Archives For Ancestors

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befunky-design2This essay was hijacked; ripped right away from me as I wrote it. This essay was supposed to have been about listening to ancestors, spirits and even deities. I started to write when I visited a web site with a podcast and, in one of the drop-down menus was the selection of “How to Listen,” and I thought that was important.

But, the veil may be pulling away thinner and faster than in other years, and so the hijacking started. The little signs appeared, whispers, finding old photos, news and texts all distracting me in different directions. This is not helpful as you try to focus. Information on the radio. The chatter of ancestors and spirit. Finally, a phone survey about dying.

Seriously, for whoever is listening, was yet another phone survey really necessary? Apparently so, because I wasn’t getting enough of them living in a big-prize political battleground state.

Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel the Elder [Public Domain]

About thirty years ago, I had the conversation about death and dying with my then-partner. He had been diagnosed with HIV spectrum disease and his death was matter of time. We didn’t know the bus number, but we knew the bus. The treatments for HIV/AIDS then were haphazard. The scientific community was just wrapping itself around the scope of the problem, let alone the concrete solutions to arresting the virus.

I was a doctoral student at the time, taking courses in advanced immunology as part of rotations in our medical school for statistical training. In one particular course on virus-host interactions, it was mathematically clear to me that my partner’s chances for managing the disease were slim at best. There was simply too much on the scales tipping them in the direction of death.

Luckily, I didn’t have to broach the death conversation. He laid it out straightforwardly. He detailed with exceptional precision the conditions under which he would take his own life, or expected the plug to be pulled.

To complicate matters, or perhaps reinforce them, he was a pharmacist. He had the full American pharmacopeia literally at his fingertips. He had already acquired the necessary cocktail should what he called the “exit circumstances” ever occur.

He was also a Christian, and was well resigned that he was going to purgatory. He had accepted that the sum of sins in his life were potentially forgivable, but his soul would — and as he would argue should — remain unclean and barred from entering heaven until his transgressions were expunged. He believed — like many in the Abrahamic faiths– that we are the stewards, but not owners, of our lives. And euthanasia, in the human context, is suicide, an essential contradiction of a life-affirming plan laid out by the Abrahamic god at the time of creation.

He was also worried about complicity. Those who might voluntarily cooperate if and when he took his own life, would also expose themselves to serious sin. Failing to intervene, or even waiting until no rescue was possible, was a contravening behavior to proactively seeking and sustaining life. Therefor, all of those around him, who knew of his plan, were at risk of corruption, and thus condemned to atone for their sins. Some of which also required a stay in purgatory.  At least that’s what he thought.

To be clear, though, he wasn’t particularly worried about me; I was already going to hell. You know, the witch thing. Ultimately, the disease took his mind long before he could execute any plan. The sin, in his faith, was the thought, not that action. When his body succumbed it was from disease, not planning.

My godmother died at about the same time. She was loud, loving and irritating with a special penchant to test new recruits to our Ile, our “house,” the immediate spiritual community in Lukumi. This became especially true in the last decade of her life as her health problems started to gain prominence. She would lecture to potential members of her house and then start to complain that she wasn’t feeling well and that her back was acting up again. Then a few moments later she would say, “well, that’s that, time to” do ____” — some mildly strenuous yet wholly-inappropriate chore that she shouldn’t be doing in the first place, such as mowing the lawn. (Well, she’d say it, but in Spanish).

Inevitably, one potential member would unwaveringly come to her assistance. Then she would pull a Norma Desmond for dramatic attention to her health, but reject the help sternly, noting, “Thank you, but I don’t want your help.”

They would go to help anyway. And she would do some part of the work, shaking her head in disappointment. Others would come and in just a few minutes, what would have taken her a couple of hours to complete, was done by a group of well-meaning helpers. Then, when the task was done, she would ice the room into paralysis: “I can’t learn what I need if I’m not allowed to try but more importantly, I can teach you nothing if you refuse to listen.”

It was a comment that was met with anger and confusion, but it was also true. Embedded in that comment was single call to action that often escaped the person listening to it: Trust me that I’m telling you the truth.

[Photo Credit: Brandon Godfrey / Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Brandon Godfrey / Wikimedia]

What my godmother wanted was to underscore that in a magical and religious community, every member has an obligation to speak their truth; and every member has an obligation to trust that a personal truth is being spoken. When she said, “Don’t help,” she meant it.

She didn’t need to be rescued from her own truth.

What my ex and my godmother were each demanding was agency, and it is this agency, an essence of self-determination, that sits as an important value in our community. It is also the easiest thing to take from those who are frail, chief among them the ill and dying. They have the least power and offer the least resistance. At the same time, they induce some of the greatest challenges in our lives.

