Archives For Alex Mar

Now that the season has turned and we are nearing the end of the 2015, we look back, one last time, to review the year. What happened? What didn’t happen? What events shaped our thoughts or guided our actions? In our collective worlds, both big and small, what were the major discussions? How did Pagans and Heathens specifically face world issues and local crisis? What were the high points and low?

[Public Domain Image / Pixabay]

[Public Domain Image / Pixabay]

As the light began to return, the world faced, almost immediately, the reality of global terrorism. On Jan. 7, the home offices of France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked. This event seemed to set a tone for the remainder of the year, as the world faced additional attacks, the growing influence of Daesh, the Yezidi genocide, institutional sex slavery, the current refugee crisis and the painful reality of Islamaphobia. Who are these are these people and what do we call them? How do we stop them? And, what is their relationship to Islam?

The year also began with another unresolved struggle. The U.S. was grappling with the deep social justice issues brought to light after the shocking events in Ferguson, Missouri in November 2014. Related conversations concerning race and diversity increasingly punctuated Pagan and Heathen communities. Some Pagan activists joined community protests and action throughout the year. Many organizations developed diversity statements and policies. Unfortunately for the Covenant of the Goddess, its own effort fell flat, causing internal strife and eventually serious public scrutiny. However, by the summer, the 40-year-old Wiccan and Witchcraft organization did apologize and make significant changes.

Social justice themes permeated the February PantheaCon conference, culminating in a special session after a satirical pamphlet, called PantyCon, offended a large number of attendees. The conversations concerning race and ethnic diversity continued to run concurrent with other narratives throughout the coming year, sometimes with celebration and sometimes not.

As if those two realities weren’t enough to begin 2015, another issue was already brewing internal to the collective U.S. Pagan community. A group of witches were attempting to rebirth the American Council of Witches. Bathed in secrecy, the group of founders would not reveal any details, causing community confusion, frustration, anger, backlash and eventually the demise of the project.

While the year may have begun with a bang or better yet a very difficult sigh, there was also much to celebrate in those early months. Many Pagans and Heathens applauded the presidential veto of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the exoneration of #Flood11 protestors. Iceland would soon see its first official Asatru temple. The UK marked its first legal same-sex Pagan marriage. Northern Ireland saw the acceptance of the first Pagan priest. And Manannan mac Lir, who had been stolen in January, was found only a month later.

In March, Paganicon attendees even learned how to calm their inner dragons.

[ © Copyright Mat Tuck / CC lic.]

[ © Copyright Mat Tuck / CC lic.]

Then, spring rounded the corner and religious freedom took center stage. The Aquarian Tabernacle Church spoke out publicly against RFRAs, attracting significant mainstream media attention. In Iowa, Wiccan Priestess Deborah Maynard offered the opening invocation before the state legislature, drawing protests and walk-outs. The Open Halls project had to renew its efforts to have Asatru and Heathenism placed on the Army’s list of accepted faith group codes. And, in his first column for The Wild Hunt, Dr. Manny Tejeda-Moreno discussed Religious Discrimination in the Workplace.

Then, as the Beltane fires were lit and festival season was underway, the U.S. faced a brand new round of social struggle and violence. In late April, residents of Baltimore experienced both peaceful protests and a devastating violent riot after the weekend funeral of Freddie Gray. Two months later, Charleston’s historic Mother Emmanuel Church was shocked by a hate-driven terror attack, leaving nine dead.

But time marched on and, as the summer approached, nature seemed to be making itself felt in the most extreme forms. Nepal was hit with a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April, and the California drought only continued to worsen.

Pagan communities began to directly feel the sting of these natural disasters. In June, Pagan Spirit Gathering was flooded, causing it to close for the first time in 35 years. The Alaska Pagan Community Center was completely destroyed by the Sockeye Wildfire. Later in the year, the Bay Area community witnessed the destruction of its beloved Harbin Hot Springs by the Valley Fire.

As many were coming to terms with the reality of such extreme weather conditions, climate change became an international “buzzword.” In May, a large group of Pagans published the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment that has since garnered 6,860 signatures. Then in June, the world finally was presented with the long awaited Pope’s Encyclical on the environment.

In that very same week, the U.S. also witnessed another landmark moment. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, making same sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

10996762_10153465784993281_5945380181211759427_n

Celebrations outside courthouse June 26 2015 [Courtesy D. Salisbury]

For many, the summer months continued on with festival season in full swing. Early August saw the premier of Many Gods West, and Heathen Chinese shared his thoughts on this new event in his first column for The Wild Hunt. The summer conference raised the volume on an ongoing conversation about Polytheism as a definitive practice, which had been previously addressed by guest writer Anomolous Thracian in his Polytheist Primer.

The summer also brought with it some obstacles in the digital world. Etsy changed its policies on the selling of charms and spells. Instagram banned the hashtag #goddess, and a popular Witchcraft Facebook page was hacked.

Then, violence hit the U.S. again. In July, Chattanooga, Tennessee became the next town victimized by a terror attack. In October, a man opened fired at a college in Roseburg, Oregon. Then, in December, terrorism hit San Bernardino, California. In these latter two cases, a member of the local Pagan community was killed in the attacks. Both Kim Dietz and Daniel Kaufman, were reportedly shot, while trying to save the lives of others.

As the temperature cooled and the leaves began to fall, the mainstream news predictably began to ring the doorsteps of Witches, for better or worse. Additionally, stories with even the tiniest link to Witchcraft made headline news. In early August, a Florida sheriff prematurely ascribed a triple homicide to Witchcraft, igniting protest. Then, just days before Halloween, the sheriff announced an arrest. October also saw a public controversy over Pagan Libertarian candidate Augustus Sol Invictus. And, on the day before Halloween, local Massachusetts news decided to cover a minor legal battle between two well-known Salem Witches. And, at the same time, Heathens were also grappling with their own media issues.

The month also saw the publication of Alex Mar’s Witchcraft in America, which generated a string of publicity and reactions.

October 2015 also hosted something entirely different: The Parliament of the World’s Religions. In record numbers, Pagans and Heathens arrived in Salt Lake City to experience a unique event and to share their own perspectives with others, as both presenters and performers.

Autumn brings with it an end to the festival season, culminating in the well-known celebration of Samhain or Halloween. But there are other Pagan and Heathen holidays observed at the time. For example, this year the small Pennsylvania-based Urglaawe community shared its celebration of Allelieweziel.

