Archives For Religion

TWH — Although a signature is still needed by President Obama, it does appears that women in the United States will soon be required to register with Selective Service, making them eligible to be drafted into the military. As it stands now, all men ages 18 to 26 must register for possible involuntary military service with the Selective Service System. Women have previously been exempt due to restrictions that kept them off the front lines and out of combat roles.

That all changed earlier this year when Defense Secretary Ash Carter, implementing an Executive Order from President Obama, opened all military jobs to women.

[Public Domain / Video Still]

[Public Domain / Video Still “Women in the Military”]

The proposal was first introduced to the House Armed Services Committee by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who placed this measure in the Defense Department Spending Authorization Bill to protest the President’s Executive Order. Although he feels the rules limiting Selective Service registration to males is sexist, he made it clear he doesn’t want women in combat roles or possibly being drafted to fight in a war. Unfortunately for Hunter, the proposal passed a vote in the committee and is expected to be signed into law later this year.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists and asked their opinions on women being required to register for Selective Service.

Druids

John Beckett There is no draft. There is only registration for the draft, which would expedite the draft process should it be necessary, which would require an act of Congress. Given that we’ve done without a draft for over 40 years despite fighting seemingly endless wars, I don’t see where we’re likely to have one in the foreseeable future. Maintaining the draft registration is a waste of public resources.

That said, if we should need a draft, there is no reason to exclude women. Women have shown over and over again they can serve as well as men.

Misty Pullen (Eclectic)  If they think that there should be a draft, then both sexes should be a part of it. I am a military brat that if my mother hadn’t gotten out to get schooling (she could have taken long distance learning even in the 80s) I would have been a child that would have changed schools myself and gotten to know what it was like to be in while she was in.

Dean Jones While I detest the notion of the draft, I will comment. As a former member of the armed forces I worked under many women supervisors and had many women in command and they were without exception as capable or more capable than the men they served with. I am not comfortable with anything that bars women from receiving any right that a man has equally, the world is already too unbalanced. As we reach a time period where people are considering more than one gender, I’m not sure that it should even be a consideration for armed service.

Patricia Lacasse I do not want my granddaughters to have to register for a draft. I don’t want anyone to have to register for the draft. I never want to see the mandatory draft come back. I lived at a time when I watched with horror as friends and family were drafted and sent to Vietnam to be killed in that senseless war. If someone of their own choice decides to serve in the military that is one thing. I respect their sacrifice and appreciate their service. No one should be forced to serve. If women want to join the military it should be their choice If they want to serve in combat situations that should be their choice also. I don’t think it should involve registering for the draft. It will be too easy for the U.S. to go to continuous wars if both women and men are registered, and next thing will be the Congress will vote to bring back the mandatory draft. I do not and will not trust the war hawks in Congress in this situation. I served my country as a V.I.S.T.A. volunteer but have no military experience.

Heathens

Erin Lale I have not been in the military but many members of my family were. Get rid of the draft entirely. Forcing someone to work under threat of jail is slavery.

Erik Saulness I’m a navy veteran and I identify as a culturally Pagan (Norse Heathenism, if it matters) Atheist. I see the draft as inherently immoral; it’s slavery. There are conceivably situations of existential crisis where it could be the lesser evil, but it’s evil. That said, intellectually, if we allow women in combat roles and we have a draft… then it should be a draft for all. It’s not a policy I would ever choose, but it’s the only morally consistent one that we’ve set ourselves up for. And in a situation where a draft could ever be justified, I suppose we would need everybody manning the wall anyway.

Ideally, I would test for combat eligibility without considering gender. The PT standards shouldn’t be lowered or altered, if a recruit passes and is eligible… then give them a gun. Again, this is a distasteful hypothetical in which we’ve already embraced a draft at all, which I oppose for all.

Angie Kunschmann I am not OK with it but I certainly don’t see why women wouldn’t be a part of the draft if men are. I would prefer we got rid of the draft period. I was an army brat as a child.

dogtags

[Courtesy Photo]

Robert Anthony Parobechek  Personally, I don’t think there should be such thing as a draft period. If a foreign power actually did invade our country, I am sure the citizens would be sufficiently motivated to volunteer. Outside of that I think women should have to register in a draft. If the country goes crazy again in its lust for war over oil, someone drafted to fight against their will has international political refugee status.  Australia, Sweden? See you there.

Heather Honeycutt-Wyne I come from a military family and was a Navy wife. Like most here, I would prefer to abolish the draft. I don’t necessarily think that women should be drafted. ‘Equal to’ does not mean ‘the same as’, and many women may not have the necessary physical qualities for combat. However, during war there are a lot of positions that need filled, and not all of them are combat positions.

Hellenic Polytheists

Anne Hatzakis I was turned down for military service at 18 because of poor vision. If we keep the draft, both men and women should be required to register for it. Personally, I would like to see the draft abolished for everyone as I think it’s not a good thing.

Victory White Being blunt here I think this is a game by an increasingly schizo Congress. They don’t want to even talk about the Equal Rights Amendment, equal wages, women’s rights over their own reproduction and several other women’s issues but they will add women to the roles of a program that hasn’t even been used in over 30 years?! What are they trying to sell here? And most importantly why?

The economic situation has already created a group of citizens to fill the current needs of the military as it stands now. They draft is out dated and was unfair when it was in use.  As a Hellenic. I have too many questions about this to be anything more than doubtful. As a patriot I believe in defending my country. That also means to me defending it from becoming a way mongering greedy monster run amok.

Pagans

Morninghawk Apollo (Animist) I oppose the draft (or even registration for the draft) in general. I am a feminist, and believe that every position a man is qualified for, so is a woman. As a result, if men are to be forced into slavery for the state, so should women. It is part of the responsibility of being equal. I think there is a positive, unintended consequence of forcing women to register for the draft like their brothers. It will raise the issue and the evilness of the whole process in the social consciousness. Maybe that will cause politicians (especially those who have daughters) to reconsider the whole thing.

Philipp Kessler (Eclectic) In the interest of equality, women should be required to register with the draft. That is, unless we abolish the draft entirely. Which I feel is a very good idea. The draft has not been activated in decades. It is an unnecessary requirement. If we were truly in a time of world war, then yes the draft should remain intact with the addition of women being required to register for the draft.

I am not in favor of the bill. The proposed bill includes a rider that would eliminate federal protections for the LGBTQ employees of contracted companies. As well as an unnecessary increase to military spending.

Amanda Durfee-Spencer (Eclectic) I don’t agree with making any one regardless of gender register for the draft. To me, the draft violates the very things this country stands for by forcing someone into military service such as what happened in Vietnam. There are other ways to “serve” your country that don’t include being shipped out to war. And until the government fixes the broken Veterans Affairs health system and starts taking better care of our military men and women, they really have no business asking anyone to register.

Scott Reimers This seems to be topic which Pagans can agree on. While conservative Pagans tend to be pro-military industrial complex and liberal Pagans tend to be anti-military industrial complex, both sides believe in supporting our troops. Both sides almost always share a perspective in support of gender equality. Since our community tends of be at the front of equality issues most of us have stopped considering women “weak.” Additionally warfare has changed. It’s not about being big and strong to hike long miles before swinging a sword. It is about being properly trained to use tools… and hey… cliche to the rescue. Women aren’t known for the adventures in trying to figure something out without reading directions.

Lee J. Lavallee-Cothran Former active duty military, and yes I would agree to that. With caveats excusing single parents of either sex, and limiting parental units to one from a family with dependents, and this goes for same sex couples who have families as well. Remember, signing for a draft does not necessarily mean being drafted into the military like it once did. It means being eligible in case certain situations arise.

Tracie Wood As someone who served in the Marine Corp for 6 years I’m all for the draft for women. Women have the right and responsibility to serve and protect this country the same as men do. More and more combat roles are being opened to women across all services. Also, even if a woman is not serving in a combat role, there are supporting jobs that need to be filled so the men can serve in combat. Why should all the responsibility fall to men?

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- From left to right, Staff Sgt. Josie E. Harshe, flight engineer; Capt. Anita T. Mack, navigator; 1st Lt. Siobhan Couturier, pilot; Capt. Carol J. Mitchell, aircraft commander; and loadmasters Tech. Sgt. Sigrid M. Carrero-Perez and Senior Airman Ci Ci Alonzo, pause in the cargo bay of their C-130 for a group photo following their historic flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

First all female C-130 Hercules crew to serve a combat mission for the U.S. Air Force, 2005 [Public Domain]

Witches or Wiccans

Ash Sears I’m a Navy brat, former army wife and now wife to marine.  Having two daughters I am not a fan of it, but honestly I am not a fan of the draft at all. Having said that, I think it’s a natural part of the process since women are fighting for equality as much as we are

Tasha Rose I don’t have military background, but I’d just like to point out that liberal “equality” is what gets women being forced to register for the draft. I’m not interested in being equal to men’s warring patriarchal system. I want to smash it to pieces.

Tony Brown I oppose conscription for people of any gender. But if there is to be a draft, then yes, it should be implemented in a gender neutral fashion.

Lisa Cowley Morgenstern (and Heathen) When I was 18 I considered registering for the draft because I thought it was wrong that women didn’t get drafted but men did. However I was a naive and scared Catholic girl who was afraid she might actually get drafted and end up in barracks with men and that was scary then. As a dual trad witch and Heathen I think both genders should be eligible if there is a draft.