At this time, we lack not only a substantive theological architecture about death and dying, but also an urgency to engage in that dialogue. As we involve ourselves in discussing and describing these difficult topics from a faith orientation, we not only build our theological infrastructure around them, but we also build interfaith respect showing that we are prepared to address difficult questions of life, living and dying. We convey that we can collectively offer faith-centered answers and support during critical stages in peoples’ lives. And this is a moment and a topic in which we can lead a truly national, even international, dialogue.

In general, it is safe to say that Pagans value life: our community is ebullient with life-affirming and joy-affirming events, texts and behaviors. They are ubiquitous. I think we also deeply value the fabric that nature has built over eons, and recognizing that life requires death. And while we have commissions that protect life, such as “harm none” (a statement shared by the Hippocratic oath), the Wheel of the Year, for many of us, embeds in our communities and our consciousness, a clear marking of time to honor the deceased. The wheel teaches us to take the time to reflect on death as a necessary passing. Through that, the Pagan relationship with death deviates considerably from the views of most major faiths. Life and death form a continuum over which spirit exists.

In the Yoruba religion, for example, the ancestors are intimately present. They are revered because it is their work, their sacrifice, and their love that brought each of us to the present. They are accessible through divination and our skills at mediumship. Working with ancestors is more than encouraged; it is required. It is devotional practice on a daily basis. Death is part of existence; and it is through that interwoven doorway between all worlds that we can call the living to the world of the departed.

We are encouraged to converse. This conversation with ancestors is opened by Orisha Oyá. She is the first breath of life and the last breath before death. She is close to death but not death itself. She is the Orisha that must witness every act of dying and her wind releases the spirit into eternity. She guards the cemetery gates, but not the cemetery itself. She represents the transition, opening the space from the living to to the dead. It is a view that is not dissimilar from many Pagan traditions.

As you might imagine, however, I am a proponent of voluntary euthanasia for those with incurable and terminal illness. There is nothing incompatible with affirming life while validating agency. In fact, I believe that freedom represents the most powerful testament that we have of our commitment to self-determination; what medical ethicists might refer to as autonomy, or the supremacy of a patient’s wishes over the desires of their caretakers and providers. The discourses around lessening suffering should be subordinate to this type of agency, but I have to leave the intricacies of that argument to the many gifted theologians of our community.

As the veil does thin, it is an opportunity to discuss the light and the dark, including how we might hail and transcend the more difficult and emotional moments of our time in life. These conversations can only strengthen our respect for the moment and the immanence of the spirit. Our dialogue cannot diminish the fires and fervor for life nor can they hasten or glorify a desire for death, but they can help us to better understand and cope with it. Even when we know the bus and the time, death will always remain sudden no matter how expected.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Column: Tupac Amaru Shakur

Heathen Chinese —  September 17, 2016 — 4 Comments

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 7, 1996, the rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur was shot in Las Vegas at the age of 25. He is reported to have died in the hospital six days later, on Sept. 13. Conspiracy theories abound that his death was staged and that he is still alive and in hiding. But while the line between death and life may seem absolute to secularists, death doesn’t mean the same thing to polytheists and spirit workers, for whom “there is no death, only a change of worlds.”¹

Whether or not he is currently embodied, Tupac’s legacy is undeniable. From Los Angeles to Rio De Janeiro, he is honored as an ancestor. For ancestry is not merely biological, but relational: one becomes an ancestor by being honored by one’s descendants.

Ipanema, Rio De Janeiro [Marycsalome / Flickr]

Rio De Janeiro [Marycsalome / Flickr]

To better understand Tupac as an ancestor, it is instructive to look at the lineages that he is a descendant of. We start not with his parents, but with his name. Many cultures recognize the power of names, from the Egyptian myth of Isis and Ra to the German fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. There is, moreover, a particular power in the passing down of names from generation to generation.

Two examples from Icelandic sagas are particularly striking in this regard. In Svarfdaela Saga, H. Lauer writes, “Thorolfr promises to pass his good hamingja (luck or power) on to any son of his brother who should be named Thorolfr; it is this or else Thorolfr’s name risks passing ‘out of use like withered grass.’”² In Vatnsdaela Saga, the desire to pass one’s name down is not limited to one’s own family, but even extended into the family of one’s enemy. The warrior Jokull lies dying on the battlefield, and asks a final boon from his killer: “not to let my name pass away…if a son be granted to you or to your son.”³ While every tradition is different, the name “Tupac Amaru” contains an especially rich history of being passed down through the centuries.

