Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman

Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman [Publicity Still]

“Firstly, it’s The Dreaming. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as Hairypeople are not bound by what is,” says Waruu West (Rob Collins) in ABC’s latest original Australian drama Cleverman.  Found in the second instalment ‘Containment,’ this moment stood out. Collins, playing an Indigenous spokesperson on a TV news panel discussion, delivers the line with acid on his tongue, shifting in his seat and barely able to maintain his countenance to suit the panel’s format, which is supposed to represent the epitome of polite society in serious discussion.

In the world of Cleverman, the Dreaming is mentioned here with the same condescension it might be on an actual TV weekly news and current affairs panel. I’ve seen enough Aboriginal Elders and commentators on such shows to know that Collins did not have to look very far to inspire his character’s reaction in this moment. As an Indigenous man himself, Collins probably didn’t even need that.

In the make-believe dystopian near future of Cleverman, not six months before the action takes up with the first episode, the Dreaming just materialised in the form of the Hairypeople. What was once thought of as just an Aboriginal story and a monster to scare children, is now flesh and blood. They are an entirely different species of human that is stronger, faster, harder, covered in hair, and absolutely not a figment of some distant story derived from an uncivilised past. This narrative fact makes the host’s condescension in this scene all the more misplaced, purposefully nasty.

[Above: Q&A Monday 09 June, 2014. Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ “I am not the problem” speech, in conversation regarding John Pilger’s Utopia.]

This point in the show also created a moment during which, it was white Australian viewers’ turn to shift uncomfortably in their seats, if they had not already. In that scene, with its similarity to real day-to-day viewing, it felt like director Wayne Blair, and writers Michael Miller and Jon Bell were speaking directly to us. And I confess: it was my turn for a little bit of solidarity with my Indigenous Brothers and Sisters fist pumping. Waruu’s statement contained within it something that could easily translate to my own experience as a Pagan and a Witch: Our Mythos. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as the Otherworlds are not bound by what is.

Cleverman is a futuristic sci-fi narrative told using the contemporary language of television and chocked full of very real and very current issues. Included in its themes are Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, forced imprisonment, our nation’s crimes against humanity, as well as the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered at our hands by those most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrants, and refugees. Additionally, the show includes the Scientific Frankenstein, the Shady Media Mogul, themes of fear, terror, racism, bigotry, atrocity, isolation, desperation, violence, and police brutality.

These details are all woven together in a sprawling story that we should in fact not be confused about at all. However, it is the twist with which it’s told that is the real highlight. The fictional Hairypeople are lifted directly from several Aboriginal Dreaming stories. They speak Gumbaynggirr, a language from northern New South Wales, as is the Namorrodor, the monster stalking urban Sydney. Indigenous actors dominate in both the Indigenous and Hairypeople roles. The Cleverman is a cultural facticity.

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman show poster

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman [Publicity Poster for SundanceTV]

Our reluctant hero Koen West, is Aboriginal, a refreshing change from what we so often see highlighted by Australian and international news. Koen, an opportunistic young Indigenous man who refuses to choose a tribe, has suddenly had the Cleverman superhero powers thrust upon him. The power is real and present in this show’s world. It is manifest in Koen, Waruu, in the Hairypeople, and in the short (but always sparkling) performance of Jack Charles as Uncle Jimmy the Cleverman who passes the nulla nulla (or waddi a warrior’s club) of the Cleverman onto Koen.

If Koen stands as a proxy for young Indigenous viewers, then the narrative comes with a dare: Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Dreaming is not static. None are left to wonder about the nature of that strength and power. It’s Indigenous and it comes from a very real place.

In this way, Cleverman is the Dreaming. The show is Indigenous story soaked with a real Indigenous past and a contemporary Indigenous experience. With the help of CGI and special effects, the show demonstrates how the Dreaming contains within it the ability to confront new issues and problems with no less potency. The Dreaming refuses to stay static.

The Dreaming is not at odds with western science, political systems, media, or indeed, the future. Rather, here, the Dreaming uses all these modern ideas and formats to its own end. Standing alongside these contemporary mainstream Australian institutions as equally valid and powerful, the show tells a story of change, of how it is made manifest in those who engage with it, and how it can reclaim itself – its Indigenousness – from those very institutions who have sought to diminish it. The Dreaming claims itself, as strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, in the now.

It is here, precisely at this moment, that Australian Pagans and Witches should feel the pangs of empathy. This is art as story magic.

In the first place, we should be familiar with the historical arc that underpins the show. In summary, cultural practices, myths and stories are outlawed, then, after a time, they are repackaged as oddities from a distant past for children’s entertainment. Then, finally, adults start taking these “oddities” back.

Pagans around the world know this story. In recent times, we have seen a major resurgence in many myths and folktales. Appearing on the small and silver screens alike, these stories are being torn apart and remade with entirely relevant themes and contemporary issues, and very often strictly for adults. Examples range from American Horror Story: Coven‘s unabashed, subversive femaleness in all its complicated and messy glory; to the miraculous image at the end of The Witch showing power embraced as the young protagonist is liberated; to Michael Hirst’s Vikings in which a historical Pagan worldview is given prominence over early Christian ideas. Even at Disney, the early and mid-20th Century children’s stories are being approached anew, with the likes of Angelina Jolie’s turn as the Mistress of All Evil in MaleficentWe get this.

However, these things – our myths, reimagined in the mainstream, artistic, and pop culture spheres – can serve to be a hindrance to the legitimisation of contemporary Pagan and Witchcraft discourse. They can be wildly disrespectful and further propagate tired tropes and negative stereotypes that influence the very real lives of the Neopagan and Witchcraft communities. These things do not exist in a vacuum. But at their best, they can serve as a powerful quickening to such communities, who, in turn, find the inspiration to readdress the magical and mythical narratives within the ritual space itself.

These modern retellings can normalise themes and ideas in the mainstream, which can then further legitimise those same ideas as they are contained within our contemporary discourse. The young and aspiring seeker of the Craft, for example, can find heroes and heroines in these places, urging them to look further.

Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Myths are not static.

As a story and as a Dreaming narrative, Cleverman excels at demonstrating that power is best realised through the creative vision, voice and bodies of those who are living a direct experience of it already. Inside contemporary culture, it further demonstrates the power of community support and participation required to push forward with these new narratives. Cleverman‘s mainstream success and positive reviews are a testament to two hundreds years of fighting to legitimise Indigenous voices.

This is a lesson Pagans in Australia can take away. It is a salient reminder that our own myths are strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, now.

Especially as Australian Pagan communities begin to increasingly realise their social and political voices, it is this thought that should stay in the back of our minds when we engage with Pagan discourse, writing, art, and craft, and reimagine our stories inside our ritual space to confront and work with contemporary and very real social and political issues. It is important to promote that same creative talent inside our communities in order to achieve change, justice, fairness, highlight social issues right now.

These ideas and concepts are all on top of the stand-alone joy of engaging with Australian Indigenous voices and creative talent as found through Cleverman. The final episode of season one was aired Thursday, July 7.  This particular episode felt like one giant teaser for season two. It left me wanting much more.

We left our anti-hero, Koen, much less “anti” and coming finally into his own, as all sides are baying for war. I agree with AV Club‘s Brandon Nowalk, whose review pointed out the first season was more promise than delivery in terms of story.  It was a season of exposition that has left a carefully crafted set of characters ready for the real meat of season two.

But that exposition can be easily forgiven. After all, there would only be a handful of people on this continent with enough knowledge of Aboriginal Law and Dreaming not to require background information. I can only imagine the culture shock and complete lack of context for those watching in the US and, shortly, the UK.

Thankfully, for those interested, there are a few helpful guides that wade into the dystopian near future of Cleverman‘s Sydney. This includes Zebbie Watson’s guide at Inverse, and The Guardian‘s episode by episode recaps. For some extra fun, check out the behind the scenes video with Adam Briggs and, one of my favourite Australian voices, Gurrumul Yunupingu and the inspiration for the Cleverman theme song.

Behind the Theme Song – “Cleverman” from Goalpost Pictures on Vimeo.

“One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseille would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.” – Hannah Arendt

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin [Photo Credit: Gisela Freund]

The ‘catastrophe’ that Arendt refers to was the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of Walter Benjamin on the night of September 25, 1940, only hours after crossing the border into Spain in an attempt to escape the Nazis. Although there is some question as to how he actually died, the most accepted version of his death is that he committed suicide by overdosing on morphine in his room at the Francia Hotel in Portbou.

At the time of his alleged suicide, Benjamin and his two companions were under police surveillance along with another group of refugees from France. They had arrived in Portbou earlier that evening after hiking over the Pyrenées from occupied France, only to learn that they were being denied entrance into Spain. They were to be deported back to France and handed over to the Vichy government the next day.

Despite assurances from members of the other refugee party that they could potentially bribe their way out of it, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine that night, after having been on the run for seven years. It was a dose that he had been carrying around since the burning of the Reichstag. This was seemingly an act of both desperation and defiance. He was not only more than aware of what his fate would be should he fall into Nazi hands, but he had also apparently decided long before that moment that he would choose death by his own hand over such a fate.


*   *   *

I am not much of a hiker, and I have never hiked a mountain before. I’m in decent enough shape considering that I don’t work out or engage in any type of regular strenuous activity, but I also struggle with chronic fatigue and nerve pain which often keeps me from outdoor activities. And I definitely knew on one level that the trail that I was so determined to hike was a bit out of my league in terms of experience.

But I also knew that 
Walter Benjamin was in much worse shape than either my friend Rhyd or I. And, every time I dwelt on the fact that he completed the route under the circumstances that he did, and in the poor physical condition that he was in, it served as ample justification for dismissing my own worries. The pull I was feeling to take the hike was strong and not fully of this earth, and I had recognized for many months that the trek was an essential part of our pilgrimage to Europe. We both recognized the importance of tracing his footsteps as a tribute to him, and that importance far outweighed any concerns that I had about my abilities.

At the time that Benjamin escaped from France over the Pyrenées, he was forty-eight years old and suffered from a heart condition, having been in delicate health since childhood. He had been living in poverty and exile throughout most of the 1930s, which had greatly exacerbated problems with both his physical and mental health. When he made his escape, he took with him a heavy briefcase that contained an unknown manuscript – one that he insisted was more important than his own life.

We packed much lighter than Walter Benjamin did, bringing only some food for lunch, two bottles of water, a half-empty bottle of Orangina, a sweatshirt, and our phones. I also took a small notebook and a solar charger, which I kept in a small side bag, while Rhyd carried the majority of our gear in his rucksack.


*   *   *

By summer 1940, Walter Benjamin had been in exile from his native Germany for seven years. He first fled to Paris in spring 1933, understanding the significance of the Reichstag fire long before most recognized what that event would mean for the future of Germany. As a Jew, a Marxist, and a cultural critic, he knew he was in danger for many reasons, and he sought refuge throughout France as well as briefly in Denmark with Bertolt Brecht. He was a heretic on the run, desperately trying to write and publish as much as he could while both his economic and physical livelihood fell into ever increasing danger.

In 1938, Germany revoked the citizenship status of Jewish citizens, and overnight Benjamin found himself to be a stateless man. Eventually the French caught up to him, and he was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1939. After his release was secured with the assistance of friends in early 1940, he returned to Paris, where he stayed until French defenses were defeated by the Wehrmacht.

Benjamin then fled Paris for Lourdes the day before the Germans took the city. The subsequent armistice between Germany and Vichy France contained an extradition clause that denied exit visas for all German refugees in France and required the French to surrender anyone who had been granted asylum. Overnight, Benjamin was suddenly trapped in a country where he was a wanted man with no legal means of escape.

Knowing that he needed to leave France in order to save his life, he eventually left Lourdes for Marseille, where he managed to secure an entrance visa to the United States in August 1940. While in Marseille, he met up with his old friend Hannah Arendt and then reunited with Hans Fittko, who he had met the winter before when they had both been held at a French internment camp in Vernuche.