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Senate lawmakers must sign off on the draft review and changes before they can be sent to the president to become law. The authorization bill isn’t expected to be finalized by Congress until this fall. U.S. citizens have not been subjected to a draft for over 40 years and both lawmakers and military leaders say they do not foresee a situation in which one would be used.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Mary Hudson made waves when she became the second Pagan chaplain at a higher education institution in the United States, continuing a service that began with the advising the Syracuse University student Pagan club. Two years after that chaplaincy appointment, Hudson decided to attend the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education, which was being held at Yale that year. Unfortunately, the experience left a decidedly bad taste in her mouth, which she shared with the conference organizers. They took her feedback to heart, and asked her to return this year as a presenter.

Mary Hudson preparing an altar

Mary Hudson preparing a handfasting altar. [Courtesy Photo]

Hudson would like very much to return to the conference to do so. However, “global” means that the conference moves around, and this year it will be in Brisbane, Australia. She has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the needed travel expenses. As of this writing, her campaign has raised nearly 60% of the $5,000 she expects the trip will cost.

Hudson’s history of working with college students on questions of religion dates back some 14 years, as she told The Wild Hunt. The position fell into place because she was already a university employee and practicing Pagan:

Many years ago I was sitting in my office when a student, non-trad, walked in. We had met at a small Pagan gathering a couple of months earlier and they had a request: would I consider being the advisor for a student Pagan group registered at the chapel? This student had been working with the Lutheran chaplain to get Pagans recognized, as it had become evident based on the amount of students looking for such a group that something needed to happen. I asked what my duties would be and I was told all I had to do was sign the paperwork. Well, that wasn’t exactly true as I came to find out. I stuck with it because the students needed to find community someplace and they needed to learn, from elders and from each other, that they were part of a larger community and not alone.

When in 2009 Hudson was preparing to leave that job, she began to look for another adviser for the Pagan students, whose club was called Student Pagan Information Relations and Learning, or SPIRAL. What she learned from some of the campus chaplains was that she was qualified to become one herself, partly because she belonged to the legally-recognized Church of the Greenwood. She worked with the church’s president and university officials to create the first Pagan chaplaincy. Then, she was appointed to the newly established position.

The University of Southern Maine had already created such a position in 2002, but Hudson understands that the original chaplain there, Cynthia Jane Collins, has since left and no replacement has been found. As TWH reported at the time of Hudson’s appointment, “Not everyone is happy with this growing ethos of interfaith cooperation, both Free Republic and conservative Anglican site Virtue Online have gotten the vapors over this development.” Despite those complaints, the overall reaction was positive.

Three years later, TWH reported tha,t under Hudson’s guidance, Pagan students had obtained and built their own sacred space on the Syracuse campus.

The project was approved with relative ease. On October 14, the school installed four permanent altar stones in the main quad, each representing the cardinal directions. Coincidentally, while the stones were laid, a Native American student group happened to be performing a ceremonial dance across the quad. Mary says,“[This] is a true symbol of the dedication that the university has to supporting all people in a diverse world.”

But it was in 2012, attending the chaplains’ conference at Yale, when Hudson experienced firsthand what it can sometimes feels like to be a Pagan in a predominantly Christian world. It is not that she was openly discriminated against, as she explained. However, the overall impression she received was that Paganism was a surprising oddity. At one workshop in particular, which was focused on crafting a common language for spirituality, she found the intolerance towards non-Abrahmic paths quite overt. She said:

The workshop leader started by declaring that they had found, based on research they had done on their own campus, that spirituality was a word that should be done away with; it was not a viable way to talk about connection to anything. Religion had to be based in longstanding tradition and practices and that is what was needed to be built on in the schools so that students “have a foundation of belief.” This attitude and belief was cheered and it was stated that only religions with texts which tell people how to live, and the organizations which hold those texts, are valid. It became worse as the participants began to snicker and mock the idea of [the] “other religious” designation in the program. I was the other religious designation – literally. I wasn’t listed as Pagan but as Other.

The mocking grew more vociferous when the workshop presenter talked about a student in her study that identified as Jewish Wiccan Quaker. These three faiths were what the student grew up with in her household. Participants openly mocked the student’s self-identification and attempt to claim a multi- and inter-faith tradition. The man seated next to me openly stated that the terms multi-faith and interfaith should done away with as there were no such things and never would be. I was seething with anger, and at the same moment felt attacked. No one in the room other than my friend knew my faith practices; no one knew the other was sitting amongst them and so there was a comfort in belittling and mocking anyone not part of the norm – meaning Christian.

Hudson said that this was just one of the many experiences she had at that year’s conference.  When organizers called for a reflections paper, she provided some strongly-worded feedback, and it was that paper that led directly to an invitation for her to participate again, including sitting on a panel.

[The feedback] was scathing, and I called it what it was – a horrible event that wanted nothing to do with anyone other than Christians. I was contacted immediately and told that my paper would be published in the journal dedicated to the conference and asked permission to share it with the forming committees so that they could change. The individuals in charge had no idea how the “other” faiths were treated or felt. It was eye-opening. This request to participate shows and effort to change and I think it is imperative to attend and show those that are willing to see what true hospitality is about. I firmly believe it takes just as much courage to accept change in others as it does to try and change the self.

The panel, on which she will be sitting, has the curious title of “Pulling Apart a Platypus.” The focus will be four different models of chaplaincy in use today. Hudson will be sitting beside a Catholic priest, a Buddhist, and one other person whose religious designation — if any — Hudson didn’t know.


After her emotionally bruising experience at Yale, Hudson does have some advice for other Pagans who feel put upon. First, she said that what you do and say really depends upon the situation. Then she offered:

I don’t normally “hide” and after the first three workshops that is exactly what I did. I was in “hostile” territory and I didn’t feel safe. I did find two friends that came with me. They were allies with whom I could talk to about what was going on and what I was feeling. I think it is important for people to have someone to talk about what is happening and how they are feeling.

I have to stress that no one is alone. They may feel that they are at times but truly they are not. Look to the local shops, PPD websites, Witchvox for local groups, and other such places for contacts that might be able to give you support and healing kindness. I would also stress that help doesn’t have to come just from other Pagans. Someone being mistreated for their faith will find allies in people who dislike injustice. Talk to people of faith, minority on non-mainstream traditions, to seek out an ally if you need to. You would be surprised at where help can come from.

Those interested in helping Hudson with her triumphant return to the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education can contribute to the GoFundMe campaign here.

ANADARKO, Okla. – Two months ago Pagan practitioner Angel Hawks moved with her two children from Texas to the small town of Anadarko, Oklahoma. She was looking for an opportunity to start over after a break-up with her long-term girlfriend and a storm left her home heavily damaged. However, within weeks of moving into her new apartment in Anadarko, Hawks began experiencing repeated vandalism and the hostility of neighbors and teachers. She said that people are targeting her due to her religion.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

“We don’t deny our faith nor blast it either,” said Ms. Hawks, adding that she lives a normal life. She works at a local store and her children, ages 12 and 14, attend the local public middle school.

Although she doesn’t “blast her faith,” Hawks does perform some practices that are very common in Pagan religions. She meditates.

Hawks said that she and her children meditate under a tree most every day: “My upstairs neighbors yelled from the window ‘devil worshippers’ and said they are calling [Child Welfare].”

Those same neighbors now believe Hawks’ son put a curse on their son and caused him to become ill.

Both of Hawks’ children attend Anadarko Middle School, and she claims that, on Mar. 31, her children were offered Bibles during school hours by agriculture teacher Mr. Edmund. It was reportedly part of a community religious observance called Revival Week. When her children refused the Bibles, Hawks said that she was called into the school.

“It was horrible I was called to school because my son and daughter refused them. My daughter being very proud said she does not need words made up of man. She trusts in what she feels. She didn’t deny god, just the hate [and] the spew,” explained Hawks.

[Courtesy Anadarko Middle School]

[Courtesy Anadarko Middle School]

When contacted, Cindy Hackney, Superintendent of Anadarko Public Schools said, “I have been unable to confirm that Bibles were distributed at Anadarko Middle School by any school employee nor have I received any complaints from any parents or employees about any such activity. I am unsure of the reference to Revival Week activities as there were no school activities related to any form of revival.”

Hawks said the vandalism started soon after that incident. On Apr. 5, she noticed the porch light was broken, leaving her walkway leading to her apartment door in the dark. On the following morning, she saw that someone had spray painted “witch” with a cross on the wall facing her front door. Then, on Saturday, Apr. 9, her apartment was egged.

She called police to report the vandalism, but didn’t feel that they had taken her seriously. “They don’t care,” she said. “Oh no not at all. [It was] more like I bothered them. Told me: ‘Darn kids.’ ” Ms. Hawks added that she doesn’t believe the police took down a formal report.

Hawks also described other ways in which the townspeople are letting her family know that they aren’t welcome due to their religion. Her son is unable to join boys scouts, and the family was told that they could no longer volunteer at the local food bank.

“I was helping out until someone told the Pastor I was a witch,” said Hawks. It was at that point that the pastor of Grace Church said her help was no longer needed.  

The family plans to leave Anadarko as soon as they can save the money to move. Hawks said that most of her extended family is gone; it’s just her and her children. Although she’s on an extremely tight budget, she hopes to save enough money to move within a few months. Until then, they are stuck in a community in which they are feeling increasingly concerned for their safety.

Hawks added, “If I had money and means I would be gone today. I would almost rather be homeless living in a tent then all this hate.” The family is asking for blessings from the Pagan community.