Túpac Amaru: I Feel Like Pac For Real

The first Túpac Amaru was the last of the Incan emperors. His brother submitted to Catholic baptism and Spanish rule, but Túpac Amaru refused to do so, and was beheaded by the Spanish in 1573. Túpac Amaru II claimed to be a descendant of Túpac Amaru and adopted that name when he led an indigenous revolt in Peru in 1780. He, too, was drawn, quartered and beheaded. In the twentieth century, several South American leftist guerrilla groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay (founded 1963) and the MRTA in Peru (founded 1983) named themselves after Túpac Amaru II.

A similar thread can be found in Chinese history, where several millenarian Daoist movements claimed to be led by reincarnations of Li Hong:

A great many charismatic leaders came from the Li family, and certain of them claimed to be the god Laozi returned to earth; a sage of western China, Li Hong, who had actually lived during the 1st century BCE, became the favourite recurrent figure of later would-be messiahs. […] The last recorded Li Hong was executed in 1112.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to Latin America and China. This year, after the police killing of Alton Sterling, the rapper Young Buck released a song entitled “Riot,” which begins with a vocal sample from Tupac: “I would rather tell a young black male to educate his mind, arm yourself and be free and defend yourself, than you know, just sit there and turn the other cheek. So whatever message that sends out, that’s the kinda message it is.” Young Buck then says, “I mean I feel like Pac for real in this bitch today bruh.” And on the song, “Fuck Donald Trump,” Nipsey Hu$$le directly quotes Tupac’s “To Live & Die in L.A.,” rapping in favor of brown and black unity, “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans […] Black love, brown pride and the sets again.” Tupac Shakur thus acts in today’s struggles in the United States in a similar fashion as Li Hong did in the first millennium CE, Túpac Amaru I did in the 1780s, and Túpac Amaru II did in the late 20th century.

Tupac’s first and middle names tie him to a lineage of remembrance and revolt in the Western Hemisphere. But why was he given these names in the first place?

Tupac Amaru I [Public Domain]

Tupac Amaru I [Public Domain]

Shakur: It Goes Down my Family Tree

Tupac was born to a family of militant black revolutionaries, the Shakurs or “thankful ones.” In an interview, Tupac stated that “I like to think that at every opportunity I’ve ever been threatened with resistance, it’s been met with resistance. And not only me but it goes down my family tree. You know what I’m saying, it’s in my veins to fight back.”4 He was not exaggerating when he spoke these words.

Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, was a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther party. While pregnant with Tupac in 1969, she was a defendant in the Panther 21 case, in which twenty-one Black Panther party members were accused of conspiring to assassinate police officers and blow up buildings including police stations. In 1971, the Panther 21 were acquitted of all charges.

In 1982, when Tupac was ten years old, his stepfather Mutulu Shakur was indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) law on charges relating to “participation in a clandestine paramilitary unit that carried out actual and attempted expropriations from several banks” between December 1976 and October 1981 including a 1981 Brink’s armored truck robbery as well as the 1979 prison break of Assata Shakur. Mutulu went underground for nearly five years, was captured in 1986, convicted in 1988, and is still serving a 60-year sentence. Tupac’s song “White Man’s World” was “dedicated to my motherfuckin teachers Mutulu Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, Mumia Abu Jamal, Sekou Odinga, all the real O.G.’s.”

Assata Shakur is Tupac’s godmother. She was imprisoned for the 1973 killing of a police officer, but escaped in 1979 and moved to Cuba. Sekou Odinga, who was also part of the Panther 21 case along with Afeni, and who, like Mutulu, was convicted of RICO charges relating to the Brink’s robbery and Assata’s liberation, is the father of Yaki Akiyele Fula. Yaki rapped as Kadafi in the the Outlawz, the rap group founded by Tupac in 1995.

The dedication of “White Man’s World” shows that these family connections and relationships were important to Tupac, and that adoptive kinship was just as important as biological. The political consciousness of his elders is also apparent in Tupac’s lyrics, in which he raps such lines as, “‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said/Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead” (Changes) and “Malcolm X or Bobby Hutton died for nothin'” (Ghetto Gospel). These lines, of course, reflect the pessimism of Tupac’s generation regarding the failed efforts of their predecessors. Therein lies an inescapable truth: we are all shaped and molded by our parents and ancestors, but we all have our own paths to forge, and we choose how to carry our lineages forward. Tupac’s deliberate choice to honor his Shakur family legacy was an integral part of his path.

Mutulu Shakur [Public Domain]

Mutulu Shakur [Public Domain]

That’s Why We Go to Thug Mansion

Given the complex web of ancestry that any individual is descended from and comprised of, it makes sense for that complexity to be retained after death. Tupac’s lyrics posit quite a few possible afterlives. In “Only God Can Judge Me,” Tupac raps, “My only fear of death/Is comin’ back to this bitch reincarnated.” In “Thugz Mansion” he speculates that “Ain’t no heaven for a thug nigga/That’s why we go to thug mansion,” a place reminiscent of the ancient Greek Isle of the Blessed, where one can enjoy the company of such individuals as Billie Holiday, Malcolm X and Latasha Harlins. On the cover of his final album recorded before his shooting, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, Tupac, now rapping under the name Makaveli, depicts himself crucified like Jesus.

To some, these may seem like irreconcilable possibilities. Many polytheist and animist traditions, however, believe in multiple souls or in the multi-part soul. Chinese tradition, for example, contains the concepts of the shén (神), the hún (魂, which itself may be three entities) and the pò (魄, which may be seven entities), all of which are distinct from concepts such as jīng () and qì (). The ancient Egyptians conceived of people being comprised of multiple parts as well: “the main constituents were the body, its ka, and its name which remained always in close proximity to each other even in the tomb, and the shadow, the ba, sahu and akh.”

Furthermore, in the realm of practice, multiple eschatologies can coexist simultaneously. In China, for example, Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation have coexisted with traditional ancestor veneration practices for millennia. The multiple-soul theory provides one possible explanation for how this may work on the other side. Even within ancestor veneration, the existence of both grave-tending and ancestor shrines and temples suggest that a distinction is made between the soul attached to the physical body and the ancestral soul. We see in Tupac’s lyrics the possibilities of a soul that is reincarnated (which in some traditions is seen as a neutral fact, in others as something to transcend), one that dwells in the heroic paradise known as Thug Mansion, and perhaps even one that undergoes resurrection and apotheosis. There is also the aforementioned name of Tupac Amaru, which in Icelandic tradition would be linked with the hamingja of Túpac Amaru I, and the familial Shakur ancestral soul.

For a poet like Tupac, there is always the poetic immortality that one finds in the “everlasting glory” promised to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, in Catullus, and in Shakespeare. In Kendrick Lamar’s song “Mortal Man,” he carefully alternates quotes from Tupac’s interviews with his own words, creating through bricolage a conversation between himself and Tupac. As he speaks to Tupac, Kendrick identifies himself as “one of your offspring of the legacy you left behind.” In another song, “Black Friday,” Kendrick declares that he will personally “make sure [Tupac] lives on.” Poetry brings another level of elevation to the dead altogether.

[George Hannz D / Wikimedia]

[George Hannz D / Wikimedia]

We Just Letting our Dead Homies Tell Stories

Tupac is most famous for his musical career, but in his own words, rapping was always a spirit-guided act: “Because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.”5 And in “Ghetto Gospel,” he rapped, “God isn’t finished with me yet/I feel His hand on my brain/When I write rhymes I go blind and let the Lord do his thing.”

In his essay “The Head of Orpheus,” published in Scarlet Imprint’s Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis, Michael Routery writes that like Hesiod receiving the breath of inspiration from the Muses on Mount Helicon, in traditional societies “around the world poets were seen as inspired by gods, spirits and the dead, and conduits of a world of transpersonal memory, and prophecy.” Clearly, Tupac’s quotes fit well into this framework of spirit-inspired poetry, and songs like “Pour Out a Little Liquor” exist within a much more widespread street culture of remembering and libating the dead.

Routery’s naming of both memory and prophecy as poetic functions is deliberate, for “among many primal, archaic and indigenous peoples the poet and prophet were combined, or perhaps better to say unseparated.” Some of Tupac’s words have a prophetic ring to them as well, though as P.E. Easterling writes in her introduction to Sophocles’s Trachiniae, “the special characteristic of oracles” is that “they represent a glimpse of the truth which can only be properly understood when the events they foretell take place” (3).

In an interview, for example, Tupac predicted black insurgencies paralleling that led by Nat Turner:

I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, uh, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think American think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka.6

Whether this prophecy will be fulfilled or not remains to be seen, but for now, his words serve merely as a “glimpse of the truth” that cannot yet be properly understood.

[$amii / Flickr]

[Image Credit: $amii / Flickr]

T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.

Tupac is also known for promulgating a standard of behavior for gangsters known as the Code of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E., which his step-father Mutulu Shakur is said to have helped write. The code sought to mitigate the effects of drug dealing with prohibitions on selling drugs to children and pregnant women and to reduce violence towards those not involved in criminal activity. At the same time, it was an attempt to embrace the derogatory word “thug” in a manner similar to religious and spiritual practitioners’ reclamations of the terms “Witch,” “Pagan,” and “Heathen.”

The term “thug” is derived from the Hindi “thag,” which literally means “to cheat,” but according to Kim Wagner’s article “The Deconstructed Stranglers: A Reassessment of Thuggee,” it could mean either a conman or a violent robber in precolonial India (943). Under British colonial rule in the 1830s, the term “thuggee” was used to specifically describe a particular form of robