There are many surviving ancient and sacred spaces around the world. Some are protected and used for spiritual practice; some have become popular tourist destinations; and some are left to the whims of a changing culture. These sacred spaces range from human constructions to natural lands built only by the elements. From the ancient Greek temples in Agrigento, Italy to the ruins in Arizona’s Wuptaki National Monument, these spaces resonate with many contemporary people in their work to honor, reconstruct, practice and celebrate time-honored religious traditions, the associated cultures and surrounding ecology.

Unfortunately, many of these unprotected spaces, whether purely natural or human-engineered, are open to threats posed by modern construction in the name of so-called “progress” and industrialization. One such place that has recently drawn international attention is the mountain of Mauna Kea on the “Big Island” in Hawai’i.

"Mauna Kea from the ocean"[Credit: Vadim Kurland, Lic. CC Wikimedia]

“Mauna Kea from the ocean”[Credit: Vadim Kurland, Lic. CC Wikimedia]

Mauna Kea rises over 13,000 feet above sea level and is a dormant volcano with surrounding lands that feature native species of plant and animal. The area has long been held sacred to the native Hawaiian people and is a definitive part of ancient religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, the mountaintop was discovered to be one of the best places on Earth to study astronomy. These two realities have to come into conflict.

Today, Mauna Kea has 13 observatories on its summit funded by over 11 countries. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists discovered Mauna Kea’s optimal conditions for telescope viewing. When it was finally possible to reach the mountain, the University of Hawai’i (UH) was granted a 65-year lease to develop the land for research. By the late 1970s, other organizations began to request authorization to sub-lease that property. Those agreements are what has led to the large number of telescopes on the mountain today.

Protests began almost immediately after the first UH telescope was completed. Locals were concerned not only about the destruction of a sacred religious space but also about disturbances to the indigenous wildlife, some of which is native only to that area. In the 1980s, the state published a development plan and environmental impact report. In 2000, the plan was updated “to include community involvement” and the Office of Mauna Kea Management was established.

However, it was only a few short years later that a new $1.4 billion Thirty-Meter Telescope was proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea. This colossal telescope, called TMT, would be the largest and most advanced in the world with an optical ability 10x greater than any working telescope. According to an AP report, “The telescope should help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.” Headed by Caltech and the University of California, the project is being funded jointly by interests from the United States, Japan, Canada, India and China.

Proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope [Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation  via Wikimedia]

Proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope [Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation via Wikimedia]

In 2011, the Hawai’i Board of Land and Resources gave preliminary approval for the sub-lease and construction of the telescope. Despite legal actions and protests from locals, the Board gave its final approval in April 2013. The date for completion would be 2022.

Opponents filed an appeal in May 2013 in yet another attempt to stop the project. The appeal reads:

Mauna Kea advocates are seeking justice in Hawai‘i courts … It is unfortunate when public citizens are forced to go through court proceedings when developments such as the TMT Project are systematically granted permits by the BLNR despite these projects not meeting the criteria as outlined in Hawai`i State law … We must proceed ahead and be idle no more. Mauna a Wakea is still sacred.

One of the laws that is being broken is a building height code. The proposed TMT would become the tallest building on the island. Along with environmental concerns and a destruction of sacred space, opponents also point to a direct violation of state codes.

The first appeal was eventually denied when the courts upheld the Board’s decision to allow the sublease. According to reports, four individual opponents, Kealoha Pisciotta, Clarence Ching, Paul Neves and E. Kalani Flores, were not giving up and have since decided to take the issue back to court in four separate cases representing only themselves. Despite the threat of future court action, the TMT Observatory Corporation felt comfortable moving forward and set the groundbreaking ceremony for Oct. 7.

What the TMT Observatory Corporation didn’t expect is what happened on that day. Protestors blocked the road leading up to ground-breaking ceremony site. They spoke out, chanted and held signs that read things like “Your Mother is Not a Commodity” or “Too Many Telescopes.” The vans carrying attendees were forced to slow down or stop entirely. Much of this was captured on video:

Later the same group of protestors interrupted the ceremony itself. Led by Pua Case and Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, they stood before the crowd of attendees and addressed investors. In a desperate emotional appeal, one woman says to a group of Japanese men, “You let Mount Fuji stand; Mount Fuji is sacred. Our Mauna Kea is just as sacred as Mount Fuji. Please hear us. Hear us … She protects us.”  This was also caught on video:

The protests were echoed in Palo Alto, California where a group of people stood outside of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation offices. The Foundation is one of the American investors backing the TMT project. The California protest was led by Kauʻi Peralto, a Hawaiian cultural educator at Stanford University, and was also supported by the Santa Cruz Indigenous Solidarity, the Wintun tribe of Northern California and many other concerned individuals.

In a blog post, Kealoha Pisciotta a native Hawai’in, local activist and president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, described best the meaning of the mountain and why all of these people have come together to stop a project that would otherwise seem beneficial to human understanding and scientific discovery. Pisciotta describes Mauna Kea as the “temple of the creators,” which is home to the deities that gave birth to the Hawaiian people. It is the meeting of Earth Mother and Earth Father. She writes, ” Mauna Kea in every respect represents the zenith of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral ties to Creation itself.”

The mountain is featured in many Polynesian myths and religious stories. It is considered a place of calm and a place of peace. She writes:

When we look to Mauna Kea, we look from Mauna Kea and we look within ourselves to find our responsibility to Mauna Kea and hence our place in the world. We move through time and space back to our beginning, to the time when the Pō (darkness of creation) gave birth to the Ao (light of creation) … We feel honored that we are allowed to be there, humbled by the majesty and greatness of Mauna Kea.

Another activist, one of the protest leaders, and a Hawaiian cultural educator, Pua Case regularly incorporates the mountain into her own personal spiritual practice. She told a San Francisco reporter:

Almost no matter where I look, there’s something foreign there. I can never just pray as you would in a forest where there are just trees — where no matter where you faced,  it would be just you and your forest, you and your gods, you and your spirit. I’m afraid if there’s one more thing, I can never really look at my mountain and pray without having to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ 

Case was unfortunately unavailable for interview but did briefly say that the spiritual practices of her native people are very complex and connect deeply to this mountain.

Last week’s protests did successfully halt the TMT groundbreaking. However, the project is still moving forward, if only delayed. Case, Pisciotta and many others pledge to continue the battle to save their mountain, their sacred space, their protector and, in doing so, preserve a specialized local ecology and a piece of native Hawaiian culture.

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“I didn’t really set out to be a priestess for a living . . . that’s what happened.”  — Selena Fox

Indeed, that’s what happened. Selena Fox is the High Priestess for Life at Circle Sanctuary, a legally recognized Shamanic Wiccan church that will be marking its 40th year this Samhain, October 31 and is celebrating with events and online reflections all month. The Wild Hunt spoke with Reverend Fox and several longtime members of Circle, as it is alternatively known, to get a sense of what Paganism looked like in 1974, and how Circle Sanctuary has participated in its evolution.

Circle Sanctuary logo

Circle Sanctuary logo

Circle is aptly named, as circles are particularly significant in Wiccan theology, serving as both the border of sacred space and a metaphor for the repeating cycles of life. Over the past four decades, the group has focused a lot of its energy on the beginnings and endings of life. Its Lady Liberty League was instrumental in efforts to get the pentacle approved as a religious symbol on military headstones; the group’s retreat center now includes a Pagan cemetery; and Reverend Fox has performed dozens of baby blessings, including one for this reporter’s long-since-grown stepson. The church’s calendar begins each year at Samhain, around which time some of the most significant milestones in its history tend to congregate.

In late October 1974, Fox “had a vision of starting Circle Sanctuary, the name and logo came to me, as well as the concept of having a rurally-based center that would help humans of different nature religion paths connect with each other, as well as the circle of nature of which we are all a part.”

Before the explosion of online social media, Paganism was a very different group of religions. How diverse the religions were under the Pagan umbrella is difficult to say. Solitary practitioners were very isolated, while some people practiced together in circles, covens, and groves. In the days before Drawing Down the Moon and The Spiral Dance, books were rare and publications, such as Green Egg, were the best source of knowledge. Fox had been traveling and working with Pagans around the country, “but it was not very public,” she recalled.

CIRCLE Magazine's incarnations over time

CIRCLE Magazine’s incarnations over time

With a vision clear in her mind, Fox put an ad in the Witches’ Almanac, inviting like-minded individuals to write to her at a Madison, Wisconsin post office box. From those early responses she formed a core group that rented some land and lived together. Networking locally wasn’t quite enough to satisfy her desire to connect across traditions.

So Circle began publishing a two-sided, typewritten newsletter and, together with her partner at the time Jim Alan, Fox became one of the earliest traveling Pagan musicians in the United States. She said:

Now it’s common for Pagan musicians to travel, and for there to be festivals, but in the 70s there was not much in the way of face-to-face communication across traditions. We felt called to do that.

There were other calls, as well, and other things for which Circle found itself at the forefront. Fox’s chants became a songbook, for which there was an incredible demand. They experimented with radio and television before most other Pagan groups, and still produce podcasts today.

First edition of Circle Guide

First edition of Circle Guide

But 1979 was the year that Paganism in general — and Fox in particular — got pulled into the public spotlight. It was the year that Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon was published on the east coast, and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance was released in the west. Circle began putting out the Circle Guide to Wicca & Pagan Resources to help Pagans find each other. It was also the year that Time magazine set out to write about Paganism for its religion page, which was a significant departure for the staid publication. To that end, Time staffers went to the Pan Pagan Festival in Indiana to learn more.

“I happened to be doing a handfasting, and that got their attention,” Fox said. “Maybe it was the broom.” A picture of Fox, holding the broom aloft, accompanied the Time piece on Paganism, and led to her being “bombarded with media requests,” including an interview in People magazine. The coverage was largely positive, and “really positive things came out of it.”

While the seventies were a time of change, no change comes easy. After four years in the same place “with no problems,” Circle’s landlord decided to evict the group due to the media interest. The eviction came from the sheriff right after Samhain, and they were faced with finding a new place with the Wisconsin winter looming before them.

With her typical optimism, Fox explained what went through their minds when dealing with the big pile of lemons that life had dealt them. She said, “Sometimes, you really just have to make lemonade. We found an opportunity to rent month-to-month, and we moved up the timetable to buy our own land.”

CSNP Prairie, Barn, House overviewAcquiring land for Pagan use was also a new idea. But in 1980 Circle Network News evolved from a two-page newsletter to a newspaper, and carried in it the announcement of the ambitious project. The network of Pagans, who had been corresponding through Circle’s network and meeting at the occasional festival, responded with half-throated support. “There were a lot of different opinions about that,” Fox said. A vocal portion of the Pagan community raised concerns about adopting an institutional model. Circle had incorporated as a church just two years earlier, and acquiring land raised a red flag for some. But several years later, in time for Samhain 1983, those who supported the idea had their way, and the land, destined to be the Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve, was bought by the organization.

Circle Sanctuary bought their land in 1983, and by doing that Circle transformed the community and their organization: people put down roots here, and some portion of the organizational energy flow shifted toward maintenance and stewardship of the land. That exerted a powerful stabilizing influence.– Bob Paxton, a 20+ year Circle member

That stabilizing influence allowed the organization to start focusing on helping people whose problems stemmed from being Pagan. “It does help to have some kind of institution when you’re fighting for Pagan rights,” Fox explained. The land allowed Circle to ramp up holding festivals of its own, such as Pagan Spirit Gathering, and use those events to fund other activities, which included public education and assistance for those being discriminated against.

That work was increasingly needed as this was the time when the United States was gripped by a “Satanic panic.” In Fox’s mind, it also led to what happened next. But the events she described are complex, so it’s not easy to draw clear lines of cause and effect.

  • 1983:  Circle members began remodeling buildings on their new property, including the conversion of a barn into the church’s headquarters. “In the 1980s, people were running businesses and non-profits out of barns . . . it seemed to be common practice,” Fox said.
  • 1984: A zoning administrator from the county came by to inquire into the work being done. “He starts asking questions, So I ask him some back,” Fox recalled, such as, “Are you asking people having boy scout meetings in their homes?” She adds, “I was polite, but it was really clear somebody was opposed to us having a Pagan center on that land. The administator couldn’t find anything to charge us with, so we did not hear for awhile.”
  • 1985: Circle applied for — and received — the necessary permits to do additional work, to remodel part of an old, historic barn into offices. “We had no building inspectors in that rural area back then, and started remodeling,” Fox said.
  • 1985: In September, three amendments were circulating through Congress with the aim of stripping tax-exempt status from organizations that “promote witchcraft.” One of these was attached to a tax-reform bill by unanimous voice vote of the Senate. Originally introduced by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to an appropriations bill for the postal service, the bill got the attention of many Pagans including those in Circle. “We got very involved in battling that,” Fox said. “We sent out thousands of fliers, urging people to contact their congress people about this.”
  • 1985: Just in time for Samhain, the amendment was laid aside in joint conference, having been deemed “not germane” to the bill.
  • 1986Local zoning officials sent Circle a notice of violations that could result in fines of a hundred dollars a day. In Fox’s words, “The zoning wars began. We got an attorney, went to the first meeting, which should have been a discussion of traffic patterns and sound, but it wasn’t — it was about religion. Government officials were attacking our religion in a government meeting. The room was packed with people riled up and concerned.” She later learned that much of that concern came from an earlier meeting, held without notice in violation of open meeting laws. In that meeting, attendees were shown a Geraldo Rivera special about Satanic crime in America, spliced in with some footage of Fox on the Phil Donahue and Today shows.
  • 1987 An “intense religious battle” continued to be waged with the press reporting on discrimination, while Circle Sanctuary was subjected to trespassing and threats of violence and death. Reverend Fox called this: “close encounters of a problematic kind.”
  • 1988:  The “zoning wars” ended when Circle Sanctuary received the church zoning designation that local officials had said it needed. Fox attributes the success in large part to the network of Pagans and others who rallied to support the church. But, in the end, the ACLU attorney working on the church’s behalf was able to secure a settlement without going to court, “when [local officials] realized we knew they were doing illegal things.”

Whether the “zoning wars” were directly connected to the fight against the Helms amendment can’t be corroborated either way, but it felt that way to Fox. That time was also a test for the nascent Lady Liberty League, which Circle had formed in the wake of that federal fight to defend Pagan rights. “In its earliest days, it was involved in our own Pagan rights cause,” Fox said.

The reason the land purchase was, and still is, so important to Circle’s success, is because it established a place where shared activities could occur and collaborative activities could occur. Over the many years I have been involved with Circle, it has become plain to me that people working together on projects, helps people form bonds. The more passionate people are about the work and the results of the work, the stronger the bonds. Wherever I go now, that is one of my primary mantras; collaborate together on projects that deliver real consequences in our own lives and to the benefit of the many outside of our own selves. — Nicholas Sea, Circle member since the 1970s

The first Pagan-Christian VA marker was placed in 2007.

The first Pagan-Christian VA marker was placed in 2007.

The years since have been perhaps less turbulent, but no less active for Circle Sanctuary. Its cemetery project began in 1995, after the land was paid off, and now has about 25 people interred on the grounds. Lady Liberty League led the charge to get pentacles onto military headstones to honor the Wiccan fallen. Although Fox’s role is enshrined in the by-laws, the organization includes its members in decision making. It recently completed developing a strategic plan that sought input from all community members, and is now surveying users of its lands for their input into the nature preserve’s future.

And Circle is active in interfaith dialogue, including that which takes place within Paganism. “Our world is not a monoculture,” Fox said, “and neither is Paganism. It’s a beautiful diversity. Everyone can be enriched by being part of a larger community. We do have to problem solve around issues having to do with language in different traditions, there are some challenges  but it’s still a really exciting thing.”

Rev. Selena Fox may not have set out to be a full-time priestess, but as High Priestess for Life at Circle Sanctuary, Selena Fox has had close encounters of the historic kind. For four decades, Paganism has unfolded around this organization, much of which is not included in this remembrance. On Oct 22, Circle Sanctuary will have a call-in radio show celebrating its anniversary, providing another opportunity for interested readers to hear more of Circle’s story.

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Pagan Federation

In recent weeks, the BBC and other media outlets have published articles on the increase in Witchcraft related violence in the UK. As a BBC article reports, police have had “27 allegations” this year alone which is up from 24 in 2013. After reading the reports, a senior Religious Education official contacted the Pagan Federation with concerns that the stories might cause misunderstandings with respect to Pagan religious practice in the UK. 

In response, Pagan Federation President Mike Stygal said, “I was particularly grateful to him for drawing my attention to the article.” In a public statement, Stygal explained, in detail, his deep concerns with the way mainstream media and officials have handled these child abuse cases. He said, “I’d quite like another opportunity to meet with … the appropriate government representative to see if we can find a way to highlight the issues whilst limiting the potential for misunderstandings about modern Pagans.” Both the Doreen Valiente Foundation and the Centre for Pagan Studies have both come forward to endorse Stygal’s statement. To read it in full, click here

*   *   *

CPWR Logo.Planning is underway for next year’s Parliament of the World’s Religions to be held in Salt Lake City. In the last week, the Council put out a call for programs, saying, “Everyone who attends the Parliament has wisdom to share – from those who are having their first interfaith experience to those who are steeped in interfaith. The purpose of this gathering is to support relationships, connections, and inspired calls to action which can then ripple out from the Parliament into hundreds of grassroots organizations, networks, and communities.”  Of the thousands of submissions, only about 10% will be selected for inclusion in the program. The application and submission guidelines can be found on their website.

*   *   *

Starhawk at Harvard Divinity School.

While many people are focused on Pagan Pride, fall festivals, Samhain and Halloween, another day sits just over the horizon. On Nov. 4, the U.S. will hold its general elections. On her blog Dirt Worship, Starhawk offers a post entitled, “Why Vote?” in which she lists “the practical, political and spiritual reasons” to get off the couch and head to the polls. She says that after you vote,”the world will not have transformed overnight. The Great Turning won’t have turned. The Good Guys will not have completely triumphed over the Bad Guys. But the world might just be a slight bit better than it would have been otherwise. And that small difference might be the divergence in the path that heads us away from destruction and onto the road to hope.”

In Other News

  • The struggle to keep religion out of schools is not only a U.S. problem. As reported on Oct 6 by SAPRA’s Damon Leff, the South African government has conflicting and problematic policies with regards to the teaching of religion within its public school system.
  • Around Samhain, Wild Hunt columnist Rhyd Wildermuth will be releasing his new book Your Face is a Forest, “a collection of prosaic wanderings and essays.” All profits from the book’s sale will be used toward funding his trip to the UK and Ireland in December. Rhyd was selected to attend the Winter Solstice festivities at Newgrange. When he returns, he will be reporting on that unique experience here at The Wild Hunt.
  • The Patrick McCollum Foundation has announced an opening for two interns. The positions are for volunteers, preferably graduate students, who want to work with the organization in its mission “to further world peace, planetary sustainability, environmental protection, and human rights, including the advancement of women’s rights.” For more information, contact executive director Nell Rose Phillips.
  • In the coming weeks, the organizers of PaganPro.org will be launching a new website with a series of public surveys that will eventually become the basis of a new online service. Chairperson Lydia M N Crabtree says,”PaganPro.org will be the first site to offer real and verified information about Pagan and occult leaders.” The surveys are the first step in building that database.
  • This month, Red Wheel Weiser Books is releasing a book called The Hedgewitch Book of Days by Mandy Mitchell. The book is “aimed at the practicing or would-be witch whose life is more jeans, chaos and the never-ending question of what’s for dinner, instead of black-robes, cauldrons, and incantations.”
  • Here’s a brief update on our own Fall Funding Drive. You have helped us to reach 96% of our campaign goal. Amazing! To all of those people and organizations who have already donated, thank you so very much. We can’t do this work everyday without your support. If you haven’t donated yet, please consider contributing today. If you have already donated, won’t you share our link and give us the extra boost needed to raise the remaining funds.

The Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive. Donate Now!

That’s all for now! Have a great day.

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On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rejected the appeal of Ohio science teacher John Freshwater, who was fired for teaching Creationism in the public school system. The case, Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, first made its way through the Ohio courts, where it was ultimately ruled that “the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education had ‘good and just cause’ to terminate John Freshwater’s teaching contract.” When the appeal reached the Supreme Court, the justices rejected it, thereby, allowing the Ohio court’s opinion to stand.

vernon_logoThis case is a recent example of a public school system becoming the playing field for a tug of war match between secularism and religion. According to Americans United (AU), the teacher not only taught Creationism in the classroom, but he displayed and handed-out religious material, and also performed surveys of students’ religious beliefs. AU also notes that the teacher was “accused of using an electronic device (a Tesla coil) to burn a cross into a student’s arm.”

Although the Ohio courts ruled that it was legal for Freshwater to place his personal Bible on the desk, his actions were otherwise out of line. AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said, “Freshwater was using his position to foist his religious beliefs onto impressionable students. The courts rightfully put a stop to that.”

For Pagan and Heathen parents or others practicing minority religions, there may come a time when religion is “foisted” upon their children within the public school environment. In most cases, the situation is likely an unthinking act, and indicative of a changing culture or shift in demographics. Minor missteps do happen and can often be remedied through conversations, education and awareness. Unfortunately, in some instances, such as the Ohio case above, the acts are blatant attempts at promoting a single religion.

The Satanic Temple's Children's Activity Book

Created by The Satanic Temple

Last year, Florida’s Orange County School Board allowed The World Changers of Florida to distribute Bibles to their students. After being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community, the school board approved the distribution of other religious material, which now includes pamphlets on Atheism and the Satanic Temple’s coloring book called “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

Similarly, the Madison County School Board in Georgia allowed a privately funded religious monument to be erected outside a high school football team’s field house. According to local news, the statue reads, “Romans 8:31: ‘If God be for us who can be against us?’ and Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’ ” Last month, the school board was contacted by both the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and is now facing a potential lawsuit.

In all three of these cases, the intention and, therefore the violation, is very clear. However, not all cases are quite as “cut and dry.” Over the past fifteen years, a national organization called “The Good News Club,” has been establishing after-school enrichment programs within public school buildings. With the growing number of working parents, these in-school extracurricular programs have become increasingly popular, serving a very needed purpose for modern families.

However, The Good News Club is a division of The Child Evangelism Fellowship and has a clear and direct religious initiative. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the club, and others like it, can legally hold after-school meetings within public school buildings. (The Good News Club v. Milford Central High School)  Despite that ruling, the club’s presence continues to spark controversy.

In Portland, Oregon, a large coalition has recently formed with the aim of stopping the Good News Club’s in-school activities. According to The Oregonian, its formation was sparked when Katherine Stewart published her book called The Good News Club: The Religious Right’s stealth assault on American Children.

Due to the SCOTUS ruling, that situation is not easy to legally negotiate. In an interview with The Oregonian, ACLU David Fidanque said, “I don’t know that there is a bright line anymore.” While acknowledging the club’s legal right to be in the school, he expressed real concern saying:

Keeping the government out of religious affairs is the single most important thing we can do to protect religious freedom in this country. If we allow our government institutions to endorse particular religious viewpoints, or even to promote religion in general over non-religion that is a threat to every form of religion.

1969339_231559560385952_2907068694561940975_nEven if The Good News Club is staying within its constitutional rights, Fidanque’s concerns are justified when looking at other similar situations. Growing in popularity in Georgia is another after-school religious club called Rise UP. The organizers make no effort to mask their affiliation with area schools. The website advertises, “Several other local elementary schools expressed interest in starting a similar program. We were excited about the possibility of partnering with these other parents and schools… there are new schools joining the RISE UP! Team as each school year starts – RISE UP! has a total of 9 elementary schools participating!” Did the schools ask to join or did the club ask to use the space?  Does that distinction matter?

Another way school systems intentionally or unintentionally allow religious speak into their public space is through visiting authors. Schools often hold assemblies during which a writer might speak, entertain, and read from his or her latest book. It is a very common occurrence and, in most cases, quite innocuous.

However, when that author writes with a strong religious directive, like popular Christian author Bryan Davis, the assembly could become problematic. Davis’ books reflect a deep connection to his own personal theology. While his work is certainly fitting for church assemblies, is it appropriate for public school children? Is it constitutionally legal for Davis to be speaking about and selling books that openly promote the celebration of one’s “God-given talents” and overtly discuss “faith, prayer and redemption” within the public school system? Interestingly, two of the participating middle schools are in Orange County, Florida, where the Bibles are being distributed.

These are only a few recent examples of cases in which an uncomfortable situation could arise for Pagan, Heathen or other families practicing a minority religion. There are many others situations from the minor missteps by a well-meaning teacher to the blatant promotion of a single religion. On Polytheist.com, parent Niki Whiting described her own encounter:

For a few brief weeks when we sent my son to the neighborhood kindergarten we had to deal with his confusion around the Pledge of Allegiance. I was surprised that this was still said in schools. He came home and asked why the school was trying to make him Christian. Already, in his (then) 5 short years of life, he knew that when people say ‘God’ they are mostly referring to Yahweh. “Don’t they know that the world is full of gods?” he asked. No, no, my son, they do not.

pagans_and_the_law_mainWhile every situation doesn’t need a lawyer, there may be times when a friendly email is just not enough. What should a parent do in such situations?  In her book Pagans and the Law, lawyer Dana Eilers suggests, “A basic understanding of the Constitution, the First Amendment, and their history is essential to grasping the enormity of religious freedom.” Her book lays out the basics as they pertain specifically to Pagans. She writes, “It is highly recommended that everyone read this document, boring as it appears. It is what stands between you and 10 thousand years of discrimination, persecution, and darkness.”

Another resource is Lady Liberty League. Co-founder Rev. Selena Fox has this recommendation:

Documentation is essential. Keep a log with dates and details of what has happened and what has been done to express concerns and get positive resolution. Check into the school’s policies and processes for filing complaints and voicing concerns. Keep a copy of every written communication you make and receive regarding the situation. Share this information with individuals and organizations you contact for help.

While fighting these battles may be difficult, costly and time consuming, not every situation leads to a lengthy court battle. Byron Ballard, who has worked extensively and very successfully with North Carolina’s Buncombe County School Board, found herself in the middle of such a situation in 2011. As reported by The Wild Hunt, the school board allowed Bibles to be distributed to students and a Pagan mother protested. Ballard was an integral part of resolving the tensions and finding workable solutions. Ballard advises looking for allies, adding that some may “come from surprising places.” Some of her allies  have been leaders from mainstream religious institutions. She says:

My best advice is to stay grounded, be persistent and try to really listen to all sides of the issue at hand. This work is about rights and responsibility, about shifting cultures. But it’s actually about making public schools safe places for all children to learn and to grow into caring, compassionate adults.

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

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Facebook’s “real name” policy has caused a recent storm of responses from many social media consumers, increasing the number of people who have started the process in taking their social media loyalty someplace else. The resulting controversy and consumer response to the deactivation of accounts under this policy have caused many people to question staying on a social media platform that does not appear to care about the needs of its consumers.

As The Wild Hunt reported on Wednesday, Facebook recently issued an apology, specifically to the LGTBQ community, about the way that the policy was enforced this past month. While Facebook said that the policy will remain in effect, they also said that they are re-evaluating the way that the name policy is enforced because it disproportionately affects those from the drag queen, transgender and LGBTQ communities.

[Photo Credit: Emily Rose / Tako Fibers, Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Emily Rose / Tako Fibers, Flickr]

For some people using a real name does not pose the same problem as it does for others. This issue has highlighted some of the safety risks and challenges that the social media world poses to different people. Whether due to personal preference, performing with a different persona, taking protective measures for marginalized communities, or the safeguarding one’s personal life for professional reasons, there are a lot of circumstances in which a person might use a pseudonym on social media.

Pagans are among some of the marginalized groups that utilize alternative names on social media. Sometimes this is a protection mechanism from judgment that would affect their ability to thrive in their physical community and sometimes this is a spiritual choice. The change in the name policy and the enforcement of this policy could have a big impact on the Pagan community and others.

The responses within the Pagan community to Facebook’s “real name” policy and the subsequent apology has been quite varied. It has ranged from people completely leaving Facebook and transitioning to other social media outlets, like Ello or Sgrouples, to being resistant to a social media switch.

Author and Activist T Thorn Coyle has been one of the Pagans speaking out and actively transitioning her personal social media needs away from Facebook. She said:

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

Facebook has never been a good fit for me. While I appreciate the conversations I have with people on my public page, the way the private pages are used has never appealed. Also, in the last couple of years Facebook has made it very difficult for grassroots organizations and independent artists, musicians, and authors to reach the very people who want to hear from them. The shifting algorithm and the push to pay for “views” to people who have already signed up for public pages has made it an increasingly less useful tool.

The controversy over the “real name” policy looked like a great opportunity to finally make the transition away. I already use Twitter far more than Facebook – keeping in touch with on the ground activists around the world, and with thinkers I don’t otherwise have exposure to – and I am liking Ello even in beta form.

Facebook made all the right noises regarding their meeting with the drag queens, but frankly, that was only after the exodus began. When 40,000 people swamped Ello in one week, Facebook took notice. Facebook had already met with the queens earlier and discounted their concerns. The turnaround came after concrete action was taken.

I don’t trust Facebook to do the right thing, and never have. I don’t think they care about the concerns of people who have very good reasons to not use legal names whether it is from religious choice, self-expression, shift in identity, or because of personal safety issues. What Facebook cares about is money and information exploitation. Making money is fine, but not at the expense of the well being of the people who provide you with the means.

Facebook is a tool that I will still use – my public page has around 5,700 people – but I’m quite happy to be shutting down my private page.

Elizabeth Rose, a social worker that deals in clinical services, mentioned the complexities of this professional field and the challenge of choosing a name on social media profiles. There are professional reasons within certain fields, and in conjunction with being a Pagan that makes this process more complicated than just using your “real name.”

Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose

I think there are two main points to be made: 1. Many workplaces have a “no Facebook policy.” Mine did not, however it did have a policy, however “unofficial”, of not being critical of the institution. I’m a social worker. As much as I like the population I work with, and I’m grateful to my workplace for giving me a job and for existing, I was trained to criticize the institution. That is to say I was trying to analyze where systems fail, and what to do about it. Trust me, large bureaucracies don’t want you expressing this to them or to anyone else.

2. My life is my business. Particularly as a Pagan, who works with a population that contains a lot of evangelical Christians, I have no desire to be subject to personal criticism, nor do I wish my life and or my religious beliefs to be an issue for my patients. I’m there to facilitate THEIR healing process, neither to discuss nor to defend my personal religious beliefs, which would be a major distraction from this process. In fact knowing I was Pagan would probably inhibit, if not actually frighten, a number of my clients to the point where they felt they couldn’t trust me with their personal information. As a therapist creating a sense of safety and my clients is paramount. I have no intention of letting any poorly thought out or invasive policy threaten that. A pseudonym addresses this issue very effectively. And I have no intention of using my “real name”. In fact, I’m thinking of de-camping to Ello for this very reason.

Sister Krissy

Sister Krissy

Sister Krissy Fiction is a queer Gnostic Pagan drag clown nun, a fully professed Sister of Perpetual Indulgence and the Prioress of the Order of Benevolent Bliss in Portland, OR. She previously was quoted in the Wild Hunt piece on the Facebook chaos this past week. In her interview with Heather Greene, she discussed feelings about the apology:

I do believe that Facebook’s apology was sincere.  I’m not sure if the apology was offered as a result of activists taking action against Facebook or because members were flocking to other social media platforms, but I do appreciate and accept the apology.  However, as they say, the proof is in the pudding.  I appreciate the apology, but I’ll appreciate some real changes even more.  I’m hopeful that Facebook will do the right thing.

Other community responses gave insights into personal agency to identify as one chooses and the spiritual impact of not being able to use a spiritual name in social media.

Stephanie Kjer

Stephanie Kjer

There are a lot of problems with a “real name” policy in Social Media, not the least of which is safety – many people in the Pagan Community, and other marginalized communities, adopt pseudonyms for a myriad of different reasons, not the least of which is safety or concern about how people in their family or professional life might feel about their affiliations, and how that could affect job opportunities, advancement, family interactions, etc… While I don’t think that real name policies are intended to be harmful, I definitely think it’s coming from a place of privilege and ignorance about how other people may find it necessary to keep parts of their lives separate or private from each other. Additionally, in a lot of traditions, it’s quite common for someone to adopt a name that has personal significance for them, and their interactions with the gods. One might even call it on par with a marriage or baptism, whereby someone takes a name as a sign of devotion or of a higher calling, and even though that is not the name they were born with or legally assigned, it is WHO THEY ARE, and denying people the right to choose for themselves who they want to be in their interactions is an act of forcing them to deny themselves and their connection to their spirituality. I also believe that a real name policy is invasive and seems more about profiting on data mining rather than a genuine intent to enable honest interactions between the users of a social platform. People can be disingenuous using their real name just as much as they can with a pseudonym.

I am open to exploring different ways to connect with people, and a requirement of real name is not a deal breaker for me, per se. I’m more interested in whatever platform allows me to interact freely with the people who matter the most to me. I do find the idea of being data mined to be a bit repugnant, and so a media platform that values my privacy but that still fulfills my desire to connect with people would be ideal. – Stephanie Kjer, Priestess and Advocate

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Yeshe Rabbit

If Facebook requires me to use my legal name, I will likely leave altogether. Now, there is nothing wrong with my legal name, Jessica Matthews Robles, nor is there anything wrong with people knowing it, on my part. However, when I made my formal commitment to Paganism and the host of spiritual practices that came along with it, one of those practices was the taking of a new name. The name Rabbit symbolizes my connection to the Earth and the Mother Goddess, my choice to be a healer, my lunar practices, my playfulness, and humor. I took this name because I meant it. I use this name every day in all areas of my life, and each time I see or hear it, I am reminded of my commitment to walk this Earth-based, Goddess-centered path. I do not think it is appropriate for Facebook to attempt to set my priorities for me. I know who I am and why I chose the name I chose. That ought to be enough.

I have largely stepped back from Facebook for several reasons. 1) a personal reason: because of the commercialism and spamming that I am experiencing there. I do not like all of the ads and assorted game requests, for starters. But also, 2) a political reason: I have noticed many articles about Facebook’s violation of peoples’ privacy, manipulation of emotions, and other general creepiness. That’s not right. So, while I really value the connections I have made with some good people on Facebook, the environment is no longer to my liking. In switching to other sites, I am stepping into a new teahouse, so to speak. I figure that those of us who were in our discussions in one teahouse will eventually encounter one another in similar discussions in a new teahouse. Because we are in love with tea and discussions.  – Yeshe Rabbit

The recent Facebook apology has brought about much discussion and question of Facebook’s intentions, and it appears that there are a lot more communities that have also been affected who were not included in their apology. Pagans and members of other marginalized groups, are continuing to surface and talk about being forced to change their name or lose their accounts. And while Facebook is not changing the policy itself, the understanding and enforcement of the policy, it appears, suggests a larger problem than one created with just one social media giant.

The changing trend within today’s functioning society includes the use of social media profiles as a means of conducting business, engaging socially, connecting with family and even participating with society on multiple levels. In today’s electronically driven culture, decisions around the use of social media are as important as the communities with which we choose to engage and the friends with whom we decide to build relationships. The power of personal choice and agency in the world of social media is as important as our choices in the use of any other tool for life; the importance of the power to choose is not lessened by the fact that it is an online format.

While trust in Facebook’s policies and intentions continues to be of question, the reality is that this situation has pushed some people to move towards a more consumer driven social platform. And maybe it is time to really ask ourselves what we want from social media, and how this can be used to serve the Pagan communities in the future.

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Oddi

Eric O. Scott —  October 10, 2014 — 13 Comments

 

The church at Oddi, Iceland.  Photo by the author.

The church and graveyard at Oddi, Iceland. In the foreground, a statue of Sæmund the Wise hitting the devil with a Bible. The devil is in the form of a seal. I swear this is true.
Photo by the author.

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Part four of my columns on Iceland. Previously: Oxararfoss, Njord, and The Candle.

Imagine that the old lies are true – that the world is flat, that the bounds of creation are marked by mountains, that with enough light and pure air you truly can see to the end of eternity. Imagine that you are sitting at the exact center of that world; imagine that, for a moment, the universe spins around neither the sun nor the earth, but instead only around you. Imagine that, and you may have a sense of how it felt for me one Saturday afternoon at a place in southern Iceland called Oddi.

There was very little on the property itself. The farmers lived in a white house beside the graveyard. There were a handful of landmarks – a silver compass that gave names to the mountains, a statue of Sæmund the Wise, a folk hero who once lived at Oddi – but beyond that, there was very little to indicate that this farm had been one of the most important sites in Iceland’s history, home to some of the country’s most famous sons. The others on our bus tour had gone to look at Oddi’s church, a white building with a red roof, like seemingly every other little church in Iceland. It was ninety years old, and, we were told, quite beautiful inside, an example of a lovely rustic style of Icelandic church. But I did not want to look at it. Perhaps if I had the freedom to pick how long I could stay at a given place, I would have toured it, but we could have been ordered to get back on the bus at any moment. My time was too precious to waste inside a church.

Instead I sat on a hill with two other apostates, Danni and Robbi – these were the names our Icelandic instructor had given to them. (They knew me as Eiki.) They were both still in college, the same age as the students I taught in my daily life. I doubt we would have been friends in other circumstances, but we had been living together for five weeks, struggling with a language that nobody in America seemed to know existed, much less spoke. At that moment, at least, they were the best friends I had in the world.

Danni had lain down in the unkempt grass with the hood of his purple jacket drawn up around his head, leaving Robbi and I alone. Robbi had black hair, parted on the right, plastic gauge earrings, and a thick beard that he kept better groomed than I have ever managed. That day he wore a lopapeysa, a special kind of Icelandic sweater. It was the sort of thing other students planned to bring home to their mothers, but Robbi wore his without irony. We sat in the grass together, looking out over the farm; miles and miles of grass surrounded us, an eternity of green interrupted only by the occasional farmhouse or barn. In all directions we saw mountains, or hills that might have been mountains; they looked like walls built to protect a sanctuary. Rocks to ring the world.

The ring of the world – Heimskringla – is the name scholars gave to a collection of sagas about the kings of Norway written in the 13th century. The manuscript itself bears no name; Heimskringla comes from the first words written in the oldest surviving copy, Kringla heimsins, “the Earth’s circle.” The manuscript itself also bears no author, like most Old Norse texts, but it has been attributed for most of its history to the writer Snorri Sturluson, who also wrote the Prose Edda and, perhaps, Egil’s Saga, one of the greatest Icelander sagas. Snorri spent his childhood here at Oddi; he might have sat in the very same spot as me, eight hundred years before. Even though I know that the title of his masterpiece is an accident of history – the manuscript that begins with kringla heimsins was incomplete, and those were not, in fact, the first words of the book as a whole – my mind cannot help but draw associations between the ring of earth named in the book and the ring of earth that surrounds the place Snorri spent his boyhood. It is an accident of history, unless one believes that there are no such things as accidents; and I find myself wondering, sometimes.

I have a difficult relationship with Snorri; every Heathen does, I suspect. The first thing the Edda tells us – Heimskringla, too – is that the old gods were not true gods, but only the kings of ignorant men. From the first, Snorri disavows the idea that there might be truth in the myths he tells; from the first, he invents, he adds, he almost certainly subtracts, in order to present a version of the past in accordance with his own needs. He wrote the Edda for poets, not for devotees; because Old Norse poetry relied so much on kennings, which were unintelligible without the old mythology, an ignorance of myth meant an ignorance of art. He did not write the Edda in an attempt to revitalize belief in Odin or Freyja – he wrote it because he decided contemporary poets had forgotten how to make a good poem.

I am only in Iceland – only a Heathen at all – because eight hundred years ago, Snorri Sturluson decided that all the poets he knew sucked. No Edda, no Ásatrú. Another accident of history, or not, depending on one’s relationship to destiny.

I couldn’t help myself; as much as I wanted to empty my mind of everything but the gorgeous landscape, I kept drifting back to these academic ruminations. I wanted to be happy with the sentimental notion of a young Snorri sitting in the same spot where I sat; instead, I found myself thinking about the manuscript history of Heimskringla, trying to remember an article that traced it back to the first source to claim that Snorri had written it all.

I complained of this to Robbi. I had never found a more perfect stretch of earth than Oddi, and yet any time I tried to surrender myself to the dirt and the sky, I found myself worrying instead about Snorri Sturluson and the precarious nature of my religion. Some pilgrimage.

Robbi shrugged. “What was it St. Paul said?” He scratched his face and looked off into the distance. “‘I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God than be in church thinking about the mountains?'”

Did Paul actually write that? I don’t know. I am a little afraid to find out. I didn’t come all the way to Iceland just to start agreeing with saints.

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On September 29, the US Coast Guard gave WWII Vet, Andrew Haines, a ‘Viking-style’ burial at sea. The USCG placed Haines’ ashes on a wooden replica of a viking boat, brought it out to open water, and set it on fire.

A handmade wooden boat containing Haines' ashes burns during a burial at sea Sept. 29. [Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham / USCG]

A handmade wooden boat containing Haines’ ashes burns during a burial at sea Sept. 29. [Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham / USCG]

 From the Navy Times:

[Andy]Haines said his father [Andrew Haines], a World War II veteran who finished his tour at Atlantic City, had been planning his funeral for years. Andrew Haines emigrated from Norway as a child in 1927 and had stayed connected to his Scandinavian heritage throughout his life.

About 10 years ago, Andy said, Haines’ cousin in Norway sent him blueprints for a 100-foot wooden ship, which he scaled down as small as two feet, as a small construction project.

“When I came over to the house one day with the wife and one grandson, we were in the basement, and he’s got the whole bottom shell done with the deck, getting ready to put the rest of the stuff on,” Andy recalled.

Then Andy had an idea. He asked his father if he still wanted to be cremated, and he said he did.

“So I said, ‘How about if we try to make a Viking funeral out of this for you?’ ” he recalled.

Haines built five versions of the ship, his son said, settling on a 54-inch version for the ceremony.

More remarkable, Haines built the boats one-handed. He lost an arm in a 1975 boating accident, which ended his career as a commercial fisherman for Atlantic City Fisheries, the family business.

USCG Burials at sea are free for any US Veteran. Haines, despite the manner of his funeral, doesn’t appear to have been a Heathen. The funeral itself, with the burning ship, may be more a product of Hollywood than known historical practice. Yet this raises the possibility for U.S. Heathens, who are also military veterans, to have a similar funeral. But is this something that would appeal to modern U.S. Heathens?

Nicholas Ritter, Theodish Heathen

Burning-ship burials aren’t well attested, except mythologically, for the god Baldr, but internment in ships or ship-shaped graves does show up in the archaeological record. In my experience, what is done with one’s remains is a matter of importance for Heathens generally, and a lot of thought is given to different combinations of burial and cremation, with grave goods and without, and the funerary symbolism of ships, as well as horses. We’re lucky enough to have good information on pre-Christian Germanic burial practices and beliefs, and I have found that Heathens generally want to have funerary arrangements that fit with how they lived their lives. I would think that most Heathens would be in favor of this kind of burning-ship burial as one option among many.

Laura Anderson, Heathen

This is really neat, and I’m glad he was able to do it. But I’m not interested in a Viking funeral for myself. I’ve always been big on observing natural cycles, and death and decay is a part of that cycle. My ideal funeral would be one where I’m put directly in the ground and allowed to decompose to nourish the spot where I’m buried. I see it in gardening all the time – we create compost piles to spread on our gardens; I allow the autumn leaves to rot where they fall throughout the winter because it’s healthy for the plant life. Continuing the cycle is important to me, and I want my body to contribute. So while a Viking funeral at sea is really cool, and I’m glad that there’s a precedent set for others who want to do it, it’s not for me.

"Sutton Hoo ship-burial model" [By Steven J. Plunkett] Lic. CC Wikimedia.

“Sutton Hoo ship-burial model” [By Steven J. Plunkett] Lic. CC Wikimedia.

David Carron, Redesman of the Troth and modern Ásatrú reconstructionist

I fully support folks doing things like this. To do otherwise would refute his ten years of labor to create his final vessel. The Vikings of old did these kinds of burials for the same reason that we find them fascinating; it’s epic, memorable and requires the involvement of a dedicated community. While I doubt I would ask my family to do something like this for me, due to costs and efforts, I can appreciate it.

Clearly, Mr. Hains was well-inspired and driven to make this happen. The fact that he spent his twilight years of his life, doing this by hand and one-handed, just makes it that much more praiseworthy of a story. I suspect that the ship-board ceremony had more in common with our memory Blots then not. Hail Andrew Haines! Luck to his family.

Bryon Wilton, Heathen

You know I think it’s awesome. I like that a man had enough courage when it came to facing death that he bucked the tide and entered the next realm as he so chose. There is also a county in Colorado that allows for funeral pyres. But you have to get rid of the five 5 gallon bucket of ash and it’s only available to residents of that county. As a veteran I have been content to know I’ll have a mjolnir on my headstone in a national cemetery. But, yes, if I had the money, I would love to have the option of a funeral pyre and I think a lot of people would love to have a Heathen ceremony by boat. I think it’s a good thing that Heathens of all stripes be allowed to celebrate the road to Hel as they choose.

K. C. Hulsman, Heathen, Gythia of Urdabrunnr Kindred

Thanks to film and TV, the thought of a Viking burial on a boat being burnt at sea has caught the imaginations of people the world over, which has led to a common misconception in modern times that this was a commonplace occurrence. In actuality the association of an actual ship with a burial or funeral pyre was something reserved for very special persons, usually those of greater social status, by wealth or power. For most people they were far more simply buried or cremated, and the customs around it varied by region.

One of the few accounts we have of a ship being burned, wasn’t at sea. In the account of the Arab traveler and chronicler Ibn Fadlan, he relays the funerary practices for a chieftain among the Viking Rus. The deceased had been placed in a temporary grave while preparations for the funeral were made. After several days, a ship was pulled to the shore and his body was then laid out upon a bed on the ship. From this point the account can get to be a bit gruesome as it involves the human sacrifice … The boat is set to burn in a pyre-like conflagration, and what’s left is then all buried, right there. So this is a fiery Viking ship funeral, not at sea, but rather on land. So as visually romanticized as this concept is in pop culture, thanks even recently to “Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World,” it just doesn’t appear to have been very common.

Interestingly enough we see people entombed in a boat then buried as in the Oseberg Longship archaeological find. In Lindholm Høje in Denmark, we see graves are outlined by a series of stone markers giving the impression of a ship’s shape. We also have found graves where people were buried in wagons. Scholars and believers alike speculate if there may have been some sort of tradition needed to convey symbolically travel to the afterlife.

While I have no desire to be sent off to the halls of my Gods and ancestors en flambé at sea, even before considering possible safety issues, sanitation concerns or ecological factors for the world at large, I have to give kudos to the Coast Guard for honoring a World War II veteran in fulfilling his final wishes and in the support they provided to the grieving family in making it a reality.

Erin Lale, gythia of Ásatrú and the author of Ásatrú For Beginners

It’s heart-warming that the U.S. Coast Guard would give Haines a Viking funeral that had both personal and cultural meaning for him. Perhaps Heathen veterans will be able to have such a sendoff in the future, too. Asatru, one of the modern sects of Heathenry, recently had its symbol, the Thorshammer, approved by several branches of the U.S. military for use on headstones. Heathens in pre-Christian times practiced several different funeral customs, including cremation in a ship, burial in a mound, burial in a ship, burial in a ship-shaped grave, and cremation followed by burial of the ashes in a mound or ship-shaped grave. Symbolically the ship carries the soul to the afterlife.

Burial Mound "Tumulus Dissignac2" [Credit: Aeleftherios at fr.wikipedia Lic CC]

Burial Mound “Tumulus Dissignac2″ [Credit: Aeleftherios at fr.wikipedia Lic CC]

Lisa Morgenstern, member KAP Hrafn Skjoldr Kindred, The Troth

Actually I just performed a funeral for a dear friend of our kindred. Extended family. I performed his sister’s wedding, and as it happens my husband works with his father. He had asked for a Viking funeral. We had a ceremony at the mortuary followed by a wake, and his family hopes to arrange something similar to this for him. Sadly, he did not serve.

I think that scattering remains in this manner is a great way to honor the traditions of burial at sea for those who honor the Norse traditions.

Anthony Arndt, Ásatrú

Would I be interested in something like the Coast Guard’s “Viking funeral”? Absolutely!

Though in my case, as someone who is Ásatrú, an educator, a serious living-history re-enactor, and a family man, I would aim for something a bit more “authentic” while still not necessarily 100% historically accurate.

The reason that I would not want it 100% historically accurate is two-fold. First, this is the 21st century, not the 11th, time has moved on and we should adapt to it just as our ancestors adapted to the changes in their eras. I am an English teacher, and while I may be somewhat mercenary in outlook, I am not literally a pirate.

Second, I may make my living as an English teacher now but my academic background is in early medieval Nordic archaeology, history, and literature and cremation burials are the bane of the archaeologist. Graves are timecapsules and I find that inhumation graves are far more informative of the physical culture of a time than cremation graves.

Now on to what my own ideal burial would look like.

A memorial service is much more for the people who gather to witness it than it is for the deceased. So first I would want them taken care of. I would want plenty of mead, beer, and food for all the family and friends who came. And a good bonfire and live music long into the night.

As far as the body is concerned, if possible, I would be perfectly happy if it was all done quickly and it was my body on the boat. Barring that, my ashes in some sort of body-shaped shrouded straw-man (like the Karls made for some holidays), taking the place of my body would be an acceptable compromise… 

The most controversial part, would be the feast. To provide the meat for the feast. I would want it provided by a proper blót to Óðinn as Vegtam ,”way-tamer”. Though historic sources consistently mention that horses were most closely associated with blót to Óðinn, the type of animal is less important to me. A single, well-cared for animal that would be large enough to provide meat for the feast would be ideal…

As for the boat and fire itself, first, I would want the boat on land not in the water. A high spot on family land, preferably overlooking water. I would want the keel oriented North/South with the bow pointing North. Then the boat would be loaded with the grave goods and kindling … The best and most personal [grave goods] would either be with me when I was cremated or in the boat, the second-best copy in a “treasure horde”, that is to say a proper time capsule …

After the cremation was finished and the time capsule placed, I would want a cairn of stones raised over the ashes, then a small mound of earth covered in raw clay, then a larger mound raised over that and edged with stones. I would want the final mount at least two meters tall at the peak and probably a reasonably flat four by six meter top to it for mound sitting. Then I would want the mount seeded with something … Maybe something like a mix of clover, St. John’s Wort, mugwort, heather, and berries, preferably lingon berries, I would also want some rosemary somewhere for Kira (my wife, she loves the smell of Rosemary). At the peak I would want some type of tree planted, an ash or yew tree that grows well in that area. Then a runestone raised in the style and manner of the old picture stones found in the Nordic lands. Finally, in the area around the land, if possible, I would like to have edible perennial plants which would be appropriate for the kin of the beast that fed my final guests to feed themselves.

A bit more about the “treasure horde.” As a time capsule, I would want a certain amount of important things placed within. Copies of texts that are important to me, like the Elder and Younger Eddas in English and in Old Norse. A book about modern Asatru and its history. A scholarly book about runes … Perhaps some fiction, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gaiman’s American Gods, and a selection of Pratchet’s Discworld series come to mind. A photo album of some of the more important events in my life with dates. My passport and current driver’s license/identification card. One set of my historical reenactment garb … My reenactment armour and weapons … a drinking horn … A well-sealed bottle of mead, probably with natural cork and coated in a thick covering of wax.

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Early in September, a large number of people received notification that their Facebook accounts were in violation of company policy. These advisories explained that all users are required to register with their authentic names. Because the majority of flagged accounts belonged to drag queens, there was an immediate outcry based on the assumption that Facebook was deliberately targeting the LGBTQ community. That outcry led to action, and the action led to results.

In response to the initial warnings, affected users such as Sister Roma, Lil Miss Hot Mess, Heklina, and others living in the San Francisco Bay area, immediately spoke out via Twitter, radio shows and other venues. They accused Facebook of discriminatory practices. Sister Roma, a performer, activist and longtime member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, led the charge. In a tweet on Sept. 11, she said:

Sister Roma’s tweet was the catalyst for the hashtag campaign #MyNameIs, which was quickly picked up by other affected Facebook users and, subsequently, printed on purple signs and logos. A live protest at Facebook headquarters was planned for Sept. 16.

However, the protest was canceled when Facebook called a meeting with the activists. On Wed Sept. 17, Sister Roma, Lil Miss Hot Mess and others met with Facebook representatives who explained the reason for the name policy. They gave all the flagged users an extra two weeks to create profiles with their legal names.

By this point news was spreading beyond those directly affected. As that happened, Facebook users, including many Pagans and Heathens, began looking for alternative social media platforms. Many worried that Facebook was stepping up enforcement of its name policy. Like drag queens, many Pagans and Heathens use adopted names corresponding to their chosen identity. The rumored “crack down” could have significant repercussions on the well-being of many social and cultural groups. Sister Krissy Fiction, a Gnostic Pagan and Prioress of the Portland Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, told The Wild Hunt

This is really about much more than just drag queens.There are lots of valid reasons why people might not want to use their legal name on Facebook. While we’ve gained a lot of ground, there are still those in the LGBT community who can’t be fully open about their sexual orientation. They risk losing family relationships and jobs. In the Trans* community, sometimes a legal name might not match their current gender identity or how most people know them. Do we really want to out Trans* people by forcing them to use a name that belongs to a gender they don’t identify with?  

In the meantime, the #MyNameIs campaign was bolstered by the Facebook meeting. A new protest was scheduled for Oct. 2 on the steps of San Francisco’s city hall. One affected user, Mike Woolson or Unkle Mikey, designed this graphic to illustrate clearly that the name policy doesn’t only burden the LGBTQ community.

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Facebook’s insistence on maintaining a name policy is encased in very real concerns that fake identities facilitate abusive acts (e.g., cyber-stalking, trolling) and could possibly foster other destructive social or criminal behaviors (e.g., bullying, stalking, domestic violence, terrorism) by masking the real identity of those that commit the acts. It is more difficult for authorities to identify or track an abuser, troll or terrorist, who uses an online pseudonym. However, as illustrated in the above graphic, the same mask that protects the criminal also protects the victim or the potential victim.

Sister Krissy did not have her page removed. She was already using her legal name on Facebook, only partially due to the policy. Sister Krissy is one of the lucky ones who does not worry about the public exposure of both identities. But that level of comfort doesn’t exist for everyone, including many practitioners of alternative religions.

Sister Krissy Fiction [Courtesy Photo]

Sister Krissy Fiction [Courtesy Photo]


Should it matter if the adorned name is for personal protection, artistic expression or sacred purposes? Sister Krissy said:

There is a long tradition of using chosen names within our [Pagan] communities.That exists partly to help protect from possible discrimination, but also because we recognize that there is power in chosen names and we value being able to decide what image we are going to present to the world. The reality is though, that if Facebook doesn’t change the policy, we run the same risk of one individual fueled by spite being able to shut down hundreds of profiles. Sure, this time around it was drag queens and Sisters, but it could have just as easily been someone who doesn’t like Pagans who decided to go on a reporting spree. 

Two weeks after the initial meeting, Facebook called a second one. Sister Roma tweeted, “Off to @facebook representing the millions of users with chosen and protective names – your voice will be heard.”

At that Oct. 1 meeting, Facebook Chief Products Officer Christopher Cox formally apologized to the coalition of activists and the represented communities. In a press release, Cox explained that the company was not at all targeting drag queens. The accounts were flagged only after someone complained. Additionally, he stated, “Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess. Part of what’s been so difficult about this conversation is that we support both of these individuals, and so many others affected by this, completely and utterly in how they use Facebook.” The response was posted on Facebook:

 

After that meeting and Cox’ public statement, the coalition of activists announced that the Oct. 2 protest would now be a #MyNameIs Victory Rally. While some have criticized Facebook for its back peddling in the wake of potentially losing customers, most people are applauding Facebook for attempting to find workable solutions that fit their security concerns and also serve the real needs of loyal users. In an Oct. 5 video interview, Sister Roma said that she was “thrilled with Facebook.”

Sister Krissy agreed, saying: “I do appreciate and accept the apology. However, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I appreciate the apology, but I’ll appreciate some real changes even more. I’m hopeful that Facebook will do the right thing.” As critics have pointed out, the policy has yet to be changed. Facebook’s promise was only to evolve the way it enforces the policy, not to alter the policy itself. Some don’t consider this a win.

However, The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who had representatives at the Oct. 1 meeting, suggested otherwise. It said in part:

The coalition in attendance, including HRC – which is a member of Facebook’s Network of Support team, combatting [sic] anti-LGBT bullying online – will continue to work with Facebook’s team as the policy is clarified and new measures are put into place to ensure LGBT community members can still think of Facebook as place to call home.

Despite HRC involvement and Facebook’s apparent interest in serving a diversity of populations, both revising and enforcing the policy poses complications that raise questions about self-making and identity within our culture. Facebook wants to protect its product through preventing phony user accounts employed for spamming purposes and false identities that mask criminal activity. Even if Facebook doesn’t require legal proof of identity, issues will still arise. How do you prove a legitimate, self-made identity that has no documentation? Many religious-based or Craft personas fall into that category. They can’t be proven with even unofficial documents such as junk mail or club cards.

Regardless of these sticking points, like Google before them, Facebook has now conceded that the process of defining what constitutes a “real identity” is complex and requires more than a simple algorithm or automated process. “Real identity” extends beyond the typed letters on a birth certificate or gas bill.

On Saturday, Crystal Blanton will tackle this subject. In her column “Culture and Community,” she will explore the issue as it specifically relates to Pagans and Heathens who, like drag queens, often live with multiple real identities and multiple real names.

 

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

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Druid NetworkOn September 29, the Interfaith Network of the United Kingdom (IFN UK) admitted both The Druid Network (TDN) and The Pagan Federation (PF) into its organization as members. Previously, both Pagan groups were denied membership because they did not represent “one of the big nine faiths.” According to The Druid Network, “This refusal resulted in TDN becoming involved in dialogue with IFN, with a view to reviewing their membership policy to become both more inclusive and to remove any suggestion of discrimination against minority faiths.”

The Pagan Federation and others were also involved in the talks, which eventually led to a presentation before the House of Lords. TDN says, “The eminent human rights lawyer, John Halford, from Bindmans LLP publicly issued a legal opinion for the event.” After that official meeting, IFN began a “strategic review” of its membership policy that has resulted in revised criteria by which both the PF and TDN are eligible. Additionally, Rev. Prudence Jones of PF will be serving on IFN’s executive committee. She marks the first Pagan to hold such a position within that organization. TDN says:

This is an historic achievement on many levels, it is the fruition of the work of many people seeking to find resolution within conflict, those people coming from many diverse backgrounds, professions and faiths. The Druid Network extends its appreciation and thanks to all who helped bring about this momentous.

conference-logo-transparent-background1The 11th Conference on Current Pagan Studies will be held January 24-25, 2015  in Claremont, California at Claremont Graduate University. This year’s theme is “Fecundity and the Richness of the Dark.” Conference organizers explain, “Monotheistic notions over the past two millennia have separated and polarized our manner of being in the world into realms of light and darkness, positive and negative, holy and desacralized, valued and devalued.  Polytheists, Pagans, animists, et al view differently the interplay of light and dark, and seek to revalue, re-sacralize, and retrieve the dark. How do we interpret the Darkness?” 

This year’s keynote speakers will be Viviane Crowley and Orion Foxwood. The deadline for submissions is now October 15. They say, “We are looking for papers from all disciplines. A community needs artists, teachers, scientists, healers, historians, philosophers, educators, thinkers, activists, etc.” 

10689864_296726883849996_5087655294117168377_nThe Minneapolis Collective of Pagan Artists (MCPA) is holding its debut exhibition at the Stevens Square Center for the Arts from Oct 25 – Nov 15, 2014. The public exhibition is titled, “Doorways to the Underworld” and will feature Ali Beyer (Artemis Namaste), Anne Marie Forrester (Helga Hedgewalker), Paul Rucker, and Roger Williamson. MCPA says, “In this exhibit, Halloween is explored through the eyes of those who experience the season as a profound time to commune with the ancestors and the spirit world.  For these artists, the work is an extension of their spirituality, allowing a glimpse into what is often an unseen tradition.”  The opening reception includes a dance performance by Alana Mari and live music by Comets Ov Cupid.

In Other Pagan Community News:

 

That’s it for now, have a great day!

 

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