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Update and Additional Information 4/12 4:00 pm ET: The Wild Hunt has attempted to contact both the Police and the Agriculture Teacher. Neither has responded to our calls. Additionally, Ms. Hawks has stated that she only wants community blessings and is not accepting money.

“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
W.B. Yeats

Public Domain

Easter Proclamation of 1916. [Public domain.]

On Easter Monday (April 24) of 1916, the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizens’ Army and Cumann na mBan launched an armed insurrection against British rule, seized the General Post Office in Dublin and several other locations, and proclaimed the Irish Republic. The Easter Rising, as the rebellion is now known, was suppressed by the British Army and sixteen of its leaders were executed. One hundred years later, numerous commemorative events have been scheduled in Ireland for Easter Week (Easter Sunday falls on March 27 this year) and following months.

I interviewed P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and Morpheus Ravenna, two Polytheists living in the United States who worship gods and heroes of Irish origin, to ask their thoughts about the centennial of the rising. I also contacted two Irish Pagans who I was told had expressed interest in participating in the interview, but as of time of publication, have not yet received responses to my questions.

HC: Do you honor any of the individuals or groups who participated in the Easter Rising of 1916, religiously or otherwise? How do you frame that honoring or veneration? Do you have any plans for the 100th anniversary of the rising that you wish to share?

PSVL: Padraig Pearse is one of the Sancta/e/i of the Ekklesía Antínoou, whom we honor for a variety of reasons: his dedication to the revival of Irish culture, his role in the fight for Irish independence and freedom and his heroic death in that struggle, and also because he is what might be considered “queer” in our own terms, despite being celibate for life (to everyone’s current knowledge). He is not an entirely unproblematic figure in any of these regards, certainly, but very few of our Sancta/e/i are, and while I’d prefer not to focus on those problematic aspects at present, nonetheless I think this bears mentioning lest anyone think we have any illusions in this regard. I plan to not only mark the occasion “officially” in April, as many will be around the world, but I also plan to visit the GPO in Dublin on March 21st when I am in Ireland for a conference this year. I carry a coin in my pocket on a daily basis — which I also do for various other deities and hero/ines as a reminder of my devotion to them – -that has Cú Chulainn on one side of it and Padraig Pearse on the other, which was a commemorative piece of currency issued in Ireland in 1966; I will likely see if I can get something similar while I’m in Ireland this year, too, so that I can gift them to others who are engaged in cultus to various modern Irish heroes, Sancta/e/i, and to Cú Chulainn (if indeed they are engraved on the same pieces once again!).

Padraig Pearse. Public domain.

Padraig Pearse. [Public domain.]

MR: In my practice, I offer ongoing veneration to a group of spirits I refer to as the Warrior Dead. These are spirits of warrior and military individuals from a wide spectrum of times and places, who have been brought into my practice by way of my devotional relationship with the Morrígan as a goddess of war (among other things). Spirits of Irish revolutionary fighters are certainly among them. In other words, I honor them collectively, but not highlighting any specific individuals by name among the fighters of the Easter Rising.

HC: The relationship between a specific land and the members of cultural diasporas originating in said land is always complicated, but especially so when there are ongoing political conflicts and/or struggles for cultural preservation and survival being considered. Can you speak to that, specifically with Ireland and the 1916 rising in mind?

PSVL: I’ve always found the relationship between Irish-Americans and actual Irish history and politics to be even stranger than the relationship between the people of Ireland in modern times and their own history, culture, and mythology. On the one hand, Irish-Americans are deeply invested in “all things Irish” a great deal of the time, and their ancestry is a source of pride, which comes about from the very deep and hurtful persecutions they endured when they came to the U.S. in the post-Great Hunger period of the mid-1800s and the resulting defiant psychological stance as coping mechanism in which this can result. On the other hand, there is a great deal of misinformation, ignorance, and even a lack of desire for getting to know things better amongst Irish-Americans, which no doubt springs from similar situations, in which Irish culture, the Irish language, and other things were taken as “backwater” and detrimental baggage for their lives in the diaspora, especially in British and British-influenced cultures like the U.S. of the 1800s happened to be, and the internalized shame the persecution of Irish culture created. If it’s a leprechaun (or maybe a banshee), green beer or corned beef and cabbage, Irish-Americans love it and eat it up; if it’s Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumhaill, Guinness and real Irish whiskeys, or soda bread and boxty, one is likely to get as little interest in these things amongst Irish-Americans as amongst the non-Irish. While 1916 represents “Irish freedom” and “Irish independence” to a large extent for some Irish-Americans, it often does so in a vague fashion, and apart from mentions of it in The Cranberries’ “Zombie” and perhaps the folk song “The Foggy Dew,” the realities of the situation and the aftermath of it are far less clear in many people’s minds. As an undergraduate, I was invited to my college’s Irish-American Student Organization trip into New York City for an “Irish cultural fair;” it turned out to be a Sinn Féin rally. To say that these things are quite different from one another, and that many people who went didn’t seem to understand that there is a difference, is an example of how difficult this situation is for many Irish-Americans, I think, is an understatement, but it is an understandable error, since coverage of Irish and Irish-American history is seriously lacking, even at the collegiate level, throughout the U.S.

MR: One of my Irish friends, in a conversation about Ireland’s history of resistance, commented to me that there was only ever one invasion, the Norman invasion from Britain, and that all the subsequent conflicts up through to the struggle for independence in the 20th century had been the continuation of that conflict. Looked at from this perspective, you can look at the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution as the fruit of centuries of resistance. I also observe that the foundational tales and sagas that we as Celtic polytheists look to for our mythology (the Book of Invasions, the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, etc.) carry this strong theme of invasion and conflict for sovereignty, and that many of these foundational stories were committed into written literature from the oral tradition during the time period of the Norman conquest, when the people of Ireland were themselves living through a period of invasion, resistance, and conflicts for sovereignty. So this theme seems deeply ingrained in Irish spirituality as we know it today. I’m not sure you can separate Irish culture and spirituality from the historical experience of resistance.

I’m a practitioner of Celtic polytheism drawing deeply on Irish culture and history in my practice, but I’m also very aware that I’m not Irish-born, and have not lived their experience nor been part of that landscape. I’m a product of a different history. I think as members of a devotional diaspora we have to tread very carefully around this. It’s natural for people like me to have feelings and sympathies that align us with one side or another in political conflicts like the struggle for Irish nationalism, but I think we need to practice a lot of discernment about how we act from those sympathies, and to ensure that we’re not projecting our own ideas as outsiders into their struggles. I feel a lot of sympathy for the notion of Irish liberation from British rule, but I also know it’s a very complex situation that I can know only the barest outlines of. So when it comes to ongoing political issues in Ireland, I regard it as my role to support my Irish friends in their understanding of their own sovereignty.

[Courtesy Photo Brennos Agricunos]

Cu Chulainn statue with crow on shoulder, General Post Office, Dublin [courtesy photo Brennos Agrocunos]

HC: The Dublin General Post Office famously (at least in my mind) contains Oliver Sheppard’s statue of Cú Chulainn, with the crow on his shoulder. Padraig Pearce was a devout Catholic who urged the Irish people to call upon “the dear God who loves the people/For whom he died naked, suffering shame,” but he also declared the story of Cú Chulainn “to be the finest epic stuff in the world,” arguing that Cú Chulainn possessed “a love and a service so excessive that one must give all, must be willing always to make the ultimate sacrifice.” James Connolly was a socialist who wrote that socialism “leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public, or to its individual members if they so will. It is neither Freethinker nor Christian, Turk nor Jew, Buddhist nor Idolator, Mahommedan nor Parsee – it is only human.”

The occultist and poet William Butler Yeats, who did not participate in the rising, wrote in his poem “Easter 1916” that after the rising, “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.” Yeats admitted that he had had personal conflicts with one of the leaders of the rising, but acknowledged that by his deeds, “He, too, has been changed in his turn.” And echoing Pearce’s words about Cú Chulainn, Yeats asked of the rebels, “And what if excess of love/Bewildered them till they died?” To my mind, all of these quotes speak to a certain transcendent quality of the Rising that is difficult to pin down to any single religion or ideology. Does the heroism of the rising inform your own spirituality? Do you see a relationship between your gods and powers and the rising?

PSVL: The planners of the Easter Rising did their actions on that date very intentionally, and with superlative symbolic purposes in mind, by foregrounding the implied hope and renewal of Christian resurrection and the necessity of redemptive death in that process. However, symbolism of death and resurrection, even for redemptive and what can be called a “salvational” (but in a non-exclusively Christian valence) purpose is not unknown to polytheist religions throughout the world. I think it is probably more accurate to discuss any and all manifestations of Christian symbolism, thought, and practice from Ireland, from the fifth century up to the present, not so much as “primarily Christian” but as more “primarily Irish, secondarily/incidentally Christian,” since Irish Christianity always had (and still has!) things about it which are very different in comparison to the expected orthodoxies of Roman Catholicism.

I suspect that the great Irish heroes and deities were not “behind the R\rising” in a motivational sense, so much as very happy to support and participate in it with their descendants. Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumhaill, in addition to being idolized by Pearse and others, now both have some degree of public cultus in Ireland that they might not have had otherwise, and that has a knock-on effect for other divine beings in the Irish cultural sphere as well. Everlasting fame is an essential part of the Irish heroic ethos, and not only those who participated in the Easter Rising on the human level, but some of those on the divine levels as well, have reaped the benefits of this ever since.

