Eric O. Scott —  July 11, 2014 — 8 Comments
Oxararfoss, Thingvellir, Iceland. Photo by the author.

Oxarafoss, Thingvellir, Iceland. Photo by the author.

The waterfall, I was told, was called Oxararfoss.

It was not the largest waterfall I saw while I was in Iceland; that was Skogafoss, down in the south of the country, where I walked along the rocky beach below the cliffs until I came to the edge of the falls and let myself be drenched in the spray. Nor was it the waterfall I got to experience most intimately – that was Seljalandsfoss, where I walked up a flight of sturdy iron steps that leading behind the waterfall and found that on the other side, the trail’s improvements ended and all that awaited me were a series of sharp, water-slick rocks that had been worn away by the weight of other human feet.

By comparison, Oxararfoss felt small and domesticated. As, I suppose, it was: Oxararfoss had been sculpted by human hands during the settling of Iceland. The settlers diverted the river Oxara sometime in the 10th century and sent it tumbling over the continental ridge that forms the edge of Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament was established around the year 930. The resulting river traces a path through Thingvellir before emptying in Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland.

I didn’t know any of that at the time – a woman from Ásatrúarfelagið, whose midsummer blót I had come to see, told me of the waterfall’s history after I descended the trail back to the clearing where Ásatrúarfelagið had camped. The only thing I knew about the waterfall beforehand was that it existed: I had seen it, just for a moment, from the road leading out from Thingvellir, with only the crest of the falls appearing from behind the rocks. It seemed isolated from the rest of the valley at that distance, but in reality, a well-maintained wooden path led up a hill to the waterfall from the ground, and there was even a platform built out into the stream so visitors could get closer to the waterfall itself: another place where humans have altered the landscape to better fit our needs.

Still, fabricated, manufactured, artificial: these distinctions all disappear when one is in the presence of a waterfall.

A waterfall is nothing but water, rock, and gravity – three of the most unremarkable components of life on this planet. But their admixture entrances me like nothing else; the wonder of their constant movements, the calculation of how long and how much they have flowed, the study of the ways tiny clefts within the rock manifest later as massive columns of white water before they crash into the surface. Those things are harder to see with the massive waterfalls – they are too tall to observe easily. But as I stood before Oxararfoss, I could look for the details, could contemplate them, could empty myself of myself in their presence.

I stood there for ten or fifteen minutes, perhaps. Not much more than that. I was expecting my ride back to Reykjavik to arrive, and didn’t want to be lost up in the hills when he came, so I turned back. (He didn’t arrive for another two hours, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Rain fell in a lazy drizzle as I walked upon the wooden platforms leading back down to the campsite. Although I had been in Iceland for almost two weeks, cold rain in June still felt like a novelty; I closed my eyes and moved on with a smile. Oxararfoss still roared behind me.

Out of the wordless joy inside my mind, a thought surfaced: It will be wonderful to walk this trail again someday.

Then I stopped walking and opened my eyes, saw again the black and barren rocks of the continental divide and the wide gray sky. I saw the wet planks of the trail ahead of me, where I had been walking.

My grandfather had gone into the hospital just a few days before I left for my trip – he stepped on a nail and then, despite his diabetes, never went to the doctor until he couldn’t bear it anymore. He thought he would be in the hospital for an afternoon – a dose of antibiotics to knock down the gangrene in his foot and then he would be back home.

They cut off his leg just above the knee.

My grandfather was a carpenter, the kind who never really retires; as recently as two years ago, he got in trouble with the City of St. Louis for leaving a two-story-tall ladder propped against the rear of his house, just in case he felt the urge to go tar the roof again. There would be no more of that.

My grandfather will never see this, I thought to myself, that moment on the trail.

This shouldn’t have been a shocking revelation – my grandfather hadn’t gone anywhere more than a couple of hours away from St. Louis in twenty years, even before the surgery – but it was. He would never see Thingvellir. Even if I showed him the photographs, or explained to him the history of Iceland, he still wouldn’t understand what made this place important to me: that I had come here on pilgrimage, searching for gods hiding among the rocks and water and gravity. This was a part of my life I have kept hidden from him, and probably always will.

I began to walk again, and soon came back to the campsite, where there were hot dogs and cans of Egil’s Pilsner waiting. I opened one of those green cans, named for the poet and warrior Egil Skallagrimsson, and walked out a ways into the fields. It was nearly ten o’clock in the evening, but then, there is no such thing as nighttime during the summer in Iceland.

I looked back to the ridge above the clearing. I could see the wooden trail leading up to Oxararfoss, but it turned a corner near the top of the hill and vanished behind the rocks; the waterfall itself was entirely hidden. I would only see it again from the car as we left Thingvellir, tumbling over the rocks and down into a valley whose bottom I could not see.

(Author’s note: This column is the first in a series of pieces about my time in Iceland. I have chosen to anglicize the Icelandic names of places, though with a heavy heart, since I just spent two months learning how to pronounce them. For reference, the Icelandic names for the geographical features are Öxarárfoss, Skógafoss, Öxará, Þingvellir, and Þingvallavatn.)

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While I now live in Minnesota, I was born and spent my early childhood in Nebraska. Most of my extended family still lives there and I visited often over the years since I moved away. Like most Nebraskans, Husker football is a strong part of my life. It’s something that ties us together, no matter how far we roam, and exemplifies the culture of the state. As a Pagan, I recognize the value in honoring the land you’re tied to and recognizing how its ethics shape you. I joke that the yearly trip to watch a game at Nebraska’s Memorial stadium is a pilgrimage to the Motherland. Except it’s not really a joke. I didn’t realize, until years later, that the culture I grew up in – that of Nebraska – was so similar to the ideals of the religion I adopted – Hellenismos.

So how does Husker football and Pagan ethics fit together?

Arete is translated as striving for excellence and it’s one of the main ethics of Hellenismos. Arete is doing the best you can and has little to nothing to do with competition against others or winning. It may happen during a contest or may result in winning, but that’s a by-product. Striving for excellence isn’t something you do in one area of your life, it’s for all areas of your life.

Inscription at Memorial Stadium, Lincoln Nebraska [photo credit Cara Schulz]

Inscription at Memorial Stadium, Lincoln Nebraska [Photo credit :C. Schulz]

Carved into two places on Memorial stadium, where the Huskers play football, is one of the best definitions of arete that I have ever found: “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.”

It’s perfect.

The quote was written by former Nebraska professor of philosophy Hartley Burr Alexander. It both describes the culture of Nebraska and continues to shape it. Every Nebraskan knows those words by heart. Especially the last bit, “In the deed the glory.”

Arete is finding the glory in the deed.

I recently read a book that is filled with men living their lives striving towards excellence. It’s called What it means to be a Husker edited by Jeff Snook, and it contains the remembrances of 50 former Nebraska Husker football players from the 1920′s and beyond. Each player has a few pages in which they talk about what playing for the Huskers was like, what it meant to them, and how it changed their lives. Yes, it’s a book about football and, no, arete is not only or even primarily about sports.

Each story, each man’s life, is a case study in arete. Not just in sports, but in life – in their ethics; in their spiritual life; with their families. How the ethics and culture of the coaches and the people of Nebraska shaped them.

The book starts with Glenn Presnell in the 1920′s and continues on with remembrances by players grouped by decades in each chapter.

You read about Kaye Carstens, named All-Big 8 in 1996, who felt overwhelmed and out-classed when he left the small town of Fairbury, Nebraska to play in Lincoln.

“Football taught me a lot of discipline and hard work and what it takes to succeed, especially with the right coaching staff. … It takes more than talent. You have to put the effort in and that carries into your your business life as you get older. You have to make things happen. It doesn’t happen if you just sit out on the doorstep and watch.” Dr. Carstens graduated with a degree in medicine and practiced family medicine in Omaha.

You also learn about striving for excellence after you hit bottom. Bob Newton was an All-American for Nebraska in 1970 and went on to play 11 seasons for the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks. After his pro-career ended he entered a treatment facility for alcoholism.

He wrote to Husker coach Osborne letting him know what happened and that he was trying to turn his life around:

Coach Osborne immediately wrote me back with words of encouragement and support. In fact, he stated that once I got on my feet, he wanted me to come back and finish my undergraduate degree and work as a graduate assistant coach. Six months later, I reenrolled at Nebraska as an undergraduate student at age 34, and two and half years later, I achieved my degree. Coach Osborne always put a high emphasis on education, and I think he was probably more proud of me going back to school at that age and achieving my degree than he was of all my football accomplishments.

Dave Rimington, who played Center for Nebraska from 1979 to 1982, writes one of the best paragraphs on arete in the book. “The wins and losses, because we played so many games, I don’t remember as well. But all that hard work toward a common goal, with those people who became like brothers to me – that is what I’ll never forget. In reality, that’s what made you work so hard – I never wanted to let down the guy next to me.”

Striving for excellence isn’t just found in the coaches and players, it’s found in the fans. Husker fans are widely regarded as some of the best fans in all of college sports.

[Photo Credit: Steve White/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Steve White/Flickr]

Opposing fans are welcomed to Nebraska and treated as guests. If you’ve been to games in other states, you know that yelling, spitting at, or ignoring fans of other teams is closer to the norm. Husker fans go out of their way to show you the sights, give you tips on where to park, eat and stay. They are as friendly after the game, win or lose, as they were before the game. Husker fans live the Greek ethic of xenia – hospitality.

Nebraskans are passionate about the Huskers. I’ve overheard a table full of elderly women eating breakfast reciting stats going back decades and debating the merits of the recruits rumored to be in the stands that game day. Husker fans don’t just know their own players and coaches, they also know the players and coaches of the opposing team. They stand and cheer for most of the game. And every single game since 1962 has been sold out. This is the longest sell-out streak in college ball, and they play in an outdoor stadium. I’ve been there for winter games, the swirling winds are brutal. They travel to out of state games and regularly turn the opposing team’s stadium red with their sheer numbers in the stands.

This level of knowledge and passion allows them to fully appreciate excellence in field play. You expect that to be directed at the home team, but they also acknowledge excellence displayed by opposing teams. One of the first games I attended as an adult was a rare home game that we lost. The stands were very quiet. Then something happened that I took as normal, but startled the celebrating opposing fans sitting right below me. Husker fans stood up and began clapping. The opposing fans asked why we were clapping and I heard the man next to them answer, “Your team played some very fine football. We’re clapping for them.”

This culture of arete, In the deed the glory, permeates into all areas of Nebraska. I won’t say the state, or it’s people, are perfect. I’m also sad to say Nebraska is changing a bit. I’ve heard booing in the stands and the culture of Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini are not the same as what Tom Osborne created. But they still strive. And that’s what counts – for football and religion.


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To remember what it was like to be young and questioning and full of excitement. I think that is one of the greatest things we can learn – Chaplain Mary Hudson, Syracuse University.

In Part 1 of “Pagans on Campus 2014,” we looked very generally at the Pagan student experience on American college campuses, as well as the role played by Pagan student associations. While opportunities for positive community building are increasing, students do not attend college to simply engage in religious seeking. Campus life revolves around scholarly pursuits, most of which are very demanding on a student’s time.Today we look at how students balance or integrate their spiritual work into their busy academic careers, and where they find guidance and resources.

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

Do you feel your chosen spiritual path is an integral part of your academic studies, or is it entirely separate?

The answer to this question varies greatly and is dependent, in part, on a student’s course of study. For example, Caity Wallace, a math major at Drexel University says, “I don’t find [that my major] integrates well with my religious life. That combined with my fear of losing respect for my faith (or having faith – STEM fields tend to favor Atheism in my experience) means I take care to keep those parts of my life distinct.”

On the other hand, Angela Riveiro, a Horticulture major at the University of Georgia (UGA), says, “While I did not intend it, my … major does fit into my focus on Nature. Learning to be a steward of the land and how to grow plants fits nicely with my spiritual beliefs.”

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Similarly, fellow UGA student Sarah Morgan sees a definite connection between her education and her Pagan practice. Morgan says, “Psychology is really making strides in the more holistic ways of healing. We are learning a lot about meditation, visualization and… their benefits to mental health.”

Several of the interviewed students acknowledged only “tangential” connections between their spiritual beliefs and their studies. Jackson Elfin, for example, is a creative writing major at Ball State University (BSU). He notes that his Heathen practice is “handy for providing subject matter,” and that he often “prays to Bragi, Lord of the Poets” while writing.

Rachel Tyburski, president of Penn State’s Silver Circle, says, ” I do not try to keep my studies and faith separate, though they often seem to be … I let faith and school fall in place where they decide.”

Finally, for some students the boundaries between religious life and academics don’t exist exist at all. Jessica Dinsmore, a biochemistry and molecular biology major at UGA, says, “I’ve never seen my religion and my studies as two separate entities, because both are an important part of who I am.”

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson, a double major in Religion and Anthropology at BSU agrees, saying, “Religion is one of my passions.During class, I study religion as a cultural phenomenon; privately I explore religion in a more spiritual sense. It fascinates me from each angle.”

Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, a graduate student at Nazareth College says:

I would say faith is incorporated into every way you walk. I may not directly relate each piece of paper I write on or each lecture I sit through as word from the gods. However, I believe that the Asatru path … is one where you are meant to be the best you can in everything you do and honor the ancestors that have fallen before you by continuing the tradition of determination and strength. That is how I carry my faith and that is how I honor my gods and ancestors.

When you do find time to practice or study your religion, what is your focus? To whom or what do you turn?

Dr. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a Polytheist, blogger and adjunct history instructor, acts as adviser to the Pagan Student Union at Skagit Valley College, Whidby Island Campus. Lupus observes:

Given the demands of college life, and of community colleges in particular … there is often neither as much time nor opportunity to engage in some of what [students] would like to with Paganism as they might wish. As a result, this creates an intensification of some experiences when they can happen … [It] causes the occasions to be “more special” because of their much-appreciated rarity.

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

All of the interviewed students did admit to either having limited time to practice or limited access to resources. Suretha Thacker, a Wiccan practitioner at Georgia Gwinnett College, says, “I have an altar and make an effort to celebrate Sabbats. I would like to be more involved, but I don’t have the time yet.” Dinsmore, who is exploring Shamanism, admitted that she often askes “ancestral spirits for guidance and teachings” because she doesn’t have access to relevant books, and has “yet to find a Shaman on a similar path.”

Despite any imposed limitations, most students are, in fact, engaging in some form of religious work. Wallace says, “I’m almost always studying my path. That’s one of my hobbies, … I get most of my teachings from books, the Internet and podcasts. I just downloaded 30 episodes of Selena Fox’ Circle Cast.”

In many cases, the campus-based Pagan student organizations are able to assist with resources and spiritual education. For example, UGA’s Pagan Student Association (PSA) holds weekly workshops that explore different Pagan paths and practices. In the past, subjects have included herbs, crystals, energy healing, shielding, Magick 101 and holiday lore. PSA has also invited practitioners from other religions to promote interfaith education and tolerance.

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

In doing this work, a Pagan student organization becomes more than a community center. It can be an informal coven or religious study group. Like UGA, the Rutgers University Pagan Student Association (RUPSA) holds a variety of events to enhance Pagan student practice. Recent graduate Paul Blessing found his path, Omnimancy, through an RUPSA forum event. Blessing is now an active practitioner and attends weekly meetings with a local Omnimancy group in New Jersey.

While Blessing eventually found and chose a structured Pagan tradition, most of the students said that they were more or less self-taught. Elfin, a practicing Heathen, finds his best resources online, saying “[On the Internet] there are people with similar faiths that I can learn a bit from, pick up tips or ideas for liturgy.”

Due to its near universal availability, the Internet is filling gaps when local resources and connectivity are lacking, or when free time is scarce. Students can download podcasts, read blogs or communicate over social media at any time and across space. Heather Sky Cybele, a Purdue University graduate, believes the Internet is “the biggest asset” for young Pagan students today.

What role does the Internet play in your religious education and spiritual growth?

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Without a doubt, Facebook is the single biggest player in helping young Pagans stay up-to-date and connected to other students and friends. Morgan says, “Social media … keeps me informed about upcoming meetings, lets me meet new people and also allows me to learn a lot more than I ever could have on my own.”

Outside of Facebook, the most common sites used were Tumblr, Twitter, Yahoo Groups, Meetup.com and YouTube. Blessing says that YouTube “provided a tone of informative videos on practically every topic under the sun.”  Wallace called Meetup.com a “low-investment way to meet local Pagans” when she was visiting Maryland.

Students also look to religion-specific sites for information and connectivity. Vigjaldrsdottir visits Slavorum.com in order to stay in touch with “some of the Slavic faith individuals so that [she] can compare traditions and see the evolution of [her] own.” Similarly, Sky Cybele uses the popular Pagan information site, Witchvox.com, to connect with Pagans around the country, specifically when traveling.

What about traditional media resources? All of the students said that they do not read print magazines, for enrichment or entertainment. Wallace explains, “The cost coupled with the frequency of moving makes reading them difficult.”

Heather Sky Cybele [Photo Credit: H. Sky Cybele]

Heather Sky Cybele [Photo Credit: H. Sky Cybele]

In place of print magazines, young Pagans are turning to blogs and other digital publications for their Pagan or religious reading material. Sky Cybele regularly reads the blogs on the Pagan Channel at Patheos. Elfin says that he also enjoys reading blogs like Raise the Horns, but he doesn’t have as much time as he would like.

Riveira currently follows over 10 different Pagan blogs and websites, adding, “It was through various websites that I found my local groups and information … Young people can learn about their chosen paths without having to put themselves at risk or at a disadvantage of those around them.”

What disadvange? Is it one of age or experience? Do young Pagans feel lost in the greater community or ignored by older generations? In the third and final part of this series, we will examine the relationship between elders and this younger generation. We will also look forward into tomorrow to see how they envision the future.

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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. My 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!

ll prep at NAL.The New Alexandrian Library, a project of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel which hopes to create an institution that will become “one of the cornerstones of a new magickal renaissance,” has launched a new crowdfunding venture to help pay for the final phase of construction. Quote: We are building a library focused on the mystical and esoteric teachings of all religions with an emphasis on Paganism in all its forms. We are also collecting artifacts, art, ritual objects, etc. for the museum component of the New Alexandrian Library. The first building is in progress and we need your help to finish construction [...] We already have several important collections of books in storage including the entire library from the Theosophical Society of Washington, DC. Judy Harrow, of blessed memory, just left us her library as well.” It’s been a long journey, but this ambitious project is finally reaching the finish line on their first structure. You can read all of our coverage of NAL, here.

Morning Glory Zell

Morning Glory Zell

The special commemorative edition of Green Egg Magazine dedicated to the life and work of Morning Glory Zell, a Pagan elder and teacher who passed away this past May, is now available. Quote: “Contained herein is the official Green Egg Morning Glory Memorial issue. We are departing from our usual format in order to include all of the photographs, memories, biographies and videos that people have sent to us from all over the world to honor Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart. It was put together with much blood, sweat, and tears and was the most difficult issue we’ve ever done. Morning Glory was our good friend and she considered my husband Tom to be her best friend. We cried and mourned her passing a lot as we wrote our articles, poured through photos of her and had too many memories of her stirred up to write about here; indeed if we had included all of our memories, we would still be writing and would have run into literally hundreds of pages.” A free PDF version is also available, here.  Contributors include LaSara Firefox Allen, Selena Fox, Oberon Zell, and many more.

Ronald Hutton

Ronald Hutton

Ethan Doyle White continues his interview series at Albion Calling with Professor Ronald Hutton, author of “Pagan Britain,” “The Triumph of the Moon,” and other works.  Here’s Professor Hutton speaking about his future plans: “I have a big one on the go at present, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, of a comprehensive study of the concept of the witch, in a global, ancient and folkloric setting, to understand more fully the context of the early modern witch trials. This is of course inspired by the work of Continental historians and folklorists such as Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Wolfgang Behringer and Gustav Henningsen, and as such is an approach which has been much less favoured by English-speaking counterparts. It will, however, inevitably have some differences from the work of these Continental colleagues, in making a more comprehensive survey of the evidence, emphasising regional differences much more heavily, and relying less on modern folklore collections to plug gaps in earlier evidence. I have six people on my team, the others consisting of a distinguished Classicist, Dr Genevieve Liveley, a medievalist, Dr Louise Wilson, and three research students, working respectively on Italy, male witches and the animal familiar. Together we should produce three books, mine being the largest and the broadest in its scope, and three doctoral theses with resulting spin-off publications, in three to four years.” 

Covenant of the Goddess

Covenant of the Goddess

Covenant of the Goddess (COG) national interfaith representatives Don Frew and Rachael Watcher have been posting updates from the United Religions Initiative’s 2014 Global Council and the subsequent Global Indigenous Initiative. Quote: “We talked about how sacred items are treated as ‘art’. His people were part of the Nok civilization, which produced amazing terra cotta figures. Elisha said that when sacred images are recovered by the Nigerian government from foreign museums, they go into museums in Nigeria when they should go back to the people they came from, to take their proper, traditional place in religious ceremonies and sacred sites. Why does plundering a sacred site suddenly turn sacred images into ‘art’? We talked about how the same ideas I mentioned above could be applied to create collaboration between national museums and local stewards of sacred artifacts.” There’s a lot more at the link, including a line-up of who’s attending the indigenous initiative. Fascinating accounts from boots-on-the-ground interfaith work.

In Other Pagan Community News: 

An album released by Lux Eterna Records.

An album released by Lux Eterna Records.


That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Last week, two individuals charged with firearm and drug trafficking charges had their convictions overturned on appeal thanks to authorities using their devotion to the Mexican folk-saint Santa Muerte to “taint” proceedings. In the decision handed down by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court blasted using the expert testimony of U.S. Marshall Robert Almonte, who government prosecutors described as a “cultural iconography hobbyist.”

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

“Missing from the district court’s discussion of Almonte’s qualifications is any discussion of how his Santa Muerte testimony could legitimately connect Medina’s prayer to drug trafficking. There is no evidence that Santa Muerte iconography is ‘associational,’ nor was there any allegation that the ‘main purpose’ of Santa Muerte veneration ‘was to traffic in’ narcotics. Cf. id. at 1562, 1563. Almonte testified that there may be ‘millions’ of followers of Santa Muerte, but he proffered no manner of distinguishing individuals who pray to Santa Muerte for illicit purposes from everyone else. His data comes from his work as a narcotics detective and his compilation of ‘several cases from law enforcement officers throughout the United States where these items have been involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activity.’ Mere observation that a correlation exists—especially when the observer is a law enforcement officer likely to encounter a biased sample—does not meaningfully assist the jury in  determining guilt or innocence.”

The decision went on to note that describing Santa Muerte as a “tool” of the drug trade was, legally speaking, a bit of a reach on the part of prosecution.

“The government’s inability at every stage of litigation to explain precisely how Santa Muerte can be “used” elucidates the poor fit between our ‘tools of the trade’ jurisprudence and Almonte’s purported area of expertise. It also highlights that further inquiry by the district court would have revealed that Almonte’s testimony would not properly ‘help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.’”

In short, mere devotion to Santa Muerte is not probable cause, and can’t be used to tie someone to the drug trade. On reading the decision Dr. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies and author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” tweeted that this was a “big blow” to self-appointed hobbyist experts within law enforcement.

Chesnut went on to tell the Associated Press that “Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and used as probable cause in some cases, but she is not just a narco saint, and many of her devotees aren’t involved in criminal behavior.” Chesnut has long advocated against law enforcement trusting the testimony of self-appointed experts on this often misunderstood religious movement, and has written in-depth about Santa Muerte and other folk-saints for Huffington Post.

So what does this ruling mean? It means that the two accused in this case will get a new trial, one that will leave out testimony regarding Santa Muerte, and it is also a huge blow against the liberal use of self-made occult and “cult” experts in criminal trials. This is very good news for anyone who practices a misunderstood minority religion in the United States. It is easy to scare a jury with tales of strange belief systems, when the focus should be on presentation of material evidence in a particular case.

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Our fathers had their dreams; we have ours; the generation that follows will have its own. Without dreams and phantoms man cannot exist.” – Olive Schreiner

We often spend much of our time listening to community elders, learning from experience and absorbing the collective knowledge of past generations. While this is time well spent, it is often at the expense of looking toward the future; toward the growing the minds that will eventually inherit our projects and cradle experience in their hands.

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

In a three-part series “Pagans on Campus 2014,” The Wild Hunt will look to the next generation – the youth who are just starting out as independent adults and, more often than not, as Pagans. The campus environment is one place where young Pagans can first stretch their wings, test the limits of learned belief and discover new paths of knowing. With the help of a students and adult advisers from around the country, we will examine what it is like to be Pagan on Campus in 2014.

Part I: Community on Campus

“Being Pagan on campus feels a lot like playing Russian Roulette. Most people are simply curious, but there’s always that one person who has to “save” you once they find out about your religion’s beliefs,” says Sarah Morgan, a Druid and psychology major at the University of Georgia (UGA)

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Despite the presence of that “one person,” all the interviewed students reported a relatively positive and supportive environment at their schools, all of which are secular institutions that vary in size and funding. The main differences in religious support can be found in the size of the campus Pagan community and the degree of Pagan activity. As far as UGA, Morgan says, “[It] actually has a lot of people from all different backgrounds,” and one the highlights for Pagans is the very active UGA Pagan Student Association (PSA).

Pagan students groups, clubs and associations have been coming and going for the last few decades. The presence of a strong campus Pagan group can open the doorway to information and community support as students work through their experience and spiritual searching. Pagan chaplain Mary Hudson of Syracuse University says,

The students have changed little [over the years] but their access to information has. They come with more questions and more information, good and bad … Their focus is about soaking up as much information as possible but also about finding community. Many students are now coming from Pagan families but the majority of them are still trying to find a place to belong. The campus Pagan groups are often the first community that they have ever been exposed to.

The survival of such groups is wholly dependent upon the enthusiasm and dedication of its student members. Paul Blessing served two-years as president of oldest continually running college student Pagan club in the country, the Rutgers University Pagan Student Association (RUPSA).  Blessing, a Visual Arts major, was introduced to his chosen practice of Omnimancy through the RUPSA. Of the campus experience, he says,

I’ve heard stories from friends that dormed about disapproving roommates. [However] I did enjoy a very friendly interaction with the club’s adviser, who told me she was herself at one point Wiccan … There was even a dean at Rutgers who was himself a practicing Druid of several years.

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Rutgers is unique because its association has been around since 1994. Jeff Mach, one of its earliest members, said, “I think [RUPSA] has honestly persisted because stubborn survival is part of its character. It came together in the face of great opposition, and brought together a uniquely diverse, even for the Pagan community, group of people. There’s a real feeling that [PSA] has something to offer.”

Similar to Rutgers, Purdue University has a long-lived, active student association called PAN, or the Purdue Pagan Academic Network. Heather Sky Cybele, a former Anthropology student, says, “I moved out to Indiana and started attending Purdue for graduate school. There I found PAN and like-minded individuals. I finally learned that I am not crazy and I started to use the word ‘Pagan’ to describe myself.”


Heather SkyCybele [Photo Credit: H. SkyCybele]

Of the organization, she says, “It’s a great place for Pagans to exchange ideas and learn from each other.” She adds that “there is also a thriving Pagan community in town and a Pagan store.” Since graduating, Sky Cybele has continued to advise and assist PAN and Purdue’s Pagan students. PAN sponsors events on major Pagan holidays, has regular meetings and, over the past two years, has attended ConVocation in Detroit.

Taking support in a different direction, Syracuse University has shown institutional acceptance for its Pagan students. In 2010, Henrick’s Chapel appointed a Pagan chaplain, Mary Hudson and, then in 2013, the school allowed the installation of a dedicated ritual space on the main quad. Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, an Asatru practitioner and recent Syracuse graduate says, “I experienced a very open and friendly environment. [At Syracuse] people would ask about tradition. They were genuinely curious and it led to larger discussions where each of us found ourselves more comfortable and changed.”

Vigjaldrsdottir now attends graduate classes at Nazereth College in Rochester where there are no religious activities or supportive clubs. She says, “Thankfully I have kindred of my own in my hometown and through Mary Hudson I have found other like-minded Pagans in my area.” The positive support found within the university environment can carry forward after a student graduates.

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

While most schools do not have the history of community or institutional acceptance found at Rutgers, Purdue or Syracuse, many schools do have smaller, growing Pagan student clubs that are working to serve the population. One such school is Ball State University (BSU), which houses the inclusive Society for Earth-Based Religions (SER). President Nick Nelson, a Buddhist and double major in Anthropology and Religious studies, says “there needs to be a lot more accurate discussion on what other people believe starting at an early age.” Currently SER offers open Tarot readings to any student as a part of an attempt to build a stronger campus presence. Nelson says, “outreach is a priority for the coming year.”

Jackson Eflin, a creative writing major and Heathen at BSU, says that there isn’t much community outside of SER. He adds, “There aren’t really any Heathens in the area beyond me and a few friends and we’re not really organized enough for a structured practice.” Despite the relatively small community presence, neither BSU student has experienced or witnessed any backlash due to religion. Eflin says,”No one ever seems to mind that I’m Pagan. They either don’t care, are casually interested or are approving.”

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Like BSU, Drexel University has a small active Pagan alliance (DUPA). President Caity Wallace says, “I try to make sure that there are enough activities on campus for fellow Pagans. I’ll admit that I don’t think we do enough, but I’m going to try to be more aggressive this coming year about programming.” Wallace admits that she often goes off campus to attend events and to experience rituals performed by those more experienced in public events.

For those attending universities without Pagan groups, the only option is to “go off-campus.” Suretha Thacker, a Wiccan and International Business major at Georgia Gwinnett College, says, “Pagans are a nonentity on campus … there are 6 organizations dedicated to Christianity and 1 to Islam … [But] I can wear a pentacle and no one really notices. My experience is that most people don’t know what Paganism is or are unable to recognize symbols of Paganism.” Suretha finds her spiritual community outside of campus life.

Whether or not there is an organized group, all of the students reported that there has been, in their experience, little to no significant backlash for Pagans on campus. While some keep their religion relatively quiet, others are more actively involved in Pagan campus activities. However, not one professes to living in the proverbial broom closet.

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

The most common complaint from all of the students was the occasional Christian literature left in a window or Pagan group’s mailbox. Angela Riviero, a UGA student, recounted the story of Pagan student who was being harassed due to religious belief. The situation “had to be taken to the police and ended in a restraining order.” She adds, “But that has been the only problem.”

Another relatively new, but equally important, facet of the Pagan campus club is an online presence. The Internet helps keep students connected and helps them stay connected long after they have graduated. Most of the mentioned Pagan associations have, at the very least, a Facebook presence. Some, like Penn State’s Silver Circle, also maintain websites. Others have gone further. Paul Blessing made a YouTube channel and Twitter account for the RUPSA and Sky Cybele notes that PAN maintains a Yahoo mailing list.

Many more schools have student groups varying in size, type and activity. Some others are Penn State University, M.I.T., University of Texas-Austin, New Mexico State University, Eastern Illinois University, Utah Valley University, Oberlin, Appalachian State University, Georgia State University, University of Southern Maine and Eastern Michigan University.

In the second part of the series, we will focus on academic and spiritual study. What religious activities are important to Pagan students and their groups?  How do they maintain their spiritual practice or education while focused on the demands of academic work?  In part three, we will discuss Pagan student needs and the obstacles they do face. Do they reach out beyond the campus?  And how do they envision the future of Paganism and its place in their lives?

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[The following is an expanded excerpt from a presentation I will be giving at the Polytheist Leadership Conference in Fishkill, New York on July 11, 2014]

I’m staring at a pile of shiny, polished rocks on a counter by the register.  Some are smooth river-stones painted in iridescent colors, others are polished common gems, none particularly capturing my interest more than the small handwritten sign in front of them:

“Take a crystal, leave a crystal.”

Just a few minutes before, I’d stared at the wall above the urinal in the bathroom of this cafe, standing longer than was needed for the task at hand, reading and re-reading the poem displayed on the poster. The words admonished against despair, against giving in to the crushing weight of monotonous conformity, urging the reader to look for the presence and gifts and delight of the gods.

Perhaps it might seem strange to some that I wasn’t seeing this all in a Wiccan shop or Occult store. Perhaps where I found these things may seem even more strange: an Anarchist café in Seattle.

But this shouldn’t sound strange at all. Paganism and its beliefs mirror the struggle of Anarchists, and the indigenous activists who host ancestor prayers at that same cafe, and the queer trans* folk who hold meetings and organize protests against corporate pride events or the killing of a man who didn’t have correct fare on the light rail. The beliefs of Pagans, at least on the surface, might seem aligned to the so-called “eco-terrorists” who sabotage the industrial machinery which rapes the land and poisons our air and water, slaughtering thousands and thousands of species upon the earth in which we and the spirits dwell.

They are fighting against hegemonic control of existence, the limiting of human life itself; against the structures which displace people from the earth, disconnecting them from the strength and influence of spirits and ancestors, and turn humans into consumers and producers and subjects of hegemonic control of the powerful. And particularly, they are all fighting against the crushing oppression wrought upon the world by Capitalism.

We should be too, if our beliefs are more than mere opinion.

The Matter of Belief

One of the civic myths of late-capitalist Western democracies is that their citizenry is free to believe as they choose. Enshrined into many of the constitutions of European and European-derived democracies are laws guaranteeing the free-practice and free-conscience of each individual, and such laws are further re-iterated in supranational documents such as the UN Charter of Human Rights.

There have been relatively few government-sponsored mass-arrests of Heathens or Jainists in any European country, so on the surface, the guarantee of such rights seems to be true. While the recent experiences of some Pagans in isolated areas might certainly speak to a limited and merely localized persecution of gods-worshipers, it is incredibly difficult to make a legitimate case that America or any Western European country systematically persecutes those of minority religions.

As such, though, I’d argue that precisely the opposite is the case; that one is hardly free to believe what one wants in any of the Western democracies, and, worse, there is specifically a prohibition against certain sorts of beliefs. And most of all, that prohibition is precisely one of the most important bases of Western democracy.

The problem here, I think, is that we fail to understand the very physical nature of belief.

Belief is generally seen, in common parlance, to be an internal category, descriptive of an interiority invisible to any, except the person who experiences such certainties. As such, we tend to regard belief in the same category as “opinion,” a description of an inclination towards particular ontological positions but otherwise indefinable except through verbal communication.

I believe in multiple gods, and when I say “I believe in multiple gods,” I have thus communicated to you my interior state and theological position.  But you, the hearer, must judge whether I have expressed something very deeply held, or merely a philosophical stance towards the subject. The ambiguity inherent in such a statement increases if you have no actual relationship with me. Conversely, if you also profess a similar belief, you may wish to parse out further precisely what I mean by “multiple” or “gods” (that is, am I a Polytheist with monist tendencies, or do I mean “literal” gods or more archetypal or psychological expression of deity?)

Expanding this difficulty out of the personal, though, one can see how such statements of belief might become even more ambiguous on the level of social groups, cultures, or entire nations. When we consider statements of statistical fact regarding the religious affiliations of entire nations, like “there are 828 million Hindus in India,” we accept such statements generally as equivalent to “828 million people in India profess to a belief in multiple gods.” But still, we know very little about what such belief actually means beyond the professions of faith and the self-identifications. We might be well-versed in the structures of the Hindu religions and thus have a greater sense of what is meant by “828 million Hindus,” but this still resides fully in the realm of interiority.

Hindu cave temple at Ellora (CC: Pratheeps)

Hindu cave temple at Ellora [Photo Credit: Pratheeps/CC]

It isn’t until one then looks at the actual activities of self-professed Hindus in India that one begins to get a sense of what  they actually believe.  A brief observation of the physical surroundings of these folks who profess belief in the existence of many gods shows particular structures built to honor the object of their belief. That is, India is littered with temples and shrines, physical evidence of an internal belief.

The same can be said of Christians, or of any other religious group which professes belief in divine beings who can be experienced, communicated with, oblated to, or interceded with through structures. That is, the landscape itself attests to the interior experiences of individual and group belief, revealing physical activity of the believers which results in the construction of very physical things.

It isn’t just the physical structures, however, which can be used to discern the content and depth of the belief professed by any individual.  The physical activities of those whom believe in gods and spirits can also be observed. Christians who wake up early once a week to attend church services are engaging in actual religious activity on account of their beliefs, just as the Muslim who prays to the east five times daily does so on account of her belief in Allah and the prophet Mohammed.

Such activity can be observed not just by others who believe similar things, but even among those who profess no actual belief in gods or spirits.  An anthropologist observing the activities of the people he studies can thusly attest to a whole range of activities (often categorized as specifically religious), which are signs of the meaning of interior experiences. That is, it’s precisely all these physical activities which tell the observer what is meant by those statements of belief, and we can then begin to formulate an understanding of their faith.

More so, it’s precisely those human activities which point to the existence of the gods and spirits with who humans encounter and worship. As the post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty says in Provincializing Europe:

“…gods and spirits are not dependent upon human beliefs for their own existence; what brings them to present are our practices.”

Faith Without Works…

I’ve taken a very long way around to get to a point which was made several thousand years ago by one of the minor writers of the Christian’s scriptures. That statement, and the meaning behind it, later became crucial to a split within the Catholic Church 1600 years later during the Protestant Reformation: “Faith without works is dead.”

We can interpret this statement in a more modern and Pagan standpoint by briefly mentioning many of the recent conflicts which led to several gods-worshipers being named “The Piety Posse” on account of their insistence that one should do things for the gods that one believes in. It’s surprising no-one reoriented the debate to the question of the physicality of belief. That is, if Belief means something, it results in physical activities stemming from those beliefs. Or, again, if you believe in gods and do not physically do things which belie such beliefs, your profession of faith is suspect.

Rather than re-invigorate that debate (or really, any others), we should expand upon that conflict to apply it to the rest of Pagan-aligned belief first, and then to that of Belief itself.  As it is impossible to understand the interiority of any subject (which ultimately makes them an unknowable “Other”) without the physical manifestations of their beliefs, the polytheist “challenge” to mainstream Paganism is precisely that gods, if they actually exist, result in actually-existing actions on the part of those who experience and believe in them as actually-existing.

This stance, called “radical” by some, is similar to the same challenge posed by indigenous and anti-colonial resistance movements, queer political actions, and leftist challenges to mainstream political parties.  Each pose the same critique to the dominant hegemonic political order, that it is not merely enough to have an opinion that another world is possible, but rather one must physically manifest such beliefs into the world.

From this viewpoint, then, we can begin to re-examine precisely what is meant by “freedom of belief” in Western Capitalist democracies.  One is certainly “free” (by which one really means “not restricted from”) believing in anything one chooses, but any belief which affects the world around the believer falls into a completely different category. That is, if that belief isn’t mere opinion, than there are, indeed, a whole host of prohibitions against that belief.

One is free to hold any opinion one wishes. However, if that stance rises to the level of actual “belief,” and the person espousing such a belief then begins to do things which show that he or she actually believes such a thing, they quickly fall into the political category of “radical” or “fundamentalist,” and there are laws against acting out such beliefs.  We can see such restrictions quite clearly in Europe, where advanced Capitalist democracies such as France and Denmark have outlawed such physical manifestations of belief in schools or passed laws against Kosher and Halal butchery. In America, we can see similar attempts to ban minority expressions of belief while simultaneously affirming the dominant religion’s right to physically follow through with their beliefs.

"The Blasphemer," by William Blake

“The Blasphemer,” by William Blake [Public Domain Photo]

But there’s a trick here, a sort of thaumaturgic glamer in the justifications for such things. One may speak of cultural wars, or the danger of certain foreign beliefs and yet, without any intentional self-deception, assert that one is free to believe whatever one wants, seeing no contradiction between the repression of the beliefs of others and this supposed freedom.

It would be facile merely to claim that the West is hypocritical.  Hypocrisy requires a degree of self-awareness, a purposeful decision to act in a way contradictory to the manner one demands others act. It would not be merely facile to argue this–we’d be utterly wrong.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts the problem succinctly in an oft-quoted anecdote:

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends:

“Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.”

After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink:

“Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the west, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants – the only thing missing is the “red ink”: we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.

This unfreedom can be explained precisely as our inability to manifest belief into the physical world while simultaneously existing under the ubiquitous delusion that we are relentlessly free to believe whatever we desire.  In fact, that unfreedom might be adequately restated as a sort of ban on belief-which-matters, or belief which might physically challenge the power of hegemonic Capitalism.

Witches, Priests, Bards, and Rogues

An Anarchist, or any anti-Capitalist for that matter, believes that Capitalism and the structures which support it must be abolished. They are certainly free to have an opinion on that matter, but they are forbidden by all manner of laws from actually doing anything about it, thus ensuring that such an opinion lingers in the suspended opinion-stance and is never manifested in the world.

Fortunately, Anarchists don’t care much for the laws which prevent them, as it makes little sense to truly believe that a system is destroying the planet and causing human misery, and not try to do something about it.

But here, then, is where most Pagans appear to part ways with others who share many of their beliefs, and I’m not fully certain why this is.  One of the many definitions of Paganism in currency lately is a “collection of earth-based spiritualities,” but the amount of Pagans still using petroleum suggests that perhaps Paganism merely holds a generally-favorable opinion of Nature, rather than believing it should continue to be around for awhile.

It isn’t enough merely to think things should change.  And though my words function as a criticism of modern Paganism, I hope I’ve also shown how we’ve gotten ourselves into this restrained position.  It’s us, but it’s also not just us. We are free to think what we want, but we are also quite unfree to act upon our deeply-held beliefs, forcing them to languish as mere opinion.

But the hegemonic power of Capitalism seems to be weakening again, and the fierce calls to awaken to belief-which-means-something are beginning to threaten the uneasy (and unholy) peace many of us have made with the powerful. Peter Grey’s recent essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” (and his cunning and cutting screed against belief-as-mere-opinion, Apocalyptic Witchcraft), is hardly the only such call within Paganism, and one might actually read the sudden apparent surge in new “polytheists” as a sign of the weakening of hegemonic control.

That is, it is almost as if the gods and spirits themselves are bursting through the walls we put up against belief, demanding that we do something.

The question is, though, will we Pagans see the allies all around, human and non-human, all pushing towards a new assault against the systems which oppress others and ourselves? Or will it be enough merely to “like” the earth and the old ways, with all the meaning and affect of a Facebook status update?  Will we let our hopes, dreams, and desires languish in the dark, repressed interiors worlds, or might we have the courage to make manifest and make true our beliefs, regardless the threatened cost?

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Death, Remembrance, and Love

Rynn —  July 4, 2014 — 11 Comments

My grandmother is dying.


I have this memory. I am four. I am singing “Skidamarink.” Perhaps you know the song. It’s lyrics are simple:

“Skidamarink a-dink, a-dink,
Skidamarink a-doo,
I love you.

I love you in the morning,
And in the afternoon;
I love you in the evening,
And underneath the moon.

Oh, skidamarink a-dink, a-dink,
Skidamarink a-doo,
I love you.”

She is beaming with pride and recording me on a cassette tape as I sit on the kitchen counter. I feel a swelling of pride. She hugs me. I hug her, gripping her tightly; my arms still chubby with baby fat. My head pressed to her breastbone.

If I had listened hard enough, I would have heard her heartbeat.


I’ve been watching people die since I was four. I’ve buried 22 people. Some were classmates, others teachers, but most have been family. Not extended family, but close family. It’s shaped my practice as a witch, my relationship with my spirits, and my family.

My grandmother knows I’m a witch, a devil worshiper. I don’t mind her categorization. The Gods of one religion are often the demons of another. It also hasn’t lessened her love of me in any way. She doesn’t consciously know that I work with the dead, or the living about to left behind. But she seems to understand this unconsciously.


“Erin Morgan…”

“Yes, grandma.”

“I need you to help me organize my jewelry for you girls after I die.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to have us all over and make us mud wrestle for them? It’d be funny. You’d laugh.”

She ignores my comment and gingerly pulls out her jewelry box, necklaces and earrings coiled haphazardly within. I pull out a clip-on earring and notice her inhale sharply. I look up and consider her face. It’s pinched with the realization that the things you hold precious maybe junk to someone else.

“You girls have pierced ears. I guess you won’t want that.”

With my free hand I pull up my shirt and tuck it under my bra while my other hand opens and closes the earring clasp on the base of my bra. I shimmy for her.

“I can use this, grandma. See?” I keep shimming. “It’ll be fantastic for belly dancing.”

She gives me a wry smile. We both know what I’m trying to do. Can’t out run death. Can’t avoid it. But we can laugh at it. Nothing to do but laugh until we cry and cry until we laugh again.

“I have something for you.”

I watch her shuffle to one of her drawers and I follow her. She pulls out a cherry red box and opens it.

“These are opals from Australia. They’re yours. I haven’t worn them since your grandfather passed. You can get them remounted if you don’t like how I had them done.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“Good. They’re yours now.”


There are many things left unsaid between us. Understandings that I think we need to come to before she passes. But this is her death. It’s her process, not mine. She is living in the process of dying. My place is to help her. I’m struggling to help her where she’ll let me. I’m also trying as much as I can to remember.

Because what is remembered lives.


My grandfather is standing next to my sister. Their necks are craned with hands shielding eyes from the blistering desert sun. My grandmother exits the RV and walks to my grandfather and sister. She follows their eye-line to me. I am ten and am half way up a 150 foot sandstone cliff trying to get my sister’s kite where it’s wedged into the rock face. The rock, being sandstone, crumbles in my hands with too much pressure. Same with my precarious footholds. I can see her in my peripheral vision. Barely.

There are hushed expletives in her feathery voice. She asks my grandfather what the hell… and is cut off as my grandfather explains the situation. I can hear the fear spiked with anger in her voice. She questions my grandfather’s sanity and abandons her argument with him. Her voice rings out, echoing through Red Rock Canyon. I am now five feet from the kite. “Erin Morgan! Get down here NOW!” “I can’t!” I shout over my shoulder. “I’m almost to the kite!” I reach the kite. It’s only then I remember I don’t know how to go down. I look at my family over my shoulder. My grandfather’s and sister’s faces are unreadable. But not my grandmothers’. Her face is lined with worry and fear.

Even now I can hear her silent prayer: “please God, don’t let her fall; please God, don’t let her fall.”

I didn’t fall.


What is remembered, lives.

It’s a simple enough phrase, yet for me, it contains rich concepts that we only mine in the face of the enigma of Death. Even then the path to understanding was only opened when I chose to open the door and walk the path the words laid before me. Contained within those words are a type of grace, a spell, a binding, a life, a death, a reconnection, an undertaking, a renewal, an awareness. It’s this last word, awareness, that contains the spark of possibility in the face of Death. When I opened to it fully, this awareness was voluminous and multifaceted.

Death, like life, is a process. A series of moments, memories, and events; some planned, others unplanned, all are weathered. It’s through remembering that my beloved dead live again within me. It’s through the act of remembering that I bring the lessons of the past with me. It’s how I make sense of the senseless by reframing old memories with new eyes and understandings. But I had to do it with intention. Remembering in this way has helped me see my ancestors as the flawed humans they are and hold them with compassion. This in turn has helped me increase the compassion I hold for myself. And the love. It’s in doing this work that I’ve realized that when I heal myself, somehow the dead are also healed. Maybe it’s because when the cycle of unintentional and intentional wounds that are passed from generation to generation is stopped, they can let go of their guilt and forgive themselves. Maybe it’s because love can move back in time to heal a broken heart. If you have had the magical experience that says all space and time is here and now, then this is certainly possible. Maybe it’s because all the ballads are true: that love is the only thing that survives.


“Your parents never told me that.” My grandmother’s face is contorted with worry, concern, and pain. “Why didn’t they tell me?”

I had just told her of a harrowing experience that left its indelible mark on me. She’d wanted to know why I acted a certain way. So I told her.

“What could you have done, grandma?”

“I could have loved you more.”

“Oh grandma, you love me enough already.”


And I want to hold on to her love. It’s flawed and it’s human, but it’ll be the only thing I’ll have left when she passes. Because her love, and her flaws and grace, are apart of the fabric of me. Because I need that love to carry me through life and eventually my own death. I want to pass on that love too. I want that love to be remembered, to leave it’s indelible imprint on me and my descendants. Maybe it’s the only way we achieve true immortality.

Because what is remembered, lives.

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On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States [SCOTUS] ruled 5-4 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that some for-profit employers with religious objections do not need to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Wild Hunt breaks down the ruling and features commentary from Pagans from across the U.S.

Basics of the case
Under regulations written in 2012, after the ACA was passed in 2010, all employers with over 50 employees were mandated to provide female workers with no-cost access to twenty different kinds of FDA approved contraceptives. Male contraceptives, such as vasectomies, are not covered under the ACA. The regulations were immediately challenged by religious groups and non-profits who objected to paying for contraceptives. The Obama administration worked out a compromise where religious groups and non-profit corporations would not be forced to pay for contraceptives.  Women would still receive no-cost contraceptives, either paid for by the insurers or the government. It’s estimated that a third of Americans are not eligible for employer-provided, no-cost contraceptives.

In 2012 the families that own Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties filed suit to opt out of providing four of the twenty women’s contraceptives on religious grounds, citing the Clinton era 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). These four contraceptives include the morning after pill, Ella, IUD with progestin, and the copper IUD.

RFRA is a federal law that prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on a person’s ability to practice his religion unless that burden advances an important government interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible. The question on which SCOTUS was asked to rule was whether the contraceptive mandate burdened Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga Wood Specialties’ religious rights under RFRA. There are five steps to the legal test to check if any rights are being violated.

The first, and publicly most contentious, hurdle was determining if Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation, is a “person” under RFRA. Corporate personhood has a long history in American law. The first mention of corporate personhood was the 1819 case Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. In this case, corporations were ruled as persons so they can engage in contracts and be party to lawsuits. In the next almost 200 years, corporations have been ruled as persons with rights in matters ranging from protection from illegal search and seizure; to free speech; to the right to own property. Yet corporations do not have all the same protections and rights as individuals.

In the Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Samuel Alito emphasized that corporate personhood falls in line with historical precedence. It’s not really about faceless corporations; it’s about the individual people who own the corporations. He states, “A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends….When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.”

Yet a stronger case exists in the The Dictionary Act of 1871, which set the definitions of words unless a law specifically defines them another way. The Dictionary Act says “the words ‘person’ and ‘whoever’ include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” RFRA did not spell out another definition of the word person so the meaning is defined by the Dictionary Act.

Practice his religion
The next question that needed to be answered was: Can corporations practice a religion? They can’t go to a house of worship, nor can they pray. Yet the government and courts have acknowledged in the past that non-profit and for-profit corporations can exercise religion. In the case of for-profit corporations, they can have a mission other than making a profit and many list charitable causes and actions in their mission statements. For legal experts who dispute the ruling, this is the area on which most of them focus. Although they agree that corporations can be people with rights, they do not feel freedom of religion should have been granted to for-profit corporations.

Substantial Burden
Hobby Lobby had to demonstrate that complying with the contraceptive mandate would be a ‘substantial burden.’ The company said the mandate could add as much as $475 million in costs and would require the company to go against its religious beliefs.  Despite medical evidence, Hobby Lobby contends that the four types of contraceptives cause the abortion of fertilized eggs.

For this legal test it didn’t matter if Hobby Lobby’s beliefs are correct. The court wasn’t to pass judgment on the reasonableness of its beliefs, just to ascertain if the beliefs were sincere. The court believed Hobby Lobby was sincere in its religious beliefs and that there was a substantial burden placed on those beliefs by the contraceptive mandate.

Important Government Interest
SCOTUS only addressed this in passing. The justices assumed that the government has valid and important reasons for requiring employers to provide their female employees with no-cost birth control.

Least Restrictive Way Possible
If the government does have an important interest in mandating employers pay for contraceptives for their female employees, is that enough? Under RFRA the answer is no. The government must choose the method which is the least restrictive on religious rights.

The court noted that the government already has another way of ensuring women receive no-cost birth control – the same method it proposed and uses for non-profit corporations. Under the compromise to the contraceptive mandate, non-profit corporations do not have to pay for contraceptives for their employees; yet women still receive them at no cost. The insurer or the government pays for them. SCOTUS decided that the government could do the same for employees of for-profit corporations.

Unintended consequences
The court took pains to note that the case was not to be considered a slippery slope and that it was very limited in nature. It only applies to “closely held” corporations where a family owns the company and is actively managing the operation. They also said that the ruling doesn’t give corporations the right to avoid paying for things like vaccines or blood transfusions; nor can they racially discriminate in their hiring practices. Justice Kennedy, who agreed with both the majority’s reasoning and its result, even wrote in his concurring opinion that this decision is “a ticket for one day only.”

But is it? In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsberg said that this could open the floodgates to future cases on any procedure to which an employer objected on religious grounds, and all cases would now need to be reviewed under the RFRA “substantial burden” test. Another concern was if GLBT discrimination would be allowed since sexual orientation is not a federally recognized protected class. The dissenting justices disagreed that Hobby Lobby could practice its religion and felt the majority went too far in granting rights to groups that should be reserved for individuals.

Ginsberg’s position of dissent could come back to haunt her. When Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion which struck down the Defense of Marriage Ac (DOMA)t, he said this ruling shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Justice Scalia wrote a scathing dissent saying the majority opinion did exactly that. Lower courts, when striking down state gay marriage bans, used Scalia’s dissent as justification. Ginsberg’s dissent could be used in exactly the same way.

Now that we’ve looked at the case and heard from the justices, we wanted to give Pagans from around the U.S. a chance to sound off about the SCOTUS decision.

Pagans sound off on ruling

Rev. Philipp J. Kessler [photo credit Phil Kessler]

Rev. Philipp J. Kessler [photo supplied by Phil Kessler]

I’m a man, I’m gay, but I am a person. SCOTUS is granted the legal right to make decisions that may have direct effect on me and others in the United States. When others in the United States seek to use those decision to have discriminatory effect on other citizens then they, in this case business, are over stepping their bounds. Fine, Hobby Lobby and certain other privately owned multi-million (multi-billion) dollar companies have won their case with SCOTUS and do not have to follow the Obamacare requirement to provide coverage for certain forms of contraceptives, including abortion. That does not open the doors, on moral and ethical grounds, for other companies to apply for religious exemptions when it comes to hiring and firing of people that they perceive to be gay, people that are of another national origin or race. Etc. Etc.   –  Rev. Philipp J. Kessler, from an op-ed on Scotus Reproductive Rights

Lauren Snow [photo supplied by Lauren Snow]

Lauren Snow [photo supplied by Lauren Snow]

I’m not just freaked out here because I’m a woman. I’m also freaked out about this – perhaps more so – because I am not a Christian.

I consider myself a member of earth-based religion. (Or, perhaps more accurately, Universe-based religion)… I am devout in my relationship with divinity. I am passionate about interfaith work, as I see that the more differing faith practices are understood between people, the more we can sense a common thread of unfolding love unifying them together.

Here’s the thing. Conservative government officials keep saying they’re ruling in favor of “religious liberty”, but they’re not. They’re ruling in favor of Christian supremacy. And it scares me deeply. How can you shout “religious liberty” while forgetting about the religious liberty of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Humanists, Agnostics, and Atheists? Are we not Americans? Are our faiths less “legitimate”? Have we, along with women, been banished from legitimacy as second-class citizens? Where is this slippery slope headed?

Ruth Ginsburg said, “The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.” - Lauren Snow


Victory White [photo supplied by Victory White]

Victory White [photo supplied by Victory White]

Although I am addressing this as a Pagan, I feel very strongly that the religious reference to this case is masking the more important issues that are secular. I’ll address one of these here; it is important to understand the way health insurance works. For years people, including the news media, have blamed health insurance providers for every rejected medication or treatment option. We have all been led to believe that it was completely the insurance companies who decided which medications they covered and which they did not. This is not entirely true, I learned while working at one of the largest prescription providers in the US, that the formularies which we all go through whenever our doctor prescribes a new medication, are a negotiated compromise between our employers and the insurance provider they choose. How this is affected by the Hobby Lobby decision is to me more a potential problem than any religious connotations. With this decision the SCOTUS has opened the door for employers who object or who don’t feel like paying for any category of drugs for “religious” or other moral objections they want to impose. That to me is the main danger of this decision and the precedence it sets….

…The real problems of affordable health care have been hijacked by politics, religion and sexism; and meanwhile people die every day who might have lived had they been able to afford the appropriate care in a timely fashion. All this media driven miss-direction drives the profits for drug companies, insurance companies higher and we all come out the poorer for it as people and as a society. The main reason I am upset about this decision is that using religion inserts a huge amount of emotion in a subject that has already saturated with too much emotion and not enough logical thought. I ask myself how Socrates would look at this and what questions would he prod us to think about? Victory White


Anne Hatzakis [photo from Anne's blog]

Anne Hatzakis [photo from Anne's blog]

Religious beliefs about things vary. And as a corporate “person” cannot actively participate in actual religious activities, I have trouble with the idea that the corporation’s “religious beliefs” should be able to trump mine — especially when their religious beliefs are not supported by actual science and only target insurance items that one sex utilizes while allowing things for the other sex.

Hellenic Polytheism, in my opinion, is a faith tradition that actively allows for equality of the sexes in modern society. Although the Gods and Goddesses fulfill different roles, there is no such thing as a “weak” goddess in our faith, and there is no need to “control” what those goddesses do — something that this ruling seems to do for women in our society. This ruling seems to be more about controlling a woman’s ability to manage her own life in accordance with HER religious beliefs than it is about anything else. And THAT is something that I cannot agree with. –  Anne Hatzakis


Kayla Loy [photo supplied by Kayla Loy]

Kayla Loy [photo supplied by Kayla Loy]

As a Pagan and a Libertarian I am tickled pink about the Hobby Lobby ruling. I find the Affordable Care Act to be just another way for government to be involved in my life. It is a terrible law, and anything that is poking holes in it is fine by me. Also, if you are really that tore up about your employer not paying for your birth control, drop the $30 a month out of your own pocket, and buy it yourself. – Kayla Loy




Robert Anthony Parobechek [photo supplied by Robert Parobechek]

Robert Anthony Parobechek [photo supplied by Robert Parobechek]

This country is run by corporations… simple enough. The main way the government keeps people complacent about it is with organized religion and its flagrant endorsement of it. Bust your ass to keep the corporate elite because it is part of God’s plan… here is the problem. There is no God, intellectuals who know what is really going on (meaning the smart people ) cannot stand this government. So it is OK for one company to deny someone health coverage for this religious belief and that…. what happens if a Muslim company wants to do it because it violates sharia law… like denying a woman the right to see a doctor after she was beaten by her husband? Should the supreme court uphold that too? Religion belongs in private institutions and out of the government period. Frankly the men on the Supreme Court are traitors for not doing their jobs properly in my book!  - Robert Anthony Parobechek

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This month the Smithsonian Channel will be airing an hour-long television pilot for a series called Sacred Sites of the World. The show was developed and produced by Tile Films, one of Ireland’s top documentary filmmaking companies. As suggested by the title, the series seeks to explore the historical, religious and cultural significance of sacred sites located around the world. As part of this process, and perhaps unique to the series, producers will also be demonstrating how these ancient sites and associated religious beliefs are still honored and held sacred by many in contemporary culture.

Beaghmore Stone Circle [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Beaghmore Stone Circle [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Writer and researcher David Ryan said, “Director Stephen Rooke and I, along with the rest of the creative staff in Tile Films, have a strong personal interest in history, archaeology, religion … It’s the reason why we do this work in the first place.” Tile Films has produced other successful documentary series focusing on religion and history such as The Lost Gods.

The Sacred Sites’ pilot focuses on Ireland and tells the tale and progression of religious experience through its sacred sites. The program includes striking aerial images of cairns, dolmens, stone circles and temple mounds. It moves smoothly between these images, live-event footage, dramatizations, and interviews with a variety of academic experts including scientists and historians. One of these experts is folklorist Dr. Jenny Butler whose work is focused, in part, on connections between ancient beliefs and modern day Paganism in Ireland.

The show also includes interviews with modern Pagans, including footage of an authentic Lughnasadh ritual performed by the Owl Grove, a Druidic group from Rosenallis, County Laois. Member Jane Brideson describes the experience:

[The crew] spent time with us, asked questions to further understand our beliefs and were respectful of the way that we work. We explained … that we worked within a sacred space. They respected that by filming the whole ritual from outside the circle and being very unobtrusive. Once the ritual had ended the Grove gathered to share food and drink. Later filming recommenced and parts of our ritual were filmed again from within the circle with our consent. The whole experience was very positive for everyone involved.

The Arch Druid of Owl Grove, Mel Lloyd agreed saying, “The filming was exhilarating and very interesting for us all. We met with and had several conversations with the production team prior to the filming. So by the time the day arrived they we were all on very good terms with each other.”

Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

During the show, the Owl Grove is performing its Lughnasadh ritual as an example of how modern day Pagans still honor the ancient Irish God – Lugh. At several points in the show, producers highlight the fact that rituals are still held to honor the ancient ways, Gods and historic sites.

The filmmakers share past footage from the Bealtaine Festival of Fires, formerly held on the Hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath. In this segment, people dance near a large bonfire of hay and wood. Researcher David Ryan says, “Different groups were present, and not all were Pagan. Large numbers of ordinary festival-goers attended for the spectacle and the popular music event that accompanied the fire performances.”

Another segment shows a crowd gathered on the Winter Solstice to witness the natural spectacle that occurs within the ancient Newgrange temple mound in County Meath. Outside this 5000-year-old sacred site, travelers gather to experience an extraordinary annual, ancient event that signifies the return of the sun. In one shot, several of the visitors appear to be performing a ritual act to herald or call-in the solstice sun.

While Sacred Sites: Ireland does explores religion and respectfully incorporates modern day Pagan practice, the show is a purely secular, academic-style program. Its focus is as much on explaining ancient religious practice and culture through history and science, as it is an introduction to the sites themselves. At points, the temples even seem to be simply a jumping-off point to discussing changing ancestral beliefs, landscape and traditions. As such, Sacred Sites: Ireland sits very delicately and precariously wedged between history, science and religion.

Carrowkeel Passage Tomb [Screen shot Sacred Sites Ireland]

Carrowkeel Passage Tomb [Photo still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

With that secular and scientific focus, Sacred Sites: Ireland ‘s may not for everyone. However the producers have made a significant effort to respectfully include the modern usage of these sites in their discussion.  They have also attempted to show the beauty and spiritual power within these ancient sites and, in doing so, have demonstrated a definite respect for both ancient and contemporary religious beliefs. Bideson believes that the program will be excellent viewing for both Pagans and non-Pagans alike. She says,

I am always interested in the way Pagans from different paths work and celebrate and I hope that the programme will give others a glimpse into the Owl Grove and how some Druids in Ireland practice … it [also] shows us doing what we actually do rather than the practices that many non-pagans would like to associate us with. 

If the Smithsonian Channel picks up the series, Tile Films plans to continue the process of exploring the many sacred sites around the world. Ryan says,

The locations for future shows still have to be finalised, but provisionally we are planning to focus on sites in Greece/ Turkey, Italy (ancient Roman sites), Malta, Egypt and Central America (Mayan sites). We hope to continue to include sites that remain sacred in the present day, and film the associated pagan rituals. Thus far we have been in touch with a number of different pagan groups in relation to the above, and so far all seem interested in participating.

When asked if they are considering any U.S.-based sacred sites? Ryan said, “Yes, we’d certainly consider Native American sites in the U.S., and the Smithsonian have indicated they’d be open to this. Any site in theory could be included so long as it is ‘sacred.’”

The pilot, Sacred Sites: Ireland, will air July 7 at 8 p.m. Eastern on The Smithsonian Channel. It will also be available to stream via the website.

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