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Column: Tupac Amaru Shakur

Heathen Chinese —  September 17, 2016 — 4 Comments

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 7, 1996, the rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur was shot in Las Vegas at the age of 25. He is reported to have died in the hospital six days later, on Sept. 13. Conspiracy theories abound that his death was staged and that he is still alive and in hiding. But while the line between death and life may seem absolute to secularists, death doesn’t mean the same thing to polytheists and spirit workers, for whom “there is no death, only a change of worlds.”¹

Whether or not he is currently embodied, Tupac’s legacy is undeniable. From Los Angeles to Rio De Janeiro, he is honored as an ancestor. For ancestry is not merely biological, but relational: one becomes an ancestor by being honored by one’s descendants.

Ipanema, Rio De Janeiro [Marycsalome / Flickr]

Rio De Janeiro [Marycsalome / Flickr]

To better understand Tupac as an ancestor, it is instructive to look at the lineages that he is a descendant of. We start not with his parents, but with his name. Many cultures recognize the power of names, from the Egyptian myth of Isis and Ra to the German fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. There is, moreover, a particular power in the passing down of names from generation to generation.

Two examples from Icelandic sagas are particularly striking in this regard. In Svarfdaela Saga, H. Lauer writes, “Thorolfr promises to pass his good hamingja (luck or power) on to any son of his brother who should be named Thorolfr; it is this or else Thorolfr’s name risks passing ‘out of use like withered grass.’”² In Vatnsdaela Saga, the desire to pass one’s name down is not limited to one’s own family, but even extended into the family of one’s enemy. The warrior Jokull lies dying on the battlefield, and asks a final boon from his killer: “not to let my name pass away…if a son be granted to you or to your son.”³ While every tradition is different, the name “Tupac Amaru” contains an especially rich history of being passed down through the centuries.

Túpac Amaru: I Feel Like Pac For Real

The first Túpac Amaru was the last of the Incan emperors. His brother submitted to Catholic baptism and Spanish rule, but Túpac Amaru refused to do so, and was beheaded by the Spanish in 1573. Túpac Amaru II claimed to be a descendant of Túpac Amaru and adopted that name when he led an indigenous revolt in Peru in 1780. He, too, was drawn, quartered and beheaded. In the twentieth century, several South American leftist guerrilla groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay (founded 1963) and the MRTA in Peru (founded 1983) named themselves after Túpac Amaru II.

A similar thread can be found in Chinese history, where several millenarian Daoist movements claimed to be led by reincarnations of Li Hong:

A great many charismatic leaders came from the Li family, and certain of them claimed to be the god Laozi returned to earth; a sage of western China, Li Hong, who had actually lived during the 1st century BCE, became the favourite recurrent figure of later would-be messiahs. […] The last recorded Li Hong was executed in 1112.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to Latin America and China. This year, after the police killing of Alton Sterling, the rapper Young Buck released a song entitled “Riot,” which begins with a vocal sample from Tupac: “I would rather tell a young black male to educate his mind, arm yourself and be free and defend yourself, than you know, just sit there and turn the other cheek. So whatever message that sends out, that’s the kinda message it is.” Young Buck then says, “I mean I feel like Pac for real in this bitch today bruh.” And on the song, “Fuck Donald Trump,” Nipsey Hu$$le directly quotes Tupac’s “To Live & Die in L.A.,” rapping in favor of brown and black unity, “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans […] Black love, brown pride and the sets again.” Tupac Shakur thus acts in today’s struggles in the United States in a similar fashion as Li Hong did in the first millennium CE, Túpac Amaru I did in the 1780s, and Túpac Amaru II did in the late 20th century.

Tupac’s first and middle names tie him to a lineage of remembrance and revolt in the Western Hemisphere. But why was he given these names in the first place?

Tupac Amaru I [Public Domain]

Tupac Amaru I [Public Domain]

Shakur: It Goes Down my Family Tree

Tupac was born to a family of militant black revolutionaries, the Shakurs or “thankful ones.” In an interview, Tupac stated that “I like to think that at every opportunity I’ve ever been threatened with resistance, it’s been met with resistance. And not only me but it goes down my family tree. You know what I’m saying, it’s in my veins to fight back.”4 He was not exaggerating when he spoke these words.

Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, was a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther party. While pregnant with Tupac in 1969, she was a defendant in the Panther 21 case, in which twenty-one Black Panther party members were accused of conspiring to assassinate police officers and blow up buildings including police stations. In 1971, the Panther 21 were acquitted of all charges.

In 1982, when Tupac was ten years old, his stepfather Mutulu Shakur was indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) law on charges relating to “participation in a clandestine paramilitary unit that carried out actual and attempted expropriations from several banks” between December 1976 and October 1981 including a 1981 Brink’s armored truck robbery as well as the 1979 prison break of Assata Shakur. Mutulu went underground for nearly five years, was captured in 1986, convicted in 1988, and is still serving a 60-year sentence. Tupac’s song “White Man’s World” was “dedicated to my motherfuckin teachers Mutulu Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, Mumia Abu Jamal, Sekou Odinga, all the real O.G.’s.”

Assata Shakur is Tupac’s godmother. She was imprisoned for the 1973 killing of a police officer, but escaped in 1979 and moved to Cuba. Sekou Odinga, who was also part of the Panther 21 case along with Afeni, and who, like Mutulu, was convicted of RICO charges relating to the Brink’s robbery and Assata’s liberation, is the father of Yaki Akiyele Fula. Yaki rapped as Kadafi in the the Outlawz, the rap group founded by Tupac in 1995.

The dedication of “White Man’s World” shows that these family connections and relationships were important to Tupac, and that adoptive kinship was just as important as biological. The political consciousness of his elders is also apparent in Tupac’s lyrics, in which he raps such lines as, “‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said/Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead” (Changes) and “Malcolm X or Bobby Hutton died for nothin'” (Ghetto Gospel). These lines, of course, reflect the pessimism of Tupac’s generation regarding the failed efforts of their predecessors. Therein lies an inescapable truth: we are all shaped and molded by our parents and ancestors, but we all have our own paths to forge, and we choose how to carry our lineages forward. Tupac’s deliberate choice to honor his Shakur family legacy was an integral part of his path.

Mutulu Shakur [Public Domain]

Mutulu Shakur [Public Domain]

That’s Why We Go to Thug Mansion

Given the complex web of ancestry that any individual is descended from and comprised of, it makes sense for that complexity to be retained after death. Tupac’s lyrics posit quite a few possible afterlives. In “Only God Can Judge Me,” Tupac raps, “My only fear of death/Is comin’ back to this bitch reincarnated.” In “Thugz Mansion” he speculates that “Ain’t no heaven for a thug nigga/That’s why we go to thug mansion,” a place reminiscent of the ancient Greek Isle of the Blessed, where one can enjoy the company of such individuals as Billie Holiday, Malcolm X and Latasha Harlins. On the cover of his final album recorded before his shooting, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, Tupac, now rapping under the name Makaveli, depicts himself crucified like Jesus.

To some, these may seem like irreconcilable possibilities. Many polytheist and animist traditions, however, believe in multiple souls or in the multi-part soul. Chinese tradition, for example, contains the concepts of the shén (神), the hún (魂, which itself may be three entities) and the pò (魄, which may be seven entities), all of which are distinct from concepts such as jīng () and qì (). The ancient Egyptians conceived of people being comprised of multiple parts as well: “the main constituents were the body, its ka, and its name which remained always in close proximity to each other even in the tomb, and the shadow, the ba, sahu and akh.”

Furthermore, in the realm of practice, multiple eschatologies can coexist simultaneously. In China, for example, Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation have coexisted with traditional ancestor veneration practices for millennia. The multiple-soul theory provides one possible explanation for how this may work on the other side. Even within ancestor veneration, the existence of both grave-tending and ancestor shrines and temples suggest that a distinction is made between the soul attached to the physical body and the ancestral soul. We see in Tupac’s lyrics the possibilities of a soul that is reincarnated (which in some traditions is seen as a neutral fact, in others as something to transcend), one that dwells in the heroic paradise known as Thug Mansion, and perhaps even one that undergoes resurrection and apotheosis. There is also the aforementioned name of Tupac Amaru, which in Icelandic tradition would be linked with the hamingja of Túpac Amaru I, and the familial Shakur ancestral soul.

For a poet like Tupac, there is always the poetic immortality that one finds in the “everlasting glory” promised to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, in Catullus, and in Shakespeare. In Kendrick Lamar’s song “Mortal Man,” he carefully alternates quotes from Tupac’s interviews with his own words, creating through bricolage a conversation between himself and Tupac. As he speaks to Tupac, Kendrick identifies himself as “one of your offspring of the legacy you left behind.” In another song, “Black Friday,” Kendrick declares that he will personally “make sure [Tupac] lives on.” Poetry brings another level of elevation to the dead altogether.

[George Hannz D / Wikimedia]

[George Hannz D / Wikimedia]

We Just Letting our Dead Homies Tell Stories

Tupac is most famous for his musical career, but in his own words, rapping was always a spirit-guided act: “Because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.”5 And in “Ghetto Gospel,” he rapped, “God isn’t finished with me yet/I feel His hand on my brain/When I write rhymes I go blind and let the Lord do his thing.”

In his essay “The Head of Orpheus,” published in Scarlet Imprint’s Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis, Michael Routery writes that like Hesiod receiving the breath of inspiration from the Muses on Mount Helicon, in traditional societies “around the world poets were seen as inspired by gods, spirits and the dead, and conduits of a world of transpersonal memory, and prophecy.” Clearly, Tupac’s quotes fit well into this framework of spirit-inspired poetry, and songs like “Pour Out a Little Liquor” exist within a much more widespread street culture of remembering and libating the dead.

Routery’s naming of both memory and prophecy as poetic functions is deliberate, for “among many primal, archaic and indigenous peoples the poet and prophet were combined, or perhaps better to say unseparated.” Some of Tupac’s words have a prophetic ring to them as well, though as P.E. Easterling writes in her introduction to Sophocles’s Trachiniae, “the special characteristic of oracles” is that “they represent a glimpse of the truth which can only be properly understood when the events they foretell take place” (3).

In an interview, for example, Tupac predicted black insurgencies paralleling that led by Nat Turner:

I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, uh, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think American think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka.6

Whether this prophecy will be fulfilled or not remains to be seen, but for now, his words serve merely as a “glimpse of the truth” that cannot yet be properly understood.

[$amii / Flickr]

[Image Credit: $amii / Flickr]

T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.

Tupac is also known for promulgating a standard of behavior for gangsters known as the Code of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E., which his step-father Mutulu Shakur is said to have helped write. The code sought to mitigate the effects of drug dealing with prohibitions on selling drugs to children and pregnant women and to reduce violence towards those not involved in criminal activity. At the same time, it was an attempt to embrace the derogatory word “thug” in a manner similar to religious and spiritual practitioners’ reclamations of the terms “Witch,” “Pagan,” and “Heathen.”

The term “thug” is derived from the Hindi “thag,” which literally means “to cheat,” but according to Kim Wagner’s article “The Deconstructed Stranglers: A Reassessment of Thuggee,” it could mean either a conman or a violent robber in precolonial India (943). Under British colonial rule in the 1830s, the term “thuggee” was used to specifically describe a particular form of robbery in which bandits “attacked travelers on the high road using trickery or deception” and in which the victims were strangled (942), and a campaign was launched to suppress thuggee. Thuggee was also said to be a form of Kali worship, and the murders by strangulation were allegedly carried out as human sacrifices.

Wagner casts doubt upon this narrative on the grounds that “there is no mention whatsoever of thuggee as a religious practice in the material predating […] the campaign to eradicate thuggee,” and argues that “ordinary dacoits in 19th century India, who were never assumed to be motivated by religious fervor, would also hold a ceremony or puja after a successful robbery and make votive offerings to a deity” (953). While her article is focused on deconstructing and reassessing the image of the thug constructed by the British, this particular quote also suggests that religious offerings were indeed the norm for bandits, which is in and of itself and interesting area of study.

Wagner suggests that the conflation of thuggee with extreme religious devotion was an example of confirmation bias, and also of a deliberate legitimization of thuggee on those interrogated by the British who may have been sympathetic to thuggee:

The extreme interest in the subject exhibited by the British prompted the informers to rethink their religious identity. When the approvers promulgated thuggee as a religious practice in worship of Devi they were legitimizing their actions and practices, which conferred a higher moral and social status to the thugs, setting them aside from ‘ordinary’ criminals. (954)

Interestingly, Tupac’s Code of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. essentially sought to do the same thing, to distinguish thugs from “ordinary criminals.” Tupac said in an interview: “Yes, I am gonna say that I’m a thug. That’s because I came from the gutter and I’m still here. I’m not saying I’m a thug because I wanna rob you and rape people.”

[Public Domain]

Thugs about to strangle a traveler [Public Domain]

Problematic Ancestors

Unfortunately, despite being one of the few rappers to express moderately pro-feminist sentiments in his songs and interviews, Tupac himself fell far short of his claims. In 1995, he was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse.

Let us be clear about this. Rape, abuse, and all apologia for and minimization of such acts are categorically unacceptable.

The practice of ancestor veneration does not change that position in the slightest. But the question of problematic ancestors must nevertheless be confronted. When Tupac declared, “only God can judge me now,” was he ready for his god to call his bluff?

The concept of multiple souls allows for the possibility that there are souls that undergo judgment of some sort and then receive the consequences of their actions. In the Egyptian conception of multiple souls, for example, the heart (F34, jb) is weighed after death by Anubis against the feather of Ma’at. If too heavy, it is devoured by Ammit. Furthermore, in the case of particularly hated individuals such as the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaton, human descendants would destroy inscriptions containing that individual’s name and their very memory. The Roman senate is also known to have enacted similar decrees against despised emperors and would-be emperors, a practice that in modern times was given the name damnatio memoriae. And if one honors one’s ancestors as collectives, it may well be that particularly problematic individuals have been removed from that collective by its other members.

Not all conceptions of afterlife judgment and punishment are the same. In Chinese Buddhism, when souls go to Dìyù (地獄), they are tortured for their crimes by the Ten Kings (十王, shíwáng), but the tenth and final king “turns the wheel of transmigration that carries the dead to their new existences as either gods, human beings on earth or in hell, good or bad demons, or animals.” In other words, in this particular tradition, the torture is not an eternal punishment, but a form of purification akin to Catholic purgatory.

Just as Catholics perform masses for the dead in order to “help the departed souls undergoing purification” in purgatory, so can ancestor work be done to help the dead within polytheist and animist traditions. The particular details of how this works vary greatly from tradition to tradition. Within the hypothesis of multiple souls, it may be the ancestral soul that is uplifted and elevated by ancestor work, while other souls or soul-parts are affected to differing degrees. There may be purifications or retributions that must be undergone and cannot be affected by the living at all. None of this should be taken to “cancel out” or minimize the effects of harm caused to others during one’s lifetime. Once the stone has been cast into the water, sticking one’s hand in the water to stop the ripples and pretend the stone was never thrown is impossible.

On the other hand, in “The Fire Is Here,” I quoted James Baldwin about “the crime that is committed until it is accepted that it was committed.” Like the curse on the descendants of Tantalos, which manifested as kinslaying in successive generations from the fratricide of Atreus to the matricide of Orestes, the crimes committed by one’s ancestors weigh upon the descendants and seek, vampire-like, to be recommitted and brought into the world in yet another incarnation. In these cases, the best form of ancestor work is to “put the souls of your ancestors at peace,” as the Chinese god Guan Sheng Di Jun advises, “by doing good.” In other words, to break the cycle in one’s own generation.

In “Tupac’s Law: Incarceration and the Crisis of Black Masculinity,” Seneca Vaught wrote that one of Tupac’s “greatest personal shortcomings was the inability to leave the “plantation of maleness,” a mentality that clinical psychologist Na’im Akbar (1991) characterized in Visions For Black Men” (89). Tupac Shakur’s descendants can never erase his shortcomings, but they can try to overcome those shortcomings in themselves, to themselves escape and destroy the “plantation of maleness.”

Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead. [Public Domain]

Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead. [Public Domain]

Endnotes

  1. Attributed to Chief Seattle.
  2. “Death, Dreaming and Memory” by H. Lauer, quoted in “Arguments in Favor of Universalist Heathenry” by Heimlich A. Laguz.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
*   *   *
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

ENGLEWOOD, Co. — Last week came the announcement that religion site Beliefnet has acquired Patheos, the far more popular home of a wide variety of religious blogs, include a vibrant Pagan channel. While Beliefnet also once hosted Pagan bloggers, since being acquired by the Christian-focused BN Media company, those writers all eventually moved on. With the new purchase, it has been stated that plans thus far are to keep the two sites independent of each other.

beliefnet-logo-6-25-10 A Wild Hunt investigation into BN Media buying Beliefnet in June, 2016, disclosed the company’s focus:

BN Media seems to be a different sort of owner, if their two largest initiatives, Affinity4 and Cross Bridge, are any indication. In short, it seems they are a conservative “family friendly” Christian group. All you have to do is pay attention to all the subtle buzz-words. . . . It doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of future interfaith interactions and diverse viewpoints on Beliefnet.

It’s true that, while Beliefnet no longer hosts Pagan blogs, Patheos Pagan channel editor Jason Mankey isn’t expecting any purges at Patheos. Mankey told The Wild Hunt:

There are currently no plans to change anything at Patheos and at Patheos Pagan. Patheos will continue to maintain its own brand and the sites will be run as a separate entities. As in all acquisitions, there will be some changes but we believe these changes will be in the background and focused on the technology and supporting infrastructure, and we anticipate that these changes will be about improving the experience of the reader.

I’ve spoken to many of the folks coming in from Beliefnet and genuinely believe they are excited about both Patheos in general and more specifically the Pagan Channel. Change is a part of life, and I’m looking forward to this one.

Mankey has earned the respect of people in the Pagan blogosphere since he took over as channel editor, including that of Anne Newkirk Niven, who runs one of the largest independent Pagan blog sites, pagansquare.com, who called him an “excellent administrator.”

patheospagan-300x300Niven’s sentiments were echoed by those Patheos Pagan bloggers who agreed to comment for this story as well as Star Foster, who was the channel’s first editor. In her statement, she also touched upon the value of purely Pagan alternatives.

Like many people, I was sad to watch Beliefnet lose its initial luster, particularly after it was bought by Fox and then by an Evangelical organization. The purchase of Patheos by the same Evangelical organization is momentous. An acquisition means merger and all that comes with it. Resources are allocated to the segments of a company that make money, and cuts are made to increase profitability. It will be interesting to see how this acquisition affects Patheos, particularly those writers who left other platforms with whom they had become disenchanted.

For minority faiths, who cannot easily compete for resources with larger faith demographics, it may prove more fruitful to invest talent and resources in quality, homegrown religious journalism, columnists, devotional writers, and cultural analysts. Since the dawn of Beliefnet the religious internet has undergone dramatic changes, and it will be fascinating to see how it continues to evolve.

Support your Pagan media, wherever you find it to be doing good work. In anticipation of The Wild Hunt’ drive, I have already made my contribution.

Editing the Agora for Patheos Pagan is David Dashifen Kees, who agreed with Mankey’s assessment. “I’m cautiously optimistic. My understanding is that, after the purchase, Patheos will be operating essentially as it always has been. We’ll keep writing what we write and the readers will hopefully continue to visit.”

Gus DiZerega has been a presence at many major Pagan blogging sites, including Pagan Square and Patheos. He also wrote for Beliefnet, and he’s more suspicious. “The people who controlled Beliefnet acted unethically in my experience, and cannot be trusted,” he said.

After he wrote a post criticizing management, “they removed comments and when [he] objected.”  He said, “They told me it was their site and they could do what they wanted, I also left. I see no reason to legitimize anything controlled by Evangelicals such as that. Perhaps the Parliament of World’s Religions could someday host a genuine interfaith site free from the imperialistic ambitions of Evangelicals.”

Druidic blogger John Beckett doesn’t think it’s the end of the world. He said:

Nothing is constant in life, much less on the internet. While I had no idea this merger was coming, I’m not the least bit surprised it happened. We’ve been told the merger will have no effect on bloggers – Patheos will remain a unique site and all the changes will be on the technical and business side. That could be helpful.

As long as Patheos stays within its mission of being a multifaith religious site, as long as Pagans continue to be treated with the same respect as everyone else, and as long as I continue to have full control over what I write, I plan to stay.

If any of that changes, I own all my content and can move at any time.

Others also see two sides to this coin. “It seems that the merger is a pretty mixed bag,” said David Pollard, who edits the UU-centric Nature’s Path group blog at Patheos Pagan. “While a lot has been made in the Pagan blogosphere about Beliefnet’s incivility towards Paganism in recent years, when they started they were able to get some very high profile Pagans like Margot Adler and Starhawk to write for them.

“The problem was, that’s where they stopped,” Pollard continued. “They never really developed a second tier of writers, which is something that Patheos through its Pagan Channel editors has really excelled at.”

Pollard said he very much hopes that Patheos bloggers will be left alone, “given how many times Beliefnet has changed owners over the past decade, who knows what their next owner will want?”

One thing that any owner of Patheos is likely to want is a profitable venture, and the main way to achieve that with a content site is through advertising sales. The ads on the site now have been the subject of criticism by Pagans over the years, including from The Wild Hunt founding editor Jason Pitzl, who entered into a partnership in 2011-12.

In announcing the relaunch of an independent Wild Hunt, he promised “zero ads endorsing Mormonism or Liberty University.” Those result from buying into pools such as ones offered by Google, which serve up ads based on a variety of factors, including one’s behavior generally on the internet and search terms used.

Quaker Pagan Reflections blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop has also been concerned about the push for profit. “It has sometimes seemed that there’s been an increasing stress on monetizing our writing, and I have wondered whether the finances were really working out: the ads have always been off-putting, not always relevant to Paganism, and so slow to load some of my friends tell me they can’t read my blog at all. I’ve wondered if we Pagans have been a good investment for the owners, and whether the site is a good fit for us, to be honest. I guess my questions have only grown with this news.

“Patheos has been good to my blog, in that I’ve seen a big increase in readership, and I’ve been part of a conversation with other writers I really admire,” Chapin Bishop said. “Still, I’ve often wondered if it would make more sense to go it alone, or at a Pagan-owned, Pagan-run site.”

“They’re not going for direct-place ads,” agreed Newkirk Niven, who runs such a Pagan site. When she recently looked into advertising at Patheos, she was told that “they don’t even talk to people who aren’t able to spend a grand a month. I think we’re operating in a different universe.”

For most Pagan advertisers, she said, $12,000 is impossible; even $100 a month can be a challenge from owners of businesses the size she works with, she said.

For now, Patheos remains independent, but it’s likely that the new owners will seek to find ways to use this property to improve Beliefnet and other sites. As of this writing, Patheos is ranked 1,922 by site-ranking service Alexa, while Beliefnet stands at 12,451. It’s a question of when and how, rather than if or why the Patheos traffic will be captured. The Wild Hunt will cover developments as those changes unfold.

The interaction of religion and politics in Ásatrú and Heathenry has long been a contentious one, as we have recently been reminded during the many heated reactions to a divisive public statement by the new Alsherjargothi of the Asatru Folk Assembly.

Heathens are not usually shy about sharing their views. There have been some very intense online discussions of current politics by Heathens in the United States. Since worldview is so often stressed as greatly important to Heathen practice, I asked several practitioners the following question:

How does your Heathen worldview affect your view of the presidential election as it now stands?

The goal in asking was to present a diversity of opinion from as many Heathens around the nation as possible. Some were unable to answer by publication, and some – due to the divisive nature of this election in particular – declined to speak out publicly.

Here are responses from seventeen Heathens in sixteen different states. While there are some common threads between their comments, there is also a great diversity of opinion. Even such a small sampling shows the wide range of worldviews within the United States Heathen community. Thank you to all who agreed to spend their time providing a response!

Lagaria Farmer (Coopertown, Tennessee)
I try to live an honorable life and help those around me. I believe our gods and ancestors appreciate that. I strongly hold to the value of hospitality, and I believe it’s a two-way street. I look for these characteristics in the candidates for public office and vote accordingly. There are a few (counting the third-party candidates) who have some of these qualities. There is at least one who doesn’t, and that person will not have my vote.

Matt Walker (Trenton, Missouri)
My worldview is one that places significant importance on community, on loyalty, gifting, and the reciprocity of those things. On relationships and duty. Honor. Obligation. In line with that, my view of a proper president – or any leader – is that they should be a person who is honorable and does right by their people, a person who holds their responsibilities above their own personal concerns. An intellectual, knowledgeable, articulate soul bound by loyalty to the Republic and reverence for the rule of law (especially the Constitution); a person who understands what justice is, as well as diplomacy; and who is known for regular, genuine displays of generosity, compassion and integrity.

Where does that leave me in this election? It leaves me without a candidate, while the world watches my countrymen fight bitterly over whether we should elect a corrupt establishment politician beholden to corporate interests or a trust-fund troglodyte fomenting violence amongst an army of quasi-literate scum.

Thad N. Horrell (Denver, Colorado)
Heathenry motivates me to keep up the struggle for justice and truth, even when so many people close to me are taken in by the demagoguery of angry words and hateful speech. The Hávamál [“Sayings of the High One”] teaches us to welcome the stranger and be hospitable to guests, especially those who are in need of shelter and assistance. We should be strong against our enemies, but we should know who our enemies are first. Declaring all people who do not look like us or who do not practice our religion are our enemies is cowardly and despicable. I do not practice Donald Trump’s religion, and I stand in solidarity with all those worthy people he would deport or ban from entering our country.

Kari Tauring [Courtesy Photo]

Kari Tauring (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
My Heathen root, like my Christian root, is primarily Norwegian. I come from the school of free farmers and not church or royal landholders. We believe in democratic governance. My grandma and grandpa – who arrived in the U.S. at age thirteen – proudly voted. People walked or rode in wagons miles to their polling places. If I can’t vote for something, I write in my answer. I do this on the census and “race check” boxes. I believe that the people who most value the water and land should be in charge of keeping it clean for everyone. This is the worldview of my Nordic folkway, and I think it is folkways that will save this world.

Thomas de Mayo (Tidewater, Virginia)
I support Clinton, because she is the most likely candidate to defeat Trump and move the country in a progressive direction. Many of my friends are considering voting for a third-party candidate, because they do not consider Clinton sufficiently liberal or have concerns about her character. I sympathize, but I believe they are mistaken.

In Heathen terms, I view modern elections as being like a medieval Icelandic Thing. The Thing was a sacred assembly, a court of law, and a place for vicious politicking. A disputant who wanted to assure a good outcome for their case needed to assemble a coalition of allies; that meant making compromises, returning favors, and pragmatically accepting settlements short of total victory. So too our modern democratic process (although sacred in its own way) requires tempering heartfelt conviction with strategic thinking.

I am totally appalled by Trump’s bigotry toward Muslims and other minorities. I don’t trust him to administer the laws of our country domestically, and I don’t trust him to make military decisions abroad. In the contest of the Thing, it is best to ally with the strongest friendly chieftain able to obtain victory.

Drew Johnston (Los Angeles, California)
This election cycle has been very hard to deal with. Honor is so important to us, and none of our candidates seem to have any, nor do many of our elected representatives. Truth is also one of our core virtues, and I’ve seen very little of that myself. Perseverance demands that I stay my course and vote for the candidate I have chosen, but it gets harder every time I turn on the news. As a Heathen, I would say that I am very disappointed with this state of affairs – both the election and where our country is today.

Vicki Burns [Courtesy Photo]

Vicki Burns (Bronx, New York)
My worldview is best described as neo-tribal. While we can’t return to tribal ways of our ancestors, I still think we can look to them for guidance here in the present and for future generations. Of the two remaining candidates for the upcoming election, I feel that Hilary Clinton, despite some strong reservations I still have about corporate ties that she may have, is still the best choice for me. I have been struck by her commitment to the health of children and of families – which I think is fundamental to our future as a nation – with a focus on higher wages, childcare, insurance, and affordable education. Additionally, she echoes Obama’s original pledge to develop renewable energy and create new jobs. For our sake and for Mother Earth, I hope she follows through.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is nothing but a neo-feudal opportunist who is exploiting the working class, who are understandably upset at the lack of opportunity in the country as it stands. His lack of experience and empathy and his overblown ego and unbridled narcissism will eventually destroy him and, if he is elected, will destroy us all, as well. May the old gods prevent that, and may we all exercise our right to vote on Election Day.

Heidi Shewchuk (Oak Grove, Oregon)
[My worldview] doesn’t really [affect my view]. But what does affect my view is being a history nerd, and for me this means our current presidential election is no different than any of the electioneering that has gone on before. In particular I am reminded of the late Roman Republic. This was a period when politics were rife with bribery, slander, slippery deals, accusations of slippery deals, and all manner of electoral abuses – including vote tampering and election fraud. There were riots in the streets, with the political supporters of rival candidates forming gangs, behaving badly, and engaging in open – sometimes bloody – conflict with one another. Our current election in the U.S. has had all of this, but unlike Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Marcus Licinius Crassus, Hillary, Trump, and Bernie have yet to form a triumvirate. However, we do have two more months, and anything is possible.

Jennifer Snook (Grinnell, Iowa)
Heathenry sacralizes my commitment to social justice and the urgency and centrality of truth-telling and honor. In that regard, the current election troubles me, as neither candidate has shown a commitment to honesty. However, if I wanted to quantify the “truthiness,” integrity, or honor-in-action of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Trump would most certainly lose. His commitment to divisive politics; childish name calling and bullying of politicians, protesters, and journalists; his consistent and perpetual refusal to honor his debts, his word, his commitments; his pandering to white supremacist ideology and sympathizers; his openly racist, misogynistic, classist and ableist rhetoric; his consistent inconsistency of position; and his inability to formulate a coherent argument are all in conflict with my values and expectations of what kind of person qualifies as “presidential.”

I was a Sanders supporter, and although I’m not a die-hard fan of Clinton and do have some concerns as to her commitment to institutional and structural changes that will alleviate the human suffering caused by the inequalities of income, health access, education, and the lack of political agency of disenfranchised groups – she’s certainly a less terrifying option.

Victor Booker

Victor Booker [Courtesy Photo]

Victor Booker (Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin)
The current major party candidates, just as many before them, tend to push ideals that appeal to Christianity. This is especially true for the Right. As Heathens, we have not only an immunity to this, but perhaps even a tendency to be more scrutinizing when a candidate starts throwing around old political Christian catchphrases. Heathens don’t care about that. Many of us look for progressive ideas, solutions to issues plaguing our communities, and global policies that will help unite America with other countries. Instead we often get roundabout answers that aren’t really answers at all, with a nice thick covering of religious rhetoric that has been successful in buying voters since Americans started voting. All in all, being a Heathen that cares about politics in America is frustrating. A Heathen worldview is just that, a worldview. And American politics is rarely such.

David Carron (New Bedford, Massachusetts)
Religion and politics make poor bedfellows, and this election is poorer than most. Our ancestors were well familiar with the difficulties and faults in leadership. With Mr. Trump, I am reminded of Sigvaldi from the Jómsvíkinga saga. He swore to conquer Norway or die trying – spoiler alert; neither happens. His men, clearly knowing the character of their leader, swore to fight until he turned tail and ran, which he did. With Ms. Clinton, I have to think more of Loki from Lokasenna for a comparison of her credibility, likability, and truthfulness. I may just move after this election.

Douglas Helvie (New Bern, North Carolina)
I am a practitioner of Urglaawe, and my viewpoint is simple. Hillary is crooked, pure and simple. As an avowed political independent, I originally was going to vote for Bernie Sanders – until the world found out that our political system is corrupt, and – more specifically – the DNC has this nasty habit of rigging primaries. So, in true Heathen spirit and in the sense of revolt and revenge, I am voting for Trump.

Stevie Miller

Stevie Miller [Courtesy Photo]

Stevie Miller (Greensburg, Pennsylvania)|
As a Heathen, I’m appalled by the behavior of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president – and their parties – this election cycle. Their lying, mudslinging, and scheming are completely contrary to virtues like truth, honor, and generosity. Polarizing our population and excluding and vilifying certain groups of people flies in the face of the Urglaawe goal to fight rootlessness, that force that undermines both our communities and the World Tree. The designations of “liberal” and “conservative” are completely useless, serving only to create an us-them mentality that hurts people while doing nothing to solve our actual problems.

In the lore, we see again and again that our gods are strongest when they work together, combining a variety of voices and talents to achieve the goals of their community. In action, this translates for me to supporting third parties, speaking up for diversity and inclusiveness, and making a particular effort to listen to and understand opinions I disagree with. I feel that this election – with two candidates who are so widely known to be corrupt and power-hungry, and two out-of-touch parties that are oblivious to the problems in our country – has reached a new low for American politics that I have not seen before as a voter.

As a Heathen, I believe the solutions mean including new voices and perspectives, building strong communities, and working hard at hands-on problem-solving at the local level (not substituting social media for action!) to create the kinds of changes we want to see at the national level.

Ren Anderson (Exeter Township, Pennsylvania)
Being Heathen in this country during any election is disheartening. With the presence of the electoral college and the fact we live in a corporate oligarchy, I fully understand and recognize that our elections do not determine how we choose to be governed but rather serve as a distraction from our crumbling economic infrastructure. In Heathenry, with the emphasis on self-reliance and sustainability, I find our community better prepared than the surrounding culture of consumerism by embracing our agricultural heritage. Although I am active on Facebook, I still encourage people to find actual physical copies of books and to focus on improving personal skills that would do well in a local barter economy as hobbies.

I personally see the U.S. elections as a distraction at best, and a corruption at worst. Instead, to focus on the local community and to personally bring visibility to personal hot button issues that affect our lives is a better use of our resources than arguing over which stuffed-suit sociopath gets to be the “face” of our country for the next four-to-eight years as the bourgeois find ever more terrible and ingenious ways to accumulate more wealth at the expense of the well-being of the common man.

In Heathenry, I feel that we should educate ourselves as well as we are able (even though our media is now void of unbiased journalism) but to focus primarily on personal survival and accumulating contacts of others with useful skills while trying to avoid becoming entwined with the questionable and possibly violent extremists that also exist in great numbers among U.S. Odinists who have drawn similar conclusions about the facade of democracy.

Version 2

Vincent Enlund [Courtesy Photo]

Vincent Enlund (Mesa, Arizona)
When it comes to the presidency, I think my worldview affects how I rate a lot of things. First off, I have to look at all the candidates, and how they sling mud at each other. We look at the two primary parties that will always debate over the Left or Right, conservative or liberal. And now this year, for the first time in many decades, there’s a legitimate third-party option – the Libertarian Party and what they have to offer for the future, as well.

Really, if you’re looking at this from a Heathen worldview, for me, I need to think about what my ancestors looked for in a leader. They didn’t look for politicians. They looked to the people who had success and glory in their life – people who made accomplishments and showed what they were capable of under stress to benefit their people and their tribe. I think today, as Heathens with a Heathen worldview, we need to be looking for leaders to do the same thing. We need to be looking for leaders who have shown us that they’re capable of leading a country, of managing the kind of decisions that are required to do what is best for the people of this nation and the Constitution that it was built on – leaders that demonstrate courage, honesty, intelligence, and the ability to lead the community both economically and socially.

For me, the hard part about this is that I haven’t seen a leader like that for this country in my life. I hope that this third-party – the Libertarian Party – may provide a leader for today that could accomplish at least some of those things. But until I reach a point where I see a leader that I think my ancestors would look up to, these are only hopes.

William Thor Conner

William Thor Conner [Courtesy Photo]

William Thor Connor (Villa Park, Illinois)
I take seriously the pillars of troth, key virtues that are sorely needed in our society. Many in our current political arena have no problem straight-up lying and breaking their word, using lies in base ways to bolster their own privilege. The whole current legal progression towards a corporate oligarchy is based on selective control of (dis)information. We have a set of candidates that couldn’t win on the strength of their ideas alone.

Hillary Clinton will be a competent administrator of the current system, and – to be honest – I will vote for her in November. There is not really another choice. Trump originally ran as a lark or a saboteur and had unexpected success. I still think he doesn’t want to win but is acting as crowd control for the less educated aspect of the same outrage at the system that enabled Bernie’s rise. I proudly call myself a progressive democratic socialist and have been following the words and ideas of Bernie Sanders for more than a decade.

Without trying, Sanders embodies the troth. His struggle to bring the U.S. into a more egalitarian, less rent-seeking model that our Scandinavian cousins successfully practice is an effort worth emulating and being part of. And he didn’t lose. We are more aware of the egalitarian dream being possible than we have been since Lyndon Johnson. I hold hope that the progressive takeover of the Democratic Party could be a viable answer for real change in America.

Destiny Ballard [Courtesy Photo]

Destiny Ballard [Courtesy Photo]

Destiny Ballard (Miami, Oklahoma)
My understanding is that the known tenets and values of Heathen spirituality require its adherents to be consciously present and world-affirming. The current presidential race is a seriously contentious one, which is highlighted by the extremist speech and behaviors it has incited. Guided by my Heathen worldview, I am driven to actively speak up and participate in bringing about political advancement and reform for the benefit of all people.

As such, I must reject the agendas and policy platforms of leading presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both further the advancement of political systems that include cronyism, environmental destruction, cross-sectional oppression, and warmongering. As a Heathen, I am therefore morally compelled not to be a passive participant in political concerns. These have a measurable impact on the well-being of my family, my community, and my country – truly, on the earth itself, which I strive to honor and protect through my daily actions and spiritual votive works. The only way I see forward is through a commitment to political activism that will disrupt and replace these systems towards ones that provide healthful stability for all human beings, so we might reach our best scientific and spiritual potential.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

SALEM, Mass. — Lorelei Stathopolous sees her role as an animal-rights activist as a natural extension of being a Witch. “I defend the defenseless,” she said, and in particular she tries to protect dogs as a way to honor the two dogs hanged here in 1692, during the infamous witch trials. Acting in accordance with her beliefs is what she was doing Aug. 14, when she responded to a call about a dog in a hot car. Trying to intervene on the animal’s behalf got her arrested, leading to breathless coverage over local and national media outlets.

Lorelei Stathopoulos [courtesy photo]

Lorelei Stathopoulos [courtesy photo]

Stathopoulos owns Crow Haven Corner, billed as “Salem’s oldest Witch shop,” and she’s also the founder of Salem Saves Animals. The manager Hex, another local witch shop called to ask her advice after noticing that a dog had been left in a car with only a slightly open window on a 98-degree afternoon. She recommended breaking the window. When she was told no one at Hex was comfortable doing that she told them, “Get the bat ready, I’m on my way down.”

She calculates that the dog had been in the vehicle for at least 21 minutes by the time that she arrived.  Since she had notified police on the way to the area, she did not actually break the window.  Instead, she tried to persuade officers that the animal was not as well off as they believed.

Salem’s animal control officer, who reportedly has both the training and equipment to take a dog’s temperature through the window, only works 30 hours a week. Stathopoulos urged the officers to call the fire department to extract the dog, and then to charge the car’s owner when he appeared. However, their assessment was that the dog was not in distress.

“I don’t blame the officers. I blame the training they have received” she said.

Noting that the dog was “panting heavily,” Stathopoulos attempted to give it water through the window before the owner arrived, over objections of the police officers. The dog didn’t take any, which may have been due to it not being thirsty or being excited by the attention, or even in extreme distress. That was never determined and the dog was not taken in for examination.

The dog’s owner was eventually given a warning. However, this was not enough for Stathopoulos. who informed the officers that if he wasn’t arrested that she should be. They obliged, charging her with disturbing the peace. The video below shows some of what occurred at that moment.

 

“I have no regrets for the arrest, or what I said. These are emotional beings,” Stathopoulos said, which is why she and others have been pushing for a more comprehensive animal protection law in Salem. “Even the Pope said that all dogs go to heaven.”

A stronger law would, she hopes, provide for better officer training with regard to animal issues. She recounted a time recently when a pit bull was found tied up and abandoned, and how the police response was, “Bring it down to the station, we’ll shoot it.” The city animal control officer once declined to assist a coyote caught in a fence, presumably because the training only deals with handling dogs.

What makes this story particularly good fodder for “shock jocks” and mainstream media reporters is the fact that there is going to be a trial, and it is scheduled for Oct. 26.

Stathopoulos wouldn’t agree to plea guilty, and the district attorney has opted to take the case to trial, although the charge can only amount to a fine of $150. The guilty plea would have included agreeing to stay away from the car owner, whose name she said that she has yet to learn.

She also estimates that she will have to pay her own attorney $3,-5,000, and that she will “lose thousands that day on readings” that she won’t be able to do at her shop. It is possible that the only beneficiaries of the trial will be the commentators who are watching the developments, such as conservative radio host Jeff Kuhner, who interview Stathopoulos on The Kuhner Report for the Boston station WRKO.

Kuhner admittedly was unfamiliar with modern-day Witches and, at one point, asked Stathopoulos if she were a Wiccan, but pronounced it “weeken.”   He wasted no time comparing this “modern day witch trial in Salem” to the historic events of 1692, saying, “It didn’t turn out well for your ancestors then.”  The segment can be heard in its entirely at WRKO’s site, and it appears that he based his understanding of the events on a WHDH video news segment.

Stathopoulos, who said she has extensive experience being interviewed, was not impressed with the coverage overall. “I do have a colorful personality,” she acknowledged, but making light of the Witch trials is inappropriate in her opinion. “Professional interviewers can make it go one way or another,” she said. “For them to ask, ‘Did the Witch do the right thing?’ is sort of appalling. Do [they] think we should leave the dog in the car?'”

Kuhner said several times during the segment that he did not agree with leaving the animal in distress, but thought the matter should have ended when the owner arrived and could turn the air conditioning on in the vehicle. He never answered the questions posed by Statholopoulos on whether he’d consider it the same if it had been a baby. Later on in the segment, Christian Day — owner of Hex outside of which the incident took place — pressed him on that point, and the host admitted that he believed the life of a baby is more important.

Witches and other Pagans should brace for another round of “Salem Witch trial” stories making the media rounds this fall when Stathopoulos has her day in court, Oct. 26, just in time for the busiest tourist season in America’s Witch city.

Column: Black August

Heathen Chinese —  August 20, 2016 — 2 Comments

The dog days of summer are here, marked by the rising of the star Sirius in the morning sky, “the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog, which is brightest among the stars, and yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals.”¹ On August 13, Sylville Smith was killed by a Milwaukee police officer. In the following two nights, eight businesses and numerous cars were burned, rocks and bottles were thrown at the police, and guns were fired on multiple occasions, resulting in at least one hospitalization. Meanwhile, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center has alleged that the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison gang may be planning “to kill correctional officers and Aryan Brotherhood gang members” in commemoration of Black August.

george jackson

George Jackson 

Black August originated in the 1970s following the August 7, 1970 deaths of Jonathan Jackson, James McClain and William Christmas during a prisoner liberation and hostage-taking at the Marin County Courthouse and the August 21, 1971 death of George Jackson during a prison rebellion in San Quentin.

Prisoners participating in Black August “wore black armbands on their left arm and studied revolutionary works, focusing on the works of George Jackson. The brothers did not listen to the radio or watch television in August. Additionally, they didn’t eat or drink anything from sun-up to sundown; and loud and boastful behavior was not allowed. The brothers did not support the prison’s canteen. The use of drugs and alcoholic beverages was prohibited and the brothers held daily exercises.”

Black August also commemorates numerous other significant moments in black history including but not limited to the Haitian Revolution, which began on August 21, 1791 and was preceded by the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, the slave rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser on August 30, 1800 and by Nat Turner on August 21, 1831, the founding of the Underground Railroad on August 2, 1850 and the Watts rebellions in August, 1965. In their article on Black August, the Malcolm X Grassroots movement writes, “if we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.” Like a flowering branch nourished by roots wrapped around the decaying bodies of the dead, the visible manifestations of revolt are supported by a vast invisible network of spirits and subterranean traditions.

A New Birth, At Once Into Life and Into Death

In his study of “The Traditional Chinese Mourning Categories,” anthropologist David K. Jordan notes that mourning is characterized by two indicators: “distinctive mourning clothing” and the requirement to “avoid normal activities, sometimes even subsistence activities.” We see the same two indicators in the black armbands worn by prisoners during Black August, and in their avoidance of a wide range of “normal activities,” including fasting.

The need to mourn the deaths of George and Jonathan Jackson was also seen clearly by both James Baldwin and Jean Genet. The friendship of the two writers and their writings about the Jacksons are analyzed in Bædan: journal of queer time travel. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin compared the grief of Georgia Jackson, Jonathan and George’s mother, to that of the Virgin Mary:

George Jackson has joined his beloved baby brother, Jon, in the royal fellowship of death. And one may say that Mrs. Georgia Jackson and the alleged mother of God have, at last, found something in common. Now, it is the Virgin, the alabaster Mary, who must embrace the despised black mother whose children are also the issue of the Holy Ghost.²

Jean Genet also wrote about Georgia Jackson, but in his “half-waking dream” that he experienced “a few hours after [George] Jackson’s death,” George and Jonathan were reborn from a different womb:

Jonathan and George violently came out of the prison, a stony womb, on waves of blood. […] It was not their mother who gave birth to them that night, for she was there, upright, impassive but alert, looking on. If it was a new birth, at once into life and into death, who but History was delivering the two black men covered, as with every birth, in blood.³

In a strange parallel, Baldwin declared that “an old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives.” He prophesied that “there will be bloody holding actions all over the world, for years to come: but the Western party is over, and the white man’s sun has set.” We are still seeing the “bloody holding actions” today, and we have indeed proven to be “exceedingly clumsy midwives,” but these struggles are nothing new.

Haitian_revolution

Haitian Revolution. Battle of Snake Gully, 1802 [Public Domain]

Dance Groups or Associations Which Foster an Esprit de Corps

The Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, 1791 also served as a kind of bloody Caesarean birth, for the Haitian Revolution began exactly one week later. The ceremony was first written about by Antoine Dalmas, a French doctor who fled to the United States and then wrote a report in 1794 based upon the interrogation of prisoners. That Dalmas’ portrayal of the ritual is unsympathetic is an understatement that should go without saying, but nonetheless, it is the first written account of the ceremony:

[They] celebrated a sort of feast or sacrifice in the middle of a wooded untilled plot on the Choiseul plantation, called le Caïman, where a very large number of Negroes assembled. An entirely black pig, surrounded by fetishes (fétiches), loaded with offerings each more bizarre than the other was the holocaust offered to the all-powerful spirit (génie) of the black race. The religious rituals that the negroes conducted while cutting its throat, the avidity with which they drank of his blood, the value they set in possessing a few of his bristles, a sort of talisman which, according to them, was to render them invulnerable, all serve to characterize Africans. That such an ignorant and besotted caste would make the superstitious rituals of an absurd and sanguinary religion serve as a prelude to the most frightful crimes was to be expected.4

Later accounts, such as that of the French abolitionist Civique de Gastine in 1819, would add further details such as the renunciation of Christianity as “the religion of their masters” and a collective oath “to perish rather than return to slavery,” but these writers were much further removed from the actual events in Haiti in 1791. It is, however, telling that “the second Haitian president, Alexandre Pétion, in 1814 prohibited the gathering of ‘all dance groups…or associations which foster an esprit de corps.’5 In other words, it is indisputable that subaltern religious organizations were seen as a threat by those who gained power after the revolution, which speaks to their significance and power during the revolution itself.

A quick survey of cross-cultural and historical comparisons shows that rituals intended to grant invulnerability were also associated with the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, Chinese spirit mediums in general, the Native American Ghost Dance, and the mainads of Dionysos written about in Euripides’s Bakkhai: against the mainads, “sharpened weapons drew no blood at all.”6 While Euripides was a playwright and may be accused of poetic license, the historical record shows that Dionysian worship was seen as a serious threat in Rome. Like Pétion in 1814 CE, the Roman Senate in 186 BCE banned all Bacchic cults not approved by the praetor urbanus, declaring that “henceforth they shall not form conspiracies among themselves, stir up any disorder, make mutual promises or agreements, or interchange pledges; no one shall observe the sacred rites either in public or private or outside the city, unless he comes to the praetor urbanus.”

The fear of conspiracies, disorder and oaths is obvious in the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, and even more so in Livy. Just like Dalmas’s claim that Bois Caïman was a “prelude to the most frightful crimes,” Livy associated the Bacchic rites with criminality and violence:

With the added liberation of darkness, absolutely every crime and vice was performed there. The men had more sex with each other than with the women. Anyone who was less prepared for disgrace and slow to commit crimes was offered up as a sacrifice. To consider nothing wrong was the principal tenet of their religio. Men, as if insane, prophesied with wild convulsions of their bodies, married women in the dress of the Bacchants with streaming hair ran down to the Tiber carrying burning torches, which they dipped into the water and brought out still alight.

Like Dalmas, Livy was clearly an unsympathetic narrator, but the disapproval and disgust of these reactionary writers merely goes to show how seriously “dance groups or associations which foster an esprit de corps” have historically frightened the ruling classes.

Mainad. Kylix, 490–480 BCE, Vulci, Italy. [Public Domain]

Mainad. Kylix, 490–480 BCE, Vulci, Italy [Public Domain]

The Chaplains Corps of the War on Slavery

Rebelliously-inclined religious organizations were present in the Antebellum Southern United States as well, some of which are written about in Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford’s Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. For example, one of the leaders in Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion testified at his trial that he was sent to recruit the “outlandish people” who were “supposed to deal with witches and wizards,”7 and thereby recruit the sorcerers as well.

Furthermore, the early black nationalist Martin Delany (1812–1885) wrote of a council of conjure men and women known as “the Head” located within the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The Head performed rituals in a cave in the swamp, where they also kept a large sacred serpent. The Head played a major role in the initiation of new conjure men and women: “in order to be ordained as conjure men or women, non-maroons were forced to (at least temporarily) escape their bondage and find the council.”8 This initiatory escape, even if temporary, served to forge ties between the maroons in the swamps and the rebels on the plantations.

The Head was involved in numerous slave insurrections and “considered themselves to be the chaplains corps of the war on slavery. The Head deeply revered the memory of Nat Turner, and claimed to have been associated with his effort. As young conjure men they had fought alongside General Gabriel and took pride in that action forty years later.”9 By venerating the ancestors of the struggle and keeping their memories alive, the Head contributed to future revolts as well.

Shirley and Stafford argue that the maroon communities that were rooted in the Great Dismal Swamp were crucial to the exceptionally high number of large uprisings that broke out in the Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina, and that diverse and syncretic spiritual practices were an inherent and central part of maroon social organization.10 Like the Eolh-sedge of the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, the maroon community “is mostly to be found in a marsh; it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound, covering with blood every warrior who touches it.”

Nat Turner. [Public Domain]

Nat Turner [Public Domain]

Let the Crops Rot, Betray the Whites

These are but a few of the stories and ancestors invoked by Black August. And even after August 31, the memory of previous uprisings guides the struggles of the present. On September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, prisoners are calling for a general strike of prison labor across the United States:

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.

This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery, starting on September 9th, 2016. They cannot run these facilities without us.

While the prisoners address their fellow prisoners directly, solidarity actions proliferate outside the walls of the prisons. But the conditions of imprisonment extend beyond the facilities themselves, as Milwaukee demonstrates clearly. Jean Genet’s words after the death of George Jackson ring as true today as they did in 1971:

We must look closely…at all imprisoned blacks—whether in jail or the ghetto—who are in danger at every moment of being assassinated like George and Jonathan Jackson or of being wasted away by the white world. In fact, we must learn to betray the whites that we are.11

Genet, despite declaring George and Jonathan “two black Gemini,” eschewed the language of mythology and instead called this task a “human labor directed against the dense and sparkling mythology of the white world.” Nonetheless, I maintain that the war is waged on all fronts simultaneously, and that the spiritual realms are inseparable from the social and the material.

Footnotes

  1. Homer, Iliad 22.29-31, translated by Richmond Lattimore.
  2. Quoted in Bædan 110.
  3. Quoted in Bædan 111.
  4. Quoted in Elizabeth McAlister, “From Slave Revolt to a Blood Pact with Satan: The Evangelical Rewriting of Haitian History” 9.
  5. Ibid 8.
  6. Euripides, Bakkhai, translated by Anne Carson 40.
  7. Quoted in Dixie Be Damned 43.
  8. Ibid 44.
  9. Hugo Leaming, quoted in Dixie Be Damned 44.
  10. Ibid 21.
  11. Quoted in Bædan 111.

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

UNITED STATES — As November looms ever closer, Americans continue to grapple with the many issues and the rheteroic surrounding the 2016 Presidential election process. The national conventions for the Democratic and Republican parties are now over, and candidates officially declared. At the same time, the smaller Libertarian and Green parties have also declared candidates. To date, this race has been one of the most contentious, and only promises to continue in that vein.

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One of the most critical issues for Pagans, Heathens and polytheists is a candidate’s position on religious freedom and the protections granted by the First Amendment. The Pew Research Center recently published an  overview of “Religion and the 2016 Election.” Where do various religious communities fall within candidate support? According to the June polls, GOP candidate Donald Trump finds his biggest support among white Evangelical Protestants. “Roughly eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestant voters (78%) say they would support Trump if the election were held today.” That percentage is up slightly from 2012.

On the other hand, black Protestants strongly favor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “Nine-in-ten black Protestants who are registered to vote say they would vote for Clinton if the election were held today (89%), as would two-thirds of those with no religious affiliation.” The unaffiliated is defined as the ‘nones,’ or those not connected with any religion.

Pew’s report did not record any interest in third-party candidates, nor did it analyze the responses from voters within non-Christian religious populations. Pew states, “There were not enough interviews with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and members of other religious groups to analyze their responses separately.” That includes Pagans, Heathens and polytheists, unless some were labeled “unaffiliated.” Regardless, the data aren’t there.

Another Pew study published in January discusses the value of candidate’s religion within the campaign process. Does a candidate’s religious affiliation matter to voters? According to that study, 51 percent of Americans are less likely to support a candidate who “does not believe in God.” That statement could be read as meaning simply an atheist candidate, which is how Pew analyzes the data, or it could also be read as a candidate practicing a minority religion, who does not believe in the Abrahamic god. This nuance was not addressed.

At the same time, Pew does note that the percentage of people concerned about a candidate’s “faith” has been dropping. That figure is down twelve points from 63 percent in 2007. Similarly, the number of Americans who are “less likely” to support a Muslim candidate is also down from 46 percent in 2007 to 43 percent in 2016.

And, this trend follows with other major religions as well. The candidate’s own religious affiliation is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the election process, paralleling the growth of the ‘nones,’ an increase in minority religious practices, and other similar trends that suggest a movement toward greater secularization.

While the candidates’ religious beliefs are of decreasing interest, their position or their party’s position on religious freedom is still a vital part of the campaign process. Religious freedom was and is still one of the backbones of the American system.

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[Courtesy Pixabay]

So where do the parties stand? Here is a look at the official 2016 party platforms with statements by the candidate in no particular order.

2016 Democratic Party Platform

“Democrats will always fight to end discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” (p. 22)

The Democratic platform predominantly addresses religious freedom in general terms. It is included in discussions of general civil liberties, diversity in the military, LGBT rights, and the condemnation of profiling and hate speech. Democrats state, “It is unacceptable to target, defame, or exclude anyone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. ” (p. 18)

The platform talks more specifically about religion in three places. First, when discussing marriage equality, Democrats say, “[We] applaud last year’s decision by the Supreme Court that recognized that LGBT people—like other Americans—have the right to marry the person they love.” They go on to indirectly reference the run of Religious Freedom Restoration acts (RFRAs) in the following statement: “We will do everything we can to protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom of religion.” (p. 47)

U.S._Democratic_Party_logo_(transparent).svgThe Democrats also mention religion in a section titled “Honoring Indigenous Tribal Nations.” They pledge to “empower tribes to maintain and pass on traditional religious beliefs,” among other things. And, they offer to “acknowledge the past injustices” that have led to the destruction of such beliefs. (p. 22-23)

Under the title “Religious Minorities,” Democrats say, “We are horrified by ISIS’ genocide and sexual enslavement of Christians and Yezidis and crimes against humanity against Muslims and others in the Middle East. We will do everything we can to protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom of religion.” (p. 51)

This idea is supported by a comment in Clinton’s own book, Hard Choices, published in 2014:

Religious freedom is a human right unto itself, and it is wrapped up with other rights, including the right of people to think what they want, say what they think, associate with others, and assemble peacefully without the state looking over their shoulders. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that each of us is born free to practice any religion. (p.74)

Clinton herself is reportedly a Christian and, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, said, “[It] is our duty, to build that bright future, and to teach our children that in America there is no chasm too deep, no barrier too great–and no ceiling too high–for all who work hard, never back down, always keep going, have faith in God, in our country, and in each other.”

More recently, in an Op-Ed for the Deseret News, owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and with a Mormon readership, Clinton wrote, “As Americans, we hold fast to the belief that everyone has the right to worship however he or she sees fit. I’ve been fighting to defend religious freedom for years.” She ends noting the “blessings” of Constitution and promise to uphold the President’s “sacred responsibility” to protect it.

2016 Republican Party Platform

“[Republicans] oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination.” (p. 9)

The Republican Party tackles religious freedom head-on. In a section titled “The First Amendment: Religious Liberty,” the party begins by saying, “The Bill of Rights lists religious liberty, with its rights of conscience, as the first freedom to be protected. Religious freedom in the Bill of Rights protects the right of the people to practice their faith in their everyday lives.” (p. 11)

From there, the Republicans continue on to discuss the “ongoing attempts to compel individuals, businesses, and institutions of faith to transgress their beliefs” and the “misguided effort to undermine religion and drive it from the public square.” More specifically, the urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which removes the 1954 IRS code restricting tax-exempt entities, including religious bodies, from engaging in partisan politics. (p. 18)

Republicanlogo.svgThe Republican Party platform goes on to endorse the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (HR 2802) that addresses “discriminatory actions against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction.” This includes the repeal of the IRS tax code as well as further protections for faith-based institutions. The Republicans explain, “[the act would] bar government discrimination against individuals and businesses for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” As such, the platform also “condemns the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor.” (p. 11)

Religious rhetoric can be found in other sections of the platform, similar to the party’s position on marriage equality. However, the Republicans do not directly address religious freedom again until their discussion on foreign policy with regard to Israel and Syrian refugees. In both cases, they acknowledge their support of governments and systems that “protect the rights of all minorities and religions.” (p. 47) The platform reads:

The United States must stand with leaders, like President Sisi of Egypt who has bravely protected the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and call on other leaders across the region to ensure that all religious minorities, whether Yazidi, Bahai, Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Christians, are free to practice their religion without fear of persecution. (p. 59)

Where does Trump stand specifically? He has reportedly spoken out briefly on the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. According to Time, Republican platform committee member Tony Perkins said, “[Repealing the Johnson Amendment] is a priority in the platform, and from the Trump folks, it is a priority of the campaign, and will be a priority of the administration.”

Trump’s running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, is a supporter of the RFRA movement, having signed one of the most publicized of such laws. Trump wrote in his book Crippled America, published in 2015, “What offends me is the way our religious beliefs are being treated in public. There are restrictions on what you can say and what you can’t say, as well as what you can put up in a public area. The belief in the lessons of the Bible has had a lot to do with our growth and success. That’s our tradition, and for more than 200 years it has worked very well.” (p. 132)

Trump’s foreign policy has been a hot topic after he suggesting banning Muslims from entering the country. However, he has since explained that his statement is about “territory” and not religion. As noted in the New York Times, Pence recently supported this idea when he stated that the campaign suggested an immigration ban on all people coming from certain Daesh-controlled territories.

In July, Trump himself was quoted in The Washington Post, saying “We have a religious, you know, everybody wants to be protected. And that’s great. And that’s the wonderful part of our Constitution. […] I live with our Constitution. I love our Constitution. I cherish our Constitution.”

2016 Libertarian Party Platform

“As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.” (p. 1)

The Libertarian Party published its 2016 platform in May after holding its own national convention. The platform is far shorter than either of the two major parties. Similar to the Democrats, the Libertarians did not address, condone, or endorse any specific religious freedom actions or proposed legislation. They simply expressed their general position with regard to religious liberty. In section “1.2 Expression and Communication”, the party writes:

Libertarian_Party_US_LogoWe support full freedom of expression and oppose government censorship, regulation or control of communications media and technology. We favor the freedom to engage in or abstain from any religious activities that do not violate the rights of others. We oppose government actions which either aid or attack any religion. (p. 2)

That is the only section that directly mentions religion or religious freedom; however, it is implied within other held positions affecting “personal liberty,” such as abortion, parenting and marriage equality. In all cases, Libertarians stress that government should “stay out of the matter.” (p. 3)

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson supports the platform in full. However, in his book Seven Principles of Good Government, he did note a nuance with regard to child care. He supports the use of government vouchers for child care, if and when it is within a religious facility. (p. 96-97)

More recently, The Deseret News published an op-ed with Johnson, who addresses religious freedom to the news agency’s Mormon readership. He wrote, “Given the divisiveness and pain that have accompanied several state religious freedom laws, I approach attempts at legislating religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws with great sensitivity and care.”

Johnson goes to say that he supports religious belief but fears “politically-driven legislation which claims to promote religious liberty” and is used to for discrimination. Here he is referring to the RFRAs.

In his conclusion, Johnson writes, “America is big enough to accommodate differences of opinion and practice on religious and social beliefs. As a nation and as a society, we must reject discrimination, forcefully and without asterisks. Most importantly, as president I will zealously defend the Constitution of the United States and all of its amendments.”

2016 Green Party Platform

“As a matter of right, all persons must have the opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment. We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, any discrimination by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, nationality, religion, or physical or mental ability that denies fair treatment and equal justice under the law.” (10 Key Values)

logo-of-the-gpusa_square_weblogo_0The Green Party addresses religious freedom throughout its platform. In its Ten Key Values, the party condemnes the “systematic degradation or elimination of our constitutional protections,” and as part of that, they support the “U.S. constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and that there shall be no religious test for public office.” The Greens go on to say that they look to eliminate laws that “discriminate against particular religious beliefs or non-belief,” as well as eliminating the use of public funds to support “faith-based initiatives.” (Democracy)

In the Social Jusice section of the document, the Greens restate their support of the Bill of Rights, and then go on to offer a call to action with regard to a number of common situations in which religious freedom enters the debate. These situations include “curricula in government-funded public schools,” the Pledge of Allegiance, displays in public spaces, courtroom oaths, Boy Scouts, abortion, tax exemptions and more.

The Greens say, “We affirm the right of each individual to the exercise of conscience and religion, while maintaining the constitutionally mandated separation of government and religion. We believe that federal, state, and local governments must remain neutral regarding religion.”

On her own site, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein reiterated key components of the party platform. She only mentions religion specifically once, and that is with regard to foreign policy. She writes, “U.S. policy regarding Israel and Palestine must be revised to prioritize international law, peace and human rights for all people, no matter their religion or nationality.”

In a 2016 interview with OntheIssues, Stein spoke about religious freedom within the U.S. She said “We don’t live in a religious country–in the sense of having no national religion, and instead the separation of church & state–so faith should not be a public issue. […] Failing to separate church and state is a bad prescription.” Stein added that she brings a “perspective of religious neutrality,” which she believes is needed in this diverse “modern world.”

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While statistics appear to tell a story of a decreased interest or concern with religion’s place in politics, the decline is still very small. Whether religion is dealt with in specific terms, as the Republican Party did, or in more general ways like the Libertarians, it will continue to play a significant role in the American political machine. Religious conviction can be found underlying many major social issues, such as marriage equality and abortion rights, and at forefront of other debates, such as in public prayer and holiday displays. The U.S. may not be a religious country, but it is a country that continues to concern itself profoundly with the practice of religion, or lack thereof, in its many forms.

Editor’s Note: The Wild Hunt Inc is a non-profit news journal and does not take a position for or against any one party.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Last week, religious rights activist David Suhor delivered an invocation before the Pensacola city council. It wasn’t the first time that he had successfully lobbied for the right to give an opening prayer before a local governmental body. However, doing so as a member of The Satanic Temple resulted in much more attention than when Suhor offered a specifically Pagan prayer before the Escambia County commission in 2014. While only one commissioner left the room during the 2014 prayer, his recent appearance before the city council was greeted by dozens of Christians seeking to drown him out.

When Suhor rose to deliver the invocation, dressed in a black robe with a hood partially obscuring his face, many of the attendees rose along with him. It was not their intention, however, to join their voices in with his Satanic prayer. They stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer, while some of their number brandished crosses and apparently sought to cast out demons. After the protesters began their third recitation of the Christian prayer, council president Charles Bare was forced to order the room cleared.

[Video Still from July 14 Pensacola City Council Meeting]

[Video Still from July 14 Pensacola City Council Meeting]

The decision was faced with objections by people who knew that Suhor himself had recited his own prayer during the delivery of the invocation at the previous meeting, which had been called to specifically discuss whether prayers should be replaced with moments of silence. The first twelve minutes of the official video show the entire series of events as they unfolded, including how the fervor spilled over into the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“My approach in the beginning was to get invocations dropped” from the meetings, Suhor told The Wild Hunt, but those efforts led to no changes. Now, he said, “I am demanding radical inclusion.”

That shift was in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v Galloway, which rather than eliminating prayers from public meetings, required that members of all religions be given the opportunity. In addition to the prayer he offered before the county commissioners meeting, he has also tried to get on the agenda of the Escambia County School Board and the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, but was unsuccessful.

According to Suhor, “We meet all the requirements of all the boards, which are none.” He also noted that, because they are not legislative bodies, neither the school nor utility board is allowed to include prayer under the Galloway decision.

Suhor said that he still identifies as Pagan despite having joined The Satanic Temple (TST), and doesn’t find anything contradictory about that fact. He also continues to use the term “agnostic” to describe himself, but does not consider himself an atheist.

He said, “I can identify with ten different paths, and reject all religions that say you can have only one. I explore many faiths.”

He still enjoys Pagan rituals, he explained, because of the “strong spiritual component.” However, he finds nothing in the seven tenets of The Satanic Temple that makes him uncomfortable. On a pragmatic level, joining TST opened his and mind to finding allies. He said, it “helped us up our game. […] No one seemed to care when I did Pagan, pantheist, or agnostic invocations, but when name Satan and they care about the issue.”

Suhor has shown consistency about that position over time; during his 2014 interview with The Wild Hunt, he was already considering invoking Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to get the issue taken seriously.

None of the four elected boards has a written policy to ensure non-discrimination, he said. This leaves members to practice what he calls an “appeasement policy,” only allowing prayers from individuals who won’t upset the Christian majority in the area. “They give the veneer of inclusion,” he said, but only just barely.

He recalled one school board meeting that he attended on the issue during which the invocation was provided by a local rabbi. The board member who invited him specifically said it was for the cause of diversity. “That poor rabbi thought he was being honored,” Suhor observed, but was actually being used to advance “tokenism.”

Bayview cross [David Suhor]

Bayview cross [Photo Credit: David Suhor]

This is not the only way in which Suhor has expressed dissatisfaction with what he sees as unapologetic Christian privilege in his part of Florida. He is also one of several local residents suing to get the Bayview cross removed from public property.

Named for the public park in which it stands, the 20-foot-high cross is a gathering place every Easter Sunday. After determining that no one had ever obtained a permit for the gathering, Suhor himself applied for and received one for this year, but the day was rained out. Both the lawsuit — which is being advanced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association — and the permit move are about opposing the tacit governmental endorsement of one religion.

In truth, Suhor seems satisfied that his invocation was delayed and constrained and otherwise opposed. City council members opted to leave his scheduled invocation on the schedule, choosing to “grin and bear” the Satanic blessing and hoping the issue would then go away. However, a press release made sure that local reporters were following the debate leading up to the July 14 meeting very closely.

It is not clear if Suhor’s latest invocation received more scrutiny because it carried the name Satan, as he believes, or because The Satanic Temple is more media-savvy than most Pagans. Suhor is a co-founder of the West Florida chapter of TST, and while he’s careful not to say that he speaks for the organization, he acknowledges that he has assumed the de facto role of public face for the group. Membership is growing, he added.

While city council members may not have been prepared for the furor resulting from the request to perform the invocation, Suhor did prepare for the possibility. He recorded a video of the prayer he sang, complete with hand motions, in case it was difficult to follow along at the meeting. That video is below.

ANTELOPE VALLEY, Calif.– Steve Hill, the first open Satanic Temple (TST) member to run for office, was defeated in the June 7 California State Senate primary for the 21st district. Mr. Hill faced off against fellow Democrat Scott Wilk.

Hill received 12% of the vote, amounting to just over 13,000 voters who supported his bid for State Senate.

Steve Hill [Courtesy Photo]

Steve Hill [Courtesy Photo]

Although Hill did not win the primary and was, according to him, shunned by Democratic Party officials, the Los Angeles Chapter of TST saw his campaign as a positive step:

Our very own Steve Hill ran as a Democrat for California State Senate in the 21st district/Antelope Valley. He is the first openly Satanic, black political candidate in U.S. history. According to the 2015 census, Antelope Valley is largely white and Hispanic with roughly 20% of the populace being African American, it also boasts the largest concentration of churches per capita in California. The mayor of the City of Lancaster, Rex Parris has decreed Lancaster to be a ‘Christian City,’ a statement from a public official, that is in direct violation of the first amendment.

On election day, Steve secured 12% of the vote. Over 13,000 people in this small community went to the polls to support his campaign. Not only was this a huge victory for Steve, but it clearly shows that a substantial cross section of this community has, until now, been without a voice. The city officials in Antelope Valley have now heard that voice loud and clear. Steve’s campaign and our recent actions in Lancaster are a pretext to a series of legal and political actions in the valley. They are a reflection of the greater vision of The Satanic Temple which is nothing short of a revolution. A SATANIC REVOLUTION!

Hill may be the first open TST member to run for office, but others may soon join him. TST spokesman Lucien Greaves said that although he doesn’t know of any members who are elected officials in the US, “…every day, we’re being told of new plans for credible people within our membership to make a run for various public offices.”

According to Hill’s bio, he is an atheist and is currently helping to organize an L.A. chapter for TST. In his career, he has served in the United States Marine Corps, then worked as a civilian in the aerospace industry. After that he worked for the California Department of Corrections and is now a business owner and comedian. The focus of his campaign was alleviating poverty and protecting civil liberties.

The Satanic Temple is often at the forefront of First Amendment, civil rights, and anti-child abuse issues, using a combination of savvy public relations, humor, and lawsuits. TST is known nationally for challenging organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church, which regularly holds anti-gay protests at military funerals, and for creating a large statue of Baphomet specifically to sit alongside the large Ten Commandments sculpture at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

More recently, TST is reportedly making waves in Pensacola, Florida, where member David Suhor is listed on the city council’s July invocation schedule. In 2014, Suhor made headlines when he delivered a Pagan invocation at an Escambia County Board of Commissioners meeting. As noted in the RNS article, the Pensacola city council is now rethinking its inclusive invocation policy in order to allegedly “stop [Suhor] from delivering his message.” In early 2016, TST members forced a similar action in Phoenix, Arizona.

Although the Satanists say they do not worship the devil, they do claim status as a religious group and do have a clearly defined mission. That mission is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people.” In addition, they “embrace practical common sense and justice.”

Despite Hill’s loss in California, the Satanic Temple has said that more temple members are planning future campaigns for public office.

Hill was unavailable for comment.

PARKERSBURG, W. Va. — A single mother who wanted to bring in some extra income by opening up a tarot-reading shop has found her plans thwarted by a decades-old law that most city council members weren’t even aware was on the books. However, it was definitely on the radar for the zoning administrator who explained that she’d need a zoning variance to practice her craft legally. Instead, Heather Cooper opted to try to get the law repealed.

[Photo Credit: Atell Rohlandt / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Atell Rohlandt / Flickr]

Cooper, who has been reading tarot at home, was offered space in a friend’s building to open up a new metaphysical shop called Hawthorn, which would focus on card readings. A longtime resident of this West Virginia city, Cooper learned that there’s been a law on the books forbidding the practice of any “trade or profession having as its object the foretelling of happenings of future events.” While there isn’t a tarot police enforcing the law, which was first passed in 1906 and then amended since 1947, Cooper decided she wanted to start her business on the right foot.

“I’m too honest for my own good, and put a stop to the readings. I have a store and no customers; nothing to advertise,” she said.

Her shop Hawthorn has not remained entirely vacant while this process plays out; Cooper has opened the space up to local artists who wish to display their work.

Anti-fortunetelling laws are nothing new. In a 2014 Wild Hunt report on efforts to repeal such legislation, Jason Pitzl-Waters discussed how such statues come into being:

There have been, generally speaking, two primary reasons why fortune telling and other divinatory services are banned in a town or city. The first reason is to address concerns about fraud, about individuals running cons to bilk the gullible out of their money. The second reason is about religion, specifically in America, the Christian prohibition against (some forms of) divination. Often these two threads will conjoin, sometimes inflamed by prejudices against minorities who have engaged in divination to make money (the Roma, for example). In our modern era, these laws have been increasingly challenged by those who believe it limits free speech, or the free exercise of religious beliefs.

Despite the town being located in a what is considered to be a conservative region, Cooper has not found Parkersburg to be populated with people opposed to divination on religious grounds. For her, the hurdle is the time value of money. Even with city council members appearing supportive, Cooper is unfamiliar with the process for changing the law, one which invariably isn’t quick.

Heather Cooper [courtesy photo]

Heather Cooper [courtesy photo]

“I don’t know what I will do” in the meantime, she said. “[My] family sacrificed so much for this business. Hawthorn, my little tree of knowledge, is not doing so well now.”

Cooper doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer for advice on the actual procedure, but she recognizes that she needs one. This week, she started a crowdfunding campaign to get that professional guidance. She said:

I am fighting this and have hired a lawyer so I can get this city ordinance removed. My business is just getting started so I do not have the funds to afford said lawyer. Please help me in this fight so I and other readers can use our gifts in the town that we love.

With an autistic child to care for, Cooper hopes that the flexibility of her own business will give her the ability to earn a bit more money “to buy that loaf of bread” since her responsibilities at home make it difficult to work a job with set hours. She’s been interested in tarot since she was a teenager, and been reading professionally for over a year.

Cooper is optimistic that this law can be repealed without controversy, although she admits to having some trepidation. A similar effort in Front Royal, Virginia met with stiff resistance only a few years ago, and if this debate is framed in a religious context, it could bring out opposition to her request.

Cooper, herself, does not label her religious views. “When everybody asks my faith, I say, ‘I’m Heather.’ I was raised in a church, believe what I do; why can’t I just be me? Christians might think I’m horrible, but I can’t really say I’m Wiccan. I’m stuck in the middle. Why should I have to choose a face to do what I love, what I’m good at?”

Nevertheless, she’s well aware that divination is considered a core part of the religious practices of some of her customers. “They use it to guide them, to answer their questions. It’s a kind of prayer for a lot of people,” she explained.

hawthorn
The erstwhile business owner is facing unanticipated challenges with this effort; not only does she need to raise money to start earning money legally, she also is not very comfortable with the public speaking that’s required. “It kind of bothers me,” she said. “Why am I the one that wanted to step up?”

More than willing to follow her own advice, Cooper did consult a psychic about this issue. She was told, “I’m on the right path,” but that the story could get bigger before it’s done, which isn’t exactly what she wanted to hear.

“I gotta do this,” she concluded. “I may be crazy for doing it, but it’s what I gotta do.”

I recently stumbled upon three unrelated articles examining new ways of combining technology and religion. The first reports on a robot Buddhist monk, the second asks if apps believe in God, and the third promotes the use of computer models to study religion. The articles aren’t actually as unrelated as they first appear. In each case, the use of current technology serves to create an artificial distance between the twenty-first century (schizoid) man and the spiritual, in whatever form it may take. The focus is on reducing the poetic and unquantifiable experience of religion to prosaic and measurable object that can easily be filed away as just one more manufactured moment in our digital lives.

A Robot Monk

The New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow reports on “the world’s first robot monk,” a two-foot-tall device modeled on a character from a Buddhist comic book. Named “Worthy Stupid Robot Monk,” it was designed and built by Beijing’s Dragon Spring Temple and a consortium of approximately twelve Chinese culture, investment, and technology companies. Looking like a bald monk in a saffron-colored robe, the apparatus holds a touch-pad that allows visitors to the temple to enter questions and statements that are then answered.

“Worthy Stupid Robot Monk” of Beijing’s Dragon Spring Temple [Photo Credit: http://eng.longquanzs.org]

“Worthy Stupid Robot Monk” of Beijing’s Dragon Spring Temple [Photo Credit: http://eng.longquanzs.org]

The New York Times provides samples of interactions from the robot monk’s WeChat account, including:

Q: What is love?

A: Love is your own obsessions not being satisfied, the clashing of other people’s troubles with yours.

Q: I want to die.

A: Don’t assume you’re the most pathetic person in the world.

Q: Could there be another Cultural Revolution?

A: Wait, I will ask my master.

The article’s title states that the robot is “mixing spirituality with artificial intelligence.” The concept of AI is regularly invoked in popular media posts dealing with everything from Hello Barbie to smooching. Most of the time, the concept of AI is a clickbait stand-in for “thing that responds to input by producing output.” Any device or program with even the most basic responsive algorithm can lead to a journalist on a deadline to write a breathless post about the coming rise of the machines.

Take another look at the exchanges with the robot monk. The first question causes the device to produce a definition from its database. The second includes a keyword that triggers a prepared response. The third broaches a subject outside the programming of the robot and causes a deflecting non-answer to appear. This type of simulated interaction is strongly reminiscent of ELIZA, the 1960s computer program parodying a psychotherapy session that became widely known in a BASIC version of the late 1970s.

As a child in the early 1980s, I took ELIZA for a game and played it on a dumb terminal connected to Loyola University’s mainframe computer via a dialup modem. Even as a primary school student, it quickly became apparent to me that the virtual therapist’s answers were drawn from a limited pool of responses triggered by certain keywords in my questions, and that any unexpected input would draw stock evasions.

ELIZA

A computer simulation of one of my sessions with ELIZA, c. 1980 [Via www.manifestation.com/neurotoys/eliza.php3]

If 2016 robot monks are really running the same basic software as a 1966 computer therapist – or, at least, the same concept of interaction is serving as a model for its programmers – are we really that much closer to HAL 9000? More importantly, is seeking spiritual enlightenment from a robot monk any less ridiculous than seeking psychological insights from a computer therapist?

The monk project assumes that there are simple answers to the great questions that religions have asked throughout human history. It assumes that the job of a monk or other religious leader is to provide unthinking stock responses. This is unflattering to both the believer and the monk, for it sees each of them as a simple creature unable to wrestle with the complexities of the questions that religion struggles to answer – and it misses that this very struggle is at the core of the religious experience.

Siri’s Bat Mitzvah

The How We Get to Next website asks “Does Siri Believe in God?” and writer Leigh Alexander provides “A theological guide to chatbots and the world’s major religions.” Although the post generates the usual gagging reaction triggered by the tired trope of “the world’s major religions” (here, as always, the three Abrahamic traditions with Buddhism added for “inclusiveness”), it also provides an interesting insight into the way a young twenty-first century woman views the abandoned religion of her childhood – and how that view informs her conclusions on the intersection of technology and religion.

[Public Domain]

“Mr. Watson, come here. I want to know if you believe in God.” [Public Domain]

“I haven’t thought about religion in a long, long time,” writes Alexander, “but I was raised in a Jewish family.” Providing a perspective that is not uncommon in Pagan and Heathen communities, she portrays her former monotheistic religion as a tradition of rituals “the purpose of which seems primarily to demonstrate the ability to learn rules.” Given such a perspective on her abandoned religion, it is unsurprising that Alexander concludes, “Everything I can remember doing to prepare for my bat mitzvah service a bot could theoretically do.” I think I can hear the groaning of her rabbi from here.

After a dialogue with a computer scientist at UC Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies, Alexander concludes that “it would be most in line with Jewish thinking” to welcome a robot as a practicing member of the religious community. After having similar interactions with a Muslim video game designer, a Christian science writer, and a cognitive scientist – and reading a blog post by a Buddhist (an unfortunate lack of personal engagement with the one non-Abrahamic tradition included) – she offers a somewhat standard conclusion for these types of articles, referencing Asimov’s 1942 laws of robotics while warning against the coming rise of the machines.

Alexander’s piece is interesting and insightful, but it also exemplifies the intersection of post-religious identity with today’s personal technology. My own unverified personal gnosis generated by my wizard eye tells me that the most vocal supporters of the “new atheism” are those who were raised in earnestly-believing monotheist families. For some, it seems that the fact that their only religious experience was during the time of their life when their will was subjugated to the wishes of their parents has led to an understanding of religion that is mired in a childhood worldview of seemingly capricious rules and regulations. A similar view of Christianity is especially common among Pagans and Heathens who converted into their current tradition after conservative Christian childhoods.

Such a perspective on religious experience is a natural fit with an embrace of technology as a metaphor for spirituality. Alexander’s reflection on the rituals of her Jewish childhood as rule-bound training devoid of spiritual meaning unsurprisingly leads to a conclusion that an app or robot powered by if/then programming is fully capable of participating in religious community. As with the acceptance of a cartoonish robot as something that can fulfill the complex role of a monk, the idea that a cell phone app can be a contributing member of a religious community brushes aside the deep and complex human experiences and interactions that comprise what we call the spiritual and the religious.

Replicant Believers

A random tweet led me to the website of the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion’s Simulating Religion Project. The anonymous article introducing the project summarizes its ultimate goal: “If the Simulating Religion Project (SRP) succeeds, when questions about religion’s social functions arise, scientists can answer, ‘There’s an app for that,” with app defined as “a simulation program.” In other words, the SRP “aims to develop software that will simulate the cognitive-emotional mental processes and social interactions that mediate the effects of religion on social and cultural systems.”

computer

“Somewhere in here, we’ll find the gods.” [Still from “Manchester Baby.”]

The author argues in favor of “the accuracy or power of computer modeling to model complex human behaviors and interactions.” The study of religion as it exists today is portrayed as something unscientific, unreliable, and imprecise. The primary aim of the SRP is to reduce the unmanageable complexity of religious studies, to “force religious studies theorists to explain their theories in sufficient detail such that they can be modeled,” which “would make theories about religion more specific and hold them to explicit stadards [sic] of coherence and consistency.” Asserting that “religious theories often grow to such a large degree of complexity that one cannot tell what exactly falls under their scope of explanation,” the project “demands clarity from theorists on this front also, because nothing less can handle the concrete challenges of simulation and modeling.”

Note that the final statement suggests that religious studies must be simplified in order to deal with the inherent limitations of computer modeling, rather than calling for computer modeling to be developed that can handle the complexities of religious studies. While acknowledging the limitations of previous attempts to create synthetic models of human religious behavior, the writer seems profoundly troubled by the complexity of data generated by the study of religion:

Past simulation research in religion has grossly oversimplified the way humans interact, think, behave (especially morally), and change; this, obviously, will not do. At the same time, one should not include too much complexity in the simulation because this risks obscuring the issue rather than clarifying it. Too much simplicity gives wrong answers, and too much complexity gives unclear and confused ones.

On the website’s Modeling Religion Project Portal, the stated goals include production of “a simulation development platform that will allow SSR scholars and students to create complex simulations with no programming” and “a series of simulations of the role of religion in key transformations of human civilization, such as the Agricultural Transition (c. 8000 BCE), the Axial age (c. 800-200 BCE), and modernity (c. 1600-2100).”

There’s a lot to unpack here.

The spirit of Dr. Asimov is again invoked, if not by name, as the SRP seeks to create analytical models of human religious history from 8000 BCE to 2100 CE – from the ancient to the future – along the lines of the fictional Hari Seldon’s psychohistory, “that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli.” Creating any sort of model of religious cultures from 10,000 years ago involves assumptions about the knowability of incredibly ancient worldviews that would make even a reconstructionist blush, while asserting the ability of computer models to predict spiritual beliefs of those who will live nine decades in the future seems to evince a belief in the power of prophecy not so different from that of the arch-Heathen. Such an embrace of the powers of computer modeling borders on the mystical.

The pulling back from the messy complexity of religious studies is a typical reaction to the uncertainties of human experience that regularly makes an appearance in scientific communities. A friend who is a professor of engineering recently gave me a personal lecture to the effect Bernie Sanders supporters are sloppy-minded humanities folks whose emotions rule their lives while Hillary Clinton supporters are clearheaded scientists who have objectively evaluated the data. This engineering attitude seems to underlie the SRP’s belief that those who study religion are troublingly incoherent and inconsistent, and that real scientists need to get the data in shape in order to save religious studies from a state of irredeemable confusion.

This worldview is similar to the one expressed in the articles about the robot monk and the Jewish chatbot. While insisting that “too much simplicity gives wrong answers,” the SRP still embraces the idea that religious experience is something that can be reduced to a role-playing game and that believers ancient and yet unborn can be brought to digital life as non-player characters. Human existence is full of irrationality in general. Our desires, decisions, and deaths are not often algorithmic. Religious feeling is one of the least rational experiences of all, for good or ill. The idea that spirituality, of all things, is something that can modeled by computer engineers is itself irrational.

That scholarship on religion is so complex and irreducible to formula is largely due to the nature of the beast. Religious experience, across its broad spectrum and in all its variations, is not something that can be reduced to a Speak & Spell in a saffron robe, an iPhone app in a synagogue, or a computer model on a gaming table. If you want to understand religious experience and haven’t had it yourself – aside from being forced to go to Sunday school or Hebrew school – the best thing to do is to meet people from different religious traditions, get to know them, and listen to what they have to say. That’s a messy process, and it takes much more time and commitment than listening to a one-sentence answer from a robot, downloading an app, or studying replicant religionists that can be silenced with a keystroke. Many in today’s world will go to great lengths to avoid dealing with the complicated world of face-to-face human interaction. That’s not something to be celebrated as progress.

[Editorial Note: The Robbie the Robot photo that was previously in this article and is still being used in social media in connection with this article was used taken by DJ on Flickr]