MR: I didn’t connect my own spirituality to the Easter Rising much at all before visiting Ireland last year. I understood that for its participants, the rising carried these very Irish mythic themes of heroic valor, struggle for sovereignty, and sacrifice for one’s people. But until I spent time in Ireland, the rising itself didn’t figure directly into my personal practice and relationships with my gods. While there, I began having very distinct experiences with the gods, ancestors and Irish warrior dead that really centered that sense of the heroic, transcendent meaning of the rising, much more so than I expected. In Dublin, I was profoundly affected being at the battle sites, where the bullet holes can still be seen in the buildings and statues of O’Connell Street and other places. I very much felt the gods of Ireland, and the heroes of the rising, in strong and vocal presence there. I also experienced very vocal presences at the site where earlier resistance fighters had been executed, in what’s now St. Stephen’s Green. What became apparent to me in these places is that for the gods and the spirits of Ireland, this isn’t just history. It isn’t over. There is a sense of that same spirit of transcendent heroism waiting for its next moment to flower.

Bullet hole from 1916 on O'Connell Monument [Courtesy Photo Brennos Agrocunos]

Bullet hole from 1916 on the O’Connell Monument [courtesy photo Brennos Agrocunos]

I think that for practitioners in the spiritual diaspora, like myself, the relationship to Ireland’s lived history tends to be abstract ;we tend to focus on the ancient, not the recent. But when you go and spend time there, grounding your practice and devotional connections in that landscape, that abstraction dissolves. When you’re wandering around Dublin, and you encounter spirits of dead fighters of the rising who are speaking to you and saying, “You – there’s whiskey in your bag. Have a drink with me here and now,” – when you’ve shared whiskey with those spirits, you’ve entered into a relationship. I think that will be a lasting relationship for me and I’m still unpacking what that will mean.

HC: Cú Chulainn imagery has also been used by Unionists as a symbol of “Ulster’s defenders.” Obviously, this particular conflict is occurring more on the level of political propaganda than of Polytheist theology, but both sides of a given struggle claiming relationship with the same power happens to be a particular interest of mine. Do you see any theological implications in this conflict?

PSVL: I suspect that from the viewpoint of Irish heroes like Cú Chulainn, “fame is fame,” whether it is from one’s allies and devoted descendants or one’s adversaries, and in terms of his own associations and how these line up or don’t line up with modern political movements and governmental edifices, no one has a monopoly on these or a clear alignment one way or the other. “Unionist” and “Republican” have no meaning when applied to Cú Chulainn, even if “culturally Irish without foreign domination” (which would imply Republicans) and “the Ulaid” (which could imply Unionists) might apply to him. While there are traditional symbolic associations of the province of the Ulaid with “battle” in medieval Irish texts, some of which are held in high regard by modern practitioners of Irish forms of polytheism, I don’t think it is necessarily responsible nor required to view these symbolic associations as in some sense prophetic, divinely ordained, or in any way significant; especially if the people making such associations are not living in Ireland, and particularly in the areas of Ulster which have been most deeply impacted by these recent realities of violence and oppression.

HC: Fredy Perlman has brilliantly critiqued “The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism” for its premise that “every oppressed population can become a nation, a photographic negative of the oppressor nation.” He observes that “nationalism continues to appeal to the depleted because other prospects appear bleaker. The culture of the ancestors was destroyed; therefore, by pragmatic standard, it failed; the only ancestors who survived were those who accommodated themselves to the invader’s system.” Perlman was a vociferous critic of the “pragmatic standard” that he identified. As members of religions and spiritualities who do see value in “the culture[s] of the ancestors,” do you have any thoughts on this quote?

PSVL: I think Perlman’s observations are poignant; and yet, the notion of “failure” is somewhat problematic when applied to a lot of these situations, especially in mythic contexts. Heroic individuals do not get to live happily ever after; no true hero of Irish myth has their life end on a deathbed of an illness surrounded by adoring friends and family. An early death is often the lot of the hero, as the case was with Cú Chulainn. From a certain modern perspective, including those that can exist amongst modern polytheists who draw on Irish cultural elements for their inspiration, there is a deep misunderstanding of this reality, and thus a great lack of comprehension about what constitutes failure and thus what constitutes success as well. This is why so many people think that Cú Chulainn was “punished” by his death for transgressions against The Morrígan, which is as far from the reality as it is possible to get in many respects. Cú Chulainn knew what was in store for him the moment he committed himself to the warrior’s path at age seven, and his own heroic death was not a failure or a lapse in any way, it was a triumph toward which he looked forward. While this might even seem more bleak than what Perlman discusses, I think it’s important to realize this when looking at Irish — and, for that matter, any and all — premodern cultures. The appeal of some of these premodern cultures’ imagery and standards and legacy for oppressed peoples seeking nationhood is not something that can be critiqued, I don’t think, but it is also something that requires a nuanced understanding of which not many people might be capable, especially if they are not directly involved in the situations concerned and have no investments in those identities.

MR: I think there are some very problematic assumptions in this statement, both generally and with regard to the Irish nation and culture. First, I think a lot of Irish people might disagree with the notion that the culture of their ancestors was “destroyed.” This begs the question, “which ancestors?” The modern Irish population contains interwoven ancestries from the early indigenous pre-Celtic population, the Celtic or Gaelic Irish, the Vikings, the Normans, the Scots, and more. Which ancestors would we be thinking of? If the focus here is the Celtic Irish, which is what people tend to think of in terms of Ireland’s pagan past, I still don’t think it’s clear that that culture was totally destroyed. Very strong elements of ancestral belief and practice persisted in Ireland right through the Christian period and continue today, just as we often find that folk belief and practice preserve deeply pagan elements within monotheistic cultures everywhere. Ancestral folk practices like this often persist even through conquest because they provide meaningful benefit to the people, and because they tend to be far less visible than public religious ceremony. Far from being evidence of failure, it is precisely this deep resiliency and ability to persist that makes ancestral culture a source of strength and support for populations who are in a position of struggle against colonialism, erasure, and subjugation by a dominant power. The notion that “your culture, gods and traditions must be weak, or we would not have been able to conquer you” is imperialist thinking; traditional cultures would tend to measure the value of ancestral culture differently.

HC: Dominic Behan’s song “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans” links the Irish struggle against the British army and its auxiliaries to other colonial wars waged by the British:

Come tell us how you slew
Them old Arabs two by two
Like the Zulus they had spears and bows and arrows,
How you bravely faced each one
With your sixteen pounder gun
And you frightened them poor natives to the marrow.

Do you see connections between the Irish struggle and other struggles against colonization? If so, does this have an impact on your religion or spirituality?

James Connolly. Public Domain.

James Connolly. [Public domain.]

PSVL: Yes, and this is historically true today, too. There is great sympathy for the Palestinians in Ireland (though whether that is due to actual sympathy or to incipient anti-Semitism is another question entirely!), and there was also an alliance and empathy between the Irish in America and various Native American peoples and the African-American population. Peoples of indigenous mindsets and cultures always have more in common with one another, despite other cultural and linguistic differences, than with those who seek to oppress, colonize, and commit genocide against them. As a result, it is important to me in a religious setting to make those connections whenever possible, to seek to understand other indigenous peoples and their struggles, and to support them in whatever ways I might be able to, if such support is desired.

MR: I do see parallels between struggles against colonization and imperialism throughout the world. The notion of the sovereignty of a people -– the relationship between a people, its native landscape, its governance, and its autonomy relative to other peoples –- is deeply embedded in Irish myth and history, and this theme is articulated again and again in Irish literature from early mythology to works of modern literature. But these are themes that play out everywhere in our world. On the American continent, we have seen a resurgence of the language of sovereignty in the current struggles of indigenous/First Nations people against their continued erasure and subjugation by the United States and Canadian powers. The Idle No More movement speaks of sovereignty in strikingly similar terms to how I have seen it framed by Irish people in their experience of resistance. I think it’s interesting that in both of these cases, these struggles are seen by a lot of mainstream people as artifacts of history, as conflicts that came to a head and ended in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but when you talk to Native people here and Irish people, it’s clear that these struggles are not closed by any means.

For me, as a dedicant of the Morrígan and a practitioner of Celtic polytheism, this does impact my spiritual and religious life. Sovereignty as a spiritual principle and power is hugely important in my religious worldview, arising from Celtic traditions. In my understanding of the Morrígan’s role, She acts as a guardian or protector of sovereignty, and in support of the warrior function whose role is also to safeguard their society’s sovereignty. I can’t compartmentalize sovereignty as if it only existed in relation to individual personal sovereignty, and I can’t restrict it to the abstract. To fully engage with this crucially important aspect of my spiritual life, I have to also recognize it and engage with it in the world around me – in the political life of my own society, and that of others in the world.

HC: At his funeral oration for O’Donovan Rossa, Pearse said, “They [i.e. the English government] think that they have pacified half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have provided against everything: but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” This reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s observation that “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious,” which I always pair with his thesis that the spiritual dimension of class struggle “will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question.” Any thoughts on the relationship between the dead and the longevity and continuity of social conflicts?

