin says is sanctioned by the Kremlin. It is not quite as simple as that. There have been times in the past, when Church rhetoric provoked significant public backlash, and Chaplin was forced to backpedal or refuse ownership of his words.

Considering that this particular speech was presented at the “International Forum of Orthodox Youth” in Moscow, this could be an unsanctioned, personal or a ROC-sanctioned only attempt to tie-in religious extremism of various kinds (except for the Orthodox extremists, whom Chaplin conveniently omits) with political risks … Whether or not the Kremlin makes a fuss over it, we do not know yet.

Considering how often Chaplin says outrageous things, I doubt that much will come out of this particular speech. Then again, as the Kremlin becomes increasingly unpredictable, anything is possible.

TWH: On what basis does he lump together these three concepts? What do you think he means by “aggressive neo-paganism?”

GH: I am unable to do any sort of analysis on how he lumps up these concepts. The only clear description is that of Wahhabism, which Chaplin calls, incorrectly, “pseudo-Islamic.” He also talks about Nazis, but whether he means the Russian nationalists or actual followers of Nazi ideology, I cannot wager a guess.

I do not know precisely what he means by “aggressive neo-paganism,” as this turn of phrase is new to me. I have not seen this [term] being used by anyone in the past. However, if I were to speculate, the main theme may be an extremist ideology … and the potential for using violence.  Chaplin says that these extreme groups are more likely to cause a revolution than the liberal democrats, which the Kremlin fears the most at the moment. Therefore, he proposes to pass a law banning the extreme ideology.

By the way, extremism is already a criminal offence in Russia, meaning that anyone publicly calling for extermination of certain members of society or claiming their own superiority gets jail time … Chaplin’s suggestion to ban the ideology is redundant, as extremism is already a criminal offence.

[In] another article, dated Feb. 2014, as a response to the shooting in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Chaplin says that there is a danger from “pseudo-islamic extremists, Neo-Nazi and Neo-Pagan groups.” It means that he was working on developing ties between these three categories for some time. In that article, Chaplin also refers to the Church Counsel of 1994, where a resolution was adopted regarding danger of Neo-Pagan cults, because these cults, in the opinion of the Counsel “aggressively destroy the Russian traditional values and attack the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

300px-Christ_the_Savior_Cathedral_Moscow

Russian Cathedral in Moscow [Public Domain]

TWH: Are there extremist Pagan elements in Russia? Alternatively, do people perceive this as the truth, whether or not it is?

GH: This really depends on our definition of Paganism. There are several Russians who identify themselves as Pagans and at the same time espouse a philosophy of hatred towards the society at large, members of other ethnic backgrounds, or homosexuals, or women, perhaps. Their numbers are very small .. but I cannot simply say that they do not exist.

As a national coordinator for Pagan Federation International Russia, I use the following rule of thumb. Iff someone hates others and calls for violence against others, then they are violating the second principle of PFI, and as far as I am concerned, they are not really Pagan, but rather psychopaths, abusing Pagan symbols…

Over the years, we had several incidents, involving such individuals.

  • The largest one was over the “Ancient Russian Inglian Church of Orthodox Old Believers-Inglings” – a group, registered in Omsk in 1992 by Alexander Khinevich, [who] published several books and formed a brain-washing cult, which mixed elements from Scandinavian Sagas, Hindu mythology, Slavic folktales, science fiction (aliens), Mormonism, with rituals from Orthodox sects of Old-Believers (starovery) … Every other Pagan group in Russia considers Khinevich a charlatan, a fraud and someone who abuses the very name of Paganism.
  • In 2009 there was a much-publicized murder of Daniil Sysoev, a parish priest of ROC in Moscow. Sysoev was famous for hateful and extremist rhetoric, as well as dubious efforts of converting Muslims, protestants and Neo-Pagans “back to the flock.” He was shot to death in his own church by an unknown gunman. Interfax widely distributed news, that an unidentified informer told the police that Sysoev was murdered by Pagans … The police currently consider that Sysoev was most likely murdered for converting Muslims to Christianity.
  • In February of 2014 there was a shooting in a church in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. An armed security guard, Stepan Komarov, killed a beggar and a nun, as well as wounded six worshippers, while shouting for everyone to get out of the church. He was detained by police and is currently awaiting trial … [Komarov] had a nazi swastika and a pseudo-Pagan symbol of the sun tattooed on his torso and back … ROC Bishop of Sakhalin Tikhon claimed that this was an attempt to scare people away from the Church and shared that he believes Komarov is a Neo-Pagan.

From time to time, the police detain certain individuals and ban published materials of small Pagan groups for violating the law on extremist literature, usually due to anti-Semitism or anti-government rhetoric. However, in all cases that I am aware of, these individuals were also members of right-wing nationalist groups, so their arrests were not connected to Paganism, per se.

Based on the facts of the matter, I cannot find any aggressive Neo-Pagans out there, who Chaplin alleges are so dangerous, that they can start up a revolution. If there were, we certainly would have knowledge about them in one way or another … The majority of Pagans seem to be happy where they are and don’t feel the need to insult others, or insist on their own superiority. They are doing their own thing and often don’t really know much or care about what others are doing. A growing minority also wants to create ties with Pagans from other countries and recognize common European Pagan heritage. These are the sort of people, who are willing to work with PFI, the more open-minded kind.

TWH: If ROC does has so much influence, why is ROC specifically so concerned?

GH: The reason why ROC is so concerned about Neo-Paganism, and why it thinks Neo-Pagans are aggressive, may be due to the fact that over the past twenty years or so, the ROC is working on monopolizing Russian religious thought. Since 2009, the Church repeatedly stated that Christian Orthodoxy is the only faith for ethnic Russians, in fact, they credit Christianity with the creation of the Russian nation. Therefore, Russian Neo-Pagans are a threat to their monopoly.

How can you be an ethnic Russian and suddenly not an Orthodox Christian? To ROC this is a very dangerous idea. A young and head-strong ideological rival threatens ROC access to State funding and support. This is a question of survival for ROC, as the State may just as easily decide to ditch its support for archaic and poorly-attended ROC, and switch to supporting the young and growing Russian Pagan movement. In the early 1990s the State ditched the communist ideology to support the ROC, so, who is to say that the same thing will not happen again.

Now, the irony of this whole situation is that every Pagan I talked to really dreads any sort of State support or involvement in Pagan affairs, including State funding. The idea of having a national Pagan religion as part of the State ideology will be a disaster for us. Our strength is in being true to our own vision of spirituality, growing organically … What Pagans need is for the State to provide a level playing field, and not to play favorites.

The reference to 1994 Church Counsel in Chaplin’s Feb. 2014 article is revealing, in that Chaplin appears to refer to a very specific Neo-Pagan “aggression” in his speech. Namely, the critical or humorous references to ROC in writings and internet messages posted by some Pagans. Now, Pagans all over the world like to poke a bit of fun at Christianity’s expense now and again, and I personally find it quite in poor taste to do so, as I know quite a few devoted Christians, who are very sincere and actually help others.

[But] ROC is a bit thin-skinned about any sort of criticism, I think in a way, because they are not at all sure of themselves, of how stable they are. Some humor is just too close to the truth for their comfort. ROC would like to position this criticism and humor as sacrilege and aggression. However, I can hardly envision the public buying that idea.

pf_web1TWH: What is the general public attitude toward Pagans in Russia?

GH: [The Public] is largely unaware of the Neo-Pagan movement altogether. Most Russians are not religious at all, although many are superstitious. Hardly anyone ever goes to Church. The only well-attended Church celebration is Easter, and even then people go to Church just to get the eggs and the bread blessed and leave immediately after…

According to the National Census in 2012, 41% of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox Christians. Fewer than 4% of all Orthodox Christians regularly attend mandatory Church services and fewer than 5% belong to a parish. Fewer than 8% have ever read the Bible and fewer than 1% believe that following a different religion is a sin.

Whenever I speak with non-Pagans about Paganism, they mostly think this is a role-playing club or an Eastern religious cult of some sort, something like the Society of Krishna. However the vast majority simply have no idea what it is, or vaguely remember something from school about Christianization of Rus in the tenth century CE and find it surprising. I have never heard any members of the public, other than ROC officials, refer to Neo-Pagans as aggressive or dangerous.

TWH: Was PFI familiar with Chaplin’s recent statements? Do they come as a surprise?

GH: PFI was aware of this talk by Chaplin, as it was mentioned on national news. We decided not to pursue this matter, as there appears to be no specific harm done, and the matter is not new.

TWH: Can you briefly characterize the types of Pagan religion practiced in Russia?

GH: The National Census in 2012 identified that 1.2% of all Russians adhere to Pagan faiths. About half of them belong to native non-Russian ethnic groups … It is estimated that Russian modern Pagans number around 600,000 people in total. PFI commenced an ongoing poll in 2014 held at vk.com, where Pagans may report their tradition or path. Over the past six months 3,049 Pagans participated in the poll, which makes up for about 0.5% of total estimated Pagan population. This percentage is significant enough for statistical purposes to draw an estimate of relative numbers of Pagans in each path.

  • 31.4% Slavic Paganism (reconstruction)
  • 25.8% could not identify themselves with any particular path or were newcomers
  • 18.7% Wicca
  • 15% Asatru
  • 3.2% – Neo-Shamans
  • 3% – Other Reconstructionists (Celtic, Hellenic, Khemetic, etc.)
  • 2.2% – Hermetic (Western Occult) Pagans or Thelemites

This data needs to be adjusted for the fact that not all Pagans are on the internet or have accounts at VK and that many chose not to participate. At present, we have not determined a multiplier robust enough to present credible figures.

I estimate that at least half of all Pagans, or 300,000 people, follow a Slavic path in some way, shape or form. They are inspired by written accounts of old Slavic practices, ethnography, folk traditions, fairy tales, modern Pagan books, as well as their own insight … There are several large associations of Slavic Pagans at present, and many individual groups in various Russian cities.

Many Pagans do not want to be confined to a specific tradition or path, and are happy to pursue their own thing, gathering information and experimenting with various concepts and ideas, including Hindu religions, Tao, Tantra, Dzen-Buddhism, the left-hand path, new age concepts. There are also those who would research the ways of old Russian vedma.

Most Wiccans in Russia are solitary eclectic witches, learning from books and the internet. There are open groups available in Moscow and St Petersburg that we know of. Many Wiccans are university students or young adults.

Asatru and other Norse path practitioners have been practicing for some time in Russia, although I do not know when or where the first groups started. There are groups of Asatru in several cities now, the; the largest ones are in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Other traditions and paths include Neo-Shamanic practices, both Siberian and Castaneda, reconstructions of various ethnic Pagan traditions, Celtic being most popular, followed by Khemetic and Hellenic or Roman. Some reconstruct the Germanic traditions … There are Hermetic groups in Moscow and St Petersburg, mostly of French Masonic or Rosicrucian background. There is an O.T.O. camp and quite a few followers of Thelema.

Russian Pagans cleaning the stones on May 7th

Russian Pagans cleaning public sacred stones 2014

TWH: What is the climate for those practicing minority Pagan faiths in your country?

GH: The climate, generally speaking, is quite neutral. I cannot in all honesty claim that Pagans are being persecuted at the moment in Russia. We are free to set up any internet presence we want. We are free to report the creation of local Pagan groups to the Municipal government, and nobody makes a fuss. We cannot register religious organizations at the moment, unless a religious group has been in continuous practice for 15 years. But these rules are the same for all newer religions, not just Pagans. The public is generally not aware that we exist, however, both Slavic Pagans and Wiccans participated in TV documentaries on National TV over the last few years, and we heard hardly any feedback from the community.

We generally gather in public parks in Moscow or at private dwellings, and I have not heard of any trouble. I personally lead a Wiccan ritual in robes in the middle of a busy lawn in Gorkiy Park after work and not a single passerby even stopped for a gawk. Slavic groups set up permanent altars and open-air temples with statues of Gods in public parks from time to time around Moscow. Occasionally these statues get vandalized, usually by fanatical extreme Orthodox youth groups, or perhaps just deranged individuals, one may never know.

Overall, we try to go by the rule of “live and let live,” not to be too much “in your face” of the establishment, and at the same time not hiding from anyone.

[To close out this American holiday weekend, we welcome our own columnist Rhyd Wildermuth to share a review of the book This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.Tomorrow we return to our regular Wild Hunt schedule. ]

Review: This Changes Everything–Capitalism vs. The Climate,by Naomi Klein (Simon &Schuster, 2014, 566 pages)

Journalist and author Naomi Klein may be known to some of you through her previous works, including her creedal call against corporate branding No Logo and her ponderous and depressing book, The Shock Doctrine, which discusses the political games played by corporations and governments in order to ram through neo-Liberal, anti-democratic policies.

In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Klein has done something very few journalists, policy makers, or even environmentalists have been willing to do for the last few decades. She reconnects environmental devastation and the warming planet back to capitalism itself.

The last 25 years have seen, what started out as a critique, all the logics of profit taking, extraction, and private property become untethered from their foundations, and instead become an attempt to treat symptoms caused by destructive human behaviors, rather than the cause itself. Instead of demanding an end to economies based on greed, oil, and the destruction of people and land, environmentalism, at least as far as both the public consciousness and the major environmental NGO’s portray, is now about composting, recycling, and buying the right sort of shoe, car or light bulb, rather than about anything that might actually inconvenience the wealthy.

But why does addressing capitalism even matter? And why have the last two-and-a-half decades seen a shift from cause-based solutions to a symptomatic approach?

According to Klein, the answer’s simple. Connecting capitalism to climate change unveils an awful consequence. She writes:

The only kind of contraction our current system can manage is a brutal crashing, in which the most vulnerable will suffer most of all.

So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.

…By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know. The battle is already under way, but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used as an excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made. (p 21-22)

More “inconvenient” than Al Gore ever let on, the only way to stop this is not just to change our habits, but to radically alter the very system by which we live.

Our Leaders Have Betrayed Us

If capitalism is responsible for the behaviors which cause climate change, than climate deniers and right-wing ‘think tanks’ are technically correct in some of their estimations. Many of them repeatedly warn about the consequences of the environmental movements’ attacks on Capitalist economies. In one of her first chapters, Klein posits that much of the vitriol lobbed at environmentalists as being out to ‘destroy the American way of life’ are quite correct, or would be if the “Big Green” groups were honest about the problem.

But why haven’t they been? Naomi Klein devotes several chapters to the treachery of modern environmental groups, such as the Nature Conservancy (which drills for oil on some of its land in Texas) or the Environmental Defense Fund (which financed and pushed studies to cast doubt on the dangers of Hydraulic Fracturing, or “Fracking”).

Reading Klein’s journalistic extractions of such assimilation and collusions, which began in the 1980’s is quite difficult, but not because of her writing.  Rather, one wants to throw the book across the room repeatedly at these points; or, better yet, throw it at the ones who’ve taken so much money from the fossil fuel industry while telling individuals that they should switch their lights off more often.

Concurrent with the rise of neo-liberal, free-trade polices in the 1980’s and 90’s, particularly pushed by the Democratic Party in the United States (President Bill Clinton signed both NAFTA and the WTO treaty into law), major environmental groups shifted their tactics from urging less consumption and extraction to cheer-leading so-called “Green Capitalism.

Green Capitalism, Klein notes, shifted the responsibility from large polluters and the systems which favored them to individuals, advocating for personal consumption changes over systemic changes. She writes:

It would be one thing if, while individuals were being asked to voluntarily “green” the minutiae of their lives, the Big Green NGO’s had simultaneously gone after the big polluters, demanding they they match our individual small cuts in carbon emissions with large-scale, industry-wide reductions. And some did. But many of the most influential green groups did precisely the opposite. Not only did they help develop complex financial mechanisms to allow these corporations to keep emitting, they also actively campaigned to expand the market for one of the three main fossil fuels. (p.213)

No Longer Playing By the Rules of the Rich

But a large question remains: Why did the “Big Green NGO’s” betray us?

Klein’s answer is pretty clear–capitalism, and specifically the massive-scale implications of capitalism’s connection to climate change. Besides those with the most money are doing the most polluting. and “Big Green” gets its money from them.

In page after brutal page, Klein unknots each connection between climate change and our economic activities. While Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, did much to raise awareness of the issues of human-caused climate change, it did little to address precisely how much of our human activities would need to change in order to stop the damage those activities have caused. The actual “inconvenience” of that truth is staggering, but only if one is heavily invested in keeping Capitalism around. Klein says:

Climate change pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our economic model needs to sustain itself.  But since that economic model is failing the vast majority of the people on the planet on multiple fronts, that might not be such a bad thing. (p. 155)

Climate justice and social justice are related, and she devotes an entire chapter to “exclusion zones,” or places of great poverty with little political power to resist, and the particularly heavy burden rising seas, droughts, floods, and stronger storms will have on the people who have contributed almost none of the carbon pollution which has caused this.  Addressing climate change also means addressing the capitalist system which favors small groups of rich people over the teeming masses of poor throughout the world. In essence, it’s a revolutionary moment and one for which even the U.S. government is preparing.

This is particularly where Klein’s book is most hopeful. She devotes 157 pages of the book to tracing what she, and others, have named Blockadia, defined as the distributed network of protests bringing together disparate groups to fight fossil fuel companies, developers, and corporate interests who are intent on pillaging the land under our feet. While it’s not immediately apparent that protests against austerity and the destruction of a sacred ancestral forest in Greece are related to, let’s say, blockades against the Keystone XL pipeline by the Cowboy Indian alliance in America, Klein threads those events together seamlessly.

For her, these interconnected resistance movements are linked not just by their shared enemy, but also by a determination to revive the spirit of direct democracy. Klein writes:

The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate….It is this corroded state of our political systems–as fossilized as as the fuel at the center of these battles–that is fast turning Blockadia into a grassroots pro-democracy movement.

…And yet the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces–a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies–are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. (p. 361)

This loss of faith in inherited leadership structures, and the betrayal of the movement by Big Green and those political parties claiming to be on the side of the planet provides fertile soil for a radical populist movement - one that unites both “left” and “right” as well as a myriad of peoples across ethnic, cultural, and national borders.

Nature’s Revolt

But another loss of faith is necessary before such a movement can be effective and affective: the notion that technological fixes can be found to patch up past damage so that we can keep on polluting. Even as a Luddite myself, I was not prepared for some of this, particularly the horrific problems with geo-engineering, which is adding sulfur into the atmosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption, or seeding the ocean with chemicals to reflect light or bacteria to reduce acidification, as a way to cool the planet.

Cyril Mann, "Dark Satanic Mills" 1920.

Cyril Mann, “Dark Satanic Mills” 1925  [Public Domain]

Throughout her book, Klein dashes every single hope, even my own, that we might be able to stop the damage done without too radically changing the world. Not only are technologies like geo-engineering untested, they are largely funded by billionaires, such as Bill Gates in particular, and come with further political problems. Artificially cooling the earth will cause droughts in some of the already poorest places, and flooding in others, which leads to the potential of a cooler United States and Europe causing suffering elsewhere.

She builds a narrative of human technology any Pagan familiar with “disenchantment” will find quite familiar. Men in the enlightenment, bloated with the certainty they could transcend natural limits, developed theories and technologies which would help them do just that. Francis Bacon, the founder of Empiricism, spoke of conquering the Earth as if by rape; James Watts, the inventor of the coal-fired steam engine, spoke of humanity’s final liberation from Nature. These fathers of Modernity get particular attention. Klein writes:

..these are the tools and the logic that created the crisis geoengineering is attempting to solve–not just the coal-burning factories and colonial steam ships, but Bacon’s twisted vision of the Earth as a prone woman and Watt’s triumphalism at having found her “weak side.”  Given this, does it really make sense to behave as if, with big enough brains and powerful enough computers, humans can master and control the climate crisis just as humans have been imagining they could master the natural world since the dawn of industrialization–digging, damming, drilling, dyking? (p. 266)

Modern Myths and Ancient Struggles

In reading this book I was struck with the strange irony of attempting to explain to Pagans why they should read a book linking capitalism to the destruction of the Earth, as if this were a new theory.

But it wasn’t always like this. Both environmentalism and the peculiar forms of modern Paganism birthed in the 1700’s always made links between the destruction of the earth and the industrialization that comes along with capitalist arrangements of society. Early Naturalists, the European Romantics, and early modern-Druid societies could physically see the link between coal-powered factories, the soot and smog choking the town and cities, and the poisoning of their rivers. When one considers Willam Blake’s assessment of the new industrialization of the British countryside (“those dark satanic mills”) and the Luddite rebellion (with their mysterious patron god/leader “King Ludd”), it’s easy to find a Pagan, anti-capitalist environmentalism.

The 1960’s saw these connections converge again. Environmentalism again became a critique of capitalism, rather than the conservationist hobby of rich white men in the American west. At the same time, Paganism seemed to arise into public consciousness with the embrace of Wicca and other forms of Witchcraft, all oriented towards a reverence for the earth and distrust of those who would destroy it.

Profit-motive was destroying the forests and killing the birds through chemicals like DDT. This much was a given to an environmentalist. And because Paganism revered the earth, it was against the profit-taking that destroyed the earth. That is, Paganism was largely Environmentalist and critical of Capitalism.

So what happened? Klein has written a near perfect call to war from a deeply Pagan perspective. Her last chapter, particularly, reads like the poetic musings of a Druid or Shaman, and yet she is not a Pagan.

How came we to the position we’re in now, where I’m a writer trying to explain to Pagans why they should care about capitalism? Or why I’m reviewing a book written by a non-Pagan journalist whose words are soaked in the very Pagan understanding that we’ve abandoned?

I can’t help but wonder if Paganism has undergone the same shifts as the major environmental movements, abandoning its innate critique of capitalism’s divorce from nature in favor of begging for recognition from the powerful. Perhaps at some point we understood the awful, world-changing implications of our thoughts and practices, and opted instead of the nicer, more polite, and toothless manner of creating the world we see is possible.

I’m glad that in Naomi Klein’s book, a non-Pagan journalist has called us back to our beliefs.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — In a move that has raised eyebrows — and some ire — in the online Catholic community, Loyola University of Chicago recognized a student group that promotes Paganism. The club was approved by the university’s student government, a step which is necessary in many colleges to become eligible for funding and for the use of school buildings, not the school’s administration. When the administration became aware of its existence, the club was told to remove “Pagan” from its name. Administrators were apparently unaware of the new club until the story was picked up by the national news site The College Fix.

loyolaThat’s the story as told by club founder and president Jill Kreider:

I started the club in the hopes of letting people know that there are Pagan students on campus. My friend and VP is a Celtic pagan and he and I both wanted this club to at least acknowledge our existence, even if we didn’t make it past the initial interview stage.The upper administration had little to do with the original process and only came into the picture after the [College] Fix article alerted them of our existence.

Kreider, who also serves as an interfaith advocate on campus, didn’t share much with The Wild Hunt, citing a desire to “tread lightly” and a heavy school workload. In an email to The College Fix about the club, she shared some of her vision:

Loyola’s mission states that, ‘seeking God in all things’ is one of the main [tenets] of the university. While the mission primarily focuses on the Abrahamic God, there is no reason a Pagan student (or a Hindu, Baha’i or Sikh student) cannot seek using his or her own faith, regardless of which god they are doing it for.

Loyola University Chicago is one of 175 run by the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, of which Pope Francis is a member. The school is named for the Jesuits’ founder, Ignatius Loyola. Kreider’s remarks resulted in a firestorm of comments, articles and posts online, especially attached to that original story.

While some equated Pagan religions to Satanism or defended those faiths, a larger number of the posts speak to the internal conflicts within Christianity itself. Based on the comment threads, Roman Catholicism is deemed suspect by many other Christians, in part because of the veneration of saints and the Virgin Mary, which critics equate with Pagan idolatry. Defenders of Paganism, using well-worn arguments about the Pagan symbolism underlying many Christian festivals, have been met with agreement from those who wish to denounce Catholicism as a tool of the Devil. Here’s a typical anti-Catholic diatribe from another Christian in the thread:

The Catholic cult is the largest organization of homosexuals, pedophiles and anti-christs on this earth. Their doctrine is pagan and the Word of God identifies them with over 20 points of identification that THEY ARE INDEED THE BEAST OF REVELATION AND DANIEL. –Jennifer Chronister

University officials appear to be treading lightly themselves in this case. In response to inquiries by The Wild Hunt, spokesperson Steven Christensen provided the same statement given to The College Fix. Here is that response in its entirety:

I can confirm that the Pagan Student Alliance was granted recognition by the Department of Student Activities and Greek Affairs (SAGA), which is a unit within the Division of Student Development, on October 9, 2014. Requests to form new student organizations are accepted at the beginning of each semester, and a number of factors are considered before recognition is granted to an organization. Those factors do not require a potential organization to identify with the religious views of the University.

Following the SAGA approval, other leaders within Student Development expressed concerns related to the organization’s name, and the breadth and lack of definition of its constitution. During the week of October 13, the president and vice president of the Pagan Student Alliance met with Student Development leadership regarding these concerns and the group agreed to modify the name of the organization to the Indigenous Faith Traditions Alliance. As with all student organizations, a clear sense of purpose is required, and the group has been asked to further define their purpose on campus. The group has agreed to this request.

Related to this, and all student groups, at Loyola we welcome and foster an open exchange of ideas and encourage debate and sharing differing views and opinions to advance education. We believe that discussion around complex topics results in deeper critical thinking skills and well-rounded citizens.

According to the university website, “The search for truth is carried out in an atmosphere of Academic Freedom and open inquiry based on two fundamental assumptions of the Catholic faith. First, that the truth will set us free. Second, that faith and reason ultimately bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth.”  Welcoming a Pagan, or rather an “Indigenous Faith Traditions,” club appears consistent for a university that already has Muslim and Hindu clubs on campus.

In editorial on Christian blog site Aleteia.org, Susan E. Wills prodded at the new name of the club, saying, “. . . one can’t help but picture a group meeting of Buddhists, Taoists, Santeras . . . Wiccans, and pagans all arguing over whether Wiccans should even be allowed in the club. It is not an ‘indigenous’ religion at all. It was basically created in the 1950s by the self-proclaimed Druid Gerald Gardner, an Englishman.” Wills goes on to question how Wiccan theology fits into a Catholic worldview, saying:

“Wicca is a religion only in the loosest sense of the word, having been cobbled together from various sources in the 1950s, having no defined doctrine (as each practitioner is free to believe what he or she wants) and largely practiced alone … While individual Wiccans may be ‘good people’ and ‘good citizens’, it is difficult to see any nuggets of truth or goodness in Wicca itself.”

While the original College Fix article points out that Wicca is one of the better-known Pagan religions, it’s the only reference to the Wiccan faith in connection with the club. It’s not clear why Wills chose to fixate on Wicca in her remarks. Kreider identifies herself as Hellenistic Pagan and her vice-president as a Celtic Pagan. The group’s original mission as posted on Facebook was, “to unify Pagans, the spiritual but not religious, those seeking faith or religion, minority faith students (including but not limited to: Buddhists, Taoists, Shinto practitioners, Santeras, etc…) pluralists and those students interested in New Age religions on Loyola’s campus. If you don’t have a faith group on campus, we’re here to fill that gap!”

In an article published in the Oct. 17 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Beth McMurtrie discusses the new problems facing Catholic colleges today as the religious climate of the United States changes. According to the article, in 1973 82% of full-time freshmen at Catholic colleges identified as Catholic. In 2013, that number was only 50%. Loyola’s acceptance of the new Pagan club appears to be one example of a Jesuit university being forced to wrestle with its own identity in modern society and, as such, making an effort to adjust to an evolving student population.

[Articles like the one below take time, resources, research and money. If you like our work and want to help us continue to share stories about Pagan involvement in religious freedom efforts and other similar news, please consider donating to our fall fundraising efforts and sharing our IndieGoGo link. Your contributions and support are what make our work possible. Thank you very much.]

In Florida last week, a moment happened that some members of religious minorities have been anticipating since the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling on sectarian prayer at public meetings. An elected official walked out rather than hear an invocation given by a Pagan. Now, due to similar religious freedom efforts by that same Pagan, the local school board may face a lawsuit for discriminating against minority faiths.

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

David Suhor, who describes himself as “an APPLE Biter – that’s an Agnostic Pagan Pantheist Living Existentially and biting every apple I want to,” firmly believes that a moment of silence is the only way for public bodies to be inclusive when they incorporate prayer into meetings. He has been using the language of the Greece v Galloway SCOTUS decision to push that agenda. The court held that prayers are acceptable so long as a policy of nondiscrimination is followed.

Suhor has been repeatedly asking permission to offer a prayer before several boards in Escambia County, Florida. The video of Suhor calling to the quarters singing a prayer written by Starhawk with accompanying magical gestures quickly went viral, to the delight of Atheists and others troubled by the SCOTUS decision.

In this video, he stands before the County Commission. However, the county’s school board has repeatedly rejected his requests.

“The resistance is unique to each board,” Suhor said when reached for comment. “The County Commission and school board let each of the five commissioners choose who gives a prayer. The [school] board [members] all said no. [On the] County Commission, the chairman accepted, [but it] took a little pushback before he accepted. My goal is each and every member should be willing to be welcoming of anyone if they’re going [to have prayer, but my] goal is really a moment of silence.”

What Suhor calls “pushback” has been called “pushy and off-putting” by one of those being pushed, school board member Jeff Bergosh. In Suhor’s campaign to have the school board’s meetings follow the same prayer protocol as expected in the classroom (a moment of silence), Suhor has been theatrical. He told a local news reporter that he may choose to pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Satan if his requests continue to be denied.  On one occasion, he unrolled a prayer mat and chanted while a Christian invocation was delivered. Bergosh characterized this act as distracting, saying on his blog, “I’lll leave the room and come back after, or wear Bose noise cancelling headphones,” rather than witness “disrespectful” behavior during an invocation.

Suhor has also threatened legal action, which prompted the school board to consult its attorney, Donna Waters. “At present, I don’t see that the board has to change its past practice (of holding invocations),” Waters said, adding “that practice does carry some degree of risk for litigation.”

Suhor’s push to force local boards into abandoning the use of an opening invocation goes back long before the controversial SCOTUS decision. “The tradition of allowing each board member to choose who will give the prayer means that they tend to pick their own religion,” he said, “and I’ve sat through a lot of Christian prayers.” He points to his difficulty getting on the calendar; he did it once before at a County Commissioners’ meeting two years ago.  But he has been repeatedly rebuffed by the school board. “No one wants to stand for a minority religion,” he said.

Seal_of_Escambia_County,_FloridaWhat do other local members of those minority religions think about the firestorm Suhor has created? The reactions are generally positive, although the specific content of his prayer is sometimes questioned. While Suhor has participated in Pagan observances at a Unitarian Universalist church, he isn’t well known in the local Pagan community, being mostly solitary. Rev. Edward Livingston of the Fire Dance Church of Wicca said of Suhor:

He has never attended our church or taken part in the greater Pagan community. But not all Pagans like to work in groups or circle with others. I support his challenges to the legal and governmental system, but I also see him as doing this to make them stop using invocations and prayer, but a moment of silence instead. He has said to me he would consider all invocations and prayers outside the normal local top three religions until they change the rules. We are not as political as he is, we are a small Wiccan/Pagan church that provides a ritual 8 times a year for those who want to circle with others.

Cynthia Jurkovic is an ordained Priestess-Hierophant of the Fellowship of Isis who also lives in the panhandle of Florida. She supports Suhor’s goals, but questions his methods. Jurkovic said:

After reading the article about this incident in Escambia County, and watching the news clip from WEAR 3, I have a few thoughts to share. First, I totally agree that if prayer is to be allowed before any meeting of government bodies or other institutions, all spiritual/religious traditions should be given the opportunity to offer a prayer.

Likewise, I support David Suhor’s right to step up to offer Pagan prayers at these government functions. Where I feel he took a wrong turn is in what he presented at this meeting. Invoking the elements is not in alignment with the intention of speaking a prayer to a higher power, however you name it, for wisdom and guidance in decision making, and working toward the highest good regarding the outcome of the meeting.

I thought it was ridiculous that he sang elemental quarter calls. He was not there to cast a ritual circle. The elements are not the same as deities. Why did he not say a prayer to Pagan deities suitable to the intention of the meeting? It appears to me that by coming before the assembled people and then singing elemental quarter calls, complete with gesticulation, that he was purposefully irritating and provoking a dramatic response. This was completely inappropriate!

For Suhor’s part, he’s a musician, and explains that he’s more comfortable singing in public than speaking. “I wasn’t going over the top,” he said, “just expressing as fully as I knew by calling the quarters.” Identifying as a Pantheist, his view on the divine nature of the elements differs from Jurkovic’s. In response to the criticism that the invocation was too long, Suhor responds that he’s sat through many Christian prayers that were longer.

Was he “purposefully irritating and provoking a dramatic response,” as Jurkovic believes? He told one reporter, “In a way I would like for other people to experience what it’s like when I go to a meeting and am asked to pray against my conscience.”

And what about that County Commissioner who walked out? He told a television news reporter, “I’m just not going to have a Pagan or Satanic minister pray for me.” Commissioner Wilson Robertson was not able to be reached for this story, so it is unclear if he’s conflated those two terms, ascribing them both to Suhor, or if he doesn’t care either way.

As for the Escambia County School Board, it continues to be recalcitrant. The Wild Hunt will be watching this story as it develops.

Technological advances and access to technology have greatly changed the everyday experience of many communities around the world, especially here in America. Everything from access to information, training, and the ability to connect with people in different geographical areas, have made the process of connection much different than it was ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

According to Internet World Stats, 84.9% of the population in the United States have internet access or are internet users. Avenues of communication in greater society have been largely replaced with social media platforms, email, video chats, and online learning systems; these same systems are translating to Paganism as well.

The impact of living in a booming technological age on Paganism has shown how interesting advances can enhance or hamper community connectivity. Building community looks much different when there is access to smart phones, iPads and computers, and the ability to generate connection among people can become more about branding than about personable connection that we find in consistent face to face engagement. As technological advances continue to thrive, so does the Pagan community in numbers, yet the freedom that the internet provides can add to misinformation, increased access to rumors, and national attention to otherwise local issues that happen within the Pagan community. Everyone can be an expert in the age of the internet, and all problems are at the fingertips of people around the globe. The increased access to training, research and information does not erase the potential problems that come from the use, and abuse, of technology in Modern Paganism.

The positive and negative impact of increased advances affect areas of community building, publishing, entertainment, small magical or metaphysical shops, organizational structures, information exchange, the media, and a host of other areas in our everyday world. Communities and organizations within Paganism are adjusting to the new ways of functioning efficiently within our modern times, which often highlights differences in cultural aspects of age and socioeconomics. We have seen this, for example, with how some organizations are moving towards the use of online telecommunication formats to incorporate more effective mediums for business, and national communication among members.

In exploring a few of the many areas that technology reaches within modern Paganism, I spoke with several people for perspective on the impact that these changes have had, and are having. As the circumference of the Pagan community has expanded, intersecting interactions have increased the usefulness of different methods of communication, connection and business.

Rachael Watcher

Rachael Watcher

Rachael Watcher, National Interfaith Representative for Covenant of the Goddess (COG), has been doing a lot of work within Pagan and interfaith organizations on a national level. In addition to interfaith work with COG, she is the North American Interfaith Network Regional Coordinator (NAIN) and works with the United Religions Initiative. Her work expands to areas of the world that require technology to access.

How have you seen technology incorporated into Pagan organizations and how does this contribute to the organizational function?

Over the past, umm, say twenty plus years, technology has changed a great deal.  As people have become more accustomed to using the internet, attitudes too have changed.  I remember a gathering of one of my traditions back in the, possibly early nineties.  I suggested that we develop a list to share information and make communications easier among us.  Such a hue and cry you have never heard.  “Oh we can’t do that.  Everyone would be able to see what we are discussing…even the secret stuff wouldn’t be safe anymore.  No absolutely not!”  So of course I purchased a domain name, put up a simple web site and put together a list making it clear that if one wished to be on that list an individual would have to let me know.  Well pretty soon everyone was on the list.  A few years later the list went down for some reason and once again a hue and cry went out, this time because the list was down and OMG how was anyone going to communicate, accompanied by appropriate hair pulling and teeth gnashing.

Today, the term “Google” is a household word meaning “to go out and search for”; the first thing on a new organization’s to do list is put up a website, and list serves are a mandatory part of doing business.  As the technology improves, so does our ability to communicate virtually, without the need for carbon footprint.

How do you feel that the use of technology has changed the Pagan organizations you work with?

With the advent of virtual communications the face of paganism has changed drastically. Before the use of electronic connections anyone interested in becoming an “official” pagan had to ultimately connect with others doing the work.  You will hear many stories from the fifty plus set about how they became pagans because they picked up one of the old magazines and found contacts, or were inspired to search for contacts and training.  People knew one another and knew who they were.

The up side to all of this is our new ability to gather for meetings without the necessity of even leaving the house.  It allows us to come together in greater numbers and have a larger say in the structure of our organizations allowing parents, the less abled, and those who must work, to join in meetings as never before and all without leaving such an oppressive carbon footprint.

Organizational bylaws are changing to allow virtual attendees to count for quorum where such issues are important and the alarming trend for organizations such as the Covenant of the Goddess, who meets once a year somewhere in the United States, to become an organization controlled by those with the funds to travel is certainly mitigated.

Perhaps best of all, people are coming to know us, at worst as harmless, and at best as people with serious theological underpinnings. In my work as an interfaith representative I have often referred folks to various web pages that saved hours of explanation, and frankly a quick bit of research during lunch in my hotel room has saved me serious embarrassment when dealing with religions with which I had not been familiar.

 

M. Macha NightMare (Aline O’Brien), elder and Pagan author, works as an interfaith activist and works in several different capacities within the community. In her work as a member of the Cherry Hill Advisory Board member, and as a web weaver, technology plays a vital role in her work.

Macha

Aline “Macha” O’Brien

As an elder in our community, I imagine you have seen a lot of technological changes that are now incorporated in modern Paganism. What are some of the largest changes within in the past 10-20 years that now are common uses for technology in our community?

Change has come so fast and furious that I’m dazzled by its variety and complexity.  Media have combined to give us immediate updates and gales of opinions of every little topic that sparks a flame.  I try to stay current.  I have a cellphone and laptop and am on Facebook.  I subscribe to lists and groups where discussion can be rich.  Just as readily discussion can become heated and obnoxious.  As a social person, I find I have an appetite for engaging in civil discourse.   I find I’m easily seduced by all those virtual venues where ideas are shared.  The downside of that is such engagement can be a time-suck if you don’t maintain strict limits.

Do you think these changes have had more positive or negative impact on the current state of our community?

I definitely think these changes have had a positive effect overall.  Before the advent of the Internet, we had only fragmented communities and a tendency towards mistrust.  Over the years since Internet access has become more common, especially among younger people, we have used electronic communication to build virtual communities as well as to fortify and enhance efficient communication regarding our terraspace communities.  Further, we are able to mobilize quickly if we choose to.

Today we have news sites and networking sites, music and podcasts, special interest sites, as well as scores of blogs and vlogs — anything on everything.  Of course, there is the matter of discerning what sources warrant our trust for their accuracy, reliability, and thoroughness and which tend to be more superficial and inflammatory.  But you have that with any media.

As for teaching, while some kinds of magic-spiritual teachings must be in person, many kinds of teaching and learning can be done effectively online.  Plus, online learning is greener.  We now have institutions of higher learning where all or most of the campus is virtual.  Cherry Hill Seminary, for instance, except for annual in-person intensives, is entirely online, with cool Moodle classrooms, a virtual library, online bookstore.   We Pagans are a small, widely spread demographic, making conventional terraspace learning environments (i.e., schools with classrooms) impractical.  Thus, a teaching and learning institution’s cyberspace presence has made scholarly online learning more readily available to Pagans wherever they may live.

Dr. Amy Hale

Dr. Amy Hale

Education and research continues to be a major aspect of need within the Pagan community. Access to training, information and education around the many different intersecting areas of study has always been a source of discussion, but the methods for attaining such things has drastically changed. We have also seen an increased emphasis placed on higher education, and an importance placed on the value of academic study. Professor Dr. Amy Hale has worked extensively in designing and teaching within online academic formats.

As a professional that works in higher education, do you find that the use of technology in learning modalities are more accepted today than say 10 years ago?

Absolutely!  Educational technologies are becoming ubiquitous, and are found in all sorts of environments in addition to strictly educational settings.  We are seeing the use of technology to support everything from on site and contextual training for businesses to the use of mobile phones to educate children in combat areas.  As technologies develop, we figure out how to teach and learn with them, and as ever, the first to benefit (which may surprise some) are frequently underserved populations and women. Of course, not everyone is an educational technology advocate, some prefer the low tech approach, but I believe the benefits are clear.

How do you see the changing role of technology influencing modern Paganism and what can we learn from higher education institutions in this area?

Technology is, in my view, the driving force behind modern Paganism.  Communication and information technologies give us a way to learn, share and create community.  While I have occasionally heard concerns about “internet solitaries” who some believe may not be as connected to live Pagan communities,  I see no reason to assume that Pagans connected primarily by the internet are any less genuine or living their Paganism in a way that is any less “authentic”.

But technology is changing the way we think, and we need to be aware of how. As when the printing press first came into use, many modern information technologies have the great ability to challenge our relationship with authority and promote a democratization of information. This, however, does not mean that all information is good and that all opinions are equally valid.  This is why we have a much, much greater responsibility to foster critical thinking and a need to understand how to assess the mountains of information we have access to.  We are well past the time when the professor or teacher or church is the ultimate authority, and certainly in many educational settings we are embracing this development.  We need to have the tools to think for ourselves and to know how to craft solid arguments, and we need to learn to do this with respect and civility.   I would like to see Pagans become more rigorous thinkers and better assess their sources.  So many Pagans out there on the internet seem to lack basic information literacy in that they don’t know how to tell if a source is valid or if an argument is well supported. I think this is the challenge that all educational professionals face today, and this is the direct result of the free flow of information.

Cherry Hill Seminary is one of the ways that we have seen this method of higher education exchange take on technology to facilitate learning. Cherry Hill is currently teaching in an all online format.

Tim Titus

Tim Titus

Blogger Tim Titus wrote a recent piece about social media and the way that negative engagement can influence how people engage. Some of the unintended consequences of social media and the influx of online communication has contributed to emerging patterns in the development of community building. In Tim’s piece, Surviving Social Media’s Ocean of Negativity, he discusses some of his observations.  “But the problem I have is that most of the nastiness that circulates around social media, both within and without the pagan community, is petty and exhausting. There’s always someone complaining about life, the universe, and everything. They complain about their work day; they beat dead horses about situations that were resolved long ago; they call out friends for silly things.   We have all this amazing technology to build community around the world, and we use it as our personal bitching platform. If anger and argument were a drug, we’d need a national 12-step program.?”

In a small snapshot of how technology plays an intricate role in Modern Paganism, we see that there these forms of communication and engagement have become an intricate part of the format that we now exist within. The continued growth of our community will rely heavily on how these forms of technology are used and instituted in our functioning practice.

While there are a lot of positive connections that are made with the use of technological advances, we also have some interesting consequences that are a result of the fast paced environment that is created with immediate access to so much information, and lightning fast responses. As much as we thrive as a community with the use of additional methods of research, education, connection, and organizational options, we are also faced with the concept that this level of interaction moves a community into a fast paced momentum that can add to some steep learning curves and promote additional division in the ranks.

This is a large topic that could benefit from continuous unpacking. Exploring this topic brings us to some interesting questions we can ask ourselves in the process of community exploration. Has technology replaced some of the need for interactive personal contact within the Pagan community? How has the definition of community evolved with the use of this level of technology? Does technology give us the chance to connect more often, or does it create a barrier to genuine connection that builds healthy interpersonal relationships?

All very important questions to consider as we are enjoying the access that our various devices give to us, and that we are able to use in our experiences of Modern Paganism.

Perspectives is a monthly column dedicated towards presenting the wide variety of thought across the Pagan/Polytheist communities’ various Paganisms.

The Wild Hunt received responses from four members of the community—Ember Cooke, Gytha of the Vanic Conspiracy and member of Seidhjallr (Sudhri); Richard Reidy, Kemetic Reconstructionist, author, moderator and founder of The Temple of Ra and the Kemetic Temple of San Jose; Erynn Rowan Laurie, author and Celtic Reconstructionist polytheist; and Sannion, the archiboukolos of the thiasos of the Starry Bull—detailing their opinion on whether larger interfaith work (Abrahamic, Dharmic, etcetera) is needed or if it’s a distraction from Pagan-Polytheist-Wiccan-Heathen-Recon-African Tradition inter/intrafaith work?

Selena Fox and other clergy at a National Interfaith Service in Washington DC.

Selena Fox and other clergy at a National Interfaith Service in Washington DC.

“I absolutely do NOT think that one kind of interfaith work is a distraction from another kind. Both are necessary if Pagans in general are to have increased stability, civil rights and respect, and influence on the world around us. Interfaith work within the Pagan movement is necessary so that we can increasingly work together and function in ways that we have intended to in the past while overlooking the fact of our differences in theology.

Interfaith work with non-Pagan traditions is necessary for us to gain the understanding and support of the larger faith population, which is most of the world. To discard either one is to say that some categories of humans don’t matter very much, so if they don’t understand us and care about us, well, we don’t need to understand and care about them which is a dangerous drawing of lines in the sand that I think causes a lot more harm than good. And yes, I try to actively engage in both kinds of interfaith work when I have the time and energy to do so.”Ember Cooke, Gytha of the Vanic Conspiracy and member of Seidhjallr (Sudhri)

“I see no compelling reason why we cannot be involved in interfaith/intrafaith work with both groups. For myself it is not an either/or proposition. Whatever we may think we know of individual groups or theologies, it helps our own cause to dialogue with them in order to dispel some of the common misconceptions many of them have regarding earth-based religions, pagan and neopagan religions, polytheists, as well as other spiritual/religious groups. Currently in the West the dominant Abrahamic faiths very often label us idolaters, devil worshipers, and profoundly misguided. We—in our own self interest—can work to dispel such potentially dangerous thinking. We owe it to ourselves to try to dispel the myths surrounding our religions.

In regard to the various intrafaith groups, it helps us to interact with others in order to build a sense of solidarity, mutual respect, and understanding. When we see people as “us” rather than just “other,” we enrich each other. Many if not most of our groups are fairly small in number. Many are somewhat isolated. If we wish to last beyond our own lifetimes and achieve any real stability and growth, we cannot afford to remain insular. I remember the great Platonic and Neoplatonic schools that once existed in the Greek empire. They were led by charismatic men and women, with a small group of like-minded students and followers. They all—each and every one of them—died out under the weight of Christian expansionism and repression. All of them—gone! We must not let that happen to us. We cannot afford to simply enjoy our little fellowships and groups and “hope for the best.” The gods and the spirits deserve more.”Richard Reidy, Kemetic Reconstructionist, author, moderator and founder of The Temple of Ra and the Kemetic Temple of San Jose

“I think it really depends on the nature of the work a person is called to do. In my case I’m trying to build a religious community that venerates Dionysos and his associated gods and spirits. The majority of my time and energy goes into research, writing, worship and tending to the spiritual and other needs of my people.

Pagan Leadership ConferenceWhat remains after that goes into fostering dialogue with other polytheists around ways that we can mutually support each other in the restoration and promulgation of our ancestral traditions, which has resulted in projects such as Wyrd Ways Radio, the Polytheist Leadership Conference and the forthcoming Walking the Worlds journal.

I also feel that it’s important to engage in educational outreach with the neopagan and occult communities, particularly with regard to respect for diversity and boundaries, since ignoring our differences tends to create a hostile environment that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to work together on areas where our interests do happen to overlap.

Beyond that I have an interest in ecology and social justice, though I rarely have anything left to give beyond contributing financially to groups whose aims and efforts I agree with. As such I have almost no engagement with members of Abrahamic, Dharmic, indigenous or other religious communities, to say nothing of secular humanist or political groups, though I applaud their efforts when they are not in conflict with my own agendas.

But that’s me, and I have no expectation that others share my vocation or prioritize things the way I do. Indeed I think our communities are made stronger by encouraging people to pursue the goals and activities that they care most about and are uniquely skilled to perform. As Homer said, “No island is made for the breeding horses nor is any man capable of accomplishing all things.” We need priests and scholars and magicians and artists and educators and homemakers and laborers and politicians and soldiers and activists and so on and so forth, each doing their part to create a better society. This is what makes the polytheist worldview superior to all others—the recognition that there are many gods and many ways to serve those gods. It’s only a distraction if you’re not doing the work of your heart.”Sannion, archiboukolos of the thiasos of the Starry Bull

Erynn Rowan Laurie

Erynn Rowan Laurie

“I don’t see why it has to be just one or the other. Both types of work need doing, though maybe not all by the same individuals. It would be a lot to lay on any one person. But it’s important to have communication and attempt to find understanding both within and outside of our various communities. I don’t think restricting ourselves to only one option would actually be a very polytheist type of response, nor do I think doing one of these types of work is a “distraction” from any of the others. That would be like saying “I’m only going to inhale until I’ve got that down. Forget exhaling until I have perfect inhalation technique.” You really rather do need both to function.” Erynn Rowan Laurie, author and Celtic Reconstructionist polytheist

Perspectives is a monthly column with the goal of showing the wide variety of thought across the Pagan community’s various Paganisms.

The US is a nation comprised of native and immigrant cultures, customs and Deities. Each immigrant wave brought not only customs and cultures to this land, but Deities as well. The Wild Hunt asked five members of the community—Henry Buchy, Witch; Fritz Muntean, co-founder of New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD) and Editor Emeritus for Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies; author, activist and founder of Tashlin Clan, Wintersong Tashlin; and Sam Webster, President and Executive Director of the Pantheon Foundation and publisher at Concrescent Press—for their thoughts on this topic.

How does your tradition, lineage, or cultus handle the subject of “place” as a specific entity? How does this intersect with the deities with whom you have built devotional relationships?

I’d have to rephrase that as “spirits of a specific place.” In some cases there may be a more concrete feel of a specific spirit in regards to certain land features. There are also other spirits in relationship to that place.The way we handle it is to go out and find out who’s who and what’s what, and try to be as direct and open/objective as possible, and work from there. I don’t really have a devotional relationship with “gods.” I have mutually beneficial relationships with “spirits/entities/beings.” — Henry Buchy, Witch

The traditions I practice (NROOGD, plus a kind of genteel non-lineage Alexandrian) do not especially focus on ‘deities of place.’” — Fritz Muntean, Pomegranate

“For starters, it’s useful to know that in my tradition we draw a distinction between the presence of spirits or entities that may be bound to or identify with a particular “place,” and a place having an agency or spirit all its own. That distinction is a bit hard to elucidate, but here’s my best shot: A spirit or deity of a place takes on some of its characteristics and vice versa. From the human interaction side, one is experiencing a separate Power and consciousness through the lens, or perhaps even the medium, of the place in which they dwell.

So for instance take a hypothetical naval ship (I know I’m stretching the definition of “place”). In the course of its voyages, a spirit or Power of some sort, an ocean sprite let’s say, could come to take residence in the body of the ship, becoming joined with its physical form. The granting of a soul or astral self if you will, connected to and perhaps even dependent on the form. Alternatively, when a place develops a Power and Will all of its own, there isn’t a separation between the spirit and the place itself. They are one and the same. In the context of our hypothetical ship, this would be if rather than gaining a sense of self through joining with an outside power, over the course of its construction and/or through the energies it’s exposed over the course of its travels, the ship was to develop some form of awareness, agency, or will by virtue of what it was.

As to how we “handle” those entities and situations, our approach begins and ends in most cases with respect. When we encounter a place with a distinct spiritual presence or power, we engage in the most limited way we can at the outset. The energetic equivalent of hold out a closed hand for a strange dog to sniff. The truth is that not every spirit or power has the slightest interest in people, or perhaps just in specific people.

In those situations, we don’t engage in devotional, ritual, or outward magical acts unless we’ve been given some form of consent. To do otherwise feels too much like not only barging into someone else’ living room, but holding the door open for a bunch of friends to come in too.

The vast majority of place spirits we have worked with are rudimentary in their interactions and care not one whit what we do as long as we don’t engage in harmful behavior. If we plan on doing a great deal of devotional work, such as setting up formal altars and making formal offerings to our gods, we make periodic offerings of one form or another in thanks and to maintain good will.” — Wintersong Tashlin

“Whether with respect to the Golden Dawn, Thelema, Witchcraft, or the kind of Paganism I find myself in, we have the capacity to make sacred space, and so where ever we are called to worship or practice, we create a place to meet our Deities. When we get to stay in one place long enough, such as our homes, we tend to build altars and shrines to give the Divine Ones a ‘seat’ and settle their presence. We then render our worship or practice before these constructed divine loci.” — Sam Webster, Pantheon Foundation

In the views of your tradition, lineage or cultus, are Gods inherently present in all places, or do they express through specific places? How does place of manifestation change the nature of theistic expression?

“I’d have to rephrase that [question] to are ‘spirits/entities/beings’ present in all places? To that I would say, in my experiences, yes. Do they express through specific places? Certain ones, yes. Specific places have a more concrete feel of a specific being. For other types of spirits, they have the same feel regardless of place in the sense of type, if that is what you mean by theistic expression. In other words, there are types of spirits that inhabit general types of terrain, i.e. woods, fields,swamp, etcetera, that are recognizable by a shared general nature.” — Henry Buchy

“The gods we work with are substantially immanent and universal — as archetypal forces in the collective human unconscious. So they are, generally speaking, present in all of us, wherever we are gathered. Still, our deities are defined by the sacred texts and compelling narratives of the ancient world (ie, through myths). So local landscapes often remind us of the settings that occur in these myths. This is especially helpful in designing the ritual dramas that form such an important part of Mystery Traditions.” — Fritz Muntean

“The answer to this question is again a bit nuanced. The short answer is that no, we do not traditionally view gods as present in all places, that is, not omnipresent. However, for the most part neither are they restricted to only specific places, although there may be some exceptions. While we do believe that our gods can manifest in multiple places simultaneously, we nonetheless see them as having some limitations. And nor are they present or aware of places where they are not making the deliberate choice to be present. That said, we do believe that some places are more conducive to their expression. Those places may have characteristics that are associated with certain gods, or with devotional acts to said gods. We most definitely believe that repeated use of a place for devotional acts “attunes” a place to the gods the devotion is directed to.” — Wintersong Tashlin

“In short, yes to both. The Gods, being Gods, are the structures of existence, much like the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, They pervade the Cosmos, and indeed They are those laws and so much more. Yet, at some point in time, some one had a specific experience of one or more Deities in a location and set up a place of worship there. Usually, the tale is of a specific manifestation of the Deity giving it a characteristic or locative epithet. Thus while the Deity is in all places active and available, at this place, in a manifestation specific to the place, the Deity most especially in that form, is particularly available.” — Sam Webster

When a Deity begins expressing themselves through or in a place not historically or traditionally associated with Them, do you consider that Deity to be expressing through that place in a unique way?

“I’m not sure what you’re asking on this question as far as ‘place’. However, I’d say yes it would be unique simply by virtue of their being somewhere they usually aren’t. that would bring up a lot questions for me, and bear investigation.” — Henry Buchy

“Depends on to whom these deities are expressing themselves. The evaluation of UPGs forms a very important part of the administration of religious traditions of all sorts, and most especially in this regard.” — Fritz Muntean

“No, not really. Perhaps because being a North American who doesn’t work within traditions native to this land, most of the deities I interact with regularly are already outside of their native geographical context. I suspect that some of those deities do express themselves differently than in places associated with them and their historical worship. Unfortunately, I’m not widely enough traveled to have that a frame of reference. It would be fascinated to experience interacting with some of the deities I consider myself closest to in their places of origin in terms of traditional mythos and cultural relevance.” — Wintersong Tashlin

“Any way at any time a Deity expresses themselves is it always unique. If it happens to be a new way, then we are especially blessed to have that experience. It also lets us know that the Gods Live Still, and arise to us in ways meaningful to our lives.” — Sam Webster

What about Gods of exodus, diaspora, nomadism or other human movement? Is there a difference in your tradition or lineage between Gods who come through a new place versus Gods who are carried with Their people?

“Not sure what you mean by “gods who come through a new place.” If you mean the ‘discovery’ of spirits or beings connected to the new place, to me there is no difference, spirits/entities/beings—’’gods’ if you wish, are gods. However, this is a pretty complex question that really depends on the ‘people’ mentioned, and their theology/cosmology, as to whether they incorporate the new, syncretize them with one of their own, or dispossess it.” — Henry Buchy

“Speaking for myself, as well as those downstream of me and my teachings, we are very careful not to engage in mis-appropriation of the spiritual and mytho-poetic traditions of diasporan or nomadic people. On the other hand, most of the specific deities we work with had their origins (or had the details of their narratives reshaped) during the Hellenistic period, when local deities were syncretized over the course of a few short centuries to serve the needs of a population on the move (throughout the Mediterranean and beyond) and becoming cosmopolitan.” — Fritz Muntean

“Overwhelmingly we approach the gods through the lens of diaspora and nomadism, which we see as two separate things. Gods of diaspora came with people from one place to another, where they then settled, and in some cases stayed even as their people spread further.

Gods of nomadism on the other hand are carried with their people wherever they may go, and have no geographical anchor, or have traveled so far afield from said anchor as to render it virtually irrelevant. All that matters is the people, who could be thought of as the gods’ anchor in the mortal world. They may express or manifest in a particular place, but only because that is where their people happen to be at that moment.

In the gray area between diaspora and nomadism you find gods who travel with their people, but only have notable presence once altars or other dedicated space is set up for them in a new place.” — Wintersong Tashlin

“I live in America and am not Indigenous/Native American, so all of my ‘Old World’ deities are being worshiped in a new place.” — Sam Webster

How does movement to, or new expression through, a different place impact the relationships between the Gods and their people? How are these impacts accounted for in ritual and technological expression? How are changes or “new” things dealt with?

“Historically, as mentioned above, incorporation, syncretization or dispossession.” — Henry Buchy

“Again, our own examples are found in the Hellenistic age. Watch Hecate, or Thoth, or (especially) Isis undergo transformations and syncretizations during this period for examples of how we might best proceed. Clearly (from history) this is not a process left up to individual expressions or agenda.” — Fritz Muntean

“In our tradition, people are expected to adapt to our environments, and in doing so hold space for our gods to connect to our world. How we adapt energetically and ritually to new places plays a large role in how we interact with our gods. As we adapt, so does how we interact with our gods, and in some ways, how the gods express themselves in our lives and our world.

So for instance, when my family made its home in relatively rural areas in the New Hampshire and Maine interior, our devotion and the cycle of rituals was tied to the flow of the seasons, and we interacted with our patron in different aspects of Herself in accordance with where in the course of the year we were.

However, since moving to the seacoast our interactions and devotional have come to be oriented around two dominant cycles: that of the moon/tides, and that of the ebb and flow of people and energy in and out of a popular resort town through the course of the year.

She is colored by the energies of the place in which we connect to Her, but how much of that is due to Her act of expression in this place, and how much is a reflection of our own energetic and mental patterns when we are interacting with Her is totally up for debate.” — Wintersong Tashlin

“Once I was given a vision of Tahuti, Lord of Scribes, Lord of Information, and saw Him with a book in His hand. Noting my question, He replied that my ancestors would have seen a scroll, my descendants will see a screen. The Gods are eternal, how we experience Them changes as we do.” — Sam Webster

When “new” Gods arrive in a place (if indeed any God can be considered new), how does Their arrival impact the local Gods and spirits of that place, if at all? How does your tradition, lineage or cultus view these relationships, if at all?

“The same as when a new group of people arrive in a place already occupied, and the same approach of incorporation, syncretization or dispossession.

Nowadays, it’s a fine line between ideas about “colonialism” and “appropriation.” Personally for me, the “God(s)” of my people (family/ancestry) is the Christian God. I’d have to go pretty far back to hit pagan ancestry. Part of my ancestry has been here on this land for three hundred years or so. There is the question of dispossession ancestrally. There’s not much I can do about that past, but to break with it by making my own peace with the land. Though I may be of European descent, I am not European, and I am not in Europe. I’m in this land. My body, bones and blood are of the earth and water of this land, I breathe the air of this land, and so I owe, to an extent, myself to this land. It’s spirits call to me, not in the voice of my European heritage, but in its own voice and so I answer in the best way I can, and approach the elder spirits here with no pretense about my heritage. To them I am still “foreigner,” but yet of the substance of this land, but I listen and learn their ways. I learn their names. I accept them as they come and they do like wise. I respect their domains and privacy. I honor them in the ways of the elder people, who are far and few between now. I do so with no pretense, and they know heart. Some folks say this is appropriation, and it is, though it’s the land that has appropriated me. We learn from each other. I explain to them the ‘gods’ of my heritage, and they explain to me the ‘gods’ of this land, and so there is peace between us.” — Henry Buchy

“In our worldview, the gods (as archetypes) are always present, wherever people dwell and (especially) engage in their devotional activities. The stories of gods, however, can and frequently are adapted to local landscapes. You’ll notice that I’m using ‘landscape’ instead of ‘place’ — to imply a dramatic sense, rather than one of cultural/geographic/political import.” — Fritz Muntean

“For starters, within the cosmology and belief system of our tradition, gods can be both “new” in terms of new to a place, and in terms of literally being new(er) deities. We believe that new gods can come into being and forgotten ones sometimes fade into the shadows.

 The arrival of “new” gods can displace or cause conflict with the existing spirits or even gods of a place if their intrinsic nature differs greatly from that of the native (or at least present) gods and spirits that preceded them. But in truth, that hardly seems to be a common occurrence in our experience.

As to how our tradition sees those situations, we generally come from the belief that the burden to integrate smoothly and without conflict lies with the spirits, energies, or gods that are “new.” If the newcomer is a deity we have a relationship with, for instance if we have moved and are beginning to offer devotion to our gods in a new place, we can do our part to smooth the way through offerings and courtesy to the powers already present.” — Wintersong Tashlin

“When we humans, in my lineage, arrive in a new place, we make offering to the Locals first. It just seems polite. Then we work our way up the chain of being back up to the non-local High Gods we generally work with. Thereafter, we include the Locals in our offerings.” — Sam Webster

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.)