UNITED STATES — As the Pagan and closely-aligned communities continue to evolve, the desire to run profitable businesses within those communities has tried to keep pace. There are no shortage of people who dream of supporting themselves solely by providing divination, healing, wedding ceremonies, magical consultations, books, jewelry, clothing, or any of a number of other products or services to people in their Polytheist, Heathen or Pagan community. But only a few can do so.

Such dreams are sometimes accompanied by plans for temples or community spaces to serve that community, but not always. Certainly it’s safe to say that anyone who lives under the Pagan umbrella, or its shadow at the very least, knows somebody who is trying or planning to support themselves without venturing beyond that umbrella’s coverage area.

The idea is not without challenges, but it’s also not without precedent. There are many insular groups which require little or no support from the outside world. For example, some of the more rural Amish communities have demonstrated that it is possible to support oneself entirely in one’s own community. But even this tightly knit community is finding it increasingly difficult.

Religious groups that have a visible self-identity, or way of advertising that identity, don’t need to be physically cut off from everyone else in order for its members to prefer to do business with one another. The practice is common among any number of ethnic and religious groups. Even membership in an organization can open economic doors: ask an Eagle Scout, Mason, or Beta Theta Pi member if his ring hasn’t provided access over the years.

But Paganism is not like a fraternity, with its secret handshakes and rings, nor is identifying as Pagan the same as identifying as Jewish. A multitude of beliefs and practices, some in direct conflict with each other, are found sporting the “Pagan” label. In addition, there are plenty of people who get lumped in who don’t consider themselves Pagan, don’t want to be called Pagan, and don’t know what to do when their co-religionists wear the word “Pagan” with pride. While similarities and shared experiences do exist, they pale in comparison to the cultural shorthand of European Jews or the look of acknowledgment between two Masons meeting for the first time.

Layered on top of the vast diversity within and near Paganism, there lies a stereotype that Pagans and money do not mix well. The perception is that Pagans don’t manage money well, or don’t believe in paying for spiritual services offered by their fellows, or they believe money is evil and to be avoided, or that the really rich Pagans are tight-fisted and not willing to plunk down cash for a cause the way a Christian might. Whether or not these stereotypes have a kernel of truth, the perception is enough to be discouraging to hopeful business owners. Starting a venture to serve a community that is believed to be poor, money-averse, and/or plain cheap can seem a fruitless goal.

Pagan Business NetworkStepping into the breach is the Pagan Business Network. While it is by no means the only group attempting to help self-identified Pagans find a market for decidedly Pagan products and services, it has a strong loyalty base among its members, and it’s not difficult to see why. In addition to providing a free Pagan-specific advertising space and periodically spotlighting individual enterprises, the PBN also offers advice on many business skills, such as bookkeeping, search engine optimization, and social media marketing.

We asked members about their experiences with PBN. Author and artist Lupa captured why many similar Pagan networking groups may struggle:

I heard about PBN when it was mentioned on TWH not too long ago and joined up out of curiosity. In my experience, pagan business networking groups and forums usually devolve into “Buy my stuff!” groups pretty quickly. Since this is still a small and relatively new group people are pretty enthused about discussing relevant topics, and it’s got good momentum in that regard. If it can keep that spirit even as it grows, I foresee it being a really good resource.

I don’t do a lot with groups specifically for networking, again because it’s often just people trying to sell stuff to each other (or, in person, trade business cards they never do much with). I prefer to engage directly with my customers and clients, and they’re often really helpful in letting me know about other people, places and things that I should know about. So the most effective networking I do is generally more casual and grassroots in nature.

Jamie Magpie Mortinson, proprietor of the Etsy shop The Gilded Spork, explained the value that she finds in the site.

The Pagan Business Network has been a huge motivator for me. I see all the wonderful things everyone is working on and I can’t help but feel inspired towards my own craft. I would defiantly put an emphasis on the business end of the network. Having so many questions answered, especially those I never thought of, has been an indescribable blessing.

Others describe the sense of community found with PBN, including the support members give to each other through encouragement and social-media bumps, as well as the benefits of circulating dollars within the Pagan community. But while the PBN is given props by its members for creating a beneficial environment, and may even represent the vanguard of Pagan business acumen, the site has limits.

What’s almost entirely missing from the PBN are Pagan-owned businesses which do not provide Pagan-themed services. Imagine a world in which the only time that a Christian business owner announced their faith was while running a shop selling Bibles, vestments and stained glass. Just as there is much more to Christian life than attending church services, Pagans also must also spend money on products and services unrelated to their religious practices.

Pagan-Black-BookAmong the twenty or so businesses that have chosen to advertise on PBN, only one is listed under “Non-Pagan Businesses.” Another similar, but older, website called the Pagan Black Book contains considerably more ads, but also only has one listing that’s decidedly secular in its appeal. This demonstrates that the failing is not within the methods of the Pagan Business Network. Rather, there’s a dearth of Pagans who choose to market their mundane businesses to others under the umbrella.

While impractical in many places, it may in fact be possible to hire a Pagan plumber or accountant, if that’s the service one needed, in a major metropolitan area. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be easy. The idea that there simply aren’t any Pagan excavators, medical doctors, roofers, tailors, or hairdressers strains credibility and, also, runs counter to this reporter’s personal experience. Even in the Twin Cities, often called “Paganistan” due to the high concentration of Pagans, there doesn’t seem to be a way to find a business owner or professional who also happens to be Pagan.

Within the sphere of Pagan-centric businesses, there still remain opportunities to develop a more robust market. Lupa expanded upon that theme, saying:

I’d like to see more review sites and media, quite honestly. As an author of pagan nonfic, a fairly niche genre, the list of places I can send review copies of my books is relatively short, especially if I actually want the publication to consider reviewing it. And the list of places that review pagan-made artwork and other products is even smaller. I’d even be happy if someone kept an *up to date* list of sites, bloggers and others that do reviews relevant to the pagan community. That being said, I ran a now-archived review site for almost a decade and I know how much work it can be to run such a site.

In a similar vein, I’d love to see more media interviews and features on pagan artists and other creatives. Usually it’s authors who get featured, occasionally musicians, and maybe an artist who illustrated a well-known tarot deck now and then. Pagan shop owners usually only get profiled during Halloween, or when someone throws a brick through their window. So more opportunities for people to find out about what’s out there would be great!

Perhaps Pagans don’t cleave to one another the way some groups do, or the multitude of traditions shoved under the umbrella are simply too unlike one another to generate the sense of community identity needed to take this next step. Maybe it’s true that there are just too many Pagans who don’t have money, don’t want money, or are scared or distrustful of money to make any sort of Pagan economy gel quite yet. Whatever the reasons, as it stands, the state of the Pagan economy is that of an infant, or perhaps a precocious toddler; somewhat immature, but eager to grow. The contributions of the Pagan Business Network ,and its like, are the contributions to that growth.

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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! 

coru

The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood issued a statement last week on “Hospitality and Safety.” It begins, “Everyone should feel and be safe. Creating a welcoming, safe, supportive, inclusive, consent-based space for all peoples is just one of the necessary ways hospitality must manifest in today’s society so that all people everywhere may thrive in safety. It’s our responsibility to leave this world better than we inherited it through mindful, thoughtful, and heart-filled care and stewardship.”

The purpose of the statement is to provide attendees of any Coru Cathubodua sponsored event with a clear understanding of the organization’s stance on expected behavior within that space. This includes “events, conference hospitality suites and temple spaces.” The statement reads, “We have an individual and shared responsibility to guard against behaviors that demean or otherwise harm individuals.” They also added that anyone who violates this policy within one of their spaces will be asked to leave. The statement was hanging in the organization’s PantheaCon hospitality suite this past weekend.

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Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried

Last week, Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried challenged the accuracy and ethics behind an article written by Joseph Laylock for Religion Dispatches. After reading Laylock’s article on the Icelandic temple, Seigfried contacted the publisher with concerns of plagiarism. In a tweet, editor Evan Derkacz responded curtly, which Seigfried took as a challenge to prove his point. He did so in a blog post published Feb. 4, which included accusations of plagiarism and the misrepresentation of minority religions.

On Feb. 11, Religion Dispatches (RD) responded by editing Laylock’s article and including a note that says, “RD regrets the errors.” Some of the other changes included the adding of credits to photographs, hyperlinks and text citations. Seigfried also notes that RD removed the quotations around “faith of their own.” He considered this a win for his own work, and for Heathenry, in terms of media representation.

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alabama

On Feb. 9, marriage equality arrived in the conservative southern state of Alabama. Despite legalization, the issue has remained contentious with state judges and entire counties openly ignoring the new law. According to the Huffington Post, a federal judge had to remind any defiant counties that same-sex marriage was in fact law. Over the week more counties did begin to comply. To date 43 of 67 counties are issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Despite these hostilities, the Alabama Pagan community has not only been celebrating the legalization but openly supporting and enforcing it. Priestess Lilith Presson, a Birmingham resident who is performing marriage ceremonies in a public park, was featured in an article in Al.com. She told the reporter, “It’s about time we had marriage equality …There are a few people stomping their feet because they don’t want people to be treated equally as humans.Tough.” Similarly, in the Auburn area, Dr. Katharyn Privett-Duren is doing her part. She said, “In response to some of the fear and anxiety that several couples expressed at public ceremonies, I offered the privacy of my land for officiations.” The struggle is ongoing, and we will be following this story closely as Alabama Pagans continue to work publicly to ensure their government upholds the new law.

In Other News:

  • A new survey, titled “Sons and Daughters of the Northern Tradition: A Survey for Contemporary Heathens,” is being conducted by Amsterdam University graduate student Josh Cragle. He is currently researching Germanic Paganism and asking for community help. Cragle wrote, “The survey is completely anonymous and will not be used for any malicious purposes, and is in no way meant to offend anyone. I would greatly appreciate your input. Thank you.”
  • The latest issue of Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies was just released. It includes articles written by Michelle Mueller, Kimberly D. Kirner, Morandir Armson, James R. Lewis and Dr. Gwendolyn Reece. The publication also contains a number of book reviews. As noted on the site, “The Pomegranate is the first International, peer-reviewed journal of Pagan studies. It provides a forum for papers, essays and symposia on both ancient and contemporary Pagan religious practices.”
  • The Order of Bards Ovates (OBOD) will be adding a new magazine to their publication list. The upcoming Druid Magazine “will feature articles, opinion pieces, and facilitate discussion on topics of interest to” members specifically living in the Americas. The editors are still in pre-production and are looking for contributing writers, layout and graphic designer and more. They ask anyone interested in contributing to contact them via their email at druidmagazine@druidry.org. OBOD other regionally-focused publications include Serpenstar (“Australasian & Oceanian”), Dryade (Dutch language), Il Calderone (Italian language), and the general Journal of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids.
  • Rhyd Wildermuth and Alley Valkyrie have written and published a “Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer.” Originally created to accompany their 2015 PantheaCon presentation focused on the same subject, the 32 page primer “presents a brief overview on Capitalism, why any Pagan should make beautiful war against it, and some suggestions on how to start fighting it.” Due to its popularity, the two writers have made it publicly available for download.
  • On Feb. 10, the Limavady Borough Council agreed that they would like to see the Manannan statue replaced. However, the Council has yet to decide how to fund it. According to resident Mari Ward, operator of the Facebook fan page Bring Back Manannan mac Lir, the council will spend the next month researching funding options and presenting their findings at the next meeting. Ward wrote, “In the meantime it is heartening to hear that it may be re-installed at some point.”
  • Over the past week, Huffington Post Live has featured panel talks focusing on attitudes toward sex and sexuality within various religious cultures. On Feb. 14, the site posted “Pagans Discuss The Truth About The Role Of Sex In Their Faith.” Included on the panel was Carol Queen, Blogger Black Witch, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Rev. Amy Blackthorn, and Author Lasara Firefox Allen. Black Witch has since written a blog post about the experience.
  • Steven Dillon, “a South Dakota based author who primarily works on researching and developing theoretical foundations for Pagan ideas,” released his first book called, A Case for Polytheism. Published by Moon Books, Dillon’s work has been described as “a thoughtful and incisive exploration of polytheist belief as a live option for modern people.”

That is it for now. Have a nice day.

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A Fertile Lupercalia to You!

The Wild Hunt —  February 15, 2015 — 7 Comments

Today is the festival of Lupercalia, the ancient Roman observance of fertility and the coming of spring. Not to be confused with a the overly commercial celebration held yesterday, Lupercalia is a holiday sacred to the god Faunus, and the mythical she-wolf who reared Romulus and Remus the semi-mythical founders of Rome. It was considered an important holiday of religious observance and purification.

"Representation of Lupercal" From the portico of the Piazzale dei Corporazioni in Ostia, Antica. (98-117 CE). [Public Domain]

“Representation of Lupercal” From the portico of the Piazzale dei Corporazioni in Ostia, Antica. (98-117 CE). [Public Domain]

There are many lurid accounts of what goes on during Lupercalia, some make it seem like an excuse for copulation and frivolity. One description comes from W. J. Kowalski’s Roman Calendar page.

The rites of this day included the sacrifice of a goat or a dog at the cave-grotto known as the Lupercal. With the sacrificial blood wiped across their foreheads, the youth partaking in this ceremony would then run the circumference of the Palatine hill, perhaps about 5K, tracing the traditional route of the city boundary traced by Romulus the day he founded Rome. In the process, girls who approached the runners would be brushed or splattered with the februa, thongs of sacrificial goatskin, presumably bloody, symbolically blessing them with fertility. Red is the color of the day as it is with Valentine’s Day, the day invented to replace the Lupercalia. Fertility and sexuality were likewise replaced with the puritanical pipedream of sexless Love.

Most (non-Pagan) people wouldn’t even know about Lupercalia if it were not for the constant stream of Valentine’s Day articles in the press. The favorite trend amongst news-writers and editorial columnists seems to be talking about the ancient pagan influences of a particular holiday. While this has increased awareness of Lupercalia, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a modern expert on the festival and its celebration, has pointed out that the two holidays actually have little in common.

The fertility here involved is not necessarily sexual fertility in women, though it was often thought to be such when the origins of the festival were eventually forgotten. It was fertility represented by the goat skin itself, a fertility of an agricultural and livestock sort. The young men running the race were symbolically committing themselves to the protection of their communities, thus their race around its boundaries which indicated their area of influence and the “home territory” they were protecting. The young men who were Luperci underwent a part of the ritual earlier in which the blood from the sacrificed goat and dog were mixed together, dabbed on their foreheads with a knife, and then wiped off subsequently with wool dipped in milk, signifying their transition from a lawless, wild state into a settled and civilized mode of life. The founders of Rome, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, were raised by the Lupa (“she-wolf”) in the cave where this ritual took place, and in their lives after this, they were lawless hunter/raider warriors until their eventual foundation of the city. This ritual commemorates this entire situation. The success by speed and martial prowess that used to come to Romulus and Remus when they were hunter-warriors in taking anyone and everyone’s livestock–including goats!–while in that phase of their existence becomes the success of those same skills and abilities being put toward the protection of their community in their settled state. The fertility of the community’s resources, through this protection, is what is being celebrated, not necessarily (nor exclusively) the fertility of humans in reproduction.

The distinctions between Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia are also touched on by scholar Leonhard Schmitz.

“Modern attempts to relate the Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day because of the mere (approximate) date are at best very suspect. That the two occasionally get equated seems rather to be an indication of late 20c mentality, according to which a lovers’ festival must necessarily derive from the titillations of ancient fertility and flagellation by goats. More to the point, there is not the slightest shred of historical evidence for the connection.”

As for modern celebrations, Ekklesia Antinoou will be holding a public Lupercalia celebration at 3:30 today at PantheaCon in San Jose.

A very blessed and fertile Lupercalia to you all!

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The optimal situation within a family, is when both parents share the same religion. This avoids conflict, confusion, misunderstandings, and all manner of problems. When two spouses have two different religions, there are differences in world-view, priorities, goals, how to raise one’s children, how to live one’s life, the seriousness of the marriage oath, and all areas of your life together… For single Heathens, meeting another Heathen that you want to marry can be difficult at this time of Reconstruction for our Folkway. There aren’t a lot of Heathens to choose from. – Temple of our Heathen Gods

Finding a suitable partner is difficult for anyone. When you’re part of a minority religion the search for a compatible partner can be even more difficult. How do can that challenge be overcomed?

You could attend regional or national festivals. Have a co-religionist set you up on a blind date. Or, if you’re a Heathen, you could join a new online dating service created just for Heathens.

splash

Asatru Dating was launched by U.K. resident Vincent Stagg on January 5, 2015. By the end of that month, he had over 200 members signed up. The service has some basic free functions, or members can pay £4.99 per month ($7.62 US dollars) or a premium membership.

Asatru Dating is available worldwide, and has members from the U.K., U.S.A., Canada, Turkey, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Norway and other countries.The gender split on the site is about ⅓ women to ⅔ men and allows for a third gender designation – gender fluid.

Heathen religions, like many other revived religions, place a strong focus on family and worship as a family unit. They honor their ancestors and want their children to continue in their ways. If your spouse isn’t also a Heathen, that could complicate matters.

It was for this reason that Mr. Stagg says he created the site to, “…provide a place where single Asatruars could find one another.” He says the process of joining is simple. There are features to make users more comfortable, such as being able to block or report other users for inappropriate behavior.

Kameron Smith, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has joined the dating service. He said that he’s interested in, “…the possibility of finding a committed relationship with a woman who thinks and believes similar to me.” He says while it isn’t absolutely necessary to find another Heathen to marry, it would make the relationship, and raising children, easier in the long term.

Mr. Stagg hopes that by making it easier for Heathens to find Heathen partners, this process will also contribute to reviving Asatru as the vibrant religion it once was. He said, “We may be seen as dreamers but we wish nothing more than to see temples built to the Aesir and for people to recognise what Asatru is.”

No matter if you’ve already found your true love, or loves, or you’re still looking, The Wild Hunt wishes you a very Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

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Column: North

Eric O. Scott —  February 13, 2015 — 16 Comments
Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

[Warning: contains carnivorous behavior.]

The voice begins buried in the undertones of the voice before it, slowly rising through the sonic gradient until their roles switch and it becomes dominant. It is a man’s voice, recognizably Canadian, and even though we are only a few seconds into the presentation, his words already express doubt at the theme:

Let me say this, though – I don’t go for this ‘northmanship’ thing at all… I’m not one of those people who do claim that they’ve been farther north or so on, but I see it as kind of a game, this ‘northmanship’ thing. People say well, you know, ‘have you ever been up at the north pole on a dogsled trip for twenty-two days?’ and the other fella will say, ‘well, I did one for thirty days…’

But just as that voice rose from the depths of the mix, so does another, this one with more romance in its words:

I can’t conceive of anyone being in close touch with the north, whether he lived there all the time, or simply traveled there month after month and year after year – I can’t conceive of such a person being really untouched by the north…

These are two of the first voices heard in Glenn Gould’s experimental radio documentary, The Idea of North, part of his so-called “Solitude Trilogy.” In the beginning of the documentary, several voices – a woman describing her voyage north on a train, a man grousing about how ‘northmanship’ has become just another test of machismo, another man waxing poetically about the spiritual power of the northern landscape, a woman talking about walking out onto frozen lakes and feeling at one with the setting – are overlaid on one another, the music of their voices intermingling to bring at once a sense of the multitude of reactions these travelers have to the subject of the production – the concept of “north” as landscape and ethos, home and pilgrimage: the idea of “north,” whatever that might be.

Gould’s work was specifically about the north of Canada, but I found myself thinking about the subject too, especially after a member of my writing group – an Alaskan who writes about the environment and is invested in the idea of north – made a comment about one of my essays. (I believe it was the work that eventually became Njord, one of the first of my Iceland columns here at The Wild Hunt.)

“This character has that distinct Northern voice,” she said, referring to the Icelander’s clipped yet expressive demeanor. “Anyone who has been around that part of the world would know it.” It struck me that my friend’s “north” and my “north” were very different places — Alaska and Iceland – but she still observed some kindred nature between them. I suspect Glenn Gould might have seen it too.

I was thinking about this the other day while making a dish – marinated salmon and baked apples with rosemary – from Andreas Viestad’s Kitchen of Lighta Norwegian cookbook I recently bought. I’m not a “kitchen witch” by any means, nor honestly do I know what it would mean to be one[1], but I have been working through cooking as a kind of sacred practice since last summer, when I returned from Iceland. Before then, I belonged to the stereotype of young men who barely know how to boil pasta; I occasionally mustered up the will to commit an act of chili, but that was as far as I went.

But prepared food was expensive in Iceland, and I had to learn how to cook or starve (or perhaps live exclusively on hot dogs, as several of my classmates did.) I don’t mean to make this sound overly important, since, after all, cooking isn’t an extraordinary skill – but, probably because it was something I learned how to do while in Iceland, I’ve attached this special significance to it. It’s something I’ve brought back into my regular life from the heady experience of pilgrimage.

Viestad is no Heathen to the best of my knowledge, but part of what I have loved in working through his book is the connection he draws between the recipes and the landscape and history of Scandinavia. When I make this food, it too draws on the idea of north. Sometimes, especially in very tactile moments of preparation – slicing away the hard skin of a rutabaga, patting down chicken with spices, shaking the pan to make a bed of onions jump and sizzle – I find myself slipping into a light trance, meditating on the connection between food and religion.

I have never achieved a state of emptiness in my meditation, I’m afraid. My thoughts are ever-present. In my daily life, my job is to critically examine literature, texts, ideas of all sorts, and that’s just as true of my own thoughts. So it is in my meditation: what is ‘north,’ anyway, and why should you bother to romanticize it? It’s a question I have pondered often. It is easy to romanticize a place, especially a place so far away. I was raised in a city, and so I long for the wilderness; I was raised in the middle of a continent, and so I long for an island; I was raised in the middle, and so I long for the north. That doesn’t necessarily make that a worthy desire, though, and runs the risk of turning the idea – and more importantly, the people who actually inhabit that idea – into some kind of spiritual Disneyland than an actual place that exists independently of one’s desires for it.

The voices of both of the men from Glenn Gould’s documentary run through my head at once, the pessimist and the romantic, the one who puts no stock in this “northmanship” business and the one who feels no one could resist being touched by the place. I try to keep them both there, with all their static and their crosstalk, to keep myself in balance.

I am running a side of bright pink salmon under cold tap water. My station at the sink looks out through a window onto my back yard, which is bounded by a shallow creek and a barren collection of spindly trees. While the icy water flows over our skins, mine and the fish’s, the gray February sky begins to turn dark. I stop for a moment and meditate on the winter, on how the silence and the cold of the season remind me of places far away. I take the fish from under the stream and pat it down with paper towels until it dries again. The process contradicts itself: soak the fish in water, then pat it dry. I wonder why I am asked to handle the salmon this way.

This is a new recipe; I have never cooked a side of salmon before, with this method or any other. But I trust in it, in the physicality of the meat and the chill of the water and the texture of the dry paper becoming wet. I trust it because, in its small way, preparing this fish connects me to my gods; I trust it because, in its small way, this fish, too, connects me to the north.

[1] I have some explicitly Pagan cookbooks, but I never made it past the psychic pasta.

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WASHINGTON D.C. – While Pagans and scholars often grapple with what Pagans, Witches, and Heathens believe, Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, an Associate University Librarian and Director of Research, Teaching, and Learning for American University, is looking into what we do. Are we far more alike, under this fractious umbrella, than previously thought? The answer turns about to be a resounding yes.

Dr. Gwendolyn Reece [courtesy photo]

Dr. Gwendolyn Reece [courtesy photo]

Dr. Reece undertook a survey of United States adult residents who self-identify as Pagan, Witch, or Heathen. She then used the results to complete one article, which was published in the latest issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. This article is titled Prevalence and Importance of Contemporary Pagan Practices. A second article, Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism, is currently in the works.

The survey for the study was posted online from January 2012 to May of that same year. All respondents had to certify that they were at least 18 years of age, and were able to choose one or more than one category to self-identify. For example, a person may identify as a witch, a Wiccan, and a Buddhist. It also asked other questions, such as the year they began their current religious path and if they consider themselves a beginner or more advanced. In the end, 3318 people completed the survey

As for what the respondents do, most every person taking the survey had these practices in common: we engage in individual rituals (96%); we celebrate the seasonal rituals (95%); and we meditate (94%).

The Wild Hunt talked with Reece about the survey, the published article, and the follow-up article that she’s currently working on.

The Wild Hunt:  Why did you undertake this study? What were you looking to find out?
Gwendolyn Reece: Most mainstream religious thinking in the United States focuses its conception of religion on belief and doctrine. However, this emphasis seems to me to be an approach that is more suited to Abrahamic traditions than other religions, and I am concerned that if belief is the primary standard for determining religious rights, then adherents of those religions for which doctrine does not hold the central place are at risk of having their freedom to exercise their religion curtailed.

There is no clear doctrine in contemporary Paganism, just as there wasn’t in classical Paganism in ancient Greece, for example, but the practice of religion is crucial. I wanted to know, on a large scale, what it is that people are doing as part of their religious practice as Pagans and I wanted to know what kinds of obstacles they encounter in pursuing their practice.

I have multiple reasons for wanting to understand these two topics. First, I don’t think we really know what activities people are engaged in to make up their overall practice and how these activities relate to each other. Secondly, I don’t think we know how important the various practices are to those who perform them. The answers to both of these questions are essential if we are going to defend our rights to practice. And finally, as a Witch and a Pagan myself, I want us all to be strategic in how we spend our scarce and valued resources, including both money and time. I want us to focus our efforts on addressing obstacles that are significantly inhibiting our collective ability to practice. We have not had adequate data to inform strategy and I am hopeful that this survey will be useful as people consider projects and initiatives. Certainly, there is much more data that needs to be collected to enrich the picture, but I hope to make a worthy contribution.

TWH:  What was the most surprising or intriguing bit of information to come out of the study?
GR:  There are categories of practice that are so prevalent that almost everyone is engaged in them, although the forms and the meanings constructed may be highly variable. There are also categories of practice appearing to be specialties that are not as common but those who practice them rank them as highly important, and those specialties are independent of tradition. This gives a different potential way of viewing Paganism as communities of practice and, frankly, of organizing support structures. So, for example, structures for sharing expertise and support amongst those who do curse-breaking might be beneficial but would not be tied to a particular tradition. Communities of practice, such as those in medicine and education, for example, focus on the work, the common enterprise, and come together to further the work.  It might give us an additional and complementary way of interrelating and organizing.

TWH:  In “Prevalence and Importance of Contemporary Pagan Practices” you take look at the practices in which modern Pagans, witches, and Heathens engage. You note that there are some practices so common that it is difficult to find Pagans who don’t perform them. Does this mean Pagans could be more easily defined by what they do rather than what they believe?
GR:  Given the lack of doctrine, it would be easier to define them that way, however it would still be incomplete without some additional information, for example, that they take inspiration from pre-Christian traditions. However, I certainly think that ways of defining Pagans, Witches and Heathens without addressing practices are also grossly incorrect. Definitions are inherently challenging, especially when there are no institutional structures that can determine membership. This is why my sample is made up of anyone who self-identifies with the title “Pagan/Witch/Heathen.” If they think of themselves in that way then as far as I am concerned, they qualify.

TWH:  It seems Pagans have much in common with other religions, when it comes to religion. In what significant ways are Pagans different in their practices than the Big Three of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism?
GR: That is not something that can be answered from the data in my survey, but there are excellent qualitative studies that can address those issues. I will point out that the two most ubiquitous practices are both ritually oriented, including individual ritual. I think the ritual element may be more heavily emphasized than in some other religions.

TWH:  Performing magic was high on the list of practices, although it didn’t break the top 5 in practices. Was there a difference between different types of Pagans regarding magic? In other words, is magic more important to Witches and less important to Heathens?  And, because there are more witches taking the survey, did that raise the percent of those who practice magic?
GR: The differences were not statistically significant. I, actually, did not necessarily expect that performing magick would be as high as it is, but expectations are often colored by the experiences of the perceiver. When I became a Pagan in the 1980s, the Witches I knew were all hardcore occultists. It seemed to me as though after the increasing in popularity that occurred in the 1990’s that magick was declining in importance within Paganism. However, in this sample, it is evident that magick continues to be an important aspect to most Pagans in their practice.

TWH:  Over 65% said they attend festivals. Does this surprise you? Do you think the number is high? Why?
GR:  Because Pagans are a hidden population and Paganism is not institutionally based, there is no way to generate a sample frame from which you can draw a probability sample. This survey was conducted using a type of snowball sampling, in which people forwarded it to people they knew, shared it on Facebook, and it was covered in a number of blogs, so the sample is drawn from people who are, in some way, plugged into the greater community, so this may be an instance of sample bias. There are no strong relationships with any of the other characteristics in the sample that would lead to the conclusion that this is inflated. However, realistically, if the American Religious Identification Survey estimate for Pagans and Wiccans is accurate, it is clear that the ticket-take doesn’t add up. I have no way of knowing for certain if the problem is my data or the methodology used to generate the estimate for the number of Pagans in the country.

TWH:  The numbers for volunteering, social justice or activism were also very high. And yet there aren’t many Pagan organizations where people can volunteer or get involved in such activism. Does this look like a need that is going unmet for modern Pagans, a place for volunteering and activism within Paganism?
GR: It is pretty clear that if people are self-reporting accurately, most of them who are doing volunteer work, activism, and social justice work as a part of their practice are conducting these activities outside of Paganism, but understanding their work as an expression of their religion. I know I, for example, support a number of environmental organizations as a part of my religious practice. Given our small numbers, it is not clear whether Pagans could agree upon a limited enough range of topics and approaches to build viable Pagan charities and activist organizations. As I will discuss in my next article, lack of opportunities for meaningful volunteer work was identified as a barrier for a substantial number of Pagans. Again, whether or not specifically Pagan charities would meet this need would require further study.

TWH:  In one section of the second article Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism,”  you cover the obstacles experienced by Pagans as a result of the dominant culture in the US. What was one result that was out of the ordinary or something people may not consider?
GR: I was surprised by both the relative importance and number of people who identified that the dominant culture’s educational system was in conflict with their beliefs and practices.

TWH:  What about obstacles for Pagans within Paganism?
GR:  At least among my sample, there are clearly not enough appropriate and accessible groups to meet the needs of the current Pagan population. This is indicated by how many people identified the lack of a group to join as a barrier, the importance that they gave to this as an obstacle and, especially, the percentage of solitaries who indicate that this is a significant hindrance to their practice. Most Pagan groups operate on a home church model, which means they are never going to get particularly large and someone looking for a group often requires an invitation. There are many challenges with this model, and it’s clear that in terms of sheer numbers, there are Pagans who want to belong to groups that cannot find an appropriate and accessible one.

TWH:  What else will you be covering in the next article?
GR:  The other thing I’m currently analyzing and am concerned about is the long-term viability of the volunteer leader/clergy model that is currently the norm within Paganism. There are a host of serious challenges related to the fact that leaders and clergy, with only a small handful of exceptions, must rely on income from another source.

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Reece’s new article is titled “Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism” and it is uses the same data set. She plans to submit it to The Pomegranate by the end of March, where it will be reviewed for publication.

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SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – On the morning Feb. 10, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court heard arguments in the case of Dennis Walker v. Matthew Cates. Walker is an inmate at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. His claim, which was originally filed in 2011, is that prison administrators violated his religious rights by forcing him to have a “non-Aryan” cellmate.

As noted in the case text from a 2011 court document, Walker “is an Aryan Christian/Odinist, ethnically white without gang affiliation.” In 2008, he was assigned a “non-Aryan Muslim” cellmate. When he resisted, Walker was disciplined. After further complaints in 2009, the administration reclassified him to be celled with only his own race. But that action was later “rescinded” per the 2008 California Integrated House Program, which prohibits segregation.

As a result, Walker, together with prisoner Robert Glover, filed a complaint against the state. The court asked the men to file their complaints separately. They did, and in July 2011, Glover’s case was dismissed. However, according to one source, it is still hung up in the system somewhere. However, Walker continued on with new arguments being heard yesterday in a motion from the defendants to dismiss the case.

According to Walker’s assigned attorney Elliot Wong, he claims that he was “denied the setting under which he performs a quintessential religious exercise, namely a solitary religious ritual, in which he prays to his gods, and subsequently being punished for refusing to yield to his religious beliefs. The religious ritual in this case is referred to as a spiritual circle of Odinist Warding, which is a ritual in which he prays to his gods and communicates with his gods. According to his sincerely held religious beliefs, he draws and activates this circle within his cell and he believes that this circle may be open or breached, by what he believes is spiritual pollution that emanates from individuals of another race.”

Almost immediately, the judges move to the heart of the issue. Is Walker’s request to be celled with only white inmates based on a “sincerely held religious belief” or simply based on racism? As the judge notes, the original filings did not include any mention of this ritual or other specific religious requirements. Wong did admit that these details were left out, but could be included in a new amendment.

The original filing states in part:

the application of the IHP violates plaintiff’s right to the free exercise of his religion protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment, his Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process, and his Fifth Amendment right to due process. (FAC at 5-6).Plaintiff seeks damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

As the attending judges note, there was no mention of the ritual. In these original documents, Walker did not address, in concrete terms, the “substantial burden” placed on his free exercise of religion by the presence of “alien spiritual pollution,” as noted in yesterday’s hearing.

After some discussion, Judge Sidney Thomas said, “I gather from the answers to the questions that [Walker] is not willing to amend his complaint to say that he can perform the ritual outside his cell and perform be housed with a non-white inmate.” Wong answered, “I believe that would be correct.”

Rev. Patrick McCollum, who has worked closely with the California prison system for years, said, “In this case, the inmate can still practice his religion in a number of venues besides his cell even if he had an inmate of color in his cell, so his religious rights are not being violated, at least not under the spirit of the law. Also, there is a long history of non-white participation in Nordic religions which has a been around for over a thousand years, and there are Odinist groups in a number of prisons that already welcome people of color, so the racial argument is shaky to begin with. That is not to say that the inmate’s beliefs are not sincere, it’s just that they don’t meet the standard required by law.”

Judge Thomas said, “We are not going to segregate our prisons.” However, this was only a hearing; no final decision was made and no further dates given.

While the specifics of the Walker v. Cates case are focused on race, the situation goes to the heart of a very recent dialog on the boundaries of religious freedom within a defined social structure. It is struggle that is currently plaguing courts and lawmakers. At what point does society substantially burden religious freedom? And, at what point does religious freedom substantially burden society?

In Georgia, Rep. Sam Teasley just proposed to a new RFRA to protect the “rights of people of faith.” In opposition to this bill, a county commissioner  was quoted as saying, “If, for example, a Wiccan believes their religion does not allow them to render any payment to any entity but God, do they have to pay their taxes?” While the tax comment is outlandish, there are many related issues, such as the recent debate over the allowing inmates to have facial hair, when required by their religion.

In terms of Walker v. Cates case, Ryan Smith, co-Founder of Heathens United Against Racism, noted, “The real key point made in this case by the defendant is that the plaintiff has to show these desires are motivated by genuine religious belief and not some other motive.” The plaintiff does have the burden of proof. As noted by the judges in the hearing, Walker has not provided any such proof. In addition, as detailed in the 2011 case text, “[Walker] failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing the instant action recommdations [sic] noted.” In other words, if his concerns were purely based on the practice of religious rites, he had other options.”

McCollum explained, “In current practice in correctional facilities, only a small amount of time is allocated to religious practices for all faiths. This is based on past court rulings that religion must be accommodated by the least restrictive means, while at the same time balancing the manageable operation of the institution. If the Odinist is given a short period of worship time of equal duration to that of other faiths that would be meeting the standard set by law and not violating his rights.”

But Smith doesn’t believe that Walker’s claims are religious at all. He said,”[It is] definitely something but it isn’t religion from where I sit and its history is not religious in nature. I don’t think this case being dismissed would be a problem for the vast majority of Pagan inmates as what the plaintiff is asking for here is not justified by religion but by bigotry and based on what I understand of the issue is seeking an exemption that has never been applied in a religious context.”

McCollum added that he doesn’t believe that the Odinist can win this case. He said, “If the court were to rule in the inmate’s favor to segregate him from other races or faiths for religious reasons, they would also have to segregate the Jews, some Christian traditions, and a number of other faith groups under the same arguments, as many teach in their doctrines or practices, separation by faith or ethnicity also.”

As Judge Thomas said, “We can’t do that.”

Conversations are on-going; for this particular situation and others. Politicians and individuals are continually challenging the boundaries of our rights to practice religion or not. At the same time, the courts wrestle with the test used to determine a “sincerely held” religious belief and how it should be upheld, ignored or negotiated within the established laws and regulations of society.

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NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS –Climbing trees. Gregorian chants. Black velvet clothes. These are elements of author and priestess Vivianne Crowley’s personal spiritual journey, as told to a room packed with attendees at A Feast of Lights on Jan. 31. Weaving her own experiences and those she has observed together with cards from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, she posited a pattern of spiritual development that many modern Pagans and polytheists might find familiar.

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

“I was the only child of older parents,” she explained. “We had no electricity at first, no radio or television, so I played for hours on my own each day.” Much of that play was out in the woods, and early her conception of “people” included trees and animals as well as her parents. It was through the trees, she said, that she found Paganism, although it would be many years before she connected her beliefs with that word.

One tree in particular got the young Crowley’s attention in quite a literal way. “I like climbing trees,” she said, in particular, “one that was split by lightning, but still growing.” Her foot could fit in the cleft created by that lightning bolt, but a shift in the wind would close the opening and hold her fast. Rather than panicking, it was an opportunity for her to learn patience and trust. She “let the tree decide” when to free her foot, leaving her to spend considerable time with it. Eventually, she recalled, “I let my consciousness merge with the tree, so that I felt my blood was green, and we communed without shared language.”

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

Those, together with many other experiences had before she was old enough for school, were formative in creating her own path toward Wicca, and she believes that is not unusual. “Childhood experiences are often the beginning of learning to connect the self and other,” she said. Her own experiences, which included spontaneous lucid dreaming and psychic images from her mother asking her what she wanted for lunch, molded her worldview before she had language to articulate it. That caused a bit of conflict when school began. At that time in England, the curriculum included “religious studies which were really Christian studies, and included frightening stories about a god who killed people.”

“Our reality and what we’re told don’t quite match,” she said of herself and other people who started on a Pagan-like path in their youth. “Animals don’t have souls? I didn’t believe that. Animal as deity made more sense to me. I saw The Ten Commandments, and cheered for the golden calf.” In addition to an awareness of nature spirits and a then-radical alternative concept of deity, Crowley said that by the time she was eight years old, she could get out of playing sports by making it rain. This is something she attributes to the altered state of consciousness that she learned communing with that tree. Her classmates were already calling her a “witch.”

Around that time, Crowley was baptized a Roman Catholic, which excused her from “religious studies” because they were considered a violation of the tenets of Catholic doctrine. Instead, Crowley was exposed to Latin mass at a local monastery, complete with Gregorian chants. As a result, “for the first time I got a sense of that other state [of consciousness] while in a building.” She continued to identify as a witch as well as a Catholic, and by the time she was eleven she had formed a coven, which lasted only “until the headmistress found out.”

It wasn’t until she was 14 years old, and the 1960s were unfolding, that Crowley learned a name for what she was feeling. “I saw witches on TV, and they called themselves Wiccans — it was a revelation to me!” Soon thereafter her family moved to London and, after a number of false starts, she was able to discover and be initiated by a coven.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

“I wore a lot of black velvet clothes, and was attracted to stepping out of the ordinary,” she said. This entire portion of her journey she likened to the Fool card, which usually depicts the titular character setting off alone. “Something protects us at this point. I couldn’t find Wiccans at first, so I tried Buddhists, and mediums, and avoided some pitfalls” before finally meeting “kind witches.” She was clear that she wasn’t claiming that the young are always safe from harm on this quest, only that mistakes borne of that ignorance seem to be softened or minimized to some extent.

While the seeker is under the mantle of the Fool, Crowley likened the spiritual awakening to the Star. Talent in esoteric disciplines blossoms. Interests in incense, tarot, astrology, healing, herbalism, crystals, and a variety of such activities and paraphernalia are sparked by the emerging sensitivity a newcomer to the Pagan path experience.

“The first spells we try often succeed,” she said. As mastery of these ideas and powers grows, an initiate enters into the spiritual adolescence. Crowley compares this to the Sun and Magician cards, something she jokingly called “second-degree-itis” in her own Wiccan path. It’s a period characterized by “youthful arrogance and enthusiasm,” she said. And, it is often a time when one begins to attract students. “The first time you are asked for initiation, it is humbling,” she said, “and ego-inflating.”

Power is illusion, however, and in time the Sun card is replaced by the Moon, the Magician with the Devil. This is a stage many might find familiar, with relationships going wrong and a desire to “own” one’s group often gaining strength. “We realize that there’s no perfect people,” she said, and “we can be angry that our leaders are not perfect.” For small-group traditions, such as Wicca and other practices that fall under the shadow of the Pagan umbrella, she frames the problem in alchemical terms, saying that the challenge is to “accept the lead as well as the gold. People fall out because of relationships, not the path.”

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

In the following stage, Crowley said the Devil and Death come to the forefront as best representatives of the experience. “Which tradition is best?” she asked. Some people decide that their own traditions are the one true way, even looking down on other choices or dismissing them “rather than realizing that the path is for the person, just one part of the jigsaw puzzle, not the be-all.” She continued, saying “Some people just drop out” when faced with these obstacles. And if interpersonal challenges aren’t enough, “Sometimes there comes a time when the gods do not speak.”

That is the time of the Hanged Man and the Wheel of Fortune, which Crowley said is characterized by uncertainty and often when “change falls out of one’s pockets.” New ideas don’t fit preconceived notions, leading one’s world to be turned upside-down. “It forces difficult questions,” she said. It is a critical juncture when those, who have long been on a particular path, decide it’s the wrong one.

However, it may be too soon to make that judgment call. Eventually one may “reach a point of understanding,” a point represented by the Hermit and High Priestess, strength and mystery. “You can have your own gods,” Crowley explained, and they are not threatened nor blocked by the gods of others.

When looking back, Crowley said, a person should be able to recognize that they are not the same person who began journey. It is important, she said, to “send our younger selves love and care, and messages of encouragement,” in order to complete the more difficult parts of that journey as “our future selves guide us.”

She explained that such guidance can help one negotiate what to do if one’s student surpass the teacher. This can happen if one’s role is that of a point of strength, rather than a leading light. Such points are more replenishing than ritual in some cases.

“The point of the journey is to bring things back,” she said in closing. “We must give to move things forward, and we all have something to teach.” In that way, the partial knowledge still held about Paganisms of old can, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes in a new form, one that is relevant and vital for the spiritual, environmental, and political challenges of today.

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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!

10690138_780594125329471_257600577171379898_n-334x500According to the Londonderry Sentinel, “the Limavady Borough Council is considering” replacing the missing Manannan statue with one that “would be made of mild steel and would stand two-to-three times as tall as the original.” The paper reports that Development Services Officer Valerie Richmond reported, “In all probability, despite extensive searches it is unlikely that the sculpture will be returned. Council’s views are sought on how they would wish to progress.”

Speaking to the Derry Journal, councilman Gerry Mullin said that he would ” ‘absolutely’ be supporting a proposal to replace the iconic statue of Manannán Mac Lir.” But he added that he doesn’t believe it needs to be 2-3x the size. The issue will be discussed tomorrow at a Feb.10 Council Meeting.

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Solar Cross Temple

The Solar Cross Temple, based in California, has announced that it no longer is seeking to create an urban temple space. As the Board explained, the economic downturn “dried up” the fundraising efforts for several years. As a result, the Board put the entire project on hold. After several of years of waiting and watching, they have concluded that the community “doesn’t really want to support a physical structure.”

However, as written in the announcement, “[Their] work continues, and temple members study and honor the Gods in their own homes, and gather together monthly in backyards and rented spaces.” Any money raised in previous years will either be returned to the original donors, if requested, or will be given to the New Alexandrian Library and used for special Solar Cross projects.

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Druid College UKOn Feb. 6, the Druid College, originally founded in New York, announced the opening of its UK branch. The new location will be led by Joanna van der Hoeven and Robin Herne. Together with its sister site in Maine (U.S.) the Druid College will host a “three-year, intensive study” for those interested in taking their spiritual studies further.

In a press release, organizers said, “We saw a need for a programme for people who desire to go deeper, for those who wish to be in service, to fill the role of priest for their community and the land they dwell in.” The college accepts people of “all walks and intent” into their first year studies program. The Druid College is not accredited and offers no degree program.

In Other News

  • Green Egg has announced that it is now under new management and will no longer be publishing in a print format. In a recent press release, new editor Hollis Taylor and
    Ariel Monserrat said, “Hollis plans to modernize Green Egg bringing the magazine into the new millenium. Green Egg will not be publishing printed issues, as in the past, but will have a large team of volunteer writers who will be contributing to carrying on the legacy of Green Egg.” Once up and running, they hope to publish an article every day.
  • Documentary filmmaker Sam Carroll has produced a 66 minute film that tells Wiccan Priestess Darla Wynne‘s story. The film, titled Bedevil: Never Back Down, details the horrific challenges that Wynne faced after moving from Alaska to a small town in South Carolina, and how she eventually overcame her fear and stood up to the city council. Bedevil is entered in the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and will be screened on Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 9 p.m.

  • Shekhinah Mountainwater’s popular book, Ariadne’s Thread: A Workbook of Goddess Magic, is now available in digital format for the Kindle. This release is part of a larger project to capture and share “Shekhinah’s wonderful legacy … music, writings, creations of any kind.” The organizers of this project are asking anyone who might have such things to contact them at shekhinahmemories@gmail.com.
  • The Pagan Educational Network has published the Feb 2015 edition of its newsletter “Water.” In its pages, PEN makes a call for books to assist in its Prison chaplaincy work. While the organization welcomes any book donations, it is specifically looking for copies of Raymond Buckland’s The Complete Book of Witchcraft and Christopher Penzack’s The Sons of the Goddess.
  • Patheos has started a new blog series focusing on art and religion. Christine Hoff Kraemer, Pagan Channel editor, explained further, “In this interfaith series, writers explore how visual art may persuade, proselytize, or reveals truth. Pagan contributors include visionary painter Paul B. Rucker, Zen Pagan Tom Swiss, and mixed media artist Aaminah Shakur.”
  • PantheaCon, the largest such conference in the U.S., begins this Friday, Feb. 13 and runs through Monday, Feb. 16 in San Jose, California.

That is it for now. Have a nice day.

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In 2014, artist and pop surrealist Dina Goldstein finished her third large-scale project called “Gods of Suburbia.” The series is comprised of 11 photographs that depict gods, goddesses, prophets and other figures of religious import within a thoroughly unexpected composition. Each photograph challenges the dominant visual and narrative concept of deity by tearing down religious stagecraft and putting up something completely mundane. In other words, Goldstein takes these sacred or celebrated figures and drops them into the framework of contemporary Western society.

Dina Goldstein [Photo Credit: Robert Kenny, 2011, CC. lic. via Wikimedia]

Dina Goldstein [Photo Credit: Robert Kenny, 2011, CC. lic. via Wikimedia]

“‘Gods of Suburbia’ is a visual analysis of religious faith within the context of modern forces of technology, science and secularism. The series plays with narrative and religious iconography in order to communicate how organized belief has become twisted within a global framework driven by consumerism and greed. The project challenges the viewer – religious or secular – to embark on a journey of self-reflection as they contemplate the relevance of dogmata in modernity.” – Dina Goldstein, Gods of Suburbia

Goldstein’s concept, as illustrated in a “making of” video, is not to mock religion, but rather to illustrate its precarious place within modern society. For example, in “Ganesha,” Goldstein presents the Hindu God sitting alone on a bench in an elementary school play yard. He is being bullied by two young boys, while other children play in the background. Using Ganesh as a bullied minor is particularly poignant due to his marked physical difference and his role as a representative of a minority culture and religion. In this piece, the Hindu God symbolically embodies the outcast child.

While religious figures have been subjects for the arts since before antiquity, not everyone is comfortable with visual representations of the divine. For many, there are limits and rules. Some are personal and some are created by religious law.

Within his own personal practice, Hermeticist Jonathan Korman demonstrates this difference. He said, “In the context of modern Pagan culture: I am an enthusiast for visual representations of the gods as a matter both of magickal technique and of cultural taste, and on my altar I keep a cast marble statue of Hermes to honor him as my personal patron deity. On the other hand, being an ethnically Jewish modern Pagan, I honor the god of the Torah יהוה as my personal tribal deity, so my altar also has an empty space for that god, whom I honor by not speaking the name or making any visual representation.”

The issue becomes more complex when the depiction of a deity is presented outside of what might be considered a “proper” proscenium of culture, reverence and religiosity. This brings us back to Goldstein’s work. The Israeli-born, Jewish artist has created images of gods that are not of her own belief, and that lack expected, reverent iconography and religious narratives. The photographs are purely cultural commentary and not meant for worship purposes.

Ryan Smith, co-founder of HUAR, uses visual representation of the gods within his own Heathen practice and also enjoys such expressions outside of a religious framework. But he said, [Non-religious] uses should also show respect to the cultures they came from … I only take issue if it’s being used to reinforce negative stereotypes held regarding marginalized groups. Punching up is always good, punching down not so much.”

Not surprisingly, Goldstein has been criticized for “punching down.” In a press release, Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism expressed concern that Goldstein’s work “trivializ[ed] the highly revered deities of Hinduism, Ganesh and Lakshmi … Artists should be more sensitive while handling faith related subjects.”

After looking at Goldstein’s “Voodoo Queen” composition, Patheos writer Lilith Dorsey is only left with questions. She said, “The accompanying website says the images are supposed to inspire ‘self-reflection,’ it’s a little naive to think this isn’t part of most devoted people’s daily practice. The image itself leaves me reflecting instead on Goldstein herself, why did she choose to represent my religion with what looks like phantom ghost children and are those chicken feet on the ceiling? It’s a stunning image visually, but I’m not sure exactly why she felt moved to take it in that direction.”

Additionally, due to current global politics, Goldstein herself is unsure how or whether to include “Muhammad the Prophet” in the upcoming March show. In a January interview, she said, “I figured out a way to [depict Muhammed] in a way that adhered to their laws.” As she notes, his face is not shown, and he has a supernatural glow.

But Goldstein knows her art is provocative. She told the Vancouver paper, “Of course, people are going to get insulted, but that’s what happens when you start discussing religion because no matter what you say about it, it’s an extension of magical thinking.”

Pagan artist Valerie Herron enjoys Goldstein’s work, adding “Religion is supposed to evolve with social change, and I think this is one of [her] assertions with this series. It’s nothing very avant garde, putting ancient deities in the context of modern life is a concept well familiar to contemporary Polytheists. In addition, good art is supposed to create dialogue through pathos, catharsis or humor. While I can see the potential for some folks of the faiths represented in Goldstein’s series to decry a flippant representation of their deity/deities, I think [her] work has always been about starting uncomfortable conversations through visual juxtaposition.”

Like Goldstein, Herron also depicts the divine in her art. However, in her case, the imagery is within or close to her own belief structure, and often used as devotional images. She said, “At this point, I find it impossible to keep my creative practice and my spiritual practice separate.” In describing the process of visually capturing a deity, Herron said, “As soon as I begin to envision the specific visage of a god, I begin a conversation with them. I don’t really know how else to explain it, especially since I don’t consider myself a hard theist, but the God’s input becomes crucial to the piece.”

Valerie Herron's Isis [Reprinted with permission]

Valerie Herron’s Isis [Reprinted with permission]

From inception to presentation, “Gods in Suburbia” does not have the same inspiration, purpose or goal as Herron’s work. Despite that difference, Goldstein’s photographs do evoke strong reactions. Rather than spiritual reverence, these responses are, as Goldstein suggests, meant to “inspire insight into the human condition.”

In this exploration of the human condition, she did not omit Paganism. The photograph titled “Horned God and Moon Goddess” depicts a nude, pregnant woman atop a white horse and a horned male figure resting within a stereotypical suburban backyard. The accompanying text reads, in part, “Wicca is a modern witchcraft religion that draws upon a diverse set of ancient pagan motifs and ritual practice … [Wicca] is something we associate with people who are on the fringe of society, which is why my Wiccan god and goddess are living outside the mainstream, along the periphery of Suburbia.”

All interpretive meaning is subjective, and the narrative understanding of this particular image can evoke other ideas. For example, the photo recalls the reality of religious ritual practice in home environments or notes society’s need to control natural space. It also suggests that Witchcraft, “associated with people who are on the fringe,” does exist in what is largely considered normative cultural space.

These readings correspond to Goldstein’s assertion that the series explores religion’s existence in contemporary society – one that has become increasingly secular, increasingly separate from the natural world, increasingly consumer-focused and increasingly distance from a depth of meaning. In a number of her photographs the religious figures appear lost, forlorn, overwhelmed, disillusioned and simply out of place. The prophet Muhammad, for example, is ignored by a classroom of children absorbed in social media and texting.

In the photographs titled “Buddha” and “Elohim,” Goldstein tackles the uncomfortable intersection of commercialism and religion. “Buddha” is ignored as blindfolded shoppers purchase overpriced groceries in a Whole Foods market. In “Elohim,” a forlorn “God” sits with a Santa suit in the background. As she notes, he’s forced to “take odd jobs to survive.” Both photographs depict the sacrifice of meaning to the glory of consumerism.

As an extension of that concept, these two photographs, along with others, indirectly suggest concerns raised by the commercialized depictions of the divine, such as in movies, television shows or comic books. Writer Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology Blog said, “I’m old enough to be able to tell the difference between entertainment and religion. Marvel’s Thor has built up its own internal mythology over more than half of a century … I think that’s great, just as I think Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythos is fantastic. It doesn’t mean that I blót to Frodo of the Nine Fingers.”

Korman agreed saying that he’s “not above” enjoying representations of divinity outside of religious practice. He added, “Nathan Fillion’s Hermes in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters may not be much like my Hermes, but it still tickles me, and if it helps get a few kids saying his name, that suits me just fine.”

Dorsey, expressed some reservations, saying “My fellow Vodou practitioners and myself were quite upset at a commercial clothing chain using a veve as a window display to gain sales and most certainly attention. The American Horror Story television depiction of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau left a bad taste in my everything, but I still have high hopes for the Marie Laveau comic book character. This is because girls today so strongly need a positive female superhero with kickass pagan powers, not that she has been written that positively yet, but I can dream.”

Although humanity has a long history of visually depicting gods and other sacred figures for many purposes, there clearly are limits of tolerance, some personal and others created by culture and religious law.

As for Goldstein, her “Gods in Suburbia” series is certainly provocative and pushes hard on many of those boundaries. The use of photography alone mirrors her message. As a relatively newer technological art form, the camera symbolizes modernity’s own pressure on religious practice, and demonstrates the hyper reality of our over-dependence on images. It turns this modern visual technology, and by association the observer, into a voyeur, who violates the privacy of the spiritual world – a world that isn’t necessarily comfortable existing in that way, in being viewed.

Whether you like her work or whether you’re offended by it, Goldstein ultimately leaves you with many questions about religion’s fit within contemporary society.

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