NEW YORK, NEW YORK –In astrology, the planet Mercury begins moving retrograde again on January 21, meaning that the planet will appear to be moving in the opposite direction of other heavenly bodies. This optical illusion occurs three times annually, and usually inspires a plethora of social media posts blaming communication and other blunders on the condition. This time around, Mercury’s reversal has caught the attention of writer Kristin Dombek, who in an essay in the New York Times magazine writes:

On Jan. 21, at 10:54 a.m. Eastern Time, Mercury will begin its first pass by Earth of the new year. For about three weeks, it will appear to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.

Teri Parsley Starnes

Teri Parsley Starnes

“I thought the article was kinda great,” said Teri Parsley Starnes, an astrologer who writes on the topic for PNC’s Minnesota bureau. She braced herself for a slew of misconceptions, saying, “I figured, ‘here we go,’ someone’s going to make fun of us, but I learned some stuff, like the fact that the craters are named after artists. That’s brilliant.”

While Starnes feels that Dombek’s treatment wasn’t as terrible as it could have been, she does think people with only a passing familiarity with astrology may not quite grasp the concept. “Saturn return and Mercury retrograde are the two things most people know,” she said, and as a result, “It’s easy to blame Mercury” for any mishap that occurs during the retrograde period. As a Pagan, though — she’s a member of the Reclaiming tradition — Starnes looks at the skies through a spiritual lens, and considers what is known about the gods associated with the heavenly bodies.

Mercury and Hermes (Starnes used the names interchangeably during the interview) are gods of communication, but they are also tricksters. “I’m very inspired by the trickster aspect,” she said. “Whatever we expect to do, during retrograde the result is often something we didn’t expect. I think of it as a mirror: what’s my intention? Now, we must do it another way.”

She went on to explain that this is a period where being mindful and present is important. “I think his mission during retrograde is to integrate all of our minds, we often use just our ‘left brain’ or our ‘right brain;’ he encourages both.”That kind of integration is the opposite of how many people move through the day. We often space out, we’re not present,” she said. “I don’t caution to not do things, it’s a really good opportunity to enhance our focus be more present.”

One of Starnes’ clients has exploratory surgery scheduled during this retrograde, and asked if rescheduling was the best option. “No, I would take a little extra care talking to the nurses and surgeons,” she counseled the client, and “express confidence to remind them to be thoughtful. We can actually invoke Mercury as an ally, getting deeper in the surgery,” she explained. “I work with Mercury that way.”

Blaming Mercury may be easy, but it misses the mark. Starnes said, “It’s easy to just blame him and not recognize that we are involved. It’s easy to send emails you regret later. Easy to incite arguments, or get in trouble. I don’t blame Mercury, he’s just showing me I need to be more careful. It bothers me when I hear people blaming Mercury.”

Instead, she sees retrograde as a “real chance to enter sacred time,” and looks to the myths about this messenger god for lessons. “[The] myth of the birth of Hermes [tells how] as a day old baby, he hatched plan to become a major god. He invented the first musical instrument, stole Apollo’s cattle, hid their tracks by walking backwards, [and] invented sacrifice,” she said. “It got the attention of Zeus, and he became one of the pantheon. Mercury is eternally crafty, and we’re also trying to get something we want.”

For those who feel they are getting a little more divine attention than they can handle, “You can appease him,” Starnes said. “Sometimes I will do that, leave offerings at the crossroads, tell him he’s a great god, ask him to be gentle with me as he helps to relink the parts of my mind that need to be linked again.”

Perhaps it’s not enough to simply acknowledge that Mercury is in retrograde when one’s plans run afoul. Perhaps a better approach is to ask, “What point is Mercury trying to make?” and take the lesson seriously. If nothing else, Starnes recommends cultivating a sense of humor for the duration.

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Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. Our hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started! 

HUAR Banner [Courtesy Photo]

HUAR Banner [Courtesy Photo]

For Americans, today is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday during which the country acknowledges and celebrates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Due to the current social and political climate, this year’s events have been or will be bigger, and far more poignant than in the past. Several Pagan and Heathen activists have indicated that they are participating in and even organizing public demonstrations, marches and vigils.

For example, on Friday morning, Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR), Solar Cross and Pagans United Against Racism together dropped a banner over the University Avenue footbridge in Berkeley. The banner contained Dr. King’s quote “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” and included the hashtag #MLKalsosaid.

Today, HUAR, Solar Cross, Coru Cathubodua and other area Pagans will be joining a march in Oakland, California to “celebrate the radical legacy of Dr. King.” One of their banners reads “Pagans United for Justice” and “Will we be extremists for hate, or extremists for love? – MLK.” The march begins 10:45 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

According to the PNC Minnesota Bureau, Minnesota Pagans are joining a big #ReclaimMLK march being held in St. Paul at 1:00 pm CST today. Although the article doesn’t indicate any specific names, the groups attending will be marching together and holding signs. The article reads, “Words are wind and many Pagans hope to change that with action.”

[public domain]

[public domain]

In Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Pagan shop owner, Kristin West, is using her monthly “Witch’s Night” to honor King with a discussion on freedom. According to a news report, the popular themed meeting, which usually focuses on religious practice and the Craft, can draw up to 30 people from around the state. This month she changed directions, deciding to connect King’s work to her freedom to practice Witchcraft.  West said “If we didn’t have freedom of religion, we wouldn’t be here.

Others have been discussing or honoring King through their writing. For example, T. Thorn Coyle, who has been actively involved in the above California-based events, published a blog post titled “Disturbing the Peace.” The Humanistic Paganism blog offered a dedicated meditation in its post, “Beloved Community.VooDoo Universe writer Lilith Dorsey considers the complexities of historical remembrances and the honoring of Dr. King. The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel has published its official statement on the #blacklivesmatter movement. HUAR released a solidarity statement for “the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend actions.”

While King’s message and his life had a very specific purpose during a very tumultuous period in U.S. history, over time his message has been distilled down and come to permeate U.S. culture with a meaning that far exceeds the focused goals of that particular decade. In the wake of Ferguson, that message has returned with force, in many ways, to its origins, regaining a new vitality and forward momentum.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. – Dr. Martin Luther King, a Letter from Birmingham Jail

In Other News:

Alane Brown in Peru [Courtesy Photo]

Alane Brown in Peru [Courtesy Photo]

  • The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad Cities, located in Iowa, has begun a new earth-based traditions program. According to reports, organizers kicked off the new program with a Yule Sabbat last month, and will continue with monthly meetings and eight yearly sabbat celebrations. Organizer Lana Long told reporters, “We are an umbrella for a little bit of everything — Pagan, Shamanism, Wiccan, etc. One of our goals is to offer a place for people like that to be able to meet in a community.”
  • Pagan Todd Bernston has launched a new “Relationship Survey that “explores and compares relational dimensions such as emotional bonding, anxiety, caregiving, and sexuality, between monogamous and consensual non-monogamous couples.” Bernston is a couple’s therapist who “does a lot of work with couples in non-traditional relationships, such as polyamory and consensual non-monogamy.”  He said that many past studies have not adequately looked at the bonds in non-traditional relationships.  He hopes that “the results [will] help shape our cultural and therapeutic understanding of the growing number of couples who are involved in non-traditional relationship styles.”  The survey is online at Relationship Study.

That is it for now.  Have a nice day!

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DUXBURY, MASSACHUSETTS – The First Church of Wicca (FCoW) has reopened its doors, which has reopened questions about its past. The Wild Hunt talked to Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey, founding Elder High Priestess of the First Church of Wicca, and to some of her congregants about the church, its closing in 2009, and their goals for the future.

To understand why the reopening has caused such controversy we have to look at the history.

In early 2007, the First Church of Wicca and its High Priestess broke onto the national scene when they were featured on an hour long TLC reality tv show, My Unique Family. While the show didn’t portray the family or the religion as freaks, many Pagans were surprised and curious. FCoW followed a Christian format, complete with sermons and congregants sitting in rows, and its High Priestess wore a clerical collar similar to what Christian priests and ministers wear.

The show depicted Hovey as being very dedicated to her church and to the local community. FCoW appeared to thrive with an estimated in-person membership of 200 people. The town of Duxbury, initially suspicious, seemed to accept them as part of the community.

Although everything appeared to be going well for FCoW, its sudden growth and scrutiny brought on by the show may have taken a toll on its leader. According to the April 2007 issue of Grey Matters, an e-zine for the Grey School, Hovey sent an email out to church members saying she was taking a two week sabbatical and all church activities would be canceled during that time. In the fall, the church restructured in an attempt to lessen Hovey’s duties. Then, in January 2008, Hovey took another two week sabbatical. Over the following months, church events were often cancelled on short notice.

What many people didn’t know at the time was that Hovey was not just a typical overburdened High Priestess battling burnout. By 2008, she was considering converting to Christianity.

After seeing the TLC special, Susan Jayne joined the FCoW. She said that she loved going to the FCoW and had made many friends. After being solitary for years, she had found her spiritual home.

For that reason, when Hovey confided she was considering converting to Christianity, Susan Jayne was devastated. She said, “I remember that day, vividly. We were at dinner following some event … 4th of July parade, a Pagan Pride Day, the event escapes me, and she told us that she was being baptized. I have personal issues with Christianity, so I was devastated because I didn’t know what it would mean for the church. Sure enough, it led to the eventual closure of FCoW.”

In January 2009, Hovey closed the FCoW. She sent at letter to all members of the church explaining her conversion from Wicca, pointing out her former faith’s (perceived) shortcomings.

I have come to see the serious failings of the Wiccan faith. A major problem with the faith is that there is no unity among the followers of the faith which makes it very challenging to define exactly what Wiccans do and do not believe in. Wiccans have a very open “do what you will” or “live and let live” perspective in life which very easily can cause harm to oneself and others without one actually knowing it until it is much too late. Additionally, there is no unified moral code of ethics. This puts up huge red flags for society-at-large because no one can really be quite sure of what any group’s intentions are. Society would have no way of knowing, for example, if you are a Wiccan that practices the Great Rite or polyamory, to name only two examples. Also, they would have no way of knowing just what “Do what ye will and harm none” means, and quite frankly, neither does each individual Wiccan. – from email sent by Hovey to church members, January 2009

The closing of the FCoW not only stunned its congregants, but it stunned the wider Pagan community. Once it was made public, her email angered many Pagans who saw it as a misrepresentation and a bad-mouthing of the Wiccan religion.

And then the accusations came – accusations of excessive monetary charges for classes and inflated egos. In a 2009 comment on a blog, Linda, claiming to be an FCoW member and participant in the TLC special, said that the FCoW started out with a fantastic group of people, sharing joys and sorrows while taking a Wicca 101 class. Then, after the TLC special aired, things began to change.

When our Wicca 101 class went from being free to the middle of the 52 week course, she announced that we would have to pay for it, I almost lost my friggin’ mind. The “Church” had also decided that all true members were to send a monthly payment as well for the services rendered to us. I could pay for one but not for both. It was insane! Money was needed for everything and of course we were given the sermon of “give until it hurts.” I was also told that if it hurt me to give, then I was truly giving, but if it didn’t hurt then my spiritually was in question …

I really could go on and on about the messes that were created, the hostility that began to grow. And because I was one of the first to verbally express my dissatisfaction I was one of the first to be “rejected” among the other members. It turned out to be a total nightmare, ruining the relationship that I was in as well as the entire home life. I watched as others who were involved in a relationship become disenchanted and more breakups were occurring than anyone staying together.

The angry blog comment ended with “The First Church of Wicca may it burn as ashes in her christian hell.”

Hovey went on to become a minister of a Christian church for a short time, then returned to her cultural Jewish roots before gradually working her way back to Wicca and reopening the FCoW in fall 2014.

So what happened?
Hovey said that several months before she decided to leave her church, an ongoing situation involving polyamory came to a head. She said that she was asked to take a positive and public stand on polyamory and, after contemplating it, she agreed.

Hovey recalled, “I held a class and taught the entire concept, along with the very clear boundaries that needed to be adhered to, in order for it to truly work among any couple exploring it. Everyone seemed to understand, at least until they didn’t. To say that things got complicated, ugly, and out of control is an understatement.”

She said that people ended up splitting up or divorcing, which caused stress and turmoil in the church. She was then asked to speak about polyamory for a Pagan Pride Day in Maine. She said, “Hindsight being perfect vision, I should have canceled; instead I spoke against it. Needless to say, things were spiraling down.”

Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey [courtesy photo]

Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey [courtesy photo]

During this same time she became friends with a local Christian Pastor. As she came from a Jewish background, she hadn’t much experience with Christianity and wanted to learn more. Over the course of two years, they emailed back and forth daily. “I had learned so much about Jesus and his teachings, that I saw nothing but metaphysics all over it. It spoke to my beliefs, and added a level of dimension that I had never before experienced,” said Hovey.

It was then, in August 2008, that she asked him to baptize her, but she planned to stay with her church. Yet Hovey’s plans changed. “When the whole polyamory mess happened in our church, I thought it might be a sign to move on, and so I did, to Christianity,” she explained.

She said that she was surprised by the reaction from the wider Pagan community when she closed the church and sent out her explanation to church members. “…I had no idea the letter would go viral. I was actually addressing some very serious issues that were taking place in our church, and wanted to be sure my congregation knew what was driving me to leave. However, after all of the backlash from the wider Pagan community, I think the point was lost.”

There and back again – a spiritual journey
Hovey opened Living Waters Community of Hope in the same space as her former Wiccan church. She said it was tough being a progressive minister in a born-again community and her struggle wasn’t so much with the religion, but with other Christians.

By 2011 she had had enough. Although she loved the teachings of Jesus, it wasn’t enough. However, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to return to Wicca, but she knew she was a Witch and she missed magic.

In October 2013 her mother died. When Hovey attended her mother’s funeral, it was the first time she had been to a Jewish event in decades. She said it felt incredibly comfortable and familiar to her, saying, “My children have over the past several years identified themselves as being Jewish, and I thought to honor my mother, I would take my children back and re-embrace my heritage.”

In a December 2014 blog post, Hovey detailed how she underwent a ritual bath to re-embrace the Jewish faith.

December 31, 2013, wasn’t just the start of a new year and new religion for me. It was the end of a very long spiritual journey that had led me in a complete circle. As I immersed in the living waters, I was met with a full gamut of emotions. My journey was complete and G-d was right there in the center of it all embracing me in His loving arms. Then I heard Him whisper, “Welcome home, Shifra, my dear prodigal daughter. Welcome home.-  Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey, writing as Shifra Hovey in her now deleted blog MyJewishness.com

Hovey said that she and her children attended a synagogue for about three months, but the experience only reaffirmed that she had been right to leave Judaism when she was young. That’s when she returned to Wicca.

While Hovey was on this spiritual journey, her former Wiccan congregants were traveling their own paths.

Sara Jayne tried attending Hovey’s Christian church, but soon stopped. She then attended a liberal Christian church that didn’t mind a Wiccan sitting in the pews. “I actually love the Christian philosophy of loving everyone and spreading God’s love, which led me to be baptized myself ultimately,” said Susan Jayne. She eventually served as an Elder in the Presbyterian church, and she thought that was it, “My Wiccan “phase” was over, and I was very spiritually filled.”

But it wasn’t. Susan Jayne explained, “I missed being a Witch, and having a bunch of other Witches to worship the God and Goddess with. I wanted to go back to FCoW then, and every time that thought crossed my mind, I would strongly remind myself that that was in the past, and FCoW was gone.” She said that lasted about ten months. Then she came back from a vacation saw a message on Facebook about the FCoW reopening for a Samhain ritual.

Delia joined the FCoW back in 2006. She enjoyed finding like minded people and felt she was growing by learning from others. She said that she was upset when the church closed and tried attending Hovey’s Christian church but it didn’t feel like home to her.

After that, she continued with her solitary practice and “… took time to reconnect with the Goddess and God on [her] own.” She also kept in touch with other former members of the FCoW. Once she heard the church had reopened she joined back up, happy to once again see her old friends. “It feels like home,” said Delia.

Hovey said that her journey has taught her many things. She said that she’s always been willing to look for answers and doesn’t fear exploration. “I will forever be a seeker, but that doesn’t mean that my seeking needs to be explored by jumping from religion to religion. I have found that the Goddess supersedes all religions, but that I best fit where I am today,” said Hovey. She added that one of the beautiful things about eclectic Wicca is the freedom it gives to seek and experience other faith beliefs.

Allegations from the past
When asked about the allegations that she had excessively charged congregants for classes and tithes, Hovey said that these allegations were false. She explained that the church hosted an annual meeting where members voted on the budget. She said that one year they voted to pay her a salary of $200 a month, adding “a very small salary, but it showed me that I was appreciated.”

In order for FCoW to meet its budget, each member agreed to tithe $40 a month. Hovey said that she understands that for some $40 a month is large amount of money. However, she felt church goers received quite a bit for that voluntary donation. She said that she was a more than a full-time minister who held services every week. There were church outings, religious education for children, and pastoral counseling and healing treatments Monday through Friday from 8am to 8pm. She welcomed church members to eat meals with her family anytime they wished and took in congregants who faced temporary economic hardship.

As for monetary gain? Hovey said her husband donated over $200,000 to the church, and it caused them financial difficulties.  She added, “We ended up having our home foreclosed and currently live in a small two bedroom apartment.”

According to the former FCoW website from 2007, there is no required payment for church membership. It does list the available classes that members can take in order to advance in their initiation degrees or to simply gain basic knowledge. They range from $30 to $100 per class.

And what about the clerical collar and the congregational model of worship?

Hovey said her model for FCoW came from the Unitarian Universalist Church, where she and her husband attended for several years as Wiccans. As for the collar, she said that she had noticed one of the UU ministers wearing one and asked “why.” The minister explained, “because I am a minister and I have every right to wear one if I choose to.” That answer stuck with Hovey. “At the time I was doing both hospital and prison chaplain work as a Wiccan minister and the collar worked out well in providing credibility to our faith,” she explained.

In addition, Hovey makes no apologies for running a church rather than a coven. “We are a public Wiccan ministry and I want anyone who comes to our services to feel something that they can identify with that gives them a level of comfort,” she said. Although FCoW’s metaphysical services look and feel somewhat like a traditional church service, its ritual observances are done in a coven-like setting.

FCoW reopens
Hovey said that she didn’t make the decision to reopen FCoW lightly. She remembers how challenging it was to be a solitary practitioner and not have anyone “standing in her corner when she was ready to come out of the broom closet.” She said that there are Wiccans out there who want a spiritual community, but aren’t trusting of a coven environment. “The First Church of Wicca is public. We have nothing to hide,” said Hovey, adding that FCoW “… encourages people to bring someone they trust with them to check us out—a friend, a family member, anyone. We’re a safe place to explore, and welcome anyone who is curious.”

FCOW Church LogoThe church reopened November 1 to host a Samhain ritual and is currently being run out of Hovey’s home. She said that they have already outgrown the space and so they are looking to return to Tarkiln Community Center in Duxbury. Old members, like Susan Jayne and Delia, are returning and new members are joining.

Hovey noted that their private Facebook group has already grown to 70 members in just two months and that she receives inquiries by phone and email daily. She hopes that the church is so successful in meeting the needs of their members that people forget the past six years.

Susan Jayne is one of those hoping for success, if not quite able to forget the past. She said, “Life in FCoW 6 years ago wasn’t always sunshine and roses, and there were things that happened there that gave me pause. It took a lot of prayer and meditation to decide to return. I decided to go back for the Samhain ritual and get a feel for the new FCoW, and I think that’s where I’m at right now. I’ll stay as long as it’s a positive thing in my life.”

Hovey invites people who have questions to contact her directly at KVHovey@gmail.com. She said that she’s made mistakes in the past and apologizes for the hurt she may have caused. She also added that “…even though our name is the same, our leadership is the same, and our church mission is the same, there have been many things that have changed and are very different here. So, I don’t even view the First Church of Wicca as the same church anymore. It’s something new, and we’ve all been given a fresh start.”

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England is small, green and – apart from a bit in the East – rolling. So hills are plentiful. English Pagans are great clamberers up these hills. However it’s less than half of all sunrises that we will see from these green and luscious vantage points, because the sky is clear so rarely. We stand attentively and enraptured; though a little disappointed on those many visits when the overcast British ‘sunrise’ is actually just a gradual lightening of the sky from a dark grey to light grey over a slow meditative hour.

Hass Hill [Photo Credit: Charlie Kennedy / CC via Wikimedia]

Hass Hill [Photo Credit: Charlie Kennedy / CC via Wikimedia]

In England, Pagans greet the solstice sunrise on their local sacred site, or at a local hill with a good southeastern view. Often people do it alone, or with their partner, sometimes with a small group of friends. Most often people stay local.

When I lived next to Hampstead Heath, I once went to the Whitestone Pond to watch a winter sunrise. When I had a boyfriend in Chalk Farm, I watched the spring equinox sunrise on Primrose Hill. When I lived in Richmond, I went to a dip behind a spot called King Henry’s Mound in the Richmond Park. That’s just a bit of my history around London neighbourhoods.

It’s even stronger across the country, in the more rural areas. Down near Glastonbury my pals lived in a tiny village by Ham Hill. When I went to visit, they regaled me with the origins of the name, the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon settlements found upon it, and described to me the strange lights that were sometimes seen upon it. Of course we had to trek up it.

My witch friends in Gloucestershire always went with their coven members up the hill behind their house. Almost every Pagan in England has an adopted hill. I promise that if you visit on or around one of the sabbats, particularly a solstice, you’ll hear all about a sacred site, and they’ll take you there if they’ve half a chance.

The English learned to write in the Dark Ages and immediately began writing about lore associated with every bump and dip in the landscape. Medieval writers Gerald of Wales and Geoffrey of Monmouth are two of those who recorded the lore of the land. The tradition kept up through the Tudors and Stuarts. Then the 18th-century antiquarians made an encyclopedic project of English landscape lore. Pagans today use the resources at hand to get hold of the earliest information they can about their local hill. Once that’s under their belt, they find which deities are local, and of course – which ghosts may haunt it.

Then there’s the logistical side to master. In other words, can you get up the hill? And can you see the Southeast from it? For Pagans, ‘accessible’ means you can find a way to get into the grounds and up to the top in darkness, and descend in daylight. Accessible may or may not mean technically legal.

Summer Solstice on Breton Hill [© Copyright Philip Halling  / CC lic. geograph.org.uk]

Summer Solstice on Breton Hill [ © Copyright Philip Halling / CC lic. geograph.org.uk]

Many a time I’ve been taken by a friend to a place for a solstice dawn that’s accessible. Well, sort of accessible because you can easily get in if you climb under a gap in the fence at the right spot. ‘We’ll just park in a layby down the road then approach quietly, sticking to edge of the road by the trees’ says the friend. And the farmer never need know as long as we leave it spotless. Sometimes the landowner is the National Park Authority, sometimes the National Trust.

Sometimes a Pagan meets another Pagan atop a hill, purely by chance. It’s a funny moment, that meeting. It’s always cold, dew-damp and dark, and we approach gently, so as not to startle. We then always nod at one another. Then we might offer a little advice as to where the sun’s due to come up, or ask if they came up by the wire fence down the left, just to break the ice a little. Then we separate, to find our own spots, and settle into our respective solitude.

After it’s over, an hour or so later, a few more pleasantries are offered with a query of a local pub in the region that might serve breakfast. When parting, one waves and mumbles unsurely ‘Blessed be.’ In that very English way, one doesn’t want to presume it’s appropriate. On the other hand, it would be rude not to extend the traditional good wish.

We’ve just had the winter solstice here, and I’ve recently moved to South London. For the very first time, I didn’t climb a hill as there isn’t one nearby. It feels all wrong. Tonight I’ll be getting out a local map and finding the nearest one, and tomorrow I’ll be digging out the local folklore. Solstice 2015 will see me climbing a hill again and I’ll feel properly pagan once more.

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[Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org]

[Photo Credit: W. Guy Finley/cc. lic. via wikimedia]

The upcoming convention season brings about much celebration, many learning opportunities and face to face community interactions with other Pagan practitioners. Paganicon, PantheaCon, ConVocation, Sacred Space, Between the Worlds, and the Conference on Current Pagan Studies all happen between January and March. These large convention-style Pagan events have become an essential part of the community landscape.

While these conventions can be more costly than camping festivals, they are packed full of programming and bring a diversity of people to the forefront of our community expansion. Part of the beauty of events like this include the combination of Pagan authors, speakers, practitioners, ritualists, healers, musicians, and emerging or locals talents. And, of course, no one can deny that these events provide an opportunity to shop at incredible Pagan markets.

So what can we expect this year from the upcoming conventions? How do these conventions serve the community in 2015? What are people looking forward to the most?

All conventions have their own cultures. Each one appeals to different people for different reasons. Whether it is the presenters, concerts, merchandise, or the chance to engage with others, conventions seem to serve a multitude of community needs within modern Paganism. Thousands of people pay the entrance fees and hotel costs, and some even purchase plane tickets tickets, just to attend these conventions from the west coast to the east coast. In many ways, these events serve as a pilgrimage for many Pagans and have value in the larger picture of community.

The myriad reasons why Pagans seem to go out of their way to attend conventions are just as diverse as the responses below.

Author and artist Lupa Greenwolf will be presenting at PantheaCon and is an honored guest of Paganicon this year. Over the year, Lupa has been an avid participant and presenter at many pagan conventions.

Lupa Greenwolf
[Courtesy Photo]

There are a few different things that draw me to conventions. Some of it’s business, some of it’s fun. On the business end, I go there to present workshops and other activities, both to share neat things I’ve been working with spiritually, and to promote my writing and artwork. I also vend my art and books at a lot of local conventions, Pagan and otherwise; a lot of these things I simply wouldn’t be able to afford to attend if I weren’t selling my work to pay my way. Conventions are always a great networking opportunity, especially larger ones where you may have people from all over the place.

But that’s the work end of things.I wouldn’t go to these events if they weren’t also fun. I’m a really, really busy person, and conventions are sometimes the only significant social time I get during the craziest parts of the year. They pull together a bunch of people I might not get to see in person otherwise, and they get me out of the apartment! I don’t get to attend as many workshops as I’d like most of the time, just because I’m often preparing for my own presentations, or attending to a booth, or catching up with long-distance friends. But there’s usually something that I absolutely must go see while I’m there, and it’s nice to just sit back and absorb someone else’s wisdom and experience for a while.

I’m really looking forward to PantheaCon next month; I’m already making plans to see people there (and maybe do a little hiking out in the wilder areas out of town.) And then I’ll roll right into MythicWorlds in Seattle, which always has some of the best energy and people-watching. I also just sent in booth applications for both the Northwest Tarot Symposium and Sister Spirit’s Pagan Faire here in Portland; the first one is shiny and new, while the latter is an old, well-loved favorite. And I’m always happy to be with my Faerieworlds folks in the summertime. Closer to home, I’m already making plans for the third year of my own event, Curious Gallery, which while it isn’t blatantly pagan, it is deeply inspired and informed by my dedication to nature.

Taylor Ellwood [Courtesy Photo]

As an author, practitioner, and publisher, Taylor Ellwood participates in multiple conventions around the United States both as a presenter and as an attendee to simply connect with community.

I like to participate in conventions because it gives me a chance to meet other Pagans and magicians that aren’t local to my area. Additionally I enjoy the opportunity to interact with people who like my work and might not otherwise get to meet me.

I’m most excited about attending Between the Worlds, which is a conference that is only held every few years. The next one won’t be until 2020 so I’m excited to go to the one happening this year.

Brenda Titus is a professional hypnotist in Orange County, California, and a regular participant in the annual PantheaCon festival held in San Jose, California. This year Brenda will be adding to the event’s workshops with her own slot, bringing her skills to the participants of the festival.

Brenda Titus [Photo Credit: http://www.ochypnotherapy.com/]

Brenda Titus [Courtesy Photo]

I first attended PantheaCon 5 years ago having no idea what to expect. A friend had been going for years and suggested I go. My first experience was CAYA Coven’s “Wake up to Spirit” ritual. It moved me so deeply, I felt like a part of me had in fact “woken up” well beyond what I expected. I filled myself up to the brim that weekend with workshops, rituals, energy beyond my understanding at the time. I went home with an energy hangover and a deep desire to return!

Over the years, my motivation to return has changed. While I have Pagan community and family at home, people who are deeply part of my personal growth and my life throughout the year, my once a year visit with people that I only see in person at PantheaCon is also a very important part of my motivation to participate. I have had profound experiences at PantheaCon that were propelled by well crafted rituals, performed by people that I have grown to trust, and fueled by serious group energy.

I don’t know if I can pick one thing that I am most excited about, so I’ll have to pick 3:reconnecting with people (at rituals, parties and on the fly), rituals & workshops that will help me on my path for the year … The thing I’m MOST excited about is that this year, for the first time, I get to give back as a presenter. The experiences that I had at PantheaCon over the last 5 years have definitely propelled my career as a Hypnotherapist, so I am thrilled to present “Connecting to the wisdom of the soul with hypnosis.” 

Lisa Spiral Besnett  [Courtesy Photo]

Lisa Spiral is a long time Priestess and the author of two books through Immanion Press. She goes to Pagan festivals routinely and has flown from the midwest to California for the past several years to participate in PantheaCon.

I really enjoy seeing old friends and the opportunity to network. There is often interesting programming and I find it useful to learn and grow outside of my “comfort zone.” As an author I also think it’s important to put my name and face out there in the community.

This year I’m very excited about the expansion of the discussion of Race and Paganism. I think we have a unique community mindset that is ready to actually examine privilege and look for ways to move forward in this area.

While there continues to be a lot of disagreement and confusion around the concept of community and Paganism, these conference are some of the few times Pagans get to practice community in action together. Having collective experiences and shared space among the many different groups underneath the large umbrella of Paganism appears to foster a feeling of community that we often lack otherwise.

So how do these conventions serve the Pagan community? I find this question to be vital in most of the things we choose to do, and conventions are no exception.

They’re a coming together time. We get to have a temporary space where we can share ideas, catch up with people, and let new movements find their footing. It’s a great seedbed for zeitgeist. And for some people, conventions are one of the few opportunities they may have to interact with other Pagans, particularly those of a similar tradition. It’s easier to hit a critical mass that can make great changes in the community at a convention because of the sheer volume of attendees and the relatively public nature of the setting. You may only know a few people there really well, but they know people, and those people know other people, and an idea can spread very quickly, especially if it’s sparked by something in the moment. Look at the situation with transgender women and Z. Budapest at PantheaCon a couple of years ago; that probably wouldn’t have had nearly as much of an impact if it had been one transgender woman being told “No, you can’t join our small Dianic coven, sorry. - Lupa Greenwolf

I do feel conventions serve the community. They provide a space for Pagans to be openly Pagan and have the experience of meeting and working with other people who share their interests. – Taylor Ellwood

These conventions (all, not just PantheaCon) serve the Pagan community because they bring people from various regions, varying traditions and philosophies together to learn with and from each other. What I learn at Pantheacon, I bring back to my own community. This is also a time for regular “coming together” to focus on community issues in order to bring about change. I’ve seen this over the years in regards to gender issues, leadership, safety, people of color, etc. One con does not set the agenda for the entire Pagan community, however important conversations that need to be made in person take place, which help carry forward into growth and paradigm shift. – Brenda Titus

I think the conventions serve the community in a number of ways. They are a very public event, and therefore make an opportunity for new people to see there is a community and for the larger community to acknowledge our subgroup. I think it’s a great chance to touch base with people we don’t get to see regularly and it’s easier for some of us than camping at festivals. I think it’s incredibly important that these conventions represent the diversity in our communities. It’s very easy to see Paganism from our own practice or tradition lens and forget about all the variations that are out there. Intra-faith work is just as important to me as interfaith and these conventions are strong intra-faith opportunities. – Lisa Spiral

January starts the convention season and 2015 is shaping up to be a fascinating year. The Conference on Current Pagan Studies, PantheaCon, ConVocation, Paganicon, Sacred Space and the Between The Worlds Conference all span across a 3 month period. As this year’s convention season unfolds, we get to see the best and the worst elements of community come together in small moments of time that become memories, spark ideas for collaboration, shed light on the need for continued activism and more. Friendships are formed; opportunities for networking or birthing new ideas come to the forefront; and problem areas within them modern Pagan community are often exposed.

Conventions have become part of the foundation of the modern Pagan culture. Good or bad, every year we tend to learn something new about ourselves individually and collectively. We get the chance to ask ourselves how participating in the greater Pagan community, or culture, supports collective goals and advancement. How do we use these opportunities to promote understanding and intrafaith dialog? How can we create a collective culture of tolerance, inclusivity, excitement and respect among the many different, unique and viable parts of our modern Pagan experience? How do these very moments shape the community at large? These are important questions in today’s time.

Descriptions of the five mentioned conventions are listed below, including links for more information.

conference-logo-transparent-background1The Conference on Current Pagan Studies will be held January 24 – 25 in Claremont, California. This year’s theme is Fecundity and Richness of the Dark. There will be two keynote speakers. Vivianne Crowley will present “Stepping out of the Shadows and into the Light: Evolution and Tensions in the Future of Contemporary Pagan Witchcraft.Orion Foxwood will be presenting “Consecrating the Underworld: The Eco-Spiritual and Co-Creative Implications of Faery Tradition”. Other presenters are included in this two day conference, which highlights some of the academic areas of Pagan research.

PantheaConPantheaCon will be held February 13 – 16 in San Jose, California. This year’s theme is Pagan Visions of the Future; Building a Pagan Safety and Social Net. This four day event will feature a wide and diverse array of workshops, panels, concerts, and rituals. The schedule is packed with anywhere from five to eleven workshops in each time slot. With several thousand participants each year, this is the biggest Pagan convention in the United States. This year’s schedule includes authors and performers, such as Jason Mankey, Selena Fox, Rhyd Wildermuth, Alley Valkyrie, Taylor Ellwood, Shauna Aura Knight, David Salisbury, Courtney Weber, T. Thorn Coyle, Christopher Penczak, Pandemonaeon, Lou Florez, Orion Foxwood, Celia, and many, many more.

ConVocation, located in Detroit, will be held on February 19 –  22. This year’s theme is Journey’s End:  A New World Begins and the guests of honor include Andras Corban-Arthen, Kerr Cuhulain, Dorothy Morrison, Diana Paxon, M.R. Sellars and Mother Moon. The featured presenters include Jason Mankey, Ellen Dugan, Michelle Belanger, and others. ConVocation, which has been run annually since 1995, boasts about 100 workshops and presentations, and has approximately 35 vendors for Pagan shopping.

paganiconMinnesota’s Paganicon, now in its fifth year, will be held between March 13 – March 15. According to the website, “Paganicon is organized by Twin Cities Pagan Pride and a host of volunteers to provide an educational and social venue for Pagans, Wiccans, Heathens, Druids & other folk, craft, indigenous or magickal traditions.” This year, Selena Fox and Lupa Greenwolf are the guests of honor, along with performances by Tuatha Dea. The program schedule has not yet been released and there are still several upcoming deadlines should anyone want to be involved. Presenter registration deadline is February 1, and the final schedule will be released February 15.

Between The Worlds

Between The Worlds

For this year only, the Between the Worlds and Sacred Space Conferences have merged. One admission price will give you a joint experience including the list of guests from both conferences. The joint event will be held March 5 – 8 in Hunt Valley, Maryland. This year, there will be presentations by T. Thorn Coyle, Aeptha, Ivo Domínguez, Jr., Katrina Messenger, Dorothy Morrison, Christopher Penczak, Kirk Thomas, Michael G. Smith, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Judika Illes, Diana Paxson, Literata Hurley , H. Byron Ballard, and more.

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UNITED STATES — It’s become fairly commonplace for articles about “Blue Monday” to come up at this time of year. According to a formula concocted for a now-defunct travel network, the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year. While that designation was most likely created to sell vacation packages, it does serve to focus attention on a complex, often intractable condition.

[public domain]

[public domain]

Pagans are certainly not unusual in suffering from depression, but since their worldviews can differ widely from that of the overculture, the tools and techniques for treating depression may also differ. To learn more, The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagan mental health professionals, as well as those who have struggled with depression.

Reverend Selena Fox, founder of Circle Sanctuary, has been a practicing psychotherapist for most of her adult life, and most of the people she works with in that context are Pagan. “It’s important one takes a holistic approach to healing and wellness,” she said. For Pagans, she added, that means “to be able to tap into their spirituality as part of working on getting better.”  That is only one part of a successful treatment plan for depression, she stressed, for two main reasons:

  • Selena Fox

    Selena Fox.

    A biochemical imbalance may be contributing to one’s depression, and often the best treatment in such cases involves biochemical support. “It’s really important to deal with the physical-plane dimensions of the condition, as well as the spiritual ones,” Fox said. That may mean medication, or one of the many herbal supplements which are used to lift mood. Determining which is best should be left to a trained professional.

  • There is a tendency among depression sufferers to constrict one’s social life as these interactions and activities stop giving pleasure. “It’s important to be aware of those tendencies and get help shifting out of holing up like that,” said Fox. Again, that help can take the form of a professional, such as a social worker, counselor, or therapist, or that help can be observant loved ones who are able to recognize depressed behavior.

Fox actually likened depression to a common cold in that it’s a relatively common condition, which should be resolved within a couple of weeks with self-care. Like the cold, though, if it persists longer than that, outside treatment should be sought. She recalled working in a clinic where some patients would only decide to seek help after having suffered for six or eight months. “It’s much easier to treat depression when it’s addressed earlier,” she said, noting that there are always treatment options available, no matter how serious the condition has become.

Some ways to find a suitable mental health professional include asking for references from Pagan friends and organizations in the local area, or contacting a professional association, such as the Association for Transpersonal Psychology that recognizes the importance of holistic approaches.

Tony Rella.

Taking all of that into account, there are Pagan-specific approaches to handling depression; all of which can be incorporated into a larger treatment plan. Both Fox and Tony Rella, a mental health counselor in the Seattle area and a student-mentor at the Morningstar Mystery School, use the elements of earth, water, air, and fire in their treatment plans.  Fox also includes spirit in her approach.

While not every Pagan incorporates these concepts into their own religious practice, these elements can be used to present the information and recommendations that we have gathered from Fox, Rella and others.

Earth

Earth, the body, can take a beating during depression. Sleep patterns can be disrupted, and an attitude of, “What difference does it make?” can lead to poor self-care. Fox likens this to a passive form of suicidal ideation. “Someone who has the flu might not have the energy to get it treated, and it turns into pneumonia,” she explained.

Rella said activity and diet are very important earth aspects. “Am I getting exercise? Am I spending time outside? Am I getting regular doses of sunlight or Vitamin D? (A big problem in the Pacific Northwest!) Is my diet promoting health? There is emerging research that indicates a relationship between depression and inflammation in the body, leading some professionals to suggest experimenting with reducing or eliminating foods that might promote inflammation, like foods high in sugar.”

Foods are an important part of Shauna Aura Knight‘s personal strategy:

About a decade ago, I started noticing certain foods seemed to impact me. I was focusing more on reducing my migraines and acne, but (as it turned out) those foods also impacted my depression. I used to live off hot pockets, mini pizzas, and soda. Carbs, sugar, dairy. It took years to finally make the switch to a (roughly) paleo diet. No grains, no added sugars, no dairy, no calorie free sweeteners. Part of what helped me to make the switch was my belief that the divine is in each person, and that my body is divine. ‘My body is a living temple of love’ is a line from one of my favorite chants. My sacred body is worth the extra effort. Eliminating certain foods reduced the exhaustion/depression symptoms, and helped me to lose a hundred pounds which has significantly reduced my foot pain and joint pain. Taking Vitamin D, B, and my prescribed thyroid medication also helped.

Factors like sunlight and physical activity can be difficult to manage in northern climes. When reached for this story, Fox reported that it was 40 below outside her Wisconsin home. “Some days, sitting by a sunny window is all you can do,” she acknowledged, but she suggests supplementing limited exposure to sunlight with full-spectrum light boxes, and visualization exercises. Weather permitting, she also recommends nature walks for a number of reasons:  exercise is known to improve depression in its own right, changing one’s environment can interrupt a cycle of negative thinking, and Pagans in particular tend to respond well to exposure to the natural world.

One very pragmatic approach comes from Heathen Cara Freyasdaughter.

I take my depression meds regularly. I also get them refilled and checked on a regular basis by doctors who are qualified to do this. I see this as part of a larger technique for dealing with depression called “taking care of myself.” My Goddess has Strong Opinions on whether I (or others) take care of ourselves enough or love ourselves enough. It’s a constant message that I, and others who work with Her, get. So I find that when I take care of myself, I honor Her as well.”

Water

Regarding the element of water, Rella asks questions that are tied to mood, including “Can I give space and permission for painful emotional experiences to emerge? What deeper wisdom might these feelings point toward? What difficult truths can I see in my heart?”

Feelings about others also feed into the water element. Fox pointed out that loved ones can be among the first to recognize depression. “If you are encouraging a loved one who seems to be in the funks and talks negatively day in and out, it’s a really good idea to have some conversations with that person hoping it will encourage or motivate them to get some additional help.”

Blogger Alyxander Folmer, writing about his own struggles with depression, said that his loved ones serve as a source of motivation:

Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer

. . . during the hardest points of depression just mustering the energy required to express emotion can be daunting. When just getting out of bed feels like it takes more energy than you’ve got in the tank, it’s hard to care enough to put on music (or fight laundry monsters). On those days, the only thing that gets me moving is remembering that people need me. I have a wife who deserves a functioning partner. I have approximately 1/3 of a child who needs me to to provide a safe and stable life for it to grow. I have friends that need to know they can call on me when times are hard. This has become my morning mantra for those days when I’m just to exhausted to muster up will to function. It doesn’t matter how I feel, or how little I care about anything else. That one thought will get me moving.

Jolene Poseidonae spoke about a technique she developed for herself:

Detached compassion is something I developed not initially to cope with depression but as part of shadow work years ago as I learned how to drop the tools that had helped me survive a violent, abusive upbringing but were then getting in the way of my being a functional adult with healthy relationships. It was something I developed so that I could trust in my gods and in the people who loved me, and it spilled over into dealing with depression. It’s a sort of stepping back from the emotional ups and downs that hit so fast they leave me dizzy, it’s the practice of disengaging from one’s emotions. Emotions are always in a state of flux for me, and they are often untrustworthy. It’s harder when the emotion is a constant, steady stream of a conviction of unworth, of wretchedness, and the knowing that nothing will ever get better, and this burning desire to cease existing will go on and on and on with no relief, but having the practice in place helps me turn my connection to those emotions off. It’s like I sort of side-step them. I watch them, I hear them, and I feel them, but I turn aside so that the feeling of them isn’t as direct. I’m not as engaged with them. Usually, this helps shorten the duration of my being mired in the black. The days I have when I lose all interest in my projects are fewer, and it’s been a long time since I’ve lost months like I used to.

Knight noted, “When my depression was at its worst, I couldn’t acknowledge I had depression because that would mean I was ‘bad,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘hopeless.’ Admitting I had a problem — looking into that dark, shadowy mirror of my own fears — was the first big step. Getting help was more difficult as I have no health insurance, and I was alone without much income. I did manage to get some help via therapy at a cheap clinic, but even that cost too much. I was introduced to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, though, and I realized that I had done personal work similar to that when I was doing leadership training at Diana’s Grove.”

Air

Air is associated with the intellect and thoughts. “What kind of story is my depression telling about me?” asks Rella. “What harmful self-beliefs are coming to light? How could I rewrite those stories to promote more ease and self-acceptance?”

Fox suggests monitoring self-talk to identify the onset of depression, which can otherwise begin without detection. On paper or electronically, jot down one’s thoughts over the course of a day. “If a person is finding a great propensity for negative thinking that is often an indicator that there’s some kind of depression going on. Phrases such as, ‘Well, what’s the point, I’m failing at this, nothing’s ever going to get better.’ If there’s ideation indicating hopelessness, sorrow, putting oneself down, that’s a sign you need some help.”

512px-Depression-loss_of_loved_one

[public domain]

S. Jade Gribanov said that distracting herself from negative thoughts works for her. She added, “Music. Anything that makes me feel good. A brainless inconsequential activity to occupy my conscious mind. My brain will run itself in circles for a few hours. Most of it will be garbage but I always come up with a couple of things to keep me going for a while longer.”

Music works for Knight, as well. “I sometimes also sing to manage depression, and I’m trying to work singing into a daily practice. While I still struggle with occasional ‘pit of despair’ days where I am utterly exhausted, and I am still trying to find ways to feel emotions like joy and happiness, my life is far better than it was.”

Freyasdaughter embraces her own thoughts from times when she felt better. “I read my past writings. There are times when I am full of faith and trust in the Gods completely, and when depression hits I lose most of that. So it’s good for me to go back and see these hopeful things, written by my own hand, and remember that the depressive funk I’m in can and will pass. It has before.”

Poseidonae also uses her writing, but slightly differently. “Writing is a huge part of coping. Going easy with myself when I need to is also a part of it. Losing myself in fiction. Sometimes throwing myself into my devotional acts helps, and sometimes it makes it worse. Sometimes I have to retreat away from all my gods — Poseidon being the sole exception — and just be.”

Fire

“In my observation, qualities of Fire are particularly challenging for people with depression,” said Rella. “The depression says, ‘I don’t care about anything and I don’t have the strength to do anything.’ Engaging the will to act on something important to me is a powerful coping strategy. Sustaining a daily practice, even when you don’t ‘feel it,’ helps. For some people at the height of depression, getting out of bed to take a shower is a tremendous act of will, and worth validating. Those who have never experienced a deep depression might have trouble understanding how much courage and strength it takes to do these daily tasks, and it is the enactment of these that helps the person work through and move out of their depression.”

For Fox, action can often break the patterns that feed depression, as has been touched upon earlier. Fire can also be utilized literally, in the form of candles or exposure to sunlight and other full-spectrum lighting.

Spirit

Fox uses spirit in the context of “one’s practices and understandings” when speaking about depression. “Some daily spiritual practice can be a really important component,” she said. That could take the form of “being at a home altar calling on the Divine, Goddess, God, Great Spirit, or a particular pantheon, depending on the tradition. Actually call on the sacred and ask for assistance as one goes through life and the day.” Further, “a ritual for self-healing involving chanting, candlelight, incense, [or] affirmations . . . is really a complement to whatever else one is doing.”

Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia, a Pagan clergyperson, provided some specific actions for depressed Pagans to take in her second post on The Downward Spiral — Depression and Suicide in Paganism, including the use of banishing pentagrams to dispel negative moods, witch bottles to get rid of bad luck, and seeking council of the gods.

I believe that if you keep your eyes open for them, the gods send you signs also. When my husband was in a major car accident and in the ICU for a month, the phrase “this too shall pass” continued to be sent to me. People would say it on the bus to me; I saw it tattooed on the wrist of one of the kinder nurses. You get the idea.

Hellenist Conor Davis finds that religious ritual sometimes works for him. “I have found that, when I can manage it, prayers and devotionals can help me with some of the milder symptoms of depression. On bad days where I don’t want to get out of bed much less leave the house, nothing seems to help and everything seems feeble.”

Freyasdaughter said, “I make a gratitude list. By that point or so, I’m in a place where I can move easily into a state of worshipping my Goddess, and in return She gives me back love. It’s a great feedback loop. When I’m depressed it’s often very difficult to reach out to the gods and trust that they are there, or to trust that anything I’m feeling or hearing from them is real or true. So, the gratitude list, where I sit myself down and make myself look at the things that are going well in my life, helps me to get back into that connected, hopeful headspace again.”

Dver, a spirit-worker on the margins of Hellenic polytheism, made this observation: “I have come to the conclusion over the years that my chronic depression is actually a recurring shaman sickness, essentially (I’m not actually a shaman, but a spirit-worker, and this concept seems to apply to various sorts of mystics). When I hit my worst point many years ago, I began delving into spirit-work (though I didn’t call it that at the time) and things got much better. To this day, when I am experiencing any longish stretch of depression (more than a few days), it is almost always a call to pay attention to what I am neglecting, and once I begin doing my Work again, the depression lifts.”

[Photo Credit: Martin Gommel/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Martin Gommel/Flickr]

Many of those who reached out or wrote about this topic have compared depression to an underworld journey, in which the traveler must confront difficult truths, or even discern truth from self-lies. Given the complex and powerful symbolism in this area, it’s worth further study.

Depression is a condition which can alter one’s own perceptions of self-worth, which can lead to neglect of the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life. A holistic approach to treatment might include physical activity, monitoring self-talk, performing regular spiritual practice even if it seems pointless, and changes in diet and medication. Because it can be a serious illness, and particularly because it changes self-perception, outside help should be sought for any depression which lasts for more than a few days.

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The U.S. Army has finally added Asatru and Heathen to its religious preference list after a five year effort led by the Open Halls Project. The Army is now the second branch of the U.S Military to include these two religious options. The Air Force led the way in July 2014. With these changes made, Heathen soldiers serving, or having served, in either of these two branches can accurately communicate their religious preference and, by doing so, earn a host of benefits and protections.

[Photo Credit: Ian Britton/FreePhoto.com]

[Photo Credit: Ian Britton/FreePhoto.com]

“This is a first step into showing how deeply integrated with serving our country Heathens are. We represent a significant minority of the world, but the large majority of Heathens have served their countries in some form or another. Taking care of our community is a Heathen worldview trait, serving in the military is one way to serve those communities. I hope that this recognition helps to encourage more Heathens to serve their communities in all ways,” said Josh Heath, co-founder of the Open Halls Project in an interview with The Wild Hunt.

It is currently estimated that there are around 500 Heathens serving in the U.S. Army alone. That number is purely speculative based on Open Hall Project registrations. Heath said, “I’m hoping that getting the religious preference added will allow us to eventually ask the military to do an official census.”

Heath’s quest began in 2009 after he and his wife Cat joined The Troth. At that time, Heath was on Active Duty with U.S. Army, and wanted to see both Heathen and Asatru added to the religious preference list. Since that application required the backing of a 501c3 organization, he asked the Troth for help, which they gave. Unfortunately, the Army made an error and put The Troth on the list, rather than Heathen or Asatru.

As a result, Heath had to begin the process all over again. This time, however, he looked for support from a group whose name contained the word Asatru, as advised by Army officials. With the help of Vince Enland of the Asatru Alliance and Patricia Lafayllve of The Troth, he submitted a second application in 2010.  This was also the year that he and Cat formally established the Open Halls Project.

Open Halls Project
A year went by with little to no response. In 2011, the team decided to submit a third application. This one contained a petition with the signatures of over 30 soldiers. But, once again, they were simply told that the application was being reviewed.

After two years of waiting, the Army had still made no decisions, and the team was faced with two new challenges. Heath said, “In 2012, we were told by the Chaplains Corp that a new system to request Rel Prefs was being developed and would take some time to get anything new approved.” Additionally, Heath himself was no longer on Active Duty. Therefore, they “would need to get someone [else] who [could] reprocess the whole request.”

Over the next two years, they put the project on “the back burner.” They periodically checked in with Chaplain Bryan Walker, personnel director of the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. They also worked to garner more support and allies for the mission.

By 2013, momentum began to build in the form of both interest and corresponding actions. In terms of earning increased support, Josh Heath credits a 2013 interview with Dr. Karl Seigfried, published on the Norse Mythology blog.  While the article is predominantly about the couple’s personal history and religion, it does mention the Open Halls Project and its deep involvement “in American Heathenry and … the struggle for its recognition as a religion in the U.S. military.” In fact, that very interview is what inspired Msgt. Matt Walters, the Air Force NCO, to seek out the Open Halls Project for help in getting Asatru and Heathen added to the Air Force religious preference list.

While support increased, other serendipitous events began to happen. In spring 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs added the Mjöllnir, (the Hammer) to its list of symbols available for gravestones and markers. Then, in early 2014, the Army added Humanism to its religious preference list, and the Air Force added Heathen and Asatru.

Thor's Hammer Emblem.

Thor’s Hammer Emblem.

In a recent interview with Dr. Karl Seigfried, Heath admitted that the adding of Humanism, “riled him up!” He said, “I’d been working on this issue for Heathens for five years, and they still hadn’t approved us! I threatened a lawsuit, politely, and even contacted the ACLU and the humanists that won their campaign to ask for some guidance on how to proceed.”

Due the increase in support from the Heathen community, Heath was able to find four new Active Duty soldiers willing to work on the project. The team consisted of Christopher Gibat, Omar Bailey, Andrew Turner and Daniel Head, who would became the new principle point of contact. In a recent interview, Head told Dr. Seigfried that after some “back and forth” and questioning the chaplains signed off. Asatru and Heathen were added to the list.

While this designation is purely administrative, the benefits can be far reaching in the experiences of a Heathen soldier, and in the education of military officials. Heath said:

Some Heathens will still have a hard time getting the right to worship, but having their religious preference added will mean the Chaplains Corp, MUST, assist them within the regulation requirements. That is a huge advocacy pool, even a chaplain that doesn’t really want to help will have to or face disciplinary action for failing to uphold their oath. I think this will help, when good soldiers, are seen as good soldiers, and then someone finds out they are a Heathen, this will hopefully show that we are good for our units, good for the Army and good for our country.

He also noted that Heathen Veterans can apply to make a change to their religious preference. Doing so will help with any official census taken, as well as supporting Heathen specific needs for funerals and other religious-based services.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

After the announcement was made, Open Halls members were asked for reactions and thoughts. Heath shared some of those responses:

I have [had] to choose ‘other’ as my religious preference, that makes me and many others feel excluded. I will no longer have to worry, “Will there be someone who understands what I believe, and to speak for me, if the worse were to happen.” – Daron Regan

It is a great feeling not to be marginalized as “that weird guy that believes in comic book characters.” – Andrew Turner

I am thankful for those that have stayed the course, it seems to have paid off and brought honor to us all.- Omar Bailey

This is the seed from which something great may grow. Whether it be something as simple as full recognition or a full chaplain representation. Our deed will feed the well that feeds the seed.- Joshua Spencer

A few members were skeptical on how much this will really affect their day-to-day experience, but most reactions were celebratory and focused on the next chapter of the project. Heath said, “We are planning on pursuing the Navy and Marines next, as they use the same system for Chaplains, a win there will affect both branches at the same time. I seriously doubt they would add the preferences themselves without prodding, but I do not think it would be hard for personnel to make those requests now.”

For more extensive detail on the entire process and experience, turn to the recent interview with Daniel Head and Josh and Cat Heath at the Norse Mythology Blog

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Maureen Wheeler

On Jan. 8, Maureen Wheeler, fondly known as Aunty Bunty, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Maureen was a Witch, High Priestess and Elder member of the U.K.’s Pagan community. She trained and was initiated by Gavin Bone in the early 1990s. By 2001, she had birthed a legacy of more than a dozen covens around the country. As noted by Bone in his personal tribute, “Magically [Maureen] was a witch, not a Wiccan, not any particular tradition, she was a witch. She was a witch before I met her and she died a witch above all else.”

In a video titled Witchways 1, Maureen describes her first experience with Witchcraft. In 1955, at the age of 17, she was introduced to a man wearing an inverted pentacle and, out of curiosity, accompanied him to an event. But it wasn’t what she wanted, and many years passed before she once again encountered anyone practicing Witchcraft.

That year was 1990. Maureen discovered that her daughter-in-law was studying Witchcraft. Once again, Maureen’s curiosity was piqued, and so she attended a meeting. This is where she met Gavin Bone, who would become her initiator and good friend. Bone said, “I still remember the first time I saw her; she was in battle dress! Dressed in leather jacket, dark glasses read to wrestle her daughter in law from us evil satanists! The reverse happened in stead she stayed.”

Soon after, Maureen became an initiated Witch, studying with Bone and eventually with others, including The Fellowship of Isis. As time passed, she formed her own coven and became a High Priestess, a respected teacher, a skilled Tarot reader, and an active member of UK’s Pagan community.

Maureen Wheeler [Still from Witchways 1}

Maureen Wheeler [Still from Witchways 1}

Maureen never hid her practice, and was willing to be filmed and interviewed. Along with the two short Witchways videos, Maureen participated in several BBC programs. In 2001, she was featured on a show titled ‘Rush,” which includes a dramatically-filmed bit on modern Witchcraft. In 2005, she consented to be part of an episode of the BBC TV show called “Inside Out.” Focused on the magic in Kingsley Vale, the segment shows Maureen with her coven performing a ritual in a Yew grove and ends with a brief interview.

In 2011, Vogue UK did an editorial, titled “Merrie England,” exploring the folk revival in the region. Included in the twenty photographs taken by renowned photographer Tim Walker is the striking image of Maureen in ritual dress. The article’s subtitle appropriately reads, “Tim Walker captures its practitioners at their most magical.”

Unfortunately, this past October, cancer caught back up with Maureen after being in remission for nine years. The treatments were difficult and eventually took their toll on her body. Maureen passed into the Summer lands in the presence of her daughter at 8:50 a.m. on January 8.

Maureen’s daughter, Louise Hilborne, was initiated by her mother and said, “From a very early age she told me I was a witch as she was but it would be many years later that I was woken to this. It terrified me.”  She added, “I will do my best to carry on her good work in the way I know how. ”

Maureen’s son, Dave Hilborne wrote this tribute:

My dear mum was the most remarkable woman,it didn’t matter if you were 16 or 66 she could and would make a connection with people. My greatest pride was that she took enormous joy from watching me perform and even more so I would love to make her laugh until the tears rolled down her cheeks. My mum saved me from almost intolerable hardship as a child,she taught me the value of saving and being grateful for all that I have. She taught me to be tolerant. She taught me life. (reprinted with permission)

Simon Costin, director of The Museum of Witchcraft, said:

10881339_10153238862409523_31314659_nShe had a remarkable life and a very unique take on the craft that was very much her own. I learnt more from Maureen over a cup of tea than from any number of books. Hers was a meaty, no nonsense kind of magic and all the better for it….I will miss her dearly.

At the end of his tribute, Gavin Bone said:

She was my friend as well as my initiate. Alex Sander’s said (stolen of course from someone else): ‘If the initiate does not surpass the initiator, the initiator has failed!’ I did not fail, she surpassed me and I am proud of it. But I will not take any credit for this as Maureen was a witch from the day she was born, I learnt as much from her as she did from me; we initiated each other. I will miss her but know we will ‘…meet again’!

Maureen was a dedicated and passionate Witch, Priestess, teacher and guide. She was deeply respected and loved. She will be missed by her family, her friends and her students. Her legacy will live on through her work, her teachings, and the impact that she had on the modern practice of Witchcraft.

What is remembered, lives.

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Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. Our hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

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Last week, it became official that the U.S. Army has added Heathen and Asatru to its religious preference list. The efforts to get this added were spearhead by members of the The Open Halls Project. Josh Heath, co-founder of the organization, told The Wild Hunt, “I think this is a first step into showing how deeply integrated with serving our country heathens are. We represent a significant minority of the world, but the large majority of heathens have served their countries in some form or another. Taking care of our community is a heathen worldview trait, serving in the military is one way to serve those communities.”

The Norse Mythology Blog published an interview with Heath and co-founder Cat Heath, as well as Daniel Head, an active duty soldier who was part of the effort. We will have a full report later this week.

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iceland

In Iceland, it has been announced that a new Pagan temple will be constructed in Reykjavik. According to the Iceland Magazine, “This will be the first pagan temple to be built in the Nordic countries in nearly a thousand years.”  The project began in 2006, when the application for the land plot was filed. Nine years later, construction is finally ready to begin.

According to the report, the structure will be 350 square meters and will hold 250 people. It will serve the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélag organization and its community. Columnist Eric O. Scott is currently researching the project and will have more on this story later in the month.

*   *   *

coph niaAs registration opens for Coph Nia, the organization announced two more of its guest presenters for 2015. Joining author and activist Michael Lloyd, will be guest presenters Devin Hunter and Storm Faerywolf. The guest musical performer will be Brandyn Metzko. There year’s theme is “Chrysalis.”

Coph Nia is a “mystical gathering for gay and bisexual men.” Held in Artemas, Pennsylvania, the event is held over five days and includes rituals, concerts, vendors, workshops, bonfires, drumming and more. This year it takes place from Aug. 5-9.

In Other News:

  • A Georgia-based Pagan group has recently started a website called the “Pagan Business Network.” Its goal is to “bring Pagan business owners together to share knowledge and help promote each others businesses together.” The website and companion Facebook page offer basic business tips and promotional advice.
  • Amanda Morris is looking for participants for her Pagan Health Survey. She writes, “The responses will be used for my lecture at Duke University Hospital.” As she explains, she was asked by the hospital’s director of pastoral services to help provide a Pagan perspective on various topics. She wrote, “this fabulous opportunity to help educate doctors, nurses, social workers, staff members, psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals about Pagans, Paganism, their health and their religion.”
  • Megalithic Books, an imprint of Immanion Press, is seeking submissions for its upcoming anthology The Pop Culture Grimoire 2.0. According to the website, “This anthology explores pop culture magic and Paganism in the 21st Century.” The deadline for rough drafts is Mar. 15.
  • On Jan 30, the Manx National Heritage Museum will hosting a lecture by historian Dr. John Callow titled, “Gerald Gardener, Witchcraft and the Isle of Man”
  • Patheos Pagan writers contributed to a Patheos’ series called The Best Practices for Peace 2015. The introduction to the project says, “Instead of reflecting on personal goals, Patheos has invited contributors to consider some ‘resolutions’ around faith-based practices that could lead to greater peace in 2015.” Contributing writers include Holli Emore, Cat Chapin Bishop, Rev. Selena Fox, and Sable Aradia.

That’s it for now. Have a great day!

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Since 2004, the Alternative Religions Education Network (AREN) has produced a regular seasonal newsletter called ACTION. For 6 of those years, the pages of the newsletter have been filled with interviews with Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists from around the world. To date, the newsletter has published around 560 interviews that catalog, record and share the memories, practices and work of a huge diversity of people.

Since the beginning, one man has been behind the newsletter from the writing of articles in the early days to producing the detailed interviews that we see today. That man is Christopher Blackwell.

Christopher Blackwell

Christopher Blackwell

Blackwell has been a solitary Wiccan for thirty years, and currently lives in New Mexico. He began following AREN around 2000, shortly after it changed names from the Witches Anti-Discrimination League (WADL) to the Alternative Religions Educational Network (AREN). The organization was formed in the 1970s by Leo Martello and, for many years, worked for the protection of religious rights. However, the organization had to be dissolved after the Anti-Defamation League threatened a lawsuit over use of the name. Shortly after, AREN was born.

In those early days, Blackwell spent his time interacting on the organization’s internet forums from his home in New Mexico. Then, in 2004 his life changed. He was asked to create and grow an AREN newsletter. The rest is history…

Today we turn the tables, so to speak, on the man who interviews the Pagan world. This is Christopher Blackwell.

The Wild Hunt: Most people know you as the guy behind ACTION. Tell us what you did before AREN.

Christopher Blackwell: Being that I had been traveling for years mining agate, my first contact [with the Pagan world] was through letters by snail mail to people writing in to Circle Network News newsletter back in the 80s … I had five post offices in three different states that I would have mail forwarded to as I moved with the wheel of the year mining from Eastern Oregon to Southern New Mexico, and back to Oregon again…

It was also through Circle Network that I took part in my first letter protest when a certain Jessie Helms tried to attach a rider to a the Post Office appropriation bill that would deny any non-profit group, tied to either Witchcraft or Satanism, the bulk rate postal rates allowed to all other non-profits groups. As this was before the Internet, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary sent, I believe, post cards to every one on Circle Sanctuary’s mailing list and then it was up to us to flood congress with letters against the rider. Primitive as that would seem today, the rider was dropped before before the Post Office appropriation bill left committee.

TWH: You are Wiccan? When and how did you find this path?

CB: In 1985 I literally got trapped selling at  a flea market in Tucson Arizona and never could earn enough to move on with my partner. So when I had time off I started looking for a teacher. There was a sort of New Age book store and in it a bulletin board. I found a notice about a high priestess, called the phone number and she wanted to meet me first in a public coffee shop. We talked, I was asked why I wanted training and  I passed and started training. I was initiated [into the Alexandria Tradtion] on Yule of 1985.

[Shortly after his initiation, sales picked up and he returned to mining. Then in 1993, his “mining days ended” after a severe illness. He settled returned to New Mexico, where he has lived ever since. After four years of medical care, he began writing. His only connection to Paganism was through Circle Magazine, Green Egg, Pagan Africa and a few other international newsletters. He submitted articles and letters as well as interacted with the community from his home. This is how he found AREN]

TWH: How did you get involved with AREN and what led to you becoming its newsletter editor?

CB: It was not until the late 90s that our local library got its first public used computer. It was slow, hooked to our phone system. Learning as I went, I usually crashed the computer once or twice a day. The librarians took pity on me and did not throw me out. I started exploring. I found a few online bulletin boards and Witches’ Voice.

I am not sure exactly when I connected with AREN … I just started posting on their forum taking part in various subjects. I became a regular … It was at this time the idea of an in house newsletter was suggested and I was asked to take it on. Now I did not like newsletters, first for being boring and second for being quarterly. I set out to create one. Bill Kilborn, who still acts as web guy, tried to find me free editing programs.  [The first two didn’t] even have page numbers, with often many mistakes and only about ten pages long.

AREN_ACTIONTWH: How has the newsletter changed over the last ten years?

CB: I have often said it is fortunate that I never realized what I was getting into for I might not have never done it. Anyone, that has run one, knows how hard it is to get enough to post, to keep it going.

It was a busy time for AREN with the whole Bush Administration. So I began looking for stories on the internet about Wiccans, or about things that might effect Pagans. When I found something, I checked out the story in a variety of newspapers … until I had enough for a much longer and more detailed article. Sometimes  these articles of mine would run up to a page or two.

But there were two problems, even by 59, I had had a case of Pancreatitis and been diabetic for about a decade. I was already losing energy yearly and the newsletter was not succeeding … I doubt we had reached even 75 people reading it. Bill decided we should  open ACTION to the public and I decided that I could not do researched articles and that I would shift to interview format.

This started on Samhain of 2008. The change was noticeable and we soon topped two hundred readers, then three hundred readers, then eight hundred and a thousand readers. Not only did I interview people in the different communities, but in different countries and continents. Now there was new problem, where to find people to interview?

[Blackwell added that today readership runs as high as 3500 per issue. His first interviewees were friends and readers. Then he turned to the forums. Eventually, he expanded outward. Blackwell said that every issue starts with who he is going interview, will they accept and “how much longer can [he] keep this going.” He said, “I ask my gods to either give me inspiration or a kick in the butt, whichever is most effective. So far they have not let me down.”]

TWH: What was your most memorable interview?

CB: Goddess that is hard because they are many. One of my first real enjoyable interviews with a well-known Pagan was Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. He was an original. He has been in so much of our American Pagan history, and is a born story teller. I think his interview was something like eight pages long.

Now, probably, the youngest and most controversial interview was with a boy who published an essay in Witches Voice years ago …He got more reads than any other essay, even those by adults, which meant even the adults were reading him. The controversy came from the fact he wrote an essay on introductory Wicca in simple straight forward words and did it well. He turned out to be thirteen years old. He wanted to be a Wiccan author someday …

But a 13 year boy is vulnerable and there are people in our society who would hurt him, and I didn’t want him to get in any trouble. I only knew his first name, Mike, and never even asked what part of the country he was from. Otherwise, it was just an ordinary interview and damn I hope he does become that writer.

TWH: Through your interviews, what changes or significant trends have you noticed over the past ten years?

CB: Wicca was the big community here in the United States, the best known, and the most recognized with the most books … [Now] there has been more research published books showing up. The Polytheists have got very good at researching not only the Gods, variations of each god’s sacred story and practice depending where it was being done, and by which people. … The Heathens are again publishing more books and creating more groups and a lot of them are fighting against racist ideas successfully… I have seen Druids in charities and civic actions in England. They are showing up in remarkable places.

In Wicca, more of us do interact with other communities and definitely are developing all sorts of things, including charities, continuing civic action the environmental action. But we are also fighting against sexual exploitation of women and children in society and in our own community. So all of our communities are growing and filling  more of the gaps. More of us are becoming openly active in our society.

TWH: The Pagan media world has changed significantly since 2004. What role do you see yourself and the AREN newsletter playing in today’s digital media world?

CB: The world has changed greatly since the days that Witches’ Voice first start posting links to newspaper paper articles of interest to Pagans. They inspired Jason to create The Wild Hunt, and I to create ACTION and many other people. The Pagan media has grown a lot since, each filling different niches.

ACTION will last only as long as I and Bill care keep it going. I had hoped to have more helpers but that never happened. I am coming to the end of my life. I have already out lived most of the men in my family… Ironically I think I am happier being an old geezer than at any other part of my life. How amazing that is. Meanwhile my role is to remember each stage of my life and be gentle on the younger folk.

I have accomplished two goals with ACTION. One to eventually open more connections between the different communities and prove I can give a fair interview to anyone with their own words and none of my opinion. No spin from me … Somewhere down the line, my reader will hit a “Ah Ha moment, I could do something like that.” I have played my part, an old disabled Marine Vietnam Veteran, a Wiccan solitary who rarely leaves his home in the desert.

The mountains near Blackwell's home in New Mexico [Courtesy Photo]

The mountains near Blackwell’s home in New Mexico [Courtesy Photo]

TWH: Sometimes we see your interviews on Penton Independent Alternative Media. Are these different or are they republished from ACTION? Where else can we find your work?

CB: My job is to find the story, write the questions to help the person tell it, and to get it out. One of the things that encourages people is their story will get out around the world, at least as far as I have readers. Afterward they are free to repost it anywhere as often as they want.

Penton asked to reprint older articles. And when they find one that  they think will interest their readers, I gave the the permission to do so.  I, so far, have had a couple of other Pagan organization in other parts of the world do the same, and I give the the same permission. I have had some Russian Pagan friends translate a few of them into several Eastern European languages. I have been told that some of those much newer Pagans consider my interviews as a window onto the rest of the Pagan World.

No one makes any money out of this, and more readers get to read the stories. One, Greek Gods -worshiping Pagan Group in Russia, was having a bit of  harassment by local officials. They showed them my interview of them and said it was published in the outside world. The harassment stopped. My tiny bit of the Pagan media, dinky by world media standards, actually had a tiny bit of political clout.

Can you imagine what that felt like for a person never trained in the media, who only learned by the endless mistakes I made and sometimes still make. It is magic and a gift of the gods. So I have had a chance to affect the Pagan communities. One old man in the middle of nowhere. What more could I want?

TWH: You talk about retiring from ACTION. Do you have any other plans or projects?

CB: A model railroad. I have wanted to build one for over fifty years. But I had no space, no money, and none of the skills. Railroad history has been my great love since high school. My second library in my sanctuary is railroad and model railroad [books]. I have many of the kits needed and a fair amount of material for its construction, but that is as far as it has gone…

As I often say, I am in good shape for 79, unfortunately I am only 69. So I make no predictions about anything any more, and live very much in the present. I try to avoid worrying, as worry stops nothing but uses up much limited energy that I have … Life is still interesting, often fun, and I get by.

[The unedited interview is one of the hallmarks of ACTION’s pubication. It is a standard that Blackwell set back when he changed to that format in 2008. He did not want his opinions, his spin, to overtake the words of the interviewee. Unfortunately, our space here is limited, and the above interview is only a taste of our conversation with Blackwell. However, in the spirit of ACTION, we will be posting the full unedited version in the next few days. Please check back for a direct link to that document.]

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