The mountains.

The mountains [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After learning that Benjamin was trying to escape, Hans Fittko told him that the only potential route to safety was to make it to Spain without having to go through a border crossing, and then to cross Spain to Portugal and exit Portugal on a boat to the United States. Fittko then encouraged Benjamin to contact his wife Lisa, who had recently left Marseille for Port-Vendres on the border with Spain with the intention of finding a smuggling route over the mountains.


*   *   *

Every single website we had checked, including the official tourist site for the city of Portbou, stated that the hike was a 7 km, three-to-four hour trek. 
My instinct told me from the beginning that it was longer than that, and while my general rule is to trust my instinct, I also recognize (usually in hindsight) that there are times when I ignore that hunch for what later is revealed to be an important reason.

Looking back at this specific instance, the reason I ignored that hunch is very clear. Had I known how long the trek actually was, I likely wouldn’t have attempted it.

But having convinced myself at least on the surface that it was a 7 km hike based on the information that we found online, we planned for that amount of time and distance. We slept in that morning at our campsite near Perpignan and timed our travel so that we would arrive in Banyuls-sur-Mer around noon. Based on that schedule, we assumed that we would be in Portbou by four or five at the latest. We took just enough food for lunch and about three liters of water.

*   *   *

The route over the Pyrenées was a smuggling trail known as the Lister Route, named after Enrique Líster, a general in the Spanish Republican Army. Lister led his troops to safety over the Pyrenées to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Spain fell to the Fascists. While few knew of the route’s existence, one of the people who knew it well was Vincent Azéma, the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, one of the first towns on the French side of the Pyrenées. Azéma was a socialist who had also been sympathetic toward the Republican cause in Spain.

A little over a year after Spain fell and Lister made his escape, the Vichy government took power in France. Azéma wanted to help those who were seeking to escape the Nazis, and his knowledge came in handy the day that Lisa Fittko showed up at his office seeking a route over the mountains. Like Walter Benjamin, Fittko was also a stateless Jew who was wanted by the Nazis. A dedicated anti-Fascist, Lisa and her husband Hans had also been on the run for years and had been working with the underground Resistance for much of that time. The Fittkos had also made their way down to Marseille not long after the Vichy government took power.

In September 1940, Lisa Fittko headed down to the border with Spain with the intention of securing a smuggling route across the Pyrénees. After only a few days in Port-Vendres, some dockworkers told her that the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Monsieur Azéma, would be able to help her find a route over the mountains. She went to see Azéma soon after, who discussed the route with her in great detail and gave her a hand-drawn map of the path.

*   *   *

I had never heard of Lisa Fittko until she died in early 2005. I had come across an article about her in the New York Times, which ran a story about her life and death and also mentioned Walter Benjamin’s tragic ending. I had heard of Benjamin before, but had never read his work, and it was that story in the Times which first prompted me to seek out his writings.

By that summer, I had immersed myself in his works, hunting down everything I could. It was the same summer that I ended up sharing my apartment with a young woman from southern France who was interning at a production company in Manhattan. The fact that she was from Perpignan, not far from Banyuls-sur-Mer, didn’t strike me as the least bit meaningful or synchronistic at the time. But all the same, that summer was dominated by two distinct perspectives: her observations and views of New York, and the work of Walter Benjamin.

Over the years, Benjamin’s work has undoubtedly influenced my thinking more significantly than that of any other writer, and nowadays I regard him not only as a profound thinker but also as both a prophet and an ancestor with whom I have forged a working relationship over time. And although the pull that I felt was much stronger overall than the individual parts that I could comprehend, the level of influence and relationship that I feel toward Benjamin was the primary reason why 
I felt the overwhelming need to trace the path of his fated escape path over the Lister Route during my pilgrimage to Europe.

It seemed fitting that my friend from Perpignan, who I hadn’t seen since that summer in New York eleven years earlier, was the one who kindly offered to drive us down to Banyuls-sur-Mer in the midst of transit and gas station strikes throughout France. She took us all the way to Puig del Mas, a neighborhood just south of Banyuls-sur-Mer, where the route actually began, and dropped us off on a side street that bordered the beginning of the mountains. We thanked her profusely and stumbled up the hill toward the end of the road.

*   *   *

On Sept. 24, 1940, Walter Benjamin knocked on Lisa Fittko’s door in Port-Vendres and told her that he had been sent by her husband and that he needed to escape to Spain.

Having met with Mayor Azéma only a few days earlier, Fittko quickly agreed to lead him over the mountains. She also agreed when he asked to take along two acquaintances who he had met in Marseille, a woman named Henny Gurland and her teenage son, who were also German refugees seeking to escape France. Fittko made it clear to Benjamin that it would be a strenuous climb, and that she did not know the route and that they would be taking a risk, but he seemed unconcerned. He stressed that to not make the attempt would be the “real risk.”

Later that day, Benjamin and Fittko left Port-Vendres for Banyuls-sur-Mer on foot, walking down back roads in order to avoid the growing police stops being conducted on both trains and auto routes. Fittko wanted to meet with Mayor Azéma again to go over the details of the route once more and to see if he had any additional advice or suggestions.

*   *   *

After Stéphanie dropped us off at Puig del Mas, we walked up the hill a bit but quickly realized that we couldn’t find the beginning of the route. I had downloaded a GPS map of the route onto my phone that morning, but it vanished from my screen and then refused to reload as we walked to the end of the road toward the vineyards.

Luckily, we saw a man exiting his car and walking up the hill. Figuring that he was a local, Rhyd asked him if he knew where the route was. The man was more than happy to walk us down the hill a bit, and then pointed us to the right and told us to look for a staircase.

We went down the staircase and through a narrow path, and found ourselves surrounded by vineyards.

IMG_1187

We then walked for a few minutes up an easy path, and looking up at the trail before us, we decided to stop for lunch before tackling the steep terrain. We were surrounded by vineyards, some so old that the vines were literal trunks, bearing a much greater resemblance to dwarf trees than any type of vines  I had ever seen before. I kept looking down at our food, and then up at the terraced vineyards, and it hit me halfway through our lunch that what we were eating, while quite unintentional, was very similar to the traditional meal that vineyard workers in the region were accustomed to eating – bread soaked in olive oil with some meat and cheese on the side.

After washing our food down with some water, we packed up our gear up again and headed upward through the vineyards.

*   *   *

When Walter Benjamin and Lisa Fittko sat down with Mayor Azéma that afternoon, he advised them to take a practice run in the daylight before actually hiking the full route. He recommended that they hike up past the vineyards and as far as the tree line, turn around and head back to town and check back in with him. Then, they could attempt the route in full the following day.

And so they set out on the route on the afternoon of September 24, only to learn quickly that the path was much steeper and more treacherous than Azéma had thought. Benjamin had brought a heavy briefcase with him, which Fittko offered to help him carry. When she asked him what was inside the briefcase and why he had brought it on a trial run, he told her that it contained his new manuscript and that he dare not risk being separated from it because its contents must be saved at all costs.

It is more important than I am, more important than myself,” he told her.

It took them several hours to reach the tree line, and by the time they hit that point Benjamin was so fatigued and run down that he refused to turn back. After unsuccessfully trying to convince him to return to town, Fittko headed back to Banyuls-sur-Mer in order to prepare for the full hike the next day. Meanwhile, Walter Benjamin proceeded to spend the night, the last full night of his life, alone and exposed on the mountain at the base of the tree line with only his briefcase.

*   *   *

After Rhyd and I made it up past the first plot of vineyards, we came across an elderly couple hiking up the trail. They were equipped with hiking poles, which admittedly made me pause for a moment. Hiking poles? Do we need those too? What have we gotten ourselves into?

We walked behind them for a moment, until we came across an intersection in the paths. They were following the road, but another path went straight up into the mountains, and my instinct told me that the path straight up was the one we were supposed to take. And yet, we were without a map.

“Excuse me,” I asked them. “Do you know which path is the Chemin Walter Benjamin?”

He pointed to the path straight up, and then to the markings at the base of the path. “See the two black lines? Those are what you need to follow.”

IMG_1214

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I thanked him, and looked at him with both gratitude and wonder. Of all the material I had read on the route, not one source had mentioned the relevant trail markings. I expressed my thanks again as they walked off down the road, and we looked at the path before us, both realizing at the same time that this would be anything but an easy hike.

It also didn’t take us long to realize that especially without a working GPS map, those trail markings were absolutely crucial when it came to staying on the path. As the path kept twisting and turning on our way up toward the top of the tree line, it occurred to me numerous times that if we hadn’t run into that couple we would have been hopelessly lost.

*   *   *

After leaving Walter Benjamin at the clearing on the mountain the night before, Lisa Fittko once again started up the trail before sunrise the next day with Henny Gurland and her son in tow. It took them about three hours or so to reach Benjamin, who was still lying down in the exact place where Fittko had left him the night before.

The party quickly discovered that Benjamin had a talent for navigation, and he expertly directed them, keeping them on the right path as they climbed further and further upward. Everyone took turns carrying Benjamin’s briefcase as they climbed toward the summit. On account of his heart condition, he insisted on taking a minute’s rest for every ten minutes walked.

Despite such a disciplined rest schedule, Benjamin stopped not long before the summit, insisting he couldn’t go any further, and both Fittko and Gurland literally dragged him up the incline to the next resting place not far from the top. A short time later, the group finally reached the summit.

It had taken them between four and five hours from the point of the clearing for Benjamin’s party to reach the summit, and seven to eight hours overall since Fittko, Gurland, and her son had left Banyuls-sur-Mer early that morning. But finally they had reached Spain.

*   *   *

A few hours after parting ways with the elderly couple, Rhyd and I finally spotted a sign that pointed toward the summit and stated the distance. I realized at that moment that the websites were all exactly half-right. It was 7 km and three to four hours to the summit at Querroig. But it would then likely be 7 km and another three to four hours to get back down and into Portbou.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the breeze and the shade of the cork-oaks made the hot sun bearable. As we continued to climb, a certain amount of diffused worry built up between us. Both time and our ability to stay hydrated were subtle but ever-growing concerns that we managed to communicate lightheartedly, but regularly, to each other without ever quite naming our exact thoughts for what they were.

We started to monitor our water supply, already halfway gone, taking smaller and more deliberately timed sips with an unspoken understanding that we would be up on the mountain much longer than we expected. We took extra care of ourselves; stopping for breaks under trees, continuously looking behind us as inspiration and relying on the visual power of the fact that the more that Banyuls-sur-Mer shrank in the field of vision behind us, the closer we were to the top.

And yet there were feelings of hopelessness at times, feelings that reverberated from our surroundings as much as they originated from within. And those feelings, as much as I tried to block them out, kept bringing me back to the figure whose escape path we were tracing.

The summit near Querroig.

The summit near Querroig. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After four hours or so we finally reached the summit. We took a few moments to rest and to take in the beauty of it all, but we then quickly began our trip down in order to try to make up for lost time.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko had originally planned to leave Walter Benjamin and the others at the summit, as she did not have the proper paperwork and could not risk being caught on Spanish soil. But once she reached the top, she was concerned about their ability to navigate the treacherous downhill terrain. So she guided the three refugees down the narrow mountain paths.

Not long after they began their descent, they stumbled upon a greenish pool of water, obviously dirty and polluted. Walter Benjamin immediately bent over and stopped to drink, as the party had run out of water by that point.

You can’t drink that,” she told him. You could catch typhoid fever…

Yes, perhaps,” he replied. But you must understand: the worst thing that could happen is that I might die of typhoid fever – after I have crossed the border. The Gestapo can no longer arrest me, and the manuscript will have reached safety. You must pardon me, please…

And so he drank, and then they continued on downhill.

*   *   *

As we began our descent, I noticed that our surroundings were suddenly completely different than the terrain that we had been hiking for the previous four hours. The flora was different. The plants were different. Cork oaks and scotch broom had given way to cacti and succulents, and water could be heard rushing below. And the buzzing of bees was a consistent and strong presence throughout the entirety of our descent through the mountain brush. At times the bees were louder than our own voices, and while it faded in and out it served as a dominating chorus throughout the trek down to the road.

IMG_1231

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

While the Chemin Walter Benjamin on the French side of the path had been very casually marked, often with handmade signs, and was nearly impossible to navigate unless one knew what trail marks to look for, the Ruta Walter Benjamin on the Spanish side of the mountain was much more ‘official’ and organized. Every kilometer or so there was a waymarking sign, usually accompanied by a plaque sponsored by the Catalonian government. Each marking detailed an aspect of Benjamin’s life while featuring quotes and graphics. The trail blazes, which had guided us from the beginning, were still present and constant. However, the new signage took out much of the guesswork and deliberation that had characterized our way up the French side of the mountain.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko led the party downhill for another hour or so, until they finally reached a road at the end of a cliff-wall that led down toward a town below. Portbou was now directly in their sight and, at this point, Fittko bade them farewell, instructing the group to take the first train to Lisbon as soon as they had their entry stamps.

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Benjamin, Gurland, and her son continued down the road to Portbou, while Fittko headed back up the mountain toward Banyuls-sur-Mer. The road that wound down from the mountains led directly into town, and they followed it through the train tunnel to the downtown promenade and then up to the train station, where they surrendered themselves to authorities with the expectation of being granted entrance.

It was there at the train station where they learned their fate. It was at this place where police told them that they were being denied entry into Spain and would be deported back to France the very next morning. They were put up at the Francia Hotel for the night under police surveillance, and Walter Benjamin allegedly committed suicide that night in his hotel room, believing that his luck had finally run out for good. His briefcase subsequently vanished.

*   *   *

It was at that same juncture between the path and the road where Lisa Fittko bade farewell to Walter Benjamin and his party, the same juncture where she had finally decided that they could make it the rest of the way on their own, that Rhyd and I briefly got lost.

I’m generally an adventurous sort that usually deals with being lost without much fear. But, at that point it was only a few hours until sunset; we had next to no water left, and we had already been on the mountain for nearly seven hours. We were not thinking clearly; our judgment clouded by the combination of fatigue, fear, and thirst. And, it was this lack of clear thinking that led to a few mistakes and a few moments of panic.

There was a fork in the road, one way headed slightly up and one way headed slightly down, both pointing in the general direction of Portbou. Those who know a thing or two about mountains probably would have deferred to common sense at that point: if you’re heading down, pick the road that goes down. But we are not mountain dwellers, nor regular hikers, and for the first time since we started, there wasn’t a waymarking sign or a trail blaze to be seen. So for some reason we decided that the road that headed upward was the way to go. And as we continued on, ever doubtful, that feeling of hopelessness once again crept in.

IMG_1235

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I didn’t learn until after I returned to Perpignan and studied the terrain at length that it was only another wrong turn and a dead-end that kept us from walking straight back to France. Once we hit the dead end, we briefly argued over what to do next, and I took stock at that moment of how much my judgment was compromised and decided to defer to Rhyd’s judgment.

He pointed to another road below, stressing that even though it might technically be off the trail, the priority at that moment was to get off the mountain before sunset. I was doubtful but I agreed nonetheless, and we headed down that road only to discover within the next hour that it had actually put us right back on the trail, exactly where we needed to be in order to get to Portbou.

*   *   *

A few days after Lisa Fittko returned to Banyuls-sur-Mer, and before she had learned of Benjamin’s untimely fate, she was approached by Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee, who had heard of her success in smuggling Benjamin over the Pyrénees.

Fry and his associate had set up a legal French relief organization, the Centre Américain de Secours, with the intention of using it as a cover for smuggling Jews and other refugees out of France. Fry had both connections and funding, and wanted Fittko’s help in establishing a smuggling route that could potentially be lead by refugees themselves.

She agreed, and over the course of the next few years, Fittko and the Emergency Rescue Committee saved thousands of lives by leading folks over the Pyrenées via the Lister Route to Spain. Their efforts went down in history, and the Fittkos as well as Varian Fry are remembered to this day as some of the many heroes of the Resistance. The Fittkos finally fled France for Cuba in 1942 with the help of Varian Fry, and eventually settled in the United States.

And it wasn’t until almost forty years later, during a telephone conversation with Benjamin’s closest friend Gershom Scholem, that Lisa Fittko learned the fate of the mysterious briefcase that contained Benjamin’s final manuscript. She had always assumed that it had reached safe hands, especially given its importance, and was shocked and upset to learn that it had vanished.

*   *   *

Our original plan had been to reach Portbou by four or five in the afternoon at the latest, where we would then take a taxi to Cerbère, the very first town on the French side of the border, and then a train back to Perpignan where we were staying. The last train from Cerbère was a quarter past eight, and if we did not make it we would be stranded in either Portbou or Cerbère for the night.

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A plaque near the train station in Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After following the road down the mountain for a while, we finally started to see houses and we could also see Portbou straight ahead. We both felt a sense of relief, having held a mutual, muted tension for several hours at that point. But with that relief also came a heightened sense that we needed to hurry, as it was already past seven at that point.

Signs of civilization where suddenly everywhere, from cars to dogs to a huge reservoir right below us. Without realizing it, due to our mutual state of light-headed and fatigued relief combined with the need to hurry, we followed the rest of Benjamin’s exact path into town without either map or sign as a guide. As we walked down the road toward town, we kept looking back at the mountain, watching as the fog quickly drew in. We had made it off the mountain just in time.

We continued through the tunnel, down the promenade, and to the train station where Benjamin and his party turned themselves in to the police. And while we were only seeking a taxi, not an entry visa, there was something in the moment, connected to the themes of hopelessness and escape, that lingered with meaning.

After a few minutes’ worth of location-based and linguistic stumbling, we finally hailed a cab to Cerbère and then caught the very last train back to Perpignan.

*     *     *

While the official story is that Walter Benjamin died by suicide, there is an alternate, much more recent theory of the last day of Benjamin’s life, which many dismiss as conspiracy theory. Yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly supported by a combination of evidence and inconsistencies. This theory claims that he was murdered by either the Gestapo or by agents working for Josef Stalin, who had learned of his escape plans and were determined not to allow him to leave Europe.

Both the Gestapo and Stalin had adequate reasons to want him dead. Not only was he a Jew and a Marxist attempting to escape the Nazis, but he had also apparently offended Stalin quite personally with his most recent and final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Released in early 1940, “Theses” was a biting and influential critique of orthodox Marxism, and it was viewed by many as a betrayal of the tradition as well as a direct attack on the Soviet regime. There was also precedent for such an action on the part of Stalin. Leon Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City only a month earlier by an NKVD agent who was acting under direct orders from Stalin.

There are several oddities about his death that suggest that it was other than a suicide. First, theret was the suicide note itself, which many believe to be falsified because it had been written in French as opposed to his native German, and also contained inconsistencies regarding his location. And then there was the death certificate and related paperwork, which listed the cause of death as a stroke, not a drug overdose. There was also the fact that Benjamin was granted a Catholic burial in a Catholic cemetery, which would have been forbidden had he committed suicide. Finally, the fact that his briefcase disappeared also potentially points to a suspicious ending, especially given the degree to which he felt the need to keep its contents out of the hands of the Gestapo.

It is also notable that Portbou was a small, close-knit town and was rumored to be a Fascist stronghold with a reputation for hostility toward French and German refugees. Once Benjamin and his companions were detained, their presence in Portbou would have been anything but a secret, which created an ideal opportunity for agents of either Stalin or Hitler or anybody else for that matter who wished him dead.

How he truly died will always remain a mystery, as will the contents and the fate of the briefcase that disappeared after he perished. But his writings, his final days, and his life and death itself serve as a series of important lessons and reminders, not just of our past but our future possibilities and the potential we all hold to alter our fates through an understanding and analysis of what came before.

*   *   *

Through his life can be read the violent unfolding of the twentieth century, which destroyed not only him, but millions of others. Yet his writings envision a world not condemned to repeat its mistakes, unlike the defeatist cosmology of a Blanqui; a world in which the political subject still has recourse to revolutionary praxis, unlike the disempowering theory of a Habermas. Benjamin’s writings tell of other possibilities, models for future thinking and acting, re-encounters with the past and proposals for what might yet be to come. Such are his important living remains.” – Esther Leslie

I had known for several years now that Lisa Fittko had written a memoir about her experiences smuggling refugees over the Pyrénees, but it wasn’t until we got off that mountain and back to Perpignan that I felt an overwhelming and sudden urge to read her book. It’s almost as though I had deliberately overlooked it on one level and, yet only in hindsight, had recognized this fact, sensing that having read it would ruin my adventure somehow. But after completing the route, taking in Fittko’s recollections seemed to be a crucial piece of the puzzle which was that experience. It is akin to seeking out a book for its details after having seen the film version. After sensing and experiencing what we had over the course of the seven hours over the mountains, I felt need to fill in the potential gaps and the questions in my mind.

I ordered the book online from France, had it shipped to my home in Portland, and started to read it immediately upon my return home nearly a month after completing the hike over the Pyrénees. I was immediately taken in by her recollections, and quite blown away by both her overall story as well as by a few similarities between her experience on the mountain and our own.

Among other things, had I read Fittko’s book beforehand and known that it would be a 15km hike that would take twice as long as I assumed it would, I likely would not have attempted it. And yet learning that they had also assumed a much shorter hike brought our experience in step with Fittko and Benjamin’s in an oddly synchronistic way. In her memoir, Fittko wrote of Mayor Azéma’s “elastic” understanding of time in terms of what “a few hours” actually meant, a tendency which she noted was common in mountain dwellers. Seventy-five years later, I had discovered the same tendency in those who authored the many websites that spoke of a three-to-four hour hike. In both cases, this tendency resulted in similar experiences and conditions in terms of the non-mountain dwellers who took such advice at face value, and then proceeded to trek over the mountains.

But much more so than matters of time and distance, Fittko describes a certain disposition, a certain determination and desperation, a certain way about Benjamin that he overwhelmingly exuded in her presence throughout his last days. The sentiments in her expression and emotion were so familiar that it was though I had read her words many times before.

For tucked into her words and descriptions were the identical sentiments and thoughts that I had taken from the mountain itself that day. In tracing Walter Benjamin’s final hours, in gaining that perspective as we followed his final path and in our mirrored experiences during that journey, I feel as though I somehow collided into his spirit directly and to this day the resonance of that collision is not only lingering but ever strengthening. In following the footsteps of and paying tribute to a prophet whose heresies tragically collided with fate, what came forth was a new level of understanding, connection, and Work.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

   *     *     *

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

ABERDEEN, Scotland — A recent archaeological dig at a church in Scotland has helped bring the public perception of Witches and the history of their persecution into sharp focus. A team of scientists in Aberdeen uncovered up to 2,000 bodies and a cache of medieval archives showing that the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting was used in the 1500s as a “Witches’ prison.”

Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

One relic that has gripped the imagination of the public is an iron ring mounted on one of the walls (pictured below). It is believed to be where the accused were kept before going to trial. This, along with the rest of the finds, are a result of a 10-year project at the church, known locally as Mither Kirk, which is Scottish dialect for Mother Church. St Nicholas Uniting is the name of the Mother Church and Administrative Head Church of the city.

Through this find, on one level, a very vivid image of the persecution of Witches has emerged. The records that were unearthed demonstrate that details of the witch trials were painstakingly recorded by Church officials. Archivist Martin Hall said that those tried for witchcraft were “very frequently accused of healing diseases, usually using unusual methods”.

He added: “Janet Lucas (one of those recorded by the archive) is accused of taking threads from people’s clothes to heal or enchant them.”

In another example, a man called Andrew Mann was accused of “long-standing affairs with the Queen of the Elves” and “stealing a herd of cattle and leading dances through the countryside on All Hallow’s Eve”.

Those accused of Witchcraft were invariably burned at the stake, and the materials necessary to perform the burning, such as the number of tar barrels and the amount of wood, were painstakingly recorded.

General view Excavations in Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

General view Excavations in Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Parts of Mither Kirk date to 1150, and it currently still operates as a Church of Scotland site. The building’s eastern wing, which had not been in use for many years, was given the go ahead for development in 2003. When it was finished, the wing was opened up as a public facility for the people of Aberdeen.

Of the 2,000 bodies discovered during the dig, which began in 2010 in the Eastern zone’s old graveyard, only 900 bodies were considered completely or partially buried. The rest had been disturbed in some way, thought to be mostly due to placing new graves on top of existing ones.

A number of bodies were also found interred in the walls of the church itself. However, it is not yet known if any of those bodies are connected to the Witches’ prison, and it is also unclear why the story has only been covered by mainstream media now – long after the discoveries were first made.

Sensationalised coverage by the BBC placed a particular emphasis on the Witches’ ring. Project leader Dr Arthur Winfield admitted that he did not understand the media attention. He told The Wild Hunt: “It is only post-excavation work which is still ongoing, plus finding links to other information sources.”

“The [BBC] piece clearly focused on the use of St Mary’s Chapel as a prison for Witches in the 1590s,” he said. “There is a ring – which is quite insignificant – in the wall to which they were chained.”

Dr. Winfield also added, “I was rather sceptical but it seems that the city archives contain the itemised invoice for payment for putting the ring in place.”

Witch Ring found at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Witch Ring found at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, who is currently undertaking a major research project on the history of Witchcraft, stressed the fact that, in terms of news, there have been no new discoveries. He said: “The finding of unrelated burials in the church has reminded people of the iron rings in its vaults where accused criminals, including alleged witches, were held awaiting trial and execution. We always knew about these.”

Prof Hutton continued: “Aberdeen had an especially vicious mass witch hunt in 1596-7, in which local cunning folk got swept up with socially suspect characters, and convicted on confession, probably after torture.”

As Prof Hutton explains, Scotland’s record on the treatment of Witches differs sharply from that of neighbouring England. He said, “In Scotland it was very difficult to avoid conviction of Witchcraft, unlike in England where the acquittal rate was 75%, because the people who arrested the person accused were empowered by the government to act as her or his judges.

“The mode of execution was, however, similar, as English victims of Witch trials were hanged and the Scottish were usually strangled. But in England the bodies were then buried and in Scotland they were burnt.”

As Prof Hutton and project leader Dr Winfield both highlight, while there is a definite link to the persecution of Witches at the site, the extent and full nature of that link remains unclear at present. The find at Mither Kirk represents a great opportunity to discover more, not only about this fascinating period of history, but also of the history of Witchcraft in Britain.

Remains found in the wall [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Remains found in the wall [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

It is often said that these Witch trials and executions, on one level, served as public entertainment. With that in mind, it would appear that the modern sensationalist spin on the story, as presented in the British press, offers up the victims in that very way. Additionally, the BBC’s focus on the more grisly details of such an archaeological find is in keeping with the tradition of mainstream British media sensationalising any news story remotely Pagan.

But Ashley Mortimer, a trustee at the Doreen Valiente Foundation and director at the Centre For Pagan Studies, feels the spotlight that has been shone on Mither Kirk can still be seen as a positive. Mortimer said, “I think it shows the Pagan community not to forget where it came from, that our history informs us and those outside of our community of how we came to be here.”

Mortimer continued on to say: “That bloody history records that people who describe themselves as Witches were far fewer in times past and those that didn’t describe themselves often found others doing it for them – with dire consequences.

Burials at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Burials at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

“I think it reminds us that we occupy a place of equality in society now which we should treasure and value carefully, one we should remember was hard won over many, many years by those brave enough to stand up for our rights to do as we will and call ourselves what we will.

“Our ancestors deserve our gratitude and we owe it to our descendants to preserve the history – modern, ancient and in between – so that we may never forget where we came from and how we got to here.”

All of the details found in the archives will be put on public display, and the remains that were dug up will be reinterred in a specially built crypt in the church.

The true story of Mither Kirk’s Witches is still to be told, but for now we have been reminded of their presence.

*    *    *

For more background on the Witch Trials in Scotland, Professor Ronald Hutton recommends Brian P. Levack’s Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion by Brian P. Levack

NEW YORK — WitchsFestUSA, an annual Pagan festival held in the heart of New York City, was attended this year by Christian protesters. The noisy group, who stood all day on the corner of Astor Place, held up large signs calling for repentance and angrily yelling at the passing crowd. Despite the protesters’ presence, the Pagan festival kept to its program and ended on a high note.

[Photo Credit: Emma Story / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Emma Story / Flickr]

Now in its fifth year, WitchsFestUSA describes itself as an outdoor, Pagan street faire. Its mission is to “bring the community of witches or pagans together in general and enjoy who we are as such, while at the same time raising funds for The NYC Wiccan Family Temple acquire our own space of worship.”

The festival was founded and is annually hosted by elder High Priestesses Starr RavenHawk and Luna Rojas. RavenHawk founded and now runs Wiccan Family Temple and the Academy of Pagan Studies, both located in New York City. In 2013, RavenHawk was featured in a Time Magazine about Witchcraft and its modern day practice. Rojas is also a high priestess and member of the Wiccan Family Temple. Additionally, Rojas is the founder of the New York City Pagan Council, a pagan civil rights organization.

RavenHawk and Rojas have been running WitchsFestUSA since 2011. The festival takes place in New York City’s Greenwich Village on Astor Place between Broadway & Lafayette Streets. The one-day Pagan event hosts a variety of workshops, rituals, performances, and vendors, all set up on Manhattan streets like a typical city street faire. This year’s guest presenters were many, including: Rev. Don Lewis, Lilith Dorsey, Christopher Penczak, Courtney Weber Hoover, Lady Rhea, Rhonda Choudry, Qumran Taj, and Lexa Rosean.

Starr Ravenhawk WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber Hoover]

Starr RavenHawk WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber Hoover]

The group of protesters, who numbered between 10 and 20 at any given time, arrived early and stayed all day. They set up on one corner of Astor Place, near the festival’s teaching tents. The group held up signs and yelled at the growing festival crowd. According to RavenHawk, this was the same group of people who protested Pagan Pride in 2015.

Witch and author Christopher Penczak told The Wild Hunt that the protesters appeared to be “some evangelical variety” of Christian, but he could not identify any specific denomination or church affiliation.

“I have never encountered such a belligerent group,” said Hannah, a member of the Temple of Witchcraft and a regular attendee at Pagan and other similar conventions. “One [protester] screamed in my face that I need to repent.” She said that, in her experience, most convention protesters are typically more passive. “These guys were seriously full of aggression and hate.”

While the group kept to its physical location on the street corner, its members were reportedly extremely loud and often shouted over the teachers trying to teach, which appeared to be their goal. In a blog post, author and priestess Courtney Weber Hoover wrote, “We delayed the beginning of our workshops as their ‘Repent, you guys! You’re all going to hell!’ rallies were too loud!”

Lexa Rosen, who was scheduled to teach in the tent directly beside the protesters, attempted to start a chant and a spiral dance to hush them,” as relayed by Wiccan High Priestess Dawn Marie. She said, “In the end we moved her tent over so she could do some of her workshop.”

As Penczak began to teach his workshop, he quickly realized that he couldn’t “speak without yelling to be heard.” He said, “Though naive, I thought: ‘has anyone asked them to be quieter in a polite way?’ Have we tried to just talk to them?’ So I tried.”

While other attendees had engaged with the protesters in theological debate, Penczak “had a more practical request in mind.” He simply wanted to ask them to lower their volume. As his story goes, he approached the woman leading the chants, who said, “Can’t you see I’m busy. I got a job to do. I’ve got no time to talk to you.” Penczak then “tried to explain that [he] also had a job to do and she was making it impossible.” She ignored him.

Penczak said, “I tried to talk to what I thought was her associate right next to her but the gentleman turned around, and his sign said ‘Will work for cigarettes,’ and he explained he wasn’t with her.” He said that he then returned to his “teach-yell” workshop.

Weber Hoover said the same: “I led my Tarot class with a chorus of shouts about Jesus and redemption off to my left.”

Weber Hoover teachers WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

Weber Hoover teachers WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

Priestess and author Lilith Dorsey experienced the same. She shared this story with us:

I was all set to give my Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism workshop when I realized I was about 10 feet away from a loud group of Christian protesters. My godson who had come with me asked if I was going to try to reason with them. My initial response was that I used to sing on Broadway and it would be possible to talk louder than them even at this close distance. So my understanding class gathered close and I proceeded to project a well-received and well-attended lecture despite the circumstances.

Dorsey added, “After my class was over I think there was a moment where I flashed some devil horns and stuck out my tongue.”

In talking about this unfortunate situation, Dorsey made it a point to express her “respect for Christians who practice what they preach.” This sentiment was echoed in Weber Hoover’s blog post. She wrote, “I won’t call [the protesters] Christians. I know too many wonderful Christians to lump them in with this crowd.”

However, Dorsey said that, in this particular situation, she felt “disturbed and disrespected.” She added, “I have sat on interfaith councils with Christians and people of all faiths. Fortunately I have never had to directly deal with such vitriol until now. It was extra disheartening to see many people of color protesting, which in light of recent events and the #blacklivesmatter movement makes me want to ask them don’t you have better things to shout at.”

Winifred Costello, a Traditional Witch and the proprietor of AwenTree, was visiting from her home in Western Massachusetts. She said, “I felt upset for the presenters, organizers and attendees that worked hard to put on the event. The protesters were yelling so intensely and with such anger, that I did could not hear the workshop presenter speaking and I did not feel comfortable sticking around.”

Dawn Marie echoed that sentiment, saying, “[The protesters] were really angry and aggressive, and I started to worry that it would get out of hand because of the recent shootings.” She had to shield herself, adding that she felt “rattled” and “inconvenienced.”

The New York City Police Department was on hand and watching the protest. RavenHawk noted that four officers remained near the protesters at all times to protect the attendees. Dana Marie said that “[The officers] were respectful and kept us protected while keeping an eye on the protesters and telling them to stop getting so loud.”

WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

Attendees at WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

However, not everyone felt safe. As mentioned earlier, Costello left the festival because of the intensity of the protest. She said, “Due to recent events in the nation, I felt far more sensitive to, and disturbed by, the strong vibe of intolerance radiating from this group in particular. It is not that I haven’t encountered religious protesters before but given the reality of how intolerance is literally leading to folks being killed, I just had no stomach for the energy these protesters had. If they want to spread their beliefs I think there are more productive, kinder and tolerant methods than the actions they choose.”

She continued on to say, “The biggest take-away from this experience was that we need to keep advocating for positive, safe change, for acceptance of diversity in our country. The time of angry intolerance and fear-driven actions needs to shift towards a time of inclusion, acceptance and peaceful interactions.”

While many attendees simply ignored the protesters, others, like Penczak, did engage with them in some way. RavenHawk told The Wild Hunt, “I tried at first to reason with them that, this is our civil rights to be here and practice our religion, just like they do. To which they answered that it was their right as well to do their job and save us despite ourselves.”

On her blog, Weber Hoover describes her own action, in which she hugs two of the protesters and repeatedly says, “I love you.” Her chanting first elicited the same statement back. However, as she continued and got louder, the two protesters became fearful that she was casting a spell.

WitchsFestUSA 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber]

WitchsFestUSA 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber]

Weber Hoover said, “[A leader] held his hand up and started shouting an incantation, as though to strike the Devil out of me.”  She added, “I don’t know that my choice this time was the answer, but it was the right answer for me at that moment.”

Other actions included the drawing of pentacles, spirals and other magical images in chalk and salt on the ground at the protesters feet. Dawn Marie said “One gentleman had started smudging and charging the circle he had drawn as well as the other symbols around him. The whole thing was a barrier of peace.”

Dawn Marie was impressed with the attendees’ reactions to the situation. She added, “They didn’t blow the smoke at the protesters or disrespect the protesters as much as pray to the Gods for protection on the festival.”

In retrospect, RavenHawk said that the situation was “very offensive” and “traumatizing.” She said, now, “I literally cannot seem to want to hear anyone speak to me or near me about Jesus. I am so turned off by it right now, and never noticed or paid attention to it before.”

Despite that experience, attendees universally reported that RavenHawk handled the situation with grace and was “cool and calm” despite the unwanted guests and the continual disruptions.They said that she did her best, communicating with officers and being available to attendees, vendors and presenters.

By the end of the day, nothing that was done by the organizers or festival participants provoked the group to leave their corner. However, at the same time, nothing the protesters did ended the festival. Although presenter voices needed to be louder and some teaching events had to be relocated, WitchsFestUSA 2016 was considered successful, ending with a rousing closing ritual.

Final-ritual (1)

“Making lemonade” at WitchsFest2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber Hoover]

Dorsey said, “Overall it was only a minor distraction at an amazing event, run by some of the most competent and powerful people I know. ”

RavenHawk expressed her personal gratitude to everyone involved. In a public post, she wrote, “We sang songs of love and the Goddess, clapping our hands to our own beat… later on many drew sigils of pentagrams on the street before them.. witches took lemons and made lemonade. Refreshing.”

WitchsFest2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

WitchsFest2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

The sixth annual WitchsFestUSA is already in the planning stages and will be held July 15, 2017 at the same location.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As we previously reported, this year’s recipient of the Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fun is 18-year old Pete Ryland Shoda III of Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is the third scholarship awarded by the fund since it was created as the Tempest Smith Foundation closed its doors.

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[Photo Credit: DigitalRalph / Flickr]


Eligible scholarship applicants must be a high school senior or equivalent, and must be able to demonstrate that they have been a practicing Pagan for at least a year. They must submit two essays, one that is on a scholarly topic of the applicant’s choice, while the other discusses how Paganism has impacted the applicant’s life.

For this year’s winner, Paganism is made up of a set of values that are important for him. As Shoda, who is now 18 years old, wrote in his essay:

Mother Nature is watching me, and the wind is listening to me, carrying my spells, chants and requests to the Universe. Always helping, always taking care to leave a small mark, always being a good person to others, taking care of the Earth, giving back when I can.

The Wild Hunt: Did you grow up Pagan? If so, how did your family include you in their religious practices, if at all, when you were young?

Pete Ryland Shoda III: My mom has always been Pagan. She was the one who led me in the path. I have always been included in rituals when I wanted to participate. So knowing that I was able to be included or even help in rituals when I wanted has been nice.

TWH: How old were you when you became aware of other religions, and how did that affect you?

PRS: I was around the age of 10 when I really started to do things in the rituals, I had been in a few b
efore that.

TWH: How old were you when you decided for yourself that you are a Pagan? What made you realize that?

PRS: I was 12 when I figured it was right for me, what made me realize that is I just liked doing it and there were no other religions that I connected with. My mom has always allowed me to go to other religions to see what they are like, but being Pagan is where I feel like myself.

In his winning essay, he further explains:

It […] means that I have the ability to talk to the Divine, Earth Mother, Father Sky, where and when I want, not having to go to a building, not having to communicate my emotions and words to a person that says, “you are forgiven”. For the Divine, by whatever name you call it, is in me, I can communicate within myself, self-love, self-healing, self-forgiving, for the Divine lives in me, you, us, the trees, the plants, the grass, she is all around.

Michigan Pagan Scholarship

Michigan Pagan Scholarship

TWH: The fact that you even applied for the scholarship shows you’re open about your Paganism, as does your essay. Can you recall a time when you explained Paganism to someone and felt that they understood what you meant?

PRS: I would have to say there were lots of times at school when I was asked about my religion. Then I would tell them, explain things and the back story would have to follow right behind that. But overall every one that I have told has understood, but I can’t say they all have agreed with the idea.

In his essay, Shoda wrote, “Living in West Michigan, the Bible belt, is not easy being Pagan, it’s hard to defend my thoughts and beliefs to others. I have been asked many times how I can be Pagan, how I can live like “that.” To which I ask them how is it that you are able to live with such a vindictive God.”

TWH: Was there ever a time when you felt you were unfairly singled out for being Pagan that you’d be willing to describe?

PRS: I have been very lucky, there has not been a time like that in my life. I try to have open minded people as friends, if they can’t understand me and my way of life then they are not a real friend to begin with. So overall it has been a good experience.

TWH: How has your being Pagan affected your life in school, if at all?

PRS: I have been really lucky, the school that I went to was really full of nice people, they were accepting, again they may not have agreed with it, but they accepted me.

TWH: Do you practice or socialize with Pagans outside of your immediate family? In what ways?

PRS: Not really how it stands, because I do not have time to work it out with flying and school as well the two jobs I have, but if i did it would be going to Pagan pride and other things like that.

TWH: Did your religion factor into where you applied for college?  How so?

PRS: No. my career is what factored in where I applied for college. I have known since I was 12 I wanted to fly and that has predetermined where I would be going to college.

Shoda is a graduate of the West Michigan Aviation Academy, and will be continuing his studies at Grand Rapids Community College and Northwestern Colleges. He plans to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Aviation Operations.

[Caren Mack Photography]

TWH: How do you feel your religion relates to your chosen field of aviation?

PRS: When I fly, I am in a plane, but I am still so close to nature, so peaceful, it’s my Ohmmmmmmmmm.

TWH: It’s clear from your essay that Paganism is part of your identity, as you write that “it gives me the choice to worship where, when and how I want.” Would you share some examples of where, when, and how?

PRS: On holidays, with my mom, in rituals, and gatherings. But I like it when I am walking around, when I am riding my scooter, when I feel connected. I worship, pray to my Gods or Goddesses anytime. Every night before I go to sleep I say a thank you to the divine for all that I have and think about that day and how blessed I am. People think wealth is money, [but] it’s not, it’s how loved you are, how happy and healthy you are.

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As the winner of the Michigan Pagan Scholarship, Shoda received a $500 award to be used to help advance his studies. He will begin college in the fall.

AdflogoTROUT LAKE, Wash. — Over the weekend, Columbia Grove, ADF hosted its first Pan-Pagan camping festival at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary in Trout Lake, Washington. The festival, called Beyond the Gates, was attended by 35 people, and featured a variety of workshops and rituals. For example, ADF Archdruid Emeritus Reverend Kirk Thomas, who co-owns and operates Trout Lake Abbey on which the sanctuary is located, offered two lectures: Celtic Arthur and The Ancient Celtic Religion. Phaedra Bonewits was there to host a workshop on Ritual Participation and the Life and Times of Isaac Bonewits.

Among the rituals held was one dedicated to the goddess Fortuna, which, they said, “dates back to the Roman Republic.” It was held Friday night in the Druid Sanctuary’s Stone Circle. Senior Druid Jonathan Levy led the ritual and “was joined by the grove’s Bard leader, Arin Hembd.” Hembd said that Levy decided to do this ritual because of Fortuna’s “unbroken following.” Hembd explained,”Under many guises and forms this goddess is worshiped continuously through the present time, with such examples of Luck Be a Lady Tonight (from the musical “Guys and Dolls”) and phrases like, ‘How fortunate you are.’”

Fortuna Ritual 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Fortuna Ritual 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

This inaugural Beyond the Gates festival was considered a huge success, and the group hopes to do it again next year. Hembd said, “Guests mentioned feeling as though they truly were Beyond the Gates when entering the property of Trout Lake Abbey, which has a deeply sacred feeling.” Levy and Hembd added that they were able to interview some of the attendees, such as Bonewits, Thomas and others. The interviews will be uploaded to their Part the Mist podcast over the next few weeks.

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12316223_1631300617133094_8428530917145938191_nOLYMPIA, Wash. — In less than one month, Pagans, Heathens and polytheists will be heading to Washington state to attend the second annual Many Gods West conference. The event is hailed as “A Polytheist Gathering for the Pacific Northwest.” Throughout the weekend several different rituals will be offered, including those hosted by Jason Mankey, Cascadia Grove, ADF, the Golden Gate Kindred, Marcella “Allec” McGuire, Sean Donahue, Anaar Niino, Laura Tempest Zakroff, Phoenix LaFae, and Gwion Raven.

Other presentations are focused on an array of topics from “Teaching to Transgress: Decolonizing Polytheistic and Pagan Pedagogies” and “Uprooting Patriarchy in Paganism and Polytheism” to “Working with Water Spirits” and “Bee Magic and Medicine.” One of the other features of this year’s event is a Plenary Session, titled “Building Polytheist Community,” and hosted by blogger John Beckett.

Syren Nagakyrie, one of the conference organizers, said, “What I find the most amazing is the feedback we have received about Many Gods West from people who attended last year, and the level of excitement from people who will attend this year for the first time. Many Gods West is a very welcoming and inclusive space of peers and we are committed to maintaining that space. We take hospitality for people and gods very seriously. While we are not an anti-capitalist conference, we do hold those values very closely; we are queer, we are anti-racist, anti-transphobic, and stand against bigotry. We are also entirely organized by women. These things form the legs which support our work with the gods and create a welcoming place at the table for Them as well. I think our presentations and rituals, none of which were solicited by the organizers, show this. To bring together so many devoted people from diverse backgrounds in celebration of the gods and each other is a great honor and a wonderful opportunity for our communities.” Many Gods West will be held Aug 5-7 at the Red Lion Hotel in Olympia Washington.

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66090_459490960760083_1647551926_nPENSACOLA, Fla. — As we reported last week, local Pagan David Suhor is scheduled to deliver an invocation before the Pensacola City Council on behalf of The Satanic Temple. Suhor made news in 2014 when he delivered an invocation before the September meeting of the Escambia Board of County Commissioners. During that delivery he sang a prayer written by Starhawk with “accompanying magical gestures.”

This time around, Suhor will be delivering his invocation as member of The Satanic Temple. After it became known that he was on the schedule, the city council began debating whether to end its inclusive prayer policy. A special meeting was held July 7 to discuss the issue and allow for public comment. During that meeting, as reported by the local press. “a theological debate unfolded for an hour and half.” Suhor was at the July 7 meeting and asked the council to “replace the invocations with something that allows everyone to speak or pray or think according to their own conscience.” He ended his plea with “Hail Satan!”

In the end, the council opted to keep its inclusive prayer policy, which means Suhor will be delivering the invocation July 14. All city meetings are live-streamed and recorded for public viewing.

In other news

  • The Adocentyn Research Library, located in Northern California, announced that it now “has 9,461 books.” Although not officially open, Adocentyn continues to grow and gather needed resources in order to fulfill its mission to become the “premier Pagan research center in the Western US.” Volunteers gather several times each month to catalog the many donated books and put them on shelves. Anyone interested in helping the cause can volunteer to assist with various tasks, or can donate books or funds.The library’s Facebook page is kept up to date.
  • In the wake of recent events, groups of Pagans and Heathens are calling for unity in magical workings with intent of ending violence and promoting justice. Pagan author Dana Eilers offered the following: “Is it time to lend our considerable power to the scourge of violence that is swallowing our country this summer? Yes, it is! More violence is not the answer. I suggest a National Magical Movement aimed to STOP THE VIOLENCE NOW. The July full moon occurs on the night of July 19. So, at midnight between July 19-July 20 (whenever midnight occurs in your respective time zones), perform a magical working, cast a spell, pray to your gods, meet in ritual, and do whatever it is that you do best to STOP THE VIOLENCE NOW”
  • The Covenant of the Goddess is getting ready for its annual Merry Meet conference, which is to be held August 11 – August 14. Each year the event is sponsored by a different local council, located around the country. This year it is being hosted by Northern California Local Council (NCLC) and is being held in San Jose, California. Merry Meet is a conference that typically offers workshops, vendors, community, as well as providing a setting for the organization’s annual business meeting Grand Council.
  • Another organization that is planning its annual summer gathering is Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). Last year, the organization relaunched its conference, called Convocation, after a ten year hiatus. The event was held in July 2015. This year’s Convocation will be held in late August in the historic town of Salem, Mass. The 2016 guest speakers include Byron Ballard, John Beckett, Gypsy Ravish, Lauren Estan, Rev. Shirley Ranck and Rev. Amy Beltaine. In her blog post, J.K. Hildebrand writes, “All are welcome…CUUPS members, ministers, seminarians, and those interested in UU Paganism, earth and nature centered spirituality on all levels.”
  • UK writer The Bad Witch attended Treadwell’s recent conference on the UK Satanic Panic of the 1980s. In a blog post, she discusses the media’s role in that scare and highlights the work of one journalist, who “bucked the trend.” The Bad Witch writes, “Dr Rosie Waterhouse, now director of the MA in investigative journalism at City University London, was a reporter at the time. She investigated what was being called Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) and found that evidence to back up the claims simply didn’t exist.”

UNITED STATES — On Tuesday morning, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was shot in the chest and back by a Louisiana police officer outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. By Tuesday night, protests and vigils began in that capital city. While many people were still examining the video of the shooting and processing what happened, another shooting occurred. On Wednesday evening, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was shot by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While an official police video of the shooting hasn’t yet emerged, a video of Castile’s death was livestreamed on Facebook.

By Thursday, protests against police brutality, along with vigils for the two men, swept the nation. Most protests have been peaceful. However, one in Dallas, Texas ended with five police officers killed and seven others wounded by a former military member who said he wanted to “kill police officers, especially white ones.” Two protesters were also wounded in the attack. Then, on Saturday evening in Minneapolis, several officers were injured by protesters throwing rocks and bottles. Police responded with CS gas and rubber bullets.

Protest in NYC July 2016 [Courtesy C. Weber]

Protest in NYC July 2016 [Courtesy C. Weber]

The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have much in common, along with a few differences. The deaths of both men were caught on tape and viewed by millions of citizens. Both men were carrying a firearm when they were killed.

In Minneapolis, police pulled Castile over for the stated reason of a broken taillight. Unknown to Castile, police reportedly thought he matched the description of an armed robbery suspect, and wanted an opportunity to take a closer look at him. According to Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who was in a car with him, the officer asked him for his license and registration. She said that, as he reached for his I.D., he informed the officer that he had a concealed-carry permit and was armed. Reynolds said the officer told him to put his hands up and not to move. But, as Castile tried to put his hands up, he was shot five times and died. Reynolds said that Castile was attempting to comply with conflicting orders by the officer: to produce his identification, to put his hands up, and to not move.

In Baton Rouge, Sterling was just outside a store when police came. Officers were responding to a call that a man was displaying a firearm or that it was visible. As Sterling is a convicted felon, he was not legally permitted to carry a firearm. However, that fact was reportedly not known to police at the time of the shooting. Additionally, the video doesn’t show Sterling brandishing or reaching for his weapon during the attempted arrest. What the video does show is Sterling and the police struggling, then the officer fires several times killing Sterling.

Both cases have civil rights activists, Black Lives Matter activists and many others questioning whether these killings were justified or examples of excessive force used by police.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagans across the country about why they attended the weekend rallies, what religious ethics drive their actions, and what they experienced first hand.

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Detroit, Michigan

Kenya Coviak is a diasporic practitioner of modern neo-pagan witchcraft and folk magick, Founder of the Great Lakes Witches Council of Michigan, Co-treasurer of Ancient Faiths Alliance; Founder of Black Moon Grove and President of Pagan Pride Detroit INC. Coviak said:

“One, I am a diasporic, that means Black. [A] woman in this great nation who is directly and indirectly affected by what is going on in the class and race conflicts ongoing in the way we treat each other as a country.  The blood that is being spilled is my own in spirit, kith, and kind if not kin. It is a greater issue when it comes to Black Lives Matter. It is not Black Lives Matter OR Blue Lives Matter. It is Black Lives Matter AND Blue Lives Matter. Because the tide of wickedness that is flowing through the rivers of pain in our country are a form of sickness that is seeking to divide and dissolve our collective unity.

“Those who have been twisted and turned into the tools of hatred and bigotry are killing citizens before they can even get to the hearing. And there is a spectrum of force that is being skipped and cherry-picked when it comes to Black and Native and Poor people.”

Detroit Protest July 2016 [Courtesy K. Coviak]

Detroit Protest July 2016 [Courtesy K. Coviak]

Coviak continued, saying “The fact that there are Pagan activists all over the electronic landscape is one thing, but unless we get in the streets and off the keyboards, what good are we to people who do not have time to put their coffee next to the screen and read the latest thought piece?

“Michigan is unique in that it has so many new and old Pagan and Heathen groups that are openly and actively involved in bridge building. There is no justifiable reason that there should ever be a demonstration where NO representative of Pagan faiths are in attendance. And the fact that I went through three bundles of smoke cleansing herbs and oils means a great deal to me. Even security and law enforcement were open enough to ask questions and even let the smoke clear and bless them.

“I am an activist and former Family Service Worker for Head Start. Boots on the ground is how I have always rolled. I experienced the energetic  [at the rally] shift from anger to focus to optimism.  As the crowd grew, so did the feeling of a storm breaking. Some were overwhelmed and took generous gulps of water as they were comforted by volunteers.

“My values dictated that where there is a spiritual awakening, and where there is an etheric shift that trauma causes,  I should be there if I can.  I come with heart,  hands,  and soul to share the weight.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tasha Rose, a practicing Witch, said:

“I went to the rally because clear injustice was laid upon Philando and his family. I wasn’t able to stay beyond bringing food that I made but that’s how I serve, I cook. I prayed as I made a simple snack for protesters and as is my personal daily practice, imbued the food with love and strength and resilience and other attributes I thought would be needed by those standing up and speaking out.”

Minneapolis Rally July 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Schulz]

Minneapolis Rally July 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Schulz]

Rose added, “This man was innocent. He was murdered by a police officer who spooked like a newly broke horse after he profiled Philando. These kind of people do not deserve to count themselves as protectors of the peace when they are waging war built on classist, racist pretenses. I went and left prayerful food and said my prayers at the rally because we should all feel safe around those who wear a badge. We should all be able to drive without fear of being murdered by those who are sworn to serve us.”

Atlanta, Georgia

Sara Amis is a writer and Faery Tradition initiate. Amis said:

“I actually went to two marches: one Thursday evening from Five Points to Piedmont Park, and one Friday that started in Centennial Park and basically went on for the rest of the evening with a bit of rally in between. Aside from the obvious…that I think there’s a problem with police violence that the system as it functions now is not addressing, and that there is a measurable racial bias element to it as well…I think it’s important to be present, to walk the streets with those most at risk and hear what they have to say in their own voices, to let them know they are supported in real time with my own feet and voice and risks. It’s an act of democracy and an act of love.”

Atlanta protest July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

Atlanta protest July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

Amis continued, saying, “I wrote an ‘Incantation for Justice’ a year and a half ago, which begins ‘The place of the witch is beside the downtrodden.’ If anything I’m more convinced of that now than I was before. Fundamentally, if I think that life is sacred, that each person is a unique expression of the divine, it’s not good enough to think that in the abstract. I have to express those ideas in concrete ways.

“Atlanta is interesting. There’s such a strong tradition of civil disobedience here, and many of the veterans of the Civil Rights movement are still around, still doing work in their communities in and out of politics. When John Lewis is the senior member of your Congressional delegation, it changes things.

“The Friday afternoon march started as the Center for Civil and Human Rights which is also an Atlanta tourist attraction, and my Congressman, Hank Johnson, was marching in it. I was there with my boyfriend, who is a political candidate. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some antagonism, but it’s more passive-aggressive, like Mayor Reed claiming that Martin Luther King, Jr. would never have blocked a highway, which if you ask me is a patently ridiculous statement.

Atlanta rally July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

Atlanta rally July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

“But the protests here almost never get ugly and can often be quite celebratory, even with all of the typical confusion, police, flashing lights, and helicopters. The Thursday night march was more somber but Friday night people were drumming, singing, dancing down the street. There were all ages and races and backgrounds there, but the majority of them were African-American and many of them were quite young. When I look at them they look like my students…some of them clearly were students, from Georgia State, Emory, Spelman, Agnes Scott, Morehouse, etc. They were bantering back and forth about Rosa Parks and Zora Neale Hurston. They were cheerful, funny, ebullient even. Bystanders were also very supportive, waving and honking their horns even as we were keeping them from getting where they were going.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was tense at times. The police were present with AR-14s (sic), though I assume that was in fear of a copycat of Dallas. I heard they had tear gas though I didn’t personally see it.  And after the stand-off on the Williams St. exit had gone on for a while it looked like they were going to try to box us in. The response was to peel off a large group and march around the city for about an hour and a half, singing and picking up more people as we went.

“My boyfriend and I finally left before the trains stopped running.  We passed someone who had parked his car and had it cranked up playing ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.’  Then argued politics with people on the train on the way home; another thing about Atlanta is that people talk to each other, in the street, on the train. It’s a very human city, like an overgrown small town.”

Oakland, California

Elizabeth said: “I don’t prescribe to a specific type of Paganism. I practice goddess worship, acceptance, kindness, peace, love, feminism, and social justice.”

“I went to the Shut It Down protest in Oakland, CA  this past Thursday as white ally and witch. The crowd was extremely diverse. There were all different religions races and creeds. Children, families, teens, young adults, middle aged adults, elderly adults. The protesters were culturally diverse, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian […] What I saw with my heart was my community coming together in support of Black Lives Matter.

“I attended the protest with my Hive Sister from CAYA Coven and we were burning sage and walked the perimeter of the rally with our focus and intentions on maintaining a shield of protection around us (protesters) from violence and police brutality and boosting the signal that Black Lives Matter.”

 *    *    *

Morpheus Ravenna is a Celtic polytheist Pagan, and Lore Chieftain of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. Ravenna said:

“I attended the rally because I must. I value justice, sovereignty, the kinship of humanity, and I can’t stand by and claim to care about those things but not act to do something about the horrific injustices that I see perpetrated by our institutions against People of Color. There are plenty of other ways to make a difference; but for me as a practitioner of a warrior tradition and a dedicant of the Morrígan, I’m called to act by joining the Black community in the streets and participating in direct action and resistance.”

Ravenna at Oakland protest July 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Ravenna at Oakland protest July 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Ravenna continued, “The mood of the crowd was passionate that night. News of the extrajudicial killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had just landed in the community on top of weeks of awful revelations about the OPD and several other local police forces in a truly reprehensible sex trafficking conspiracy. There was a feeling of outrage, grief and frustration. You had this sense that this crowd was not going to be stopped. The march moved very quickly from the plaza to OPD headquarters, and then in a matter of moments was cascading across the highway, shutting it down completely and holding it for over four hours.

“I saw fierce chanting, outpourings of rage and grief, revolutionary speeches; and I also saw celebratory music and dancing, spontaneous outbursts of jubilation. When the front of the march crested the on-ramp and took the highway, someone let off a few firecrackers overhead and there was victorious cheering. People took care of each other, sharing food around as the night grew later. When someone in the crowd had a seizure, street medics stepped up, and a doctor whose vehicle was stuck in the shutdown even came and helped out.

There was a lot of good feeling. But also, as all this was going on the news about the Dallas sniper started going around the crowd, and people were very nervous that the police would come down hard on us because of it. We were working with other clergy people at the march, preparing to place ourselves as shields between police and Black activists if the situation called for it. Thankfully, we saw no violence that night.”

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Brennos Agrocunos, is a Celtic polytheist Pagan and the acting Chief of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. Agrocunos said:

“I attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland California on July 7 in order to support the Black community, stand alongside Black clergy, and work as a street medic during the event. As a part of my commitments and oaths to my Gods and ancestors I work to serve my community in the best way that I can.  In Oakland, violence from the police against the Black community is a significant and deadly problem.  Providing support for People of Color in our community during a time of crisis is the morally correct thing to do, and as a human I’m compelled by my conscious and as a priest I’m compelled by my oaths to my Gods to act.”

Newark, New Jersey

Queen Mother Imakhu, is a Shenu-Khametic, a branch of Ancient Egyptian spirituality, and Pastor and Leader of the Sharaym Shenu Khametic Temple.  Queen Mother Imakhu said:

“I was walking to my bus stop, on my way home from the Farmers Market. There was no difficulty in catching it, because it was stuck at the intersection, along with a long line of buses and cars. Traffic was at a standstill because grassroots protesters had taken over the major intersection of Newark. We sat there for an hour. Our bus driver was in solidarity, and shut the bus off. He said he wasn’t going to attempt to move until the protesters allowed passage. Other drivers followed suit. Some tried to push through, but got nowhere. I jumped off the bus to grab photos with my phone, then reboarded.”

Newark Rally July 2016

Newark Rally July 2016 [Courtesy Queen Mother Imakhu]

She added, “What was disappointing was hearing folks complaining about how the protestors were an inconvenience. Others complained about getting to work. They missed the point about the economic shut down. Business in downtown Newark was disrupted. And these were Black folks complaining.

“My driver happened to be a colleague: a Kemetic High Priest. Our faith calls for making a difference through actions. The spiritually awakened Khamite/Kemite stays calm, but stands on the side if truth. While others in the bus were screaming and complaining, we both maintained our cool, and affirmed our support for the protestors. He took a lot of heat too. He was calm, dignified, resolute, smiling.

“I was happy to see how my personal influence of teaching and demonstrating Activism has positively influenced our community overall. Kemite used to be ostriches. Our faith demands activism. I’ve posted events I’ve protested at in order to educate about being involved. That’s why.”

New York, New York

Courtney Weber is a Progressive Wiccan, Priestess and author. Weber said:

“As a Priestess in a diverse, urban community, I’m terrified that one morning I’ll wake up to see that the next victim of police violence was one of my students, community members, or friends–or one of their children. I won’t be neutral. I won’t be quiet.

“The rally was big, tight, and peaceful. We streamed into and blocked traffic up 5th Avenue to and along 34th street, then up to 42nd street, blocking Times Square. Some drivers were losing it at their wheels. Others honked or raised fists in solidarity. Whole buses had to sit and wait. I hoped passengers would get off and join us. Maybe some did. The sit-in in Times Square was the most peaceful part. We sang, but most people sat in silence. It’s was the most calm and quiet I’ve ever seen in that space.”

Portland, Oregon

T. Thorn Coyle, is a magic worker, author, spiritual director and agitator for justice. Coyle said:

“I could call upon Pagan ethics, and my Goddesses and Gods, as reasons for activism, but frankly, during these times to not stand up against injustice? That would be a slap in the face to my very humanity. I do this simply because I feel in my bones that it is the right thing to do. I cannot do otherwise.”

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Portland rally July 2016 [Photo Credit: T. Thorn Coyle]

Coyle wrote a personal account of her experience at the Portland rally in an essay titled “To Run In, Freeze or Flee.” Briefly she said:

“Around 45 minutes into tonight’s gathering in Portland, a man pulled a gun on us. It turns out he is a Trump supporter and right-wing agitator. I was right near him, saw the gun, saw him unsnap the holster, and turned to get some children to back up. Once the kids were safely taken by some other adults, I was still close to him, trying to decide if I was needed. Then the ‘hit the ground’ call went up.

“I am grateful to the level headed people who just kept walking toward him, getting him away from the crowd. As the small group walked him further off, others of us were asked to form a cordon around the protest. We did.

“As the Black man who asked us to said, ‘I don’t want to get killed keeping you safe. I’m willing to die for you, but it’s your job to hold this line.’

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Alley Valkyrie, a Feri initiate, radical polytheist, columnist for The Wild Hunt. was at that same rally. Valkyrie said:

“I went to the rally for many reasons. I consider it my responsibility as someone who benefits from white supremacy and colonialism to speak up against oppression and state violence against Black folks, I knew many of the folks who had organized the rally, and its very much a community issue as well as a national issue given the racist history of Portland and the history of racist violence that our local police department has engaged in over the years. I have close friends in town who are afraid for themselves and their children due to police violence and I wanted to support them and stand beside them. I also have specific orders from the gods I worship to stand up against oppression and white supremacy, and going to the march fit right in with those orders.”

Portland rally [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

Portland rally [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

Valkyrie added, “The rally started out real well. Several hundred people gathered in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, several leaders from the Black community spoke and engaged the crowd, and then we took the streets and marched through downtown, blocking traffic (most folks in cars were supportive), and eventually pausing at in front of the police headquarters where more folks started to speak again.

“And then out of nowhere a well-known right-wing agitator named Michael Strickland pulled a gun on the crowd and waved it around several times in a threatening manner. He was agitated because folks asked him to leave, as he was filming the crowd for malicious reasons. He runs a right-wing youtube station that he uses as a platform for harassing local activists, and has allied himself with self-proclaimed fascists who doxx local activists.

“I was nearby but blocked from sight of the gunman, but my partner was right in front of Strickland and had a gun pointed and brandished at him. Despite the fact that this occurred right across the street from the police station and there was heavy police presence at the march, it took the police around 20 minutes to arrest Strickland. Once he was arrested, the march continued through downtown, blocking the streets for another few hours. I went home at that point due to back pain, but the march then proceeded to block off the Morrison Bridge for over an hour.”

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The Wild Hunt will have continuing coverage of the protests in the days ahead.

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Note: Michael Strickland, the man accused of brandishing a weapon at the rally, has been charged with two class A felonies after being arrested and released Friday morning on his own recognizance without bail.

[The Wild Hunt is pleased to welcome Tim Titus to our monthly team. Titus’ column will appear on the first Saturday of every month, beginning in August.  He will be sharing his own perspective on life, community and religion. Check out his full bio for more on his work and interests.]

The notions of freedom and personal spiritual authority are driving factors that bring people into the practice of a Pagan religion. Many modern Pagan practitioners are fleeing the older, more dogmatic and hierarchical forms of religion offered by the mainstream in favor of seeking a spiritual practice that speaks to them and is controlled by them.

Sacred Harvest Festival Brush Oak Grove

Sacred Harvest Festival Brush Oak Grove

In Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler specifically cites “freedom” as one of the major attractions that a Pagan path holds for modern people, writing that people often become Pagan “because they could be themselves and act as they choose, without what they felt were the medieval notions of sin and guilt” as well as a refusal to honor “rigid hierarchies and institutionalization” (23). In Paganism: An introduction to Earth-centered spirituality, authors Joyce and River Higginbotham specifically list “A pronounced religious individualism” (4) as a major tenet of their Pagan religion. Pagans, it would seem, seek their own paths rather than membership in any leader’s flock.

Yet leadership is still necessary, even for such an individualistic group of people. Although Pagans may not follow a shepherd’s crook as their ultimate beacon of hope nor any one sacred text as an infallible set of rules, we still look to those who have blazed trails to help us down the path that best suits our needs. If everyone hacked their own way through the woods, all the trees would be dead and the underbrush trampled.

[Courtesy Photo]

John Beckett [Courtesy Photo]

Druid and Patheos blogger John Beckett cites a number of roles that leadership still plays for the Pagan community. First, writes Beckett, is the more mainstream idea of “leaders as decision makers.” While there is no ultimate authority, “decisions have to be made based on an understanding of what the group wants to do.” This can be done through consensus or democratic process rather than an authoritarian style, but, “knowing which method to use for decisions is a key part of leadership,” explains Beckett.

Beyond that traditional leadership role, Beckett also sees Pagan leaders as teachers, managers, and visionaries. In the role of teacher, he emphasizes the necessity of strong communication skills. And, the role of manager is necessary because, while any group has a set of goals that drive it, “someone has to make sure all this gets done.” In the visionary role, leaders are needed to “articulate a vision and inspire people to do what’s necessary to make it a reality.”

Without leaders, our vision of the future can be difficult to see and even more difficult to attain. It is vital to the health of Pagan communities to produce strong, ethical people who are willing and able to perform these leadership functions.

Photo Credit: Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight [Courtesy Photo]

Now, it can be a daunting task to step out from the comfort of your own private spiritual practice and into the more public world of community leadership. However, many Pagan leaders have found it rewarding both personally and spiritually. To take those first steps into a new role, author and blogger Shauna Aura Knight advises a “model of apprenticeship and increasing responsibility” to help new community leaders get their feet wet. Knight regularly blogs and teaches a variety of leadership skills in the Chicago area. She further explains that this apprenticeship model can apply to anything from ritual facilitation to “event planning, leading meetings, and many other aspects” by “building the emerging leader’s confidence.”

Christopher Penczak, author and co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, says that this is how he became involved in leadership. “Each time I got the call to take on a little more responsibility,” he writes, “I thought that would be as far as it would go. Yet every few years, the call to go deeper would happen.” Although he did not seek a leadership role, “each time there was a need, and I found myself asked to step into a new and uncomfortable role.”

David Salisbury, an author and co-facilitator of The Firefly House in Washington, D.C. echoes this process, saying that, “I like to think that I tripped, stumbled, and fell into leadership.”

Photo Credit: Christopher Penczak

Christopher Penczak [Courtesy Photo]

Whether they intentionally sought out leadership or “stumbled” into it, there are certain personal qualities that help new leaders succeed. Knight believes that self-reflection is vital. “If you’re not actually looking into the mirror,” says Knight, “you’re going to keep making the same mistakes and wonder why your group’s falling apart and never realize your own role in it.”

Penczak states that communication skills are indispensable. “While you can’t please everyone all the time, and really can’t even try,” he says, “you have to understand what people are saying to you and be able to convey what you can and cannot do, and why.”  Alix Wright, the Lead Pisces Minister in the Temple of Witchcraft, agrees, noting that, “You can’t expect people to do what needs to be done, if you can’t tell them in a manner that they understand.” Wright adds that, “Since everybody hears and understands in different ways, you have to be able to communicate in a style and manner that matches each person you’re working with.”

Knight also recommends “the ability to hold paradox.” She writes, “Some issues are not just the binary of black and white, good or bad,” and explains that, “many leaders get stuck in being a know-it-all obsessed with being right, and that causes a lot of conflicts.” Salisbury echoes this when he advises young leaders to “remain humble and open to listening to your community.”

David Salisbury [Courtesy Photo]

There are always issues that can hold a new leader back. “Fear,” states Penczak, “is the biggest problem with new leaders.” This includes “Fear of losing control. Fear of not getting something done. Fear of not being worthy, and an effort to hide all these fears rather than acknowledge the process.”

Wright and Salisbury agree that doing too much at once is a major obstacle for new leaders. Wright emphasizes that, “One of the lessons I needed to learn was that it’s okay to say no, and when I do say yes, then it’s okay to ask for help and delegate.” Salisbury cautions against “trying to be everything to everyone all at once” because “burnout is a major leader-killer.”

Knight fears that, when new groups or events begin to form, those in charge “never stop to talk about what their goals are,” and she warns that, “most conflicts come from assumptions.” She advises “direct communication” to unravel those conflicts.

She also warns against another pitfall of leadership: “egotism.” “Many leaders desperately want to be ‘the person with the good idea,’ or ‘the one who’s right’ or, more broadly, ‘the savior.’ ” This, she says, leads to poor boundaries and poor choices, and it brings her back to stating her top quality for leadership: self-reflection.

“Know thyself.”

Perhaps this ancient wisdom is the single best piece of advice. As John Beckett stresses, in the end “leaders are servants.”  Leaders serve those whom they lead, providing them with spiritual experiences and practical direction, sometimes at their own expense. “Good leaders do that work,” concludes Beckett, “because they want to serve the Gods, their groups, the Pagan community, and the world at large.”

I first met Beowulf on a field trip. My grade school class had a special engagement to see a stage version of the story, performed – I think – by St. Louis’ Metro Theater Company. The spare production featured only a few actors and a set of props that, like those of The Fantasticks, were few enough that they could have been brought on stage in a gunnysack. A central platform at the center of the stage doubled as all the locations of the poem – the darkened hall of Heorot, the haunted mere, the dragon’s cave. A long pole served for almost everything else; it became swords, treasure, and, most memorably, the arm of Grendel, which Beowulf tears from him in their famous wrestling match.

We all read our own Beowulf. This collection belongs to Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute. [Photo Credit: E. Scott]

I recall feeling disappointed. Being a child, I had no real understanding of theatre or literature, and so I did not understand theatrical minimalism, or that there might be good reasons to tell the story in this way besides a lack of money. One of the actors explained that they did not want to show us Grendel as a latex-and-animatronics spectacle, and I remember thinking that was exactly what I wanted. Oh, well; children’s theater is wasted on children. I’d give anything to see that play again today, with adult eyes, if only to see their dragon again – a man perched atop the platform in cloak of red and gold, which he swirled around his body to create the image of flame.

Some twenty years on, I have spent the past three weeks standing deep in the poem, working with a number of scholars in a summer institute about Beowulf and its relationship to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Much of this has focused on some very specific textual echoes: Beowulf fights monsters in a king’s hall and a watery mere; Grettir Asmundarson, the hero of the Icelandic Grettis saga, fights a similar pair of trolls in a farmer’s hall and a waterfall cave. Bodvarr Bjarki, a character in Hrolfs saga Kraka, can be read as an Icelandic equivalent to the hero, and even serves a king whose name is cognate to a relative of Beowulf’s King Hrothgar. But beyond these textual correspondences – and the arguments for whether they are mere coincidence or represent evolutions of a common source – much of our discussions have focused on how Beowulf fits into the broader picture of the medieval north, and indeed, just what we know about those societies.

The central, seemingly inescapable question of Beowulf is the poem’s relationship to paganism. The poem, which survives in a single monastery-produced manuscript, clearly survives because of Christian literary practice; just as clearly, its story looks back to the heathen past and the heroic mode. Though every character in Beowulf is, logically, a heathen, the language itself is suffused with Christianity. Critical opinion has ranged from the notion that the poem is largely an oral heathen epic with a veneer of Christian commentary layered over it to reading it as an entirely Christian document that serves to criticize the ethical failures of the past.

The picture isn’t any clearer for other documents from the medieval north, either. The problems with Snorri Sturluson’s Edda are well known, being a prose synthesis of a pagan mythos several centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. But even a poem like Völuspá, which underpins so much of what we think we know about Norse mythology, often gets read as a Christian reflex, perhaps a systematizing of the heathen ways in the face of Christianity. Pick a feature of the literature and you can find a critic who will argue for its Christian influences.

Although I do my best to keep myself objective when I’m in a scholarly context, I admit that I struggle with this. In part I grumble because I feel that medieval studies, across the time period and the discipline, overemphasizes Christianity; while the religion clearly had more social influence than just about any other institution in the period, medievalists seem to interpret everything as though all people living in the middle ages were fanatically devoted, which simply seems unlikely to me. But these interpretations also go against my personal attractions to the literature. I read Beowulf and its Old Norse analogues, ultimately, because it’s the literature that’s shaped me, in ways obvious and not. It’s bound up with my Paganism, and therefore with my sense of self.

That means I want to see the pagan core to the poetry, and I want to see the coherent system of the cosmology. I want to read about Beowulf’s Geats pleaing to their gods for aid against Grendel and ignore the narrator’s snide commentary on their beliefs. I want to read Völuspá as a history that was complete before the Scandinavians ever heard of Christ. Above all, I suppose I want to read the texts with the comfortable sense of understanding they had when I first read them, even though I realize that is an impossibility.

Our modern Paganisms depend in large part on the institutions that study the ancient paganisms from which we draw our inspiration. While we come to our own individual understandings of our sources – and some of us even do excellent research of our own – ultimately, there are matters of expertise and access that underpin our understanding of the past that go beyond the average person’s resources. But that scholarship too is precarious, and often as not reflects assumptions and desires alien to those of the religionist.

Earlier in the Beowulf institute, I had a friendly disagreement with a religion scholar, whose position was that it was wrong, conceptually, to think of ancient Scandinavian paganism as a “religion.” To him, the word betrayed too many modern assumptions, too many Christian influences. For me, it was exactly the opposite: the idea that a “religion” can only refer to an Abrahamic-style proselytizing system seemed to demonstrate the exact kind of bias that he was trying to avoid. I absolutely wanted to think of Norse paganism as “religion,” because religion implies a degree of legitimacy that no other English word contains.

I don’t think either of us quite understood the importance of the others’ framing of the question, what is a religion. It was as if we were both children in the theater, watching the man in the cloak of flame, neither of us quite sure as to the shape of a dragon.

EGANVILLE, Ont.  – Canada’s only public place of worship dedicated to honouring the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Germanic gods, has just been rebuilt and enlarged to accommodate growing numbers of visitors. Known as a Vé, this open-air holy site is located in a grove-like clearing amid a mixed forest of deciduous and coniferous trees. It consists of nine posts in a squared formation with a portico at its lowest point. The entrance faces high ground where god-poles, dedicated to Freyja, Frigg, Odin, Freyr and most recently, Thor are located. A low, natural stone altar is set in front of the god-poles. The area is enclosed by the Vé-bond rope, which is ritually hung from the posts. The land is part of Raven’s Knoll, a 100-acre Pagan-owned and -operated campground near Eganville, Ontario, along the Bonnechere River.

The Ve at Raven's Knoll (courtesy of Erik Lacharity)

The Ve at Raven’s Knoll [Photo Courtesy Erik Lacharity]

The Vé needed repair because some of its posts had rotted and fallen over. Earlier this spring, campground staff noted that another post had been broken and pulled from the ground and that the Vé-bond rope had been pulled to one side.

The perpetrator of this vandalism is believed to be a young and gangly moose who had been hanging around the property at the time. The damage provided opportunity to make the Vé larger, as the numbers of folk attending rituals and ceremonies at the site are growing. The Vé was getting stretched to capacity.

Raven’s Knoll steward and gothi Austin Lawrence is the primary caretaker of the Vé. In a recent interview with The Wild Hunt, he explained how the Vé is used, and who uses it. Lawrence said:

The Vé was created for the worship of gods and goddesses of the pre-Christian religious traditions of the Old Norse and Germanic peoples. In particular, the Vé is a powerful and sacred place to interact with their power directly and intimately. This is done in large group rituals, such as blóts at the Hail and Horn Gathering, or through individual worship throughout the Spring, Summer and Fall when the campground is open. Some people spend time in the Vé to meditate, to read omens, to do personal rituals such as dedications or to speak marriage vows.

The Vé is open to anyone that makes the oath required to enter the Vé and follows the rules and taboos of that oath. To enter and participate in any ritual taking place in the Raven’s Knoll Vé, three basic rules should be strictly followed as a sign of respect for the holy powers and to ensure one’s own continued good fortune. These rules are to: 1) honour only the Æsir and their close allies; 2) keep frith and maintain good relations; and, 3) maintain sacral cleanliness, keeping the Vé holy and undefiled.

Most people prefer to make that oath to a gothi or gythia or other ring-bearer who has done ritual in that place at the Hail and Horn Gathering. However, anyone who has previously been oathed into the Vé can administer the oath. It does not matter, one bit, what biological ancestry, sexual or gender identity, class background, nationality, creed or other similar factor someone has. Anyone can enter the Vé, so long as they follow the rules and taboos.

Lawrence and Lacharity celebrate the newest god-pole. (courtesy of E.Lacharity)

Lawrence and Lacharity celebrate the newest god-pole. (courtesy of E.Lacharity)

Lawrence went on to explain where the original inspiration came from to create the Vé. He said:

We were originally inspired to create the Vé at Raven’s Knoll after reading the “risala” of Ibn Fadlan, ambassador of the Caliph of Bagdad to the King of the Bulgars, from the year 921 C.E. This account is one of the few first person accounts of how Heathen Scandinavians practiced their religion.

As modern Heathens with a passion for reconstructing the religions tradition of our ancestors, our goal is to create an accessible, publicly accessible place to worship the Aesir in the manner of the ancients. We have found that this allows for some of the most intense and close spiritual experiences possible in the various Heathen religious traditions. We simply want to share our love and experience of the gods with others.

One of the many co-creators of this sacred space is Erik Lacharity. He shared how it feels to be a part of constructing such a special place. He said, “It means that I am inextricably tied to the place. My deeds, my words are bound as much to the Vé as are the poles that stand within it. When I think back to the efforts I have exerted there, I feel that I have lived. I cannot imagine having gone through life and not been involved in the development and establishment of such a grand holy site.”

Lacharity explained how the Vé, as well as Raven’s Knoll and its growing community have all taken on a special role in his life:

As a person, I chose to live my life mythically. That is, I immerse large segments of my reality into what I perceive as a cosmic tapestry that is influenced by, at once my own deeds and the whims of the gods and ancestors. Raven’s Knoll gives me a place that I can live such a mythic life among others who value the experiences shared there to a similar degree. In such a small place in a rural town in Ontario of all places, I can strive to become as the “big men” who came before me and leave a lasting impression on those yet to come. It is here that I, and many others can be “all that we can be”.

Rebuilding the Vé and acquiring the resources needed was a large project, involving many of the folk from the local area. New posts needed to be sourced. The original red pine ones, which came from the surrounding forest, rotted quickly.

Local Heathen farmers, Kristoff Loki Wodinson and his partner Yitka Wodinson were able to donate new, more durable, cedar posts to the project. The ritual elements necessary for setting the posts were contributed by Lacharity, Lawrence and Juniper Jeni Birch. The hard physical labour of setting up the space, was shared by many hands.

Gypsy Birch, one of these workers, described the process:

Lawrence and Juniper Jeni Birch ritually set a pole (courtesy of E.Lacharity)

Lawrence and Juniper Jeni Birch ritually set a pole [Photo Courtesy E.Lacharity]

For the past couple months, I have taken over the general maintenance of the Vé in terms of cutting the grass, the pushing back of overgrowth, and general upkeep. Many people seem to forget how much work goes into maintaining a sacred space, and part of my personal path is to allow people of other faiths to focus on their personal spirituality without worrying about the details. The act of repairing the two broken posts and the subsequent expansion of the Vé space is not something that was done in a day. There was much coordination required in order to clear the undergrowth, accurately measure the new space, source the new posts, cut and transport the new posts, remove the old posts, fill in the old holes, dig the new holes, and place the new poles.

This does not even take into account the ritual requirements of many of these tasks. James and I worked hard to coordinate a lot of these behind-the-scenes tasks, but admittedly, his work at getting the posts measured, cut, and delivered from Loki and Yitka’s farm, and then sitting in the sun for hours to skin the posts of their bark was by far the most labour-intensive part of the process. Of all the work that was done and the hours of sweat put into building the physical space, my personal spiritual growth comes from knowing that I have helped remove the burden of labour from others.

Last weekend, during Hail and Horn Gathering (HHG), a new god-pole was created and erected as the main ritual. Each year at this event, a Norse god is highlighted, and a god-pole dedicated to them and added to the Vé. Next year’s HHG will be held June 30 through July 3, and will feature two deities: Heimdall and Syn.

The god-poles (L to R): Freya; Frigg; Odin; Freyr and Thor. (courtesy of Erik Lacharity)

The god-poles (L to R): Freya, Frigg, Odin, Freyr and Thor. (courtesy of Erik Lacharity)