PSVL: Interestingly, Chief Seattle’s 1854 Oration seems to have some similarities with these statements as well, and many Irish people ended up in the state of Washington in the late 1800s! I would not want to state anything categorically either way on this question, since I do not speak for the dead in this case; but, I don’t think the two can be separated — easily or otherwise — either. Ireland’s past, though — in terms of its ancestors, its deities, and its land spirits — is not quiet and never will be. I think it is no coincidence that the economic crash of 2008 impacted Ireland quite severely, and it fared worse than many other nations in Europe under those circumstances, and not long before that, the Irish government built a motorway through the Tara-Skryne Valley (the very seat of the sovereignty of Ireland) and destroyed many archaeological monuments of significance in the process. If the people of Ireland and their governments, as well as Irish-Americans and other Irish abroad in the diaspora, don’t wake up to the relevance and persistence of their heritage, I foresee things like this continuing well into the future. The dead may not have the final say on many things for the living, but to ignore that they have any say at all in our lives is a grave error, I think.

MEXICO CITY — Nestled between Central America and the United States and extending from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans lies the country of Mexico, known for its rich culture, traditional foods and ancient history. Mexico is also known for supporting a deeply religious culture with the majority practicing Catholicism. In the most recent reports, 82.7% of its 128,109,966 residents identify as Catholic. But thriving within that dominant religious culture are a growing number of minority religions, which are now shifting a religious landscape that has held strong for centuries. One of these emerging religions is Asatru.

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[Courtesy Photo Allthing Asatru Mexico]

In a paper for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Dr. Alberto Patiño Reyes, a professor at Iberoamericana University, wrote :

Religiosity among Mexicans is not a fad or a recent invention; it is a constitutive dimension of the personal and historical identity of the Mexican people. Religiosity not only means the set of expressions and external activities that we conventionally associate with “religion”; it is a reference to the anthropological dimension that undertakes the search for the ultimate meaning of existence. One of the expressions of this religiosity – though not the only one- entails a steady decline in the percentage of the Catholic population in the country.

In his report, Dr. Patiño notes that, according to the “General Population Census of 2000,” 96.48 percent of Mexicans identify as being religious. But only 87.99 percent said that they were Catholic, which is down from 99.5 percent in the 1900 census. And today, that number is still lower, at only 82.7 percent. Despite the decrease in the Catholic population, there is very little decrease in religiosity, which supports Dr. Patiño’s observation on the importance of religion within Mexican society. It also points to the growth of minority religions.

“Heathenry in México is largely unknown and misunderstood for fashion or even a form of cosplay. The average Mexican barely knows Marvel’s Thor, let alone the old Norse religion,” explained Stracy Bryan Salazar Arellano, the Góði of Clan Úlfey Ásatrú Norsk Sed.

Founded in 2007, Clan Úlfey Ásatrú Norsk is the largest known kindred in Mexico. Salazar, who has been practicing Asatru for 14 years, was unanimously voted its Góði in 2008 and has been ever since. Outside of religious work, Arellano is a computer engineer and brewmaster at Brewery Brauerwolves and lives in the country’s capital, Mexico City. As Dr. Patiño noted in his report, “Religious diversity is not homogeneous across the country. It reaches different percentages at a regional, state and local level.” Most Heathens do live around Mexico City but not exclusively, and Salazar said that he makes an effort to travel around the country to meet other Asatru practitioners and kindreds.

Stracy Bryan Salazar Arellano [Courtesy Photo]

Stracy Bryan Salazar Arellano [Courtesy Photo]

Like most emerging religions, the exact date of origination is difficult to pin down. However, the new collective Mexican Heathen organization, called Allthing Ásatrú México, puts that year roughly at 1997 with the birth of the Kindred Asatru based in Camecuaro in Michoacan. On its website, Allthing recounts the history and politics of various kindreds from that year to its own founding in the fall of 2014.

Salazar, who is also the Góði of Allthing Ásatrú México, said that its difficult to know exactly how many people are “serious Ásatrúar,” because there is a popular “viking metal crowd who wear the Mjölnir on their necks and think of the [Norse] tradition only like a fashion.” Despite the lack of clear data, he does see that their numbers are growing. Currently, Allthing has five member clans, including Clan SvarturDrekar, Clan del Oso, Clan Hijas de Gullveig, Clan Úlfar and Clan Úlfey Ásatrú Norsk Sed.

Speaking more specifically about the individuals, Salazar said, “Most of our members are Mexicans. Although there are few cases where they come from Europe or the U.S. As for religious background, most of our members come either from a Catholic background […] or from New Age religions.” He added that some members have “European ancestry, either German or Scandinavian.” In those cases, relatives, typically grandparents, “taught [them] the myths and legends and the lore.” Speaking generally about Allthing members, Arellano said, “We have some history and anthropology enthusiasts, medieval recreationists and practitioners of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) and HMB (Historical Medieval Battle),and others [found us] through music (mostly folk metal).”

When asked about their relationship to Mexico’s own heritage and ancient traditions, Salazar explained that the groups generally try to keep true to Norse mythology and lore, rather than creating an eclectic religious practice. He said, “We don’t mix rituals and elements of other traditions.” However, he did later say that the Aztec and Mayan cultures “were great and leave much cultural and traditional folklore,” adding: “We do give some offering to the local Gods in our Blotar, as they do allow us to work our ways in this Land.”

AllthingNeither Allthing Ásatrú México nor the individual clans are currently members of any international Heathen organization. They generally keep to themselves. However, Salazar said that they “do have relations with some local groups such as those with “Mexican roots (aztec dancers or concheros, Mayan’s sorcerers and sorceresses)” and those practicing “Afro-Cuban witchcraft like Palo Mayombe.” He described such relationships as being based on friendly hospitality and not religious practice. Allthing Ásatrú México also maintains similar friendly relations with a few Heathen kindreds around the world.

Despite the heavy influence of Catholicism on Mexican culture, Salazar said that Asatruar rarely run into any problems. Their numbers are too small to be on the “radar” of the Catholic Church, or anyone else for that matter. Salazar said that the biggest problem facing Mexico’s kindreds is one of public image and not of religious freedom. He explained, “Here in Mexico many Nazi groups use Heathen symbolism with ignorance. You can see them with Mjölnir or Runes on their necks.” He said that Allthing is trying to “clean the Ásatrú and Odinist Image” and that, while all the member clans are autonomous and independent, they all must agree to stand against racism and white supremacy to be a member.

12321669_1532502773717318_5585939726037500073_nAllthing’s latest outreach project is the launch of a monthly digital magazine called El Skalðr. This new magazine’s mission will be to “help spread and promote Ásatrú among all those Spanish speakers interested in it, in a clear and concise way.” Salazar described the scope as going as including, “culture and tradition from both Germanic and Scandinavian Heathenry, practice both in the past and in the present all over the world, archeology, anthropology and history, and news and events from the Heathen world.”

The first issue of El Skalðr will be out in two weeks around the equinox and will feature articles “about the Ásatrú and Odinist History on Mexico, the difference between Odinism, Ásatrú and Wotanism.” It will also contain music recommendations, articles on Ostara and more.

When asked why the clans wanted to take on this project, Salazar said, “There are a number of websites and Facebook groups belonging to the Allthing Ásatrú México, some clans and some moderated by individual members dedicated to spreading the culture and tradition, and informing all those who want to learn about Ásatrú. We wanted to integrate these sources in one publication to make this more efficient.” He also said that there are issues and stories that are very specific to Spanish-speaking Heathenry that would be inappropriate for general forums and needed a dedicated place to “be addressed.”

And the larger Spanish-speaking Heathen community is the target audience. The magazine will be published only in Spanish with contributors, at this point, predominantly from Mexico. While, at first, the magazine will focus mainly on Mexican Heathenry, Salazar did say that they do hope to later “include issues concerning other Spanish speaking countries.”

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

Although Mexico’s Heathen community is small, it is one of the minority religious movements that is shifting the bigger religious picture in the country. Salazar is enthusiastic about this development and future of his religious community. He noted that, in recent years, more and more talented Heathen artisans and artists are available locally to support their religious practice and their study. He said that they now have a store project called “Heathen Drinks and Arts.” And the new magazine will continue in that vein.

As the members of Allthing are now preparing to launch their publishing venture, Salazar welcomes the growth and expansion. Reflecting on his own personal spiritual journey, he said that being a Góði is “hard work,” but he considers it a duty and a way to “honour [his] ancestors, [his] Gods and [his] family.” He added, “Í want to thank my grandfather Luciano Arellano to teach me this wonderful Tradition, to my brother and Clan co-founder Jorge Ballesteros, to all the Clan Úlfey members and the Allthing Ásatrú México Clans by their Support and at last þó my brother and Master Isaac Vázquez at the H.O.S.F.”

The magazine will be available on the Equinox in a downloadable, free PDF format. Look for it on Allthing’s website and Facebook page.

 *   *   *

[Editor’s Note:This article is currently being translated into Spanish and will be made available in PDF form in the coming days. We will provide a link here and announce its availability in social media.]

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

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

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

[photo credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

[photo credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[photo credit: S. Ciotti]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citations

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

CHICAGO, Ill. — Chicago Pagan Pride coordinator Twila York and Rev. Angie Buchanan, founder of Earth Traditions and Gaia’s Womb, were recently invited into a local public high school classroom to share a bit about their religious practice and beliefs.* The teacher contacted York through the Greater Chicago Pagan Pride website, and after a brief email conversation, she was asked to present to a world religions class. York enlisted Buchanan’s assistance, and together they offered two forty-minute sessions on Paganism.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Buchanan told The Wild Hunt, “It was explained that these students for the most part had no knowledge of Paganism at all, which was reinforced by the question we asked when we first arrived in the class. ‘How many of you are familiar with Paganism or know someone who identifies as that or Wiccan or Druid?’ Only two hands in the first class and none in the second one.”

Because Buchanan had more experience with presenting to teens, she began each class and York followed. Each of the sessions included an an explanation of the Wheel of the Year, seasonal cycles and “how we all are part of the earth because we breathe in life and when we breathe out we die.” They brought various altar tools, including “a Tarot deck, wooden candle holders, Pentacle plaque, song bowl, crystals, Sage bundle and a pestle and mortar.”

York recalled, “The students and the teachers were open and very curious about what we had to say. They wanted to ask questions and felt comfortable doing so […] What was wonderful about their questions is that they were thought out and were not the usual “are you devil worshipers […] Some of the questions they asked were: ‘Do we have a religious text like a Bible?’ ‘What activities do Pagans do on Samhain?’ ‘What do Pagans think about other religions?’ ‘What are thoughts about the extinction of the dinosaurs?’ We even had a student ask about shamanism.”

Several days after the sessions were over, Buchanan and York received letters from the students thanking them for taking the time to share their religious beliefs. Both women reported that they have not received any backlash personally; nor have they heard of any backlash or complaints aimed at the teacher or the school. York said, “[The teacher] has asked Angie and I if we would be interested in coming to speak to her classes about Paganism every semester. We are so excited that this opportunity was offered and that we have another invitation to go back.”

While this particular teaching moment went well, that is not always the case. Teaching religious literacy in public schools can be a very sticky issue. It is dependent on the school’s location, the city’s religious climate, the support of the administration and the teacher’s own ability to navigate a difficult subject in a public forum with minors. That is not easily done.

bannerlogoIn 2013, another Illinois high school teacher, Greg Hoener, invited a local Wiccan, Lydia Gittings, to present Paganism to his classes. It didn’t go over as well as York and Buchanan’s experience. At the time, Gittings told The Wild Hunt: “There were a couple of students who were visibly uncomfortable in each class […] but I remained positive and kept going back to science. I wasn’t there to convert.”

But the problems continued weeks beyond the class itself. Eventually the principal and the school board began to receive parental complaints. In a letter to the editor of a local paper, one angry mother wrote, “Since parents were not notified in advance, I had no opportunity to express my deep concerns in this matter and to prevent my son and his classmates from being exposed to potentially dangerous information about the occult.”

But problems do not only arise when Paganism and other lesser known minority religions enter the classroom. In a recent story out of Virginia, a high school geography teacher asked “students to try their hand at writing the shahada, an Islamic declaration of faith, in Arabic calligraphy.” As reported in the Washington Post, the Augusta County Public School System was immediately inundated with complaints, which eventually began streaming in from all over the country. These complaints turned violent, forcing the administration to close the school down for several days. In a statement, administrators said, “We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution.”

The geography teacher was accused of indoctrinating students. While some supported the teacher’s assignment, others, with tempered reactions, simply felt it was inappropriate. However, in this case, the more extreme reactions were attributed to Islamaphobia.

Virginia educational standards do allow for religious literacy education, as do many state systems. Other recent reports from schools around the country describe teachers asking students to recite the Muslim statement of faith aloud, to write their name in Sanskrit or in Hebrew, to try on head scarves, to read the Ten Commandments and the Five Pillars of Islam. One high school reports taking a yearly trip to a local mosque. Not all of these cases caused an uprising, but some did. Teaching religious literacy is a very slippery slope, and there is a fine line between the teaching about world religions, and the teaching of religion.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Matthew Staruch, a public high school teacher in Georgia, said, “We stick to the curriculum prescribed to us by the state and/or College Board in regards to religion. That way we are much less likely to ‘cross a line.’ ” Staruch has been teaching AP Human Geography for ten years.* He added, “Most years the students ask about my religious beliefs and I keep that strictly off-limits so I cannot be accused of favoring one group over another. I also try to present the beliefs we do study with as much objectivity as possible and I always try to present their arguments from the perspective of the religious group.”

AP Human Geography is a college-level high school class that focuses on learning geography through human culture and society. Staruch said, “We study the geography of religions specifically so we are most concerned with where each major faith originated, where it has spread to, and the explanation of how it got there. Furthermore, we look at the different ways in which each religion impacts the landscape where they live (e.g. what structures do they build, what do they do with the deceased, do they make pilgrimages to specific holy sites). Finally, we deal with the potential problems that occur and/or have occurred in territories where multiple religious groups occupy the same space (e.g. Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims in Serbia).”

Looking at the curriculum, the classes can also cover, to some degree, the world’s minority religions within that geographical framework, including Paganism.

Echoing what York and Buchanan saw in their recent teaching experience, Staruch said, “The students are great with the material. They are usually pretty interested and ask great questions. The beautiful part about teaching [at this school] is that most of the religions we study are represented in the hallways.The kids want to know about their peers’ beliefs and they want to know more about why certain groups behave the way they do.” And he believes that this education is vital to the children’s growth and to their futures.

He said, “Religion is something in which many people believe very strongly and devote significant amounts of time to practicing. Unfortunately, people spend very little time trying to understand other people’s religious beliefs. […] It is essential for those of us in education to deal with these misconceptions and misunderstandings fully and in a way that promotes tolerance for minority points of view and a more nuanced, enlightened perspective on the differences that exist but that don’t necessarily need to divide us.”

This belief was echoed by Reverand Hansen Wendlandt of the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church (NCPC), who began a religious literacy learning program in his local Colorado community. Like Staruch, he believes that religious literacy is vital to a child’s future and noted that “There are fewer and fewer opportunities for kids to learn about different religions – to become religiously literate.” He wants to fill that gap with is private program. As we reported, Rev. Wendlandt welcomed two local Wiccan priestesses in October. The women offered an overview of Paganism including a hands-on project, and it was well received. Since that point, the program has attracted the attention of many local residents as well as a public world religions high school teacher, all of whom have been supportive and encouraging.

However, there are differences in teaching religion in public schools and in a private setting, church or otherwise. Public schools are government-run and bound by the same laws as any other government space or agency. Therefore, public school teachers must be extremely careful in their negotiating of religion education. Did the assignment to copy Arabic writing cross a line because the students were asked to write a religious text? Or is the teaching of the writing itself a problem? Is the trying on of a head scarf or looking at Witchcraft tools cultural education or a form of indoctrination? What about the field trip to a church or mosque? And, how do you share theology? Does simply hearing the words of a religious prayer pose a problem?

The answers to these questions will vary from person to person; from family to family; from community to community. That is where it becomes sticky.

When asked if there were any specific teaching rules and regulations that might help instructors avoid pitfalls or help administrators guard against problematic employees, Staruch said no, adding, “My teachers know to stick to information that is a part of the curriculum in order to prevent the line-crossing issue.”

51Yl07sHhDL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_He said in all ten years of teaching, he has experienced only two problems. In one case, the children were asked to use an online “which religion are you” calculator. When it didn’t predict one girl’s religion, she got upset, and the parent complained. Staruch said, “I apologized, explained the purpose of the assignment, and it didn’t go any further than that.” More recently, a Muslim parent was concerned that the summer reading book, They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky,painted Muslims in a negative light.” In an email response, Staruch explained how the book is used to teach about religious belief and religious extremism in that region of the world. He added, “She appreciated my email and I never heard another word from the parent the rest of the year.”

Staruch is passionate about his work and the subject matter, and he has managed to walk the line carefully in his field. He also teaches in a area that is religiously diverse and, because of that, his experiences are mostly positive, as was the case for York and Buchanan. Other areas of the country are not as open, as is evident by numerous news report and stories.

Regardless of the situation, navigating the teaching of religious literacy in public schools can be a figurative minefield. Rev. Angie Buchanan offered this advice for anyone asked to be guest in a classroom: “I would agree to a presentation for informational purposes only. I would not agree to a ritual. Keep your explanations very general. Advise the group that you are sharing your personal beliefs and practices, and not speaking about the particular practices of others; that this is a very diverse group of people; that we do not speak for all Pagans. Be prepared to ask leading questions when you see that there is hesitancy on the part of the students to ask. Animal sacrifice came up, as did questions about witchcraft. However, both had to be prompted. […] I would advise maintaining a basic sense of boundaries and ethics with regard to disclosure of identity when dealing with minors and school systems.”

 

 * Names were omitted to protect the identity of the students and other teachers involved. 

Column: Pantheacon 2016

Heathen Chinese —  February 20, 2016 — 5 Comments

Pantheacon is an annual “conference for Pagans, Heathens, Indigenous Non-European and many of diverse beliefs,” which is held on the unceded land of Tamien Ohlone-speaking peoples in the city of San Jose, California. Pantheacon 2016 took place from February 12-15.

CA-map+ohlone-territory

[Courtesy Kanyon Sayers-Roods]

The inherent contradiction of a conference billing itself as being at least partially for “Indigenous Non-European” people while taking place on Indigenous Non-European land was highlighted and addressed by several events scheduled on Sunday February 14.

At 9 a.m., a panel was held on “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community.” The panelists who spoke were Gregg Castro [t’rowt’raahl Salinan/rumsien Ohlone], Jacki Chuculate, Kanyon Sayers-Roods (Hahashkani-Coyote Woman) [Costanoan Ohlone and Chumash], Ryan Ts’ítskw Kozisek [Tlingit and white] and Michaela Spangenburg [multiracial Huron-Wendat].