Throughout the entire year, The Wild Hunt spotlights unique Pagan and Heathen practices and communities, like the Urglaawe. This year alone we shared stories from Thailand, Finland, India, Costa Rica, South Africa, and Norway. We covered Pagan news from Iceland and Italy. And with the help of our three international contributing writers, we were able talk Canadian politics, discuss religious freedom issues in Australia and celebrating the winter solstice on a hill in the UK.

Shamans hold their drums over the Holy Fire in order to warm them and obtain a clearer sound whiel drumming.

Shamans hold their drums over the Holy Fire in order to warm them and obtain a clearer sound whiel drumming. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

Outside of the festivities and cultural hullabaloo that occurs around Halloween, these days also have a sobering effect as we mark the passing of our loved ones. The Wild Hunt Samhain post honored the following people: Deborah Ann Light, James Bianchi, Kim Saltmarsh Deitz, Barbara Doyle, Thor von Reichmuth, Michael Howard, Lola Moffat, Brandie Gramling, Max G. Beauvoir, Keith James Campbell, Lord Shawnus, Brother Flint, Heather Carr, Terry Pratchett, Andy Paik, Mary Kay Lundmark, Brian Golec, Maureen Wheeler and Pete Pathfinder. Since we published that list, we have also lost Marc Pourner, Richard Reidy, Carl Llewellyn Weschcke, Morgan McFarland, Scott Walters and L. Daniel Kaufman.

In addition, this year marked the end of two beloved Pagan media outlets: Circle Magazine and ACTION.

As cold winds creep in and November changes to December, the U.S. honored Transgender Awareness month, which was particularly poignant this year after Caitlyn Jenner had previously generated mainstream visibility. Within the Pagan world, conversations on the subject became heated in November, leading up to the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Then, the holiday season arrived in all its warmth, glitter and commercialism. As Americans were preparing for Thanksgiving, terror struck the world again. Both Paris and Beirut were hit by multiple attacks. Due to anger and fear, Islamaphobia has now reached all time highs, and anything with the name Isis could become a target, as discovered by a metaphysical bookstore in Denver.

And so, while much has happened in the story of 2015, the year seems to have come full circle from Paris to Paris.

Despite all the struggles that we have seen this year, hope still remains alive for many in Pagan and Heathen communities, especially with those involved in progressive interfaith work. This Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, CBS will air a United Religions Initiative “groundbreaking interfaith” special called, “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” Several Pagans are prominent and longtime members of this grassroots organization, and will be appearing in the show.

Above are only some of the many stories, reports and events that touched our lives over the past year. There are so many others – ones that we reported on and even more that we didn’t. Here is the best of the best from each of our regular, current contributing writers:

Promoting Healing and Justice for Change by Crystal Blanton
Imbolc’s Invitation by Erick DuPree
Women, Witchcraft and the Struggle Against Abuse by Heather Greene
UK Pagan Community Confronts Child Abuse by Christina Oakley Harrington
The Fire is Here by Heathen Chinese
Canadian Truth and Reconciliation by Dodie Graham McKay
Australia’s Pagan Festivals by Cosette Paneque
Improving Access to Death by Lisa Roling
Building Pagan Temples and Infrastructes part one by Cara Schulz
Iceland’s Temple on the Hill by Eric O. Scott
Terpsichorean Powers by Manny Tejeda-Moreno
Fear of a Blue Sky by Alley Valkyrie
Treating Depression in a Pagan Context by Terence P. Ward
Tomb and the Atheist by Rhyd Wildermuth

Bring on 2016!

alex marWhen I first learned of Alex Mar’s book, Witches of America, I was eager to read it. Considering my own studies in Witch and Witchcraft representations, I was interested in her take on the subject. Before the book’s release, I had absolutely no externally-derived expectations, and my limited contact with Mar did not reveal the nature of her project. Therefore, I assumed that this book would catalog or survey the practice of Witchcraft in modern America. And the title appeared to corroborate this assumption. However, I soon learned that I was unequivocally mistaken. The book was a memoir.

Over the past month since its release, Witches of America has been reviewed and discussed many times over. On the one hand, mainstream coverage has ranged from the moderately critical to the highly positive. New York Times reviewer Merritt Tierce loved it, and the news giant recently placed the book on its list of Top 100 Notable Books of 2015. The magazine Marie Claire has also listed the book on its 2015 top Book-Club picks. At the same, an NPR reviewer was not quite as enamored with Mar’s work, saying, “Some of these disappointments, I’ll admit, come from finding the cultural research aspect of the book more engaging than Mar’s personal journey.”

On the other hand, Pagan reviews and blog discussions have ranged from the negative and highly critical to the more moderately critical. At Patheos, channel manager Jason Mankey discusses the limitations of the study itself, saying, “One would expect a book entitled Witches of America to be about Witchcraft as practiced in the United States, but it’s not really about that. As a practicing Witch for the last twenty-two years there was very little I identified with in the book.” 

One of the first and most scathing reviews, which was eventually quoted in a later Guardian article, was published at Gods and Radicals. Editor Rhyd Wildermuth calls Mar a “spiritual tourist” and writes:

… her book offers a sordidly pornographic and self-aggrandising narrative disguised as an elucidating look into the way witchcraft is practised in the United States.  Belonging alongside a 1980s issue of National Geographic (we’ll get to the pendulous breasts in a bit), exploitative British-tourist narratives and freak-documentary, Mar’s book tells the tale of her search for authentic witchcraft in the most ‘extreme’ of American Pagan experiences …

Other Pagan bloggers spoke out, including John Halstead, John Beckett, David Salisbury and Segomâros Widugeni. Of these four particular reviewers, only Salisbury, who is mentioned in the book, offered a moderate response. He wrote, “There are some things that are problematic with Witches of America. There are also things that are problematic with just about every single book portraying witches that I’ve ever read in my 16 years on this path.” He later admits, “And while everyone has a right to how they feel, this doesn’t make me feel exploited. It makes me feel like a witch.”

Through these writings and the social media discussions, it seems that the Witches of America do not like the Witches of America. And, this point was noted by the Guardian writer who asked, “Serious researcher or ‘spiritual tourist’? How Alex Mar riled America’s pagans”

As I read through the book myself pushing past my original expectations, I wondered how I could possibly write a fair review of a book whose major players were people that I knew in some way. How do I evenly discuss the book when I am personally invested in some the content? This became the challenge and, originally, I opted not to write a review at all.

However, I changed my mind, because there is a particularly interesting issue that is raised by the publication of the book, not by the content within the book itself. It is an issue that is touched on by several of the bloggers, and affects more than just Mar and those people mentioned in her story. It is one that we face regularly at the Wild Hunt, and I’m certain that many other writers do as well.

How do writers navigate the blurred lines created between public and private speak when the professional mixes with the personal?

Before diving into to that issue, I’ll do a quick rundown of the book. Alex Mar’s Witches of America is a personal memoir written for general audiences. It was not specifically meant for the Pagan or Witchcraft communities highlighted within its pages, or any for that matter. However, Mar’s journey, regardless of her underlying purpose, does provide ample detail, which may intrigue even a long-practicing Witch.

In other words, Mar is not providing a Witchcraft 101 experience for new seekers. Nor did she create an educational tool for non-Pagans. As mentioned earlier, it is simply a memoir – one woman’s experience, opinion and approach.

With that said, I found Mar’s writing style, which is somewhat clinical and journalistic, to be uncomfortable in that genre. Her tone creates an emotional distance, even when she describes the most intensely personal revelation. At the same time, her style works and is more settled in the sections in which she offers historical fact or other background data. And, aptly, these were the most engaging for me.

Another disappointment was the lack of bibliography. As an academic writer and journalist, I want my nonfiction to marinate in proof, data sets and extra source material. This is partly a personal problem, and the memoir genre does not demand such background information. But it would have been nice, considering that the book was written for general audiences. For example, if a non-Pagan wanted more information on Gerald Gardner’s history, Mar could have provided a list of credible sources.

But once again, this is a memoir, and I kept telling myself to just keep reading and stop looking for endnotes.

Looking closer at this memoir aspect, I can’t criticize Mar for her spiritual experience. I wasn’t there. I don’t what is real and what is opinion. Was she being honest or was she a spiritual tourist? I’ll leave that speculation to the bloggers and reviews listed above. I recommend reading them all for various opinions on the issue.

However, I did reach out to Mar and asked if the main players knew that she was writing a book. Mar told me, “I was very open about it in general, and was never ‘undercover’ — that’s another approach to reporting, but it’s not one I took with this book or with my previous magazine stories. It wouldn’t have made sense here, as my goal was never to write an exposé, but to create a portrait of a slice of the Pagan community while also documenting my own spiritual exploration.”

Salisbury’s blog post confirms that. With regards to her intent, he wrote, “Did you not know that she was a journalist writing a book with the bent of a memoir? That seemed highly obvious to me, as someone who basically lived with her for a week.” A recent public statement by Coru Cathubodua also corroborated this statement.

Throughout the book, Mar hops around to a variety of different religious groups, events and spiritual practices, experiencing initiations, workings, magic and ritual. As noted in detail by Mankey, Mar does not catalog the entire American Witchcraft community, as if that was even possible. The book focuses on several specific traditions, predominantly Feri and Thelema. Her travels were limited to New Orleans, New York, Massachusetts, and Northern California. However, she does spend some time at Pagan Spirit Gathering and at PantheaCon.

As she told me, her intent was to offer a “portrait of a slice of the Pagan community,” and she did that. However, the title itself sets an expectation of something greater, which then becomes part of the problem. Witches of America does not represent the Witches of America. It represents Mar’s journey engaging with a small fraction, a slice as it were, of greater diversity. That’s okay. But the results don’t meet the expectations set by the title, which may account for the wide gap between the mainstream and Pagan reviews. Non-Pagans don’t understand that point and don’t care; Pagans do.

Now returning to the issue of privacy and professionalism, Mar recounts some very detailed initiation rites, rituals and educational workings. She also published direct email communications with several of her contacts. Almost unanimously, the Pagan reviewers point this out, citing that she violated people’s privacy and overstepped spiritual boundaries.

I had to know. Were these accusations correct? Did she violate a trust or was she given permission to print the data presented? I reached out to a number of the players within the book, including Karina, Morpheus, the New Orleans OTO group and Coru Cathubodu. Both Karina and the OTO declined to comment. In the Coru statement, representative Scott Rowe answered this very question. He said that, in a phone agreement, Mar offered the group review rights before publication. With that understanding, as Rowe explained, [the] “gave Ms. Mar access to individual members for interviews. She attended public events and hospitality. She was never invited to nor was she present for any private Priesthood rituals.”

Then, according to Coru, the agreement was rescinded. Rowe said, “The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood would have declined to participate in Ms. Mar’s book from the start without the agreement that we would be able to provide corrections and redaction where necessary to protect our members’ personal and religious lives, and ensure our beliefs and public writes were correctly depicted.” Rowe stated that the book has caused some direct harm to its members and community, adding “We cannot, will not and do not stand by it.”

I reached out to Morpheus and asked the same question. Did Mar violate your trust? She simply said, “I do not endorse Alex Mar’s book and I share the position of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood in this.”

An interesting point to note within Coru’s response is the issue of intent and damage. Rowe said, “We believe that Ms. Mar was sincere in her religious and spiritual exploration at that point, and in her intent to craft a book that would benefit our community. However, this book is not a boon to the Pagan and Polytheist communities. Ms. Mar’s intentions matter very little in light of the consequences of what she chose to write.”

This comment brings us back to the initial dilemma of privacy. Assuming, as Coru does, that Mar was genuine in her spiritual seeking, then the problem lies with the overstepping of boundaries, intentionally or not, in the presentation of her experience. And this issue can lay at the heart of anyone attempting to publish works on their spiritual endeavors. How do writers navigate the lines created between public and private speak when the professional mixes with the personal?

We regularly experience this problem at The Wild Hunt. Our writers are integral and welcome parts of many local and national Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist communities. We are at events and in rituals; we are real-time friends and family members; we are even neighbors. Each of the Wild Hunt writers has a very personal, spiritual and emotional stake in their community. At the same time, we are also professional journalists and columnists, who genuinely want to provide a service. As a result, the lines can become blurred between work and play. It is on us, as writers, to be ever vigilant in distinguishing which role we are playing when and to draw clear lines for the sake of safety, integrity and ethics – both personal and professional.

Wild Hunt writers aren’t the only ones in this proverbial boat. Bloggers will face the same dilemna. What can you publish? What can you talk about? But the onus is not only on the writers to maintain clarity. In a world of social media, we all part of the public voice. What you publish in your feeds can be subject to the same issue. What is public and what is private? And where and how do we clearly draw the lines?

Rowe advises, “We would like our experience to be the final lesson to other Pagans and Polytheists on the potential challenges and ramifications of dealing with the mainstream media. Journalists are always on the record and what you say will be used in whatever light the writer finds most advantageous to the story she wants to tell, whether it’s true or not. Before speaking with mainstream journalists, make sure to get all agreements detailed in writing.”

Doing this with anyone, mainstream or not, is a good idea. It is something that I talk about in my own Public Relations workshops. Unblur those lines, or draw them, in order to ensure that what is being said privately doesn’t end up on the front page, in a blog or on Instagram. Monitor closely your navigation of the professional and the personal.

As for Mar’s book, I am troubled by any violations of privacy. As editor of The Wild Hunt, as a writer and member of this community, I take that issue very seriously and acknowledge the frustrations and anger felt by those involved.

Setting that discomfort aside, I will add that I did find elements of the book interesting. As with Mar, I grew up in New York City metro and came to Paganism through the eyes of a skeptic. Some of her personal questioning reflected some of my own early doubts about ritual practice, magic and religion. However, as a whole, Witches of America was neither here nor there for me. But then again, that’s another personal problem. I generally don’t read memoirs

… and I need a bibliography.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans and Heathens out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard

This month, author and Witch Byron Ballard found herself the center piece of a mainstream news story titled, “Meet the Appalachian spell-catcher.” Local journalist Dale Neal published his article in Asheville’s Citizen-Times, the main paper for the region.

Neal wrote, “In her travels, Ballard found many people put off at first by the idea of a pagan priestess … But when she started talking about folk remedies, or bringing out Mason jars of rabbit tobacco or mica pieces, they recognized a common spirit. ‘Oh my grandmother used to do that,’ was a common theme.”

The article focuses on Ballard’s practice, her research and her new book Asfidity and Mad-Stones: A Further Ramble through Hillfolks’ Hoodoo. It captures her love of folk magic, the region and, what Neal called, “an overlooked piece of homegrown culture.”

In Other News…

  • Also making it into the media was our own writer Terence P. Ward, who was quoted by NPR in its own discussion about the use of Daesh and other names within media. He told NPR, “as a reporter covering the ‘Pagan, Heathen, and polytheist communities, I am privy to reports of people being questioned by law enforcement due to being known worshipers of the goddess Isis.’ “
  • In another mainstream story involving Pagans, The Guardian picked up on the brewing controversy over Alex Mar’s book Witches in America.The article titled, “Serious researcher or ‘Spiritual Tourist: How Alex Mar riled American pagans’ quotes a number of Pagan bloggers and points to various posts about the book. The writer also interviewed Alex Mar about the controversy and includes some of her reactions. We will have more on this story in the coming days.
  • And in another mainstream article examining the greater Pagan community, writer Jaya Saxena discusses the problem of sexism within Witchcraft practice. In the article titled “There’s a Sexism Problem in the Modern Witchcraft Community,” Saxena wrote, “low-level misogyny can still be a problem in these circles, in largely the same unconscious ways it exists in the rest of society.” Quoting from a number of practicing Witches both male and female, Saxena notes a number of places where problems can arise and how that is handled. She also mentions the issues that can arise for transgender Witches, saying that some groups are now “challenging the gender binary” constructions in terms of religious practice.
  • Speaking of the transgender community, in a story out of Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, a local elementary school banned the reading and discussion of a children’s book called I am Jazz.The book tells the story of a transgender child and is written by transgender teen Jazz Jennings. The facility, Mt. Horeb Primary Center, cancelled the reading after The Liberty Council, a Christian legal advocacy group, threatened a lawsuit. Author Alex Bledsoe‘s son attends the school, and he has been indirectly involved in the situation. Bledsoe said, “As a writer, I’m bothered when any book is censored. The list of historically censored books is also a list of some of our greatest literature. As a parent, I have no issue with allowing other parents to opt out their children, but don’t try to force your beliefs on the rest of us. A concerned parent has the right to say, ‘My child won’t,’ but not to say, ‘Your child won’t.’ That’s simply bullying, and any school system that gives into it loses the moral right to tell its students that bullying is wrong.” There will be a scheduled reading and discussion of the book at the local library today.

61-Uvb4mjgL._SY428_BO1,204,203,200_

  • In Tennessee, a Wiccan mother is claiming that her children are not being allowed to practice Wicca while in foster care. Anna Wood said her two children, each in a different home, are being forced to practice Christianity and denied the right to learn Wicca.  She claimed that her daughter was even baptized without her knowledge and her son’s books have been destroyed. According to the article, the Department of Child Services has denied any evidence of discrimination. Wood said that she is “seriously considering a lawsuit.”
  • Moving over to Australia, Victoria’s local news source The Age reported that Robin Fletcher, who “claimed his [Wiccan] religion endorses sex between children and adults,” was denied his request for more relaxed supervision. The judge said that Fletcher still poses a “unacceptable risk of committing a relevant offence.” This was based on letters found to men in Ghana describing what he was planning to do upon being released next summer and his desire to initiate young children into his religious practice. The Department of Justice is currently deciding whether it will extend its request for Fletcher’s supervision past the current end date June 2016.
  • Back in the Unites States, New York’s Rockland County Sheriff’s Department has said that a “suspicious,” “ritualistic,” package was left at the County Courthouse on the day before Thanksgiving. According to local media reports, “The bomb squad did rule that the package was a likely Santeria artifact and it was knowingly left at the building to create panic and fear.” But, in the end, there was no disruption to the court schedule. No further reports or corrections were available.

And one final note… 

 

[Pagan Community Notes is a weekly feature that highlights short stories and notes originating from within our collective communities. If you like reading this dedicated news every Monday, please donate to our Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive today. We are now 49% funded. Help us raise that number! All of our articles take time, research and money to produce. It is you that makes it all possible! Share our IndieGoGo link. Donate today and help keep The Wild Hunt going for another year. Thank You.]

Over the past six months, Witchita State University (WSU) quietly renovated and expanded of its Grace Memorial Chapel. The pews and small altar were removed to give the interior worship space the flexibility to cater to a number of various religious traditions. More specifically, WSU wanted to accommodate the needs of its growing Muslim community. According to WSU President Jim Bardo, the chapel was originally gifted for use by the entire university community, regardless of “creed and race.”

Although work began in May, the renovation was only recently announced, setting off protests and backlash from predominantly alumni and off-campus locals. A taste of that backlash and the ensuing public debate can be found in the comment section of the Bardo’s Facebook announcement. Due to these protests, the community decided to hold a Friday evening service called “Prayers for Support,” and one local Pagan community stepped forward to help.

Bruce Blank said, “I felt it was important for Pagans to have a voice in assisting healing for Inter-faith community.” Blank belongs to Ma’at’s Temple of South Central Kansas. The group submitted a prayer for use in the multi-faith service. The prayer began, “As from the Infinitely Vast to the Infinitely small – We are all part of the Center…”  The Pagan presence were so well-received that chapel administrators invited Blank to participate a “future symposium at W.S.U. to represent pagan perspectives on inter-faith issues.”

*   *   *

9780374291372Alex Mar‘s long-awaited book, Witches of America, is now available for purchase. In this book, Mar includes both her research into Witchcraft practices and her personal experiences interacting with a number of modern Pagan communities. A Harvard graduate, Mar is best known for her 2010 documentary film American Mystic.

An excerpt from Witches of America is published in New York Magazine. In this short segment, Mar details the preparation and experience in her first Feri circle. She writes, “Just a couple of hours ago, this was the living room of a conservative New England family, complete with grand piano, love seat, and plush Oriental carpet— but all that’s been moved aside for our intended use of the space this weekend.”

To date, a few mainstream news sites have published reviews including NPR, whose reviewer found “the cultural research aspect of the book more engaging than Mar’s personal journey.” While no Pagan writer has published a review yet, there have been some rumblings and expressions of concern from within the collective Pagan communities. Several Pagan bloggers have indicated that they will be reviewing the book soon. Look for those reviews over the next few weeks.

Mar’s book Witches of America was released Oct. 20 and published by Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

*   *   *

cuupsThe Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans has announced the results of its September board election. The new trustees include: Angela Brown as VP for Development; Catharine Clarenbach as VP of Ministerial Relations; Debra Gilbert asSecretary; and Peter Dybing as VP for Membership.

VP Communications J. Hildebrand said, “The Board thanks all of the members who took the time to vote and speak their conscience. Member commitment to the organization is honored.

In addition, CUUPS members voted to “stand in solidarity with the Unitarian Universalist Association” with regard to two global issues: social justice and environmental protection. The two new organizational statements support the UU’s “Commit2Respond statement on Climate Change” and “Showing up for Justice” #BlackLivesMatter.”

The environmental justice statement simply “affirms and supports” that which is expressed in the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment. The #BlackLivesMatter statement begins, “The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, Inc., affirms the intention of all members and friends to be in solidarity with those seeking justice and an end to violence…” and offers suggestions on further steps to take within this effort.

In Other News

  • Michigan Pagan College Fund has just announced that it has two new sponsors. Coventry Creations and the Candle Wick Shoppe have together pledged $500 a year to the fund. According to the organization, 100% of all money raised goes directly to the students to not only help them “go to college, but also graduate.” The Michigan Pagan College Fund was initially “established by the Midwest Witches Ball and Witches of Michigan” after the Tempest Smith Foundation (TSF) closed its doors in 2014. Organizers didn’t want to see this monetary support disappear and took up the reins when TSF disbanded.
  • Everglades Moon Local Council of Covenant of the Goddess has announced that its Samhain podcast is now available for download and listening. The organization creates seasonal podcasts to help bring its expansive Florida-based community and membership together. In addition, the organization has announced the opening of registration for its “Turning of the Tides” festival held annually in December in south Florida. The event is open to anyone wanting to get to know the local EMLC community. The festival will be held Dec.11-13. Register online from now through November.
  • God & Radicals, the paper journal, is due out soon. Editors announced that this first edition will be “120 pages and contains the work of writers and artists from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, 32 Pagans, polytheists, witches, magicians, environmentalists, Druids and activists.” The forward is by Peter Grey of Scarlet Imprint. Writers include “Silvia Federici, T. Thorn Coyle, Nimue Brown, Jonathan Woolley, Margaret Killjoy, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, James Lindenschmidt, Lia Hunter, Max Oanad, Lorna Smithers, Christopher Scott Thompson, Al Cummins, and more.” The journal will be available in mid-November.
  • With the Parliament of the World’s religions now over, many people will be posting and sharing Parliament reviews, reflections and writings.The Wild Hunt will be doing our our post-Parliament wrap up and reflections in the coming days. But kicking off such work is blogger Annika Mongan at Patheos’ Born Again Witch. In the post titled “Overwhelmed by the Parliament,” Mongan writes, “I look out of the window as we ascend over the salt flats and ponder how to write about the Parliament. And that’s when the tears come. They take me by surprise, for I am not someone who cries easily. And they keep coming.”
  • Similarly, Selena Fox and Circle Sanctuary’s PWR delegation discussed their experiences on Tuesday’s edition of the Pagans Radio Tonight show Nature Magic. Fox talks to a number of people about why they attended, what the weekend meant and what they are bringing back with them to their daily lives. This portion of the show began at 8pm, which is approximately half way through the program.

That’s it for now! Have a nice day.

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.

9780415674195

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

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!

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele

The Maetreum of Cybele, which had just won an important legal victory in their property tax fight against the Town of Catskill in New York, has been the victim of another vandalism attack. The news was posted Sunday morning at the religious order’s official Facebook page. Quote: “The Maetreum was attacked again last night with four windows broken out, three in the cafe and on the second floor. The Circle W next door was also hit.. Cops taking it very seriously this time.” The reason police are taking the matter seriously is because the Maetreum was attacked by a rock-and-epithet-throwing individual back in September. Quote: “Last night while I was enjoying talking to Cathryn Platine at the Maetreum of Cybele, a teenager/young man started throwing rocks at the house. At first we thought it was just branches falling, but then the window in the kitchen broke from two rocks that were thrown through the window. It was just Cathy and I downstairs so I followed her outside. The young man ran from the bushes near the road across the road, and then began taunting us…” Are these events unconnected? Simple hooliganism? Or has the high-profile nature of the Maetreum’s tax fight brought out the haters? We’ll keep you posted as this story develops.

View from Ardantane.

View from Ardantane.

Ardantane Pagan Learning Center, located in north-central New Mexico, has launched an IndieGoGo Fundraiser to help develop land purchased adjacent to their current property into a space dedicated to the goddess Hekate, complete with stone circle. Quote: “Do you honor Hekate, the Lady of the Crossroads, Keeper of the Keys, Queen of the Witches, Goddess of Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld? Then help us honor Her with land and a ritual circle, dedicated to Her in perpetuity. Ardantane Pagan Learning Center is located in north-central New Mexico, at the edge of the Jemez Mountains, about an hour’s drive from Albuquerque. We have purchased over two acres of wild land adjacent to our campus, named it Spirit Hollow, and dedicated it to Hekate, who is one of the patron deities of our school. Here we have created a stone circle for Her, and hope to add a shrine and processional way from the main campus. We also plan to hold a Hekate Retreat on the weekend nearest one of Her holy days. But we need your help.” There are a number of Hekate-themed donation perks for those who give to this initiative. The fund drive runs through the next 30 days.

Amy Martin

Amy Martin

Over at Patheos, John Beckett reports on the announced retirement of journalist Amy Martin, who ran the Texas-centric service known at Moonlady News. Quote: “Moonlady was Moonlady News, a massive moderated e-mail list for Pagan, New Age, environmental and other progressive events and causes in the Dallas – Fort Worth area, run by Amy Martin, the Moonlady.  This week Amy announced her retirement – Moonlady News will make its last run on December 20.” In her farewell letter, Martin says that she wants to devote her life to personal writing. Quote: “With the completion of Moonlady News as we know it, Moonlady retires as well. I’ve been an activist since I was 12. Over 45 years, 20 of it with the Moonlady community, working every day for a better world. My passion, my core identity, is being a writer and I must devote myself to that. I’m not getting younger and there are a few major creative projects baying at the gate to be completed. That’s kind of scary, having no more excuses, but exciting. I am grateful for you all. Someday I’ll tell the full story, of how knowing you were out there, and being of service to you, kept me going through the worst time of my life.” My hats off to her, and I wish Amy Martin well with her writing. The work she is doing is important, and I hope her example inspires others. You can also donate to defray the operating costs of the site.

 In Other Pagan Community News:

914115_672703552770598_204179713_o

  • The recently debuted Australia-centered Other Magazine is already giving sneak peeks at the next issue, including an article on Australia’s oldest Pagan festival gathering. Quote: “When Michel Marold first visited Mt Franklin in 1978 he was awed by the ancient natural feature, and soon tapped in to the liminal ‘otherness’ and primal power of the place, connecting to an invisible current that had lit up the caldera of the extinct volcano for thousands of years.” You can subscribe here.
  • Alex Mar, director of the recent documentary film “American Mystic” (featuring Morpheus Ravenna), is currently researching contemporary American Pagan ideas about funerary rites. She is now specifically seeking thoughts on funeral pyres and excarnation (a.k.a. sky burial) as traditional practices that have yet to be introduced in this country. If you have a personal interest in either of these rites, whether for yourself or a loved one, and would like to share your thoughts and opinions, please contact her. She is seeking Pagan perspectives from all regions of the country. You can reach Alex Mar at:funeraryrites@gmail.com.
  • The Pagan Writers Press Blog is inviting you to a Winter Solstice Blog Hop. Quote: “Beginning 12/6/13, the authors at Pagan Writers Press are putting together a holiday blog hop and we want YOU to join us! If you are an author or a book blogger, sign to to join us for the fun. […] Your blog post can be about winter holidays, winter memories, the season of winter. What is your favorite memory of winter? Does the season inspire you to write? You can write about the solstice, about any winter holidays, about the snow or the season, about your characters experiences of the season, flash fiction or an excerpt dealing with winter or the holidays.”
  • I know it’s Winter, but registration for the 2014 Pagan Spirit Gathering this Summer has now officially opened. Quote: “Throughout the Gathering, there are hundreds of program activities including rituals, concerts, workshops, panels, meetings, intensives, revels, dancing, drumming, firespinning, and bonfires. There are also a variety of youth program activities including specific programming for children, tweens, and teens. In addition, there is leadership training for Pagan ministers and other leaders through the Pagan Leadership Institute.” Theme this year is “Heart and Harmony.”
  • Starhawk’s IndieGoGo campaign to fund diversity scholarships for Earth Activist Trainings is still ongoing. Quote: “One week into our fundraiser and we’ve already reached over 10% of our goal! So thankful to all who have supported this already!! Please help us reach 100% and help us spread the word.”
  • Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland recently held their General Assembly, and the legendary Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson has been elected to another five-year term as Chief Goði for the Asatru organization. Congratulations to him!

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

Welcome to the latest installment of a new supplemental feature here at The Wild Hunt, The Wild Hunt Podcast (focus groups loved the name). This weekly podcast will take a deeper look at stories, links, and personalities that I feature in my daily updates. In this  third episode of The Wild Hunt Podcast we interview author, ritualist, and Wiccan Elder, Ivo Domi­nguez, Jr. about Pagan chants, and his revived Panpipes Pagan Chants Site (and yes, we also discuss the recent controversy concerning Z. Budapest’s statement on “We All Come From The Goddess”). Then, we speak with Alex Mar, director of the documentary film “American Mystic,” about Pagans, Pagan films, and making better Pagan documentaries.

Ivo Dominguez, Jr.

Ivo Dominguez, Jr.

You can listen to, and download, the episode at Archive.org.

Segment Listing:

  1. Intro
  2. “Nica Anahuatl” by Soriah with Ashkelon Sain from their album “Eztica.”
  3. Talk with Ivo Domi­nguez, Jr. about Pagan chants.
  4. “The Divine Goddess” chant by Shakmah Winddrum, performed by Assembly of the Sacred Wheel.
  5. Chat with director Alex Mar about Pagan documentaries.
  6. “Awake!” by Sharon Knight and T. Thorn Coyle, from “Songs for the Waning Year.”
  7. Outro

Relevant Links:

I hope you enjoy the show, stay tuned for next time.

The documentary “American Mystic” (Facebook page), directed by Alex Mar, and featuring Morpheus Ravenna along with members of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary, is now available at Amazon.com, and will soon be accessible at Netflix. The film was screened at the 2011 PantheaCon, and had its premiere at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

“American Mystic is a documentary about three twenty-somethings, each a member of a fringe religious community, who have separated themselves from mainstream America in order to live immersed in their faiths. The film intertwines very intimate, apolitical portraits of individuals in depressed areas of the country trying to lead more extraordinary, mystical lives: Kublai, a Spiritualist in the former revivalist district of upstate New York; Chuck, a Lakota sundancer in the badlands of South Dakota; and Morpheus, a pagan priestess living off the grid in old mining country in southern California.”

At the very beginning of this year, I had the privilege to interview director Alex Mar on this blog about the film.

“I actually spent time with Pagans in Montana, Tennessee, and other areas of California (as opposed to where Morpheus lives) before I even connected with Morpheus. I also had plenty of phone and email chats with Pagans in other states along the way, and a lot of people were lovely, really forthcoming with tips and thoughts on how to be faithfully represent Pagan practice. You’ve talked about this yourself, Jason — the ways in which the Internet has made it easier for Pagans to interact and find each other. The Internet definitely made some aspects of my search easier. But at the end of the day, when someone is still in the “broom closet” in an area of the country that’s hostile to what locals think being a “witch” involves, you need to build a relationship in person. I met a wonderful witch who lived in the hills of Tennessee who initially had me meet her at a truck stop diner to make sure that I was who I claimed to be. Eventually, I spent time at her home, and she really wanted to tell her story — but the fear of being outted in such a hostile environment was too much for her. She was afraid of threats to her or her family, or of losing her job. And she had good reason to be cautious.

When I finally met with Morpheus, in her khakis (nothing like her ritual gear!) after her day job, we clicked pretty quickly. And when once my producer and I stayed with her and her husband Shannon at Stone City, we all had a hunch that this would be a great fit. There was also the plus of being able to tell the story of this Pagan sanctuary they were in the earlier stages of building up on their land.”

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of this documentary, I’ve said that “it may be the best documentary involving modern Pagans that this generation has seen,” and I stand by that description. I’m happy that this work will now be accessible to a larger audience, and I invite you to check it out.

Just a few quick news notes to start off your Monday.

American Mystic Director on Pagan Centered Podcast: The Pagan Centered Podcast has just posted its latest episode, featuring an hour-long discussion with Alex Mar, director of the new documentary “American Mystic”. You can download the program, here.

“The PCP Crew interviews Alex Mar of American Mystic, the first movie branded as a Pagan movie to be released to the general public in theaters! The crew discusses their thoughts about the movie with Alex and we all explore the movie at a greater depth. Don’t worry, even though we screened the full movie, we were able to negotiate the right to release the trailer to you as part of this episode so you will have some idea about what we are talking about. Special thanks again to Alex Mar and Empire 8 for making this happen on such short notice!”

Alex and “American Mystic” has been making the rounds of Pagan media lately, doing interviews with The Modern Witch Podcast (not to mention The Wild Hunt), and receiving positive reviews from a number of national Pagan outlets. The DVD will be available for sale at PantheaCon, and will be distributed exclusively to the Pagan community for a few months, before going “wide” this Summer on Netflix and iTunes. This year’s Pantheacon will feature a special screening of “American Mystic”, which will be followed by a Q&A led by me with the director, Morpheus Ravenna, and members of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary.

Witch School Names New President: The Internet-based WitchSchool has named Rev. Anna Rowe, Head of School for Europe and the UK, as the learning institution’s new president.

“Towards the end of January Ed Hubbard CEO of Witchschool asked me to consider the position of President of Witchschool. Ed has said that he has faith and trust in me to do the job so therefore I accepted. I have an extensive knowledge of how Witchschool works from the bottom up as I have been a member of Witchschool since it was originally just the Daily Spell going out via email. […] I hope that every member of Witchschool will support me in our continued effort to provide anyone, anytime, anyplace with a Magical, Pagan and Wiccan Education. Witchschool is a valuable and growing aspect of the Pagan and Wiccan community and we are open to anyone who wishes to become a member and participate in our peer to peer learning.”

CEO Ed Hubbard commented that this move shows “that Witch School can develop global Pagan leadership.” While WitchSchool has drawn quite a bit of criticism and controversy during its existence, it has also developed a truly global network of students and practitioners, boasting ties from India to Brazil. Will the appointment of a president outside the United States denote a new focus on its international students? How will this affect their Salem campus? I’ll be paying attention as these issues develop.

A (Witchy) Romanian Valentine For You: The Canadian Press notes that a number of Romanian witches, led by Witch Queen Mihaela Minca, have performed a public ritual to help you find love on this Valentine’s Day.

“Joined by a handful of apprentice witches, queen witch Mihaela Minca led Monday’s outdoor ceremony, casting spells with peacock feathers and rose petals. The witches wore colorful, glittering robes in freezing temperatures to perform the ritual in the lakeside village of Mogosoaia.”

In addition to these amorous actions, Minca has been vocal lately in opposition to Romania’s new laws regulating witchcraft and fortune-telling. An issue I’ve covered quite a bit recently. Under proposed new regulations, could she be penalized if you fail in your romantic pursuits? It seems a silly thing to conceive of, but that’s exactly the road Romania’s been traveling down lately.

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

The new documentary “American Mystic”, which had its premiere at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, is a stunning directorial debut from filmmaker Alex Mar.  Languid and dreamlike in tone, it immerses you into the lives of three modern American mystics, a Spiritualist, a Lakota Sundancer, and Pagan priestess Morpheus Ravenna. It may be the best documentary involving modern Pagans that this generation has seen. The subjects are approached on their own terms, and they speak in their own voice. There is no omniscient narrator, or outside experts, all context is provided by the lush cinematography and candid glimpses into the lives of these individuals. Because of this, there is a engaging intimacy, a sense that you are truly getting to know these modern mystics, instead of merely studying them.

I’ve recently had the distinct pleasure to conduct a short interview with Alex Mar about the journey towards making this documentary, how she selected her subjects, and her feelings about modern Pagans.

“American Mystic” is your first feature film. What was the journey the brought you towards tackling this subject matter? Why a film about modern-day mystics?

I’m a bit of a diehard New Yorker — liberal, feminist, wary of any club that would have me — but at the same time I was raised by a Cuban mother whose beliefs are a dizzying mix I would call “liberated Catholic.” So from a young age I was taught to immerse myself in the mystery and ritual that you find in Catholic ceremonies while simultaneously questioning everything. As I got older, I began to see the mysteries and stories of Catholicism as very exotic, and wonder how it is that people come to subscribe to their belief systems. What makes one religion or spiritual practice more relatable than another? Clearly the culture you’re personally raised within has a lot to do with that.

As far as “mystics” — I was working within the media for a long time, and still do occasionally. And I was really tired of the way in which faith in America has been portrayed. It really seems as if there are two angles you can come from: we’re either talking about the evangelical Christian movement, in which case the story is all about politics; or we’re investigating some kind of cult, in which case it’s a freak show. I wanted to make a documentary that would say something else about spiritual practice in America, separate from the mainstream. Because there is obviously so much going on in this country, so many belief systems, that go beyond the Big Three religions. To write America off as a wall-to-wall Christian stronghold is simply wrong.


Alex Mar

In the film you follow the lives of a Pagan Witch priestess, a Spiritualist medium in training, and a Lakota Sioux Sundancer, why these three lives? Was it an organic process, or did you have some preconceived notions about who you’d like to profile?

I think all filmmakers who’ve worked in the doc genre will tell you that casting is critical, and very tricky. You want to find the right balance of subjects for a film, while at the same time having very little idea of how their lives will play out once you start filming. For me, the biggest challenge was inherent to the topic I’d chosen: I had to find people who were really dedicated to a non-mainstream spiritual practice, brave enough to talk about it publicly, articulate about experiences that are sometimes beyond words, and (on top of that!) great on camera. That’s not an easy combination to pull off. That’s why the casting process took about six months, all told, and took me all over the country, to some very hard-to-reach places.

As far as which traditions I wanted to include, I left that pretty loose. I knew I was very curious about Spiritualism, had been for a long time, so this was a good opportunity to explore that. And I also had a hunch that I wanted to develop a better understanding of what it means to be a “witch” today — the word is still so loaded. I remember the first few times I met Pagans, I really tiptoed around saying the word “witch” for fear that I might be committing some kind of faux pas! Of course, I learned very quickly that there are so many stripes of Pagan practice that there isn’t just one correct interpretation. That’s another thing — it was essential to me to stick with the stories from each individual’s perspective, and not get too much grander than that. So Morpheus, the priestess featured in the film, was sharing her own experiences — but neither she nor I would have claimed that we were speaking for all of Pagan-dom. That would have been impossible.

As a follow-up to the previous question, you’ve said in other interviews that you come from a Catholic-Cuban background. Did you consider including a Santeria practitioner, or a Catholic mystic in the documentary?

My mother’s family is originally from the north of Spain, so there wasn’t any Santeria practice in our background — that wouldn’t have been a personal angle, if that had been what I was searching for. And more importantly, as I said, I knew I wanted to steer clear of giving even more coverage to the mainstream. So, for me, that precluded any form of Christianity. In addition, I was trying to include traditions that were “made in America” to some degree. Most Native American practices have been around longer than everything else that’s practiced in this country; Spiritualism was founded in upstate New York in the 1840s; and perhaps you could say that Pagan practice in America involves a great deal of re-invention and room to shift your allegiances among specific traditions. In that sense, Paganism seems pretty all-American to me.

Was it easy getting your subjects to open their lives to you? The portraits are surprisingly intimiate, particularly of Chuck, the Lakota Sundancer. I suspect that building trust was a large part of your work on this project.

Building relationships is a big part of making a documentary, as any doc filmmaker can tell you. And it’s especially challenging when you’re asking people you barely know to open up to you, on-camera, about something as personal as their spiritual beliefs. It’s a topic that I think we’re trained to find embarrassing to talk about in this country — unless you’re an evangelical, on the one hand, or a resident of the states of California or New Mexico! (I’m exaggerating, but there’s some truth to that.) In the end, it was a combination of time spent with the subjects and a willingness on my part to open up in return — I did my best to open up to any questions about my own background.

Turning to Morpheus, and your work with Pagans, how did you two come into contact? Was she the first Pagan you approached for this documentary? What was the process there?

I actually spent time with Pagans in Montana, Tennessee, and other areas of California (as opposed to where Morpheus lives) before I even connected with Morpheus. I also had plenty of phone and email chats with Pagans in other states along the way, and a lot of people were lovely, really forthcoming with tips and thoughts on how to be faithfully represent Pagan practice. You’ve talked about this yourself, Jason — the ways in which the Internet has made it easier for Pagans to interact and find each other. The Internet definitely made some aspects of my search easier. But at the end of the day, when someone is still in the “broom closet” in an area of the country that’s hostile to what locals think being a “witch” involves, you need to build a relationship in person. I met a wonderful witch who lived in the hills of Tennessee who initially had me meet her at a truck stop diner to make sure that I was who I claimed to be. Eventually, I spent time at her home, and she really wanted to tell her story — but the fear of being outted in such a hostile environment was too much for her. She was afraid of threats to her or her family, or of losing her job. And she had good reason to be cautious.

When I finally met with Morpheus, in her khakis (nothing like her ritual gear!) after her day job, we clicked pretty quickly. And when once my producer and I stayed with her and her husband Shannon at Stone City, we all had a hunch that this would be a great fit. There was also the plus of being able to tell the story of this Pagan sanctuary they were in the earlier stages of building up on their land.

Could you tell us a little bit about your time working with Morpheus, Shannon, and their community? How would you describe the working relationship? Any interesting stories to share?

Morpheus and Shannon were great — real collaborators. I think that Morpheus performs, as a dancer, helped her to see this as a sort of art project she was taking on, and that gave our relationship an interesting angle. And once the two of them were on board, they helped me to make the other members of their community feel more comfortable when they visited and the cameras were rolling. We also never showed anyone’s face on-camera unless they had actively given their permission, so once people understood that, it was easier to decide to take part. And I think it also helped that I really did want to take part in ritual whenever it was possible, when I wouldn’t be ruining the shot! Samhain was a particularly moving experience at Stone City, and one I won’t forget. There was definitely some kind of powerful energy in the room, with maybe 60 people present calling on their loved ones who had passed.

Having spent some time working and socializing with modern Pagans, what is your perspective of our communities? Advantages? Drawbacks?

Maybe a downside would be something you find in all religious communities: the people who are more invested in their community for the lifestyle than anything much deeper. The Pagan equivalent of going to your megachurch for the X-Box and the Krispy Kreme donuts. But, of course, the Pagan version is racier than that!

Much more importantly, though, I loved the open attitude I found so many Pagans had. There was a lot of tolerance and genuine curiosity about people who practice differently. I really appreciated that. Also, the idea that you’re allowed to evolve and change aspects of your practice as you grow — that was something new for me.

___

There will be a special screening of “American Mystic” at the 2011 PantheaCon in San Jose, California, followed by a panel discussion moderated by me, and featuring Alex Mar, Morpheus, and members of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary. There will also be an opportunity to purchase DVD copies of the film. A wider DVD release of the documentary will follow shortly after this event.