The 9 a.m. panel was immediately followed by at 11 a.m. by “Native/Pagan Community Dialogue,” at which Ann-Marie Sayers (Mutsun Ohlone), caretaker of Indian Canyon, the only sovereign native lands in central-coastal California, and Director of Costanoan Indian Research, spoke. At 3 p.m., Ann Marie Sayers’s daughter, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, who had already spoken on the 9 a.m. panel, presented on “Finding Balance with Coyote Trickster Medicine.” Kanyon spoke eloquently on being taught the lesson of humility by and through trickster medicine to a packed room, and fielded many questions from the audience.

I have offered space within this column for the speakers from the “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community” panel to write or otherwise publish whatever they wish, if they wish, with no edits or omissions. The time constraint of publishing within a week of Pantheacon has made that difficult, but the offer is continuous and open-ended with regards to future columns.

Kanyon Sayers-Roods recounted her experiences at Pantheacon in a short video which is too large to be uploaded directly, but which can be viewed here.

The questions I had asked, to which she was responding, were as follows:

My main question would be along the lines of: insofar as you feel comfortable sharing, do you feel like the Sunday 9 a.m. panel on “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community” and your Sunday 3 p.m. presentation served your own goals well? How about the other things you attended that day?

To provide some context for the phrasing of this question, I think native-settler conversations (as the Sunday 11 a.m. “Native/Pagan Community Dialogue” was billed, for example) often have an element where settlers are still trying to “take” something from the conversation, even (or perhaps especially) when settlers are trying to be seen as “good allies.” But of course, you (both as individuals and as members of your communities and lineages) have your own reasons for engaging in such conversations, and for sharing your perspectives as you did. I really appreciated the 9 a.m. panel, and I recall that several speakers said that they really didn’t want the visibility of being on it but chose to do so anyway because it aligned with other work they were doing.

Anything that fell short of or exceeded what you were hoping to accomplish? Do you feel you and your ancestors were shown proper respect, or were there moments that you felt tokenized or otherwise disrespected? Any thoughts on how any of your experiences this weekend might influence anything you do in the future? And of course, let’s leave room in this conversation for trickster medicine to have its due, however it may choose to manifest.

Kanyon also offered the following additional thoughts in response:

There are times that I’ve been in the community/public where the sensation and energy is I’ve already conditioned me to feeling like a token Indian, specially around late October and early November. I call those months, “Rent your token NATIVE month” (also with that being said I do enjoy it a lot because that is my most lucrative month, actually being valued for the knowledge I carry and perspective that I share for the work that I thoroughly do everyday of my life ) so because I’ve already been conditioned in that type of environment, I have learned how to shield myself and protect myself so I’m not sure if I can properly assess my feelings if I were to claim I felt tokenized or commodified when it was present at Pantheacon.

I did appreciate those who had the willingness to attempt to voice their perspective with respect and courtesy. One of the things I voiced during one of my panels, was [that] at any given point we are ignorant to any information and what is important is how we walk forward when that new information is brought into our life. Walking with humility, attempting to decolonize our projected actions (less entitlement and privilege and outward energies that lack acknowledgement of how ones actions and words affect those around them–as well as seven generations in the future).

I will say this: I had an amazing time. I enjoyed all of the perspectives and opportunities to share perspective and insight to my life and experiences. Also [to] observe other people in their own native environment (pun intended).

Hospitality: Guests, Hosts, Hosted Guests, Guesting Hosts

A microphone and time were reserved for indigenous attendees to speak at the end of the 9 a.m. panel on “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community,” and several members of the audience did indeed speak movingly and powerfully. As the event description stated, “Indigenous individuals have long been contributors at Pantheacon, and to the community as a whole; yet are often rendered invisible in pagan spaces through pervasive stereotypes, appropriation, and lack of awareness.” The panel provided space for acknowledgement that indigenous people have been present at Pantheacon for many years, but that they just haven’t been seen. Minutes before the room was cleared to make space for the next event, however, the founder and organizer of Pantheacon, Glenn Turner, walked up to the microphone and spoke, despite not identifying as native.

Let’s take a step back here and consider the question of hospitality. In a theological context, Anomalous Thracian writes that “when welcoming gods and spirits into your home and shrines and life, you are welcoming them as sacred guests.” At the same time, however, once the gods are enshrined within a space, you area guest in Their space when you step inside.” In other words, even when “hosting” on one level, one is still a guest on both the smaller level and the larger:

When hosting the gods, it is important to also remember that we are guests in Their dominions, travelers through Their domains of influence, dallying upon the doorsteps of Their infinities. Act accordingly, as guest or host or hosted guest or guesting host. […]

The laws of hospitality are ancient and to a certain extent elastic enough to stretch into different contexts, but always it is about the relationship between being welcome and being welcomed, and in this day, as I sit at a borrowed table, I find that this is as near to the heart of polytheism that I can perceive of in this moment. [Emphasis in original]

By analogy back to the inter-human sphere, one might be the host of a conference, for example, but one is still a guest of the peoples whose land one it is on, and a guest within the spaces provided for those people. A respectful guest would follow the rules delineated within that space. As the Thracian writes, “It isn’t about being a perfect host (there is no such thing, for all guests have different expectations) nor is it about being a perfect guest (there is no such thing, for all hosts have different expectations).” Being aware and respectful of those expectations would be a good first step, however.

[Credit: Klaus D. Peter / Wikimedia]

Matronae Aufaniae Altar [Credit: Klaus D. Peter / Wikimedia]

War: “Allies” and Accomplices

At a 9 p.m. ritual on Sunday evening, the Matronae — “a collective of indigenous Germanic and Celtic goddesses who were worshiped syncretically in the Roman Empire” — spoke through oracular trance possession again, as They had done six months earlier at Many Gods West. They too spoke about the importance of knowing the land upon which one stands: “Some of you know…find this thread and strengthen it.” They spoke of the storm, much prophesied at rituals in the past: “The storm is not coming. It is here.” They spoke of the war in which we cannot fight alone.

This war, then, makes alliances necessary. But the word “ally” itself has been stripped of much of its meaning. The phrase that kept coming to my mind on Monday morning, especially as I reflected upon my own experiences at the Pagans of Color Caucus and at the Pagans of Color Hospitality Suite, was “accomplices not allies.” The author of the article of the same name offers some thoughts on the distinction between the two terms:

In the worst cases, “allies” themselves act paralyzed believing it’s their duty as a “good ally.” There is a difference between acting for others, with others, and for one’s own interests, be explicit. You wouldn’t find an accomplice resigning their agency, or capabilities as an act of “support.” […]

Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn. Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence. [Emphasis in original]

“The lines of oppression are already drawn,” and “the storm is not coming, it is here.” For my part, I am looking for people who are already fighting, who remember that they know how to fight, and who exercise that memory. People who are fighting and living with a dignity and ferocity of spirit that can be recognized by any who share it. People whose ancestors are strong, whose ancestors walk close to them, whose ancestors are armed and fighting on their behalf. That’s why I go to events like Pantheacon. That’s why I write.

Dionysus said it this way once: “Under certain circumstances I love what is human”–and with this he alluded to Ariadne who was present–”man is to my mind an agreeable, courageous, inventive animal that has no equal on earth; it finds its way in any labyrinth. I am well disposed towards him: I often reflect how I might yet advance him and make him stronger, more evil, and more profound than he is.”

“Stronger, more evil, and more profound?” I asked startled.

“Yes,” he said once more; “stronger, more evil, and more profound; also more beautiful”–and at that the tempter god smiled with his halcyon smile as though he had just paid an enchanting compliment.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The primordial level of the author's home altar, featuring a clay skull from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. [Photo by author.]

The primordial level of the author’s home altar, featuring a clay skull from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. [Photo by author.]

I hold in my hands a skull. It has the same terra cotta color as a flower pot, and the same kind of weight. White paint has been flecked across its surface; sigils have been painted. The lines rise up from the surface of the skull such that with closed eyes I can still run my fingers across the surface and know whose vévé I am tracing. Start at the base of the skull, the cross flanked by coffins: that’s Baron Samedi. Up now to the crown of the skull, to the crossroads marked out in green lines: Papa Legba. And further on, to the forehead, the most complex of the lot, drawn in purples and reds that almost fade into the skull’s natural color. Follow the lines: they form a heart with three crosses. Maman Brigitte. The base of her vévé sits on the ridge of the eye sockets; those dark cavities reveal nothing, no matter how long one looks.

Although I do not actively practice Vodun – nor would I want to without substantial training, given the obvious perils of a white Midwesterner trying to pick up religious practices from the African diaspora – I have kept this skull on my altar for many years. Today it sits on the bottom shelf of my shrine to various gods, in my conception the base from which the rest grows. It reminds me of death and history, and most of all, it reminds me of the place from which it came to me: the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in New Orleans.

Only two religious buildings have really excited a sense of the sublime in me. Neither belongs to a religion I practice, which maybe isn’t so surprising. One is the church on the grounds of the castle in Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral, which, like all the great Gothic masterpieces, overwhelms the viewer with its size and grandiose detail. The Voodoo Spiritual Temple, by contrast, has none of that obvious grandeur: from the outside it looks like just another storefront in the French Quarter, a squat, pale building with dark shingles and two gabled windows. But step inside, past the shop from whence my painted skull came. Follow the hallway down to an open door that looks out on a garden, and turn around: walk past shelves crammed with books on religion and history. The hallway opens up, and there before us rests the room that has held my imagination for a decade.

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

On a floor plan, I doubt the altar rooms seem much bigger than an average living room, but the space becomes so much bigger in person. Except for a few places where human feet can stand, icons and offerings fill every centimeter of those rooms. Tapestries and statues and votive candles, furniture and altars and drums. And everywhere offerings: sweets for the twins, the Marassa Jumeuax, cigarettes for the Ghede, dollar bills slipped into every available crevice. The light comes in through the windows, or the starry radiance of Christmas bulbs. In a meshed-in basket along the wall, the sacred serpent lies sleeping. Not otherworldly, but superworldly, a surfeit of human devotion. Was this planned? I hope not; the magick lies in the accumulation, the continual layering of object and sacrifice, a wave that builds until it crashes into the senses and drowns them.

Since that first visit, I have thought that the Voodoo Spiritual Temple represented the finest way to approach the Divine in a physical space. In my dreams I think sometimes of starting my own storefront shrine, not a copy of the Temple but kin to it. A religious space should welcome both the spirits and the flesh; too many invoke one but have no time for the other. The Temple, to my mind, melded the two more perfectly than any other church I had known.

The news last week that an electrical fire had broken out in the temple, bringing with it not only the obvious danger of the flames but the more insidious troubles of water and mold, represents more than just the condemnation of the building that housed the Temple. The Rampart Street address – across from Congo Square, itself a place of weighty significance for African-Americans in New Orleans – means much, but the Temple has not always been housed there. “The most sacred and pertinent items of the temple were spared fire,” says Witchdoctor Utu, a student of the Temple, invoking the watchful eye of its original priest, Oswan Chamani, to explain this good fortune. But I worry that this means many of the smaller items – those placed with less intention, perhaps, used less often in ritual, but still of significance, have been lost. A mosaic consists only of its many stones: pry enough away, and the picture itself loses form.

I have no doubt that Priestess Miriam and her companions will rebuild, hopefully in the same location and with many of the same accouterments. Aiyda, the sacred python, made it out alive, providing reason enough to celebrate. But it should remind us of the tenuous nature of so much of what goes into our lives. We all lack insurance over the specific configuration of our existence, our history, our magick. A chance spark can be enough to turn the whole thing upside down.

So now I lay in bed, looking at the skull on my altar, remembering this place and all its mystery. I close my eyes and trace the lines of the corridors, the pathways through the holy clutter, and look again on the gifts to the loa, now perhaps turned to burnt offerings. The lines of memory rise from the surface of the floor. With my ghostly feet, I trace the vévé of time.

Rise again, Temple. Rise again on the crest of your history, and begin the process of accumulating magick again.

The Voodoo Spiritual Temple still seeks donations for their recovery fund.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass — When the Parliament of the World’s Religions was staged in Salt Lake City last year, thousands of people gathered for this interfaith event. Being first held in 1893, the parliament is the oldest event of its kind, and others, which have emerged since, have not yet stripped it of its unique characteristics. One way the parliament stands out is in the fact that minority religions, including indigenous and Pagan ones, are given a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion.

The Wild Hunt sat down with vice-chair Andras Corban-Arthen during A Feast of Lights to talk about the parliament, his duties within the organization, and what he sees in its future.

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]


Among his several responsibilities, Corban-Arthen is chair of the site selection committee, which is responsible for assessing potential sites for the next session. “It’s a big deal,” he said, and a job he takes quite seriously. The official invitation to submit proposals has not even been released, and already there has been interest expressed on behalf of several cities.

He said. “People think it’s a great idea to bring it to their town,” but not every city can handle the sheer number of people who show up, such as the near 10,000 which attended in Salt Lake City. That pressure depends in part on location: when it’s in the United States, where the parliament held its first and second sessions (in Chicago, 1893 and 1993), many more people attend than when it’s elsewhere in the world. However, there’s a clear desire to maintain the international scope of the organization by not restricting host cities to just one country.

It’s understandable why it’s appealing to bring the Parliament of the World’s Religions to town. The event translates into $15-20 million dollars spent by those visitors. That could offset any infrastructure improvements made to accommodate the crowds.

Corban-Arthen is also part of the nominating committee, which is arguably even more important. “It shapes the direction of the board,” he said, which impacts the overall tenor of the organization. It is because of the makeup of the board that such efforts as its indigenous task force even exist; he’s been part of that since 2008. That might be enough to keep him busy, but Corban-Arthen also is a delegate to the United Nations, representing the parliament as a non-governmental organization in the interfaith field.

“One thing that distinguishes the parliament is that minorities play a big role,” he said. “People ask where the Christians are,” he added, despite the fact that in Salt Lake City they were indeed the majority of those present. “It didn’t feel like it,” he explained, even though they are also a majority on the board, because they are “respectful and conscious, and let us be out in front. It’s a very healthy thing.”

Andras Corban-Arthen

Andras Corban-Arthen

An area that Corban-Arthen has worked in since long before the parliament was reinvigorated in 1993 is that of indigenous European religions. With the parliament now holding sessions regularly, skepticism that there might be survivals of those traditions has fallen away, as members of those traditions have come forth to participate. Indeed, the 2009 parliament in Melbourne generated a small controversy about how that might affect the very definition of Paganism. While Corban-Arthen believes it proved to be a hot topic among Pagans largely due to misunderstandings, at the same time he feels that 2009 represented a seminal moment when the larger interfaith community recognized indigenous European traditions into the fold.

The very concept has sent ripples throughout Paganism and the interfaith community, he said. “I was told that Paganism has nothing to do with indigenous traditions,” he recalled, while some tried to expand the definition of “indigenous” to include religions like Wicca, which while it did emerge in Europe, is generally considered newer than what’s referred to as indigenous. At the same time, he remembers a Presbyterian minister who was excited at the idea of indigenous European survivals, but “it bothered him that they turned out to be Pagan.”

Representatives of those indigenous traditions were included in the plenary session, he recalled, and “people had a huge, positive reaction” to the idea that Christianity didn’t wipe those traditions from the face of the Earth, as has been widely believed. “It felt like a vindication for them.” That’s a key role for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in his view: to support minority and indigenous traditions.

The parliament is where the modern interfaith movement started, and it continues to hold the largest events of that kind in the world. “Other groups may feel it’s not what it should be,” he said. “One major organization has criticized the parliament because it has Pagan members on its board.” That’s part of why it has such a large impact, he believes: minority voices being given the chance to be heard.

The Pagans sitting at that table didn’t get there by chance, though. “They didn’t really invite us” in 1993, he recalled, and he characterized the organizers at that time as being “reticent” to include them. His own Earthspirit Community, together with Circle Sanctuary and Covenant of the Goddess, combined their efforts into what he called a “three-pronged approach” to convince those organizers to grant them admission. Then, they set up one joint information table in the area reserved for that kind of educational outreach, and disabused many attendees of the notion that Paganism was a thing of the past.

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]

[Photo Credit: G. Harder]

One interesting effect of having a parliament in a city, Corban-Arthen noted, is that the local Pagan community tends to thrive in its wake. That was true in Cape Town, Barcelona, and Melbourne, where local Pagans got a seat at the table and it opened doors for them into interfaith work. He said that new Pagan groups formed in those cities, and new leaders emerged. Time will tell if the “parliament bump” helps the Salt Lake City Pagan community find its footing.

Big names at the parliament typically include figures such as the Dalai Lama. However, a Roman Catholic Pope has never attended. That might well change with the next session, although Corban-Arthen isn’t sure it would be a benefit. He noted that among the potential sites is a city in Europe where the erstwhile organizers hope to extend an invitation to Pope Francis, who has proven himself to be more popular — among Catholics and people not of that faith alike — than any of his predecessors in recent memory. “That might be counterproductive,” Corban-Arthen said, because Francis has a following of his own that could distort the character of the parliament. “It might be all about the Pope,” he said. “We might not want that.”

Despite the fact that Vatican City is there, as well as members of those aforementioned indigenous traditions, Europe is a tough place to sell the parliament as an attraction, because “so much of the society is secularized.” That, more than other factors, could be why attendance is higher in the United States: there are more religious people here, despite recent downward trends.

What Corban-Arthen finds gratifying about the parliament is that “people don’t spend time arguing theology. They present their beliefs and observances, but we focus on social issues and trying to solve them, especially when religion is the cause.” That’s why he believes it’s so important for Pagan voices to be part of that conversation, as they have much to say about issues such as the environment and women in the priesthood. They can also be an important part of any dialogue about money, much of which is dominated by the Christian model that presumes it’s the root of all evil(and, seemingly at the same time, an earthly reward for living a good life.

Money is something he’s often found himself at odds with other Pagans about. He recalled a disagreement he had with Judy Harrow in the 1980s on that topic. “She felt that Christians put their model on us, but that small community-based Pagan groups couldn’t build mega-churches,” he said. “I told her that if a thousand people contributed five dollars a week for a year, that would be $260,000, which would be a good start” toward any goal that they established, including paying for staff, programs, schools, films, legal defense, and buying land. “We need to create infrastructure,” he added, echoing his side of an argument which is as old as the modern Pagan movement. “Until we do, we won’t be real to ourselves.” That’s a perspective other parliament members have shared with him: Pagans don’t take themselves seriously enough.

One thing that Corban-Arthen has learned in working with the Parliament of the World’s Religions especially is that his words are sometimes interpreted by members of his own community as speaking for them. “I don’t speak for all Pagans,” he said. “I’m just expressing my opinion. I represent the community that supports me,” not those who see things differently. That’s true for all board members of the parliament: they do not serve as formal representatives of their traditions. If other Pagans were to “step up,” they might also get elected to the parliament’s board. But with the ground work that he and others have helped to lay, perhaps it won’t take as many years of consistent effort to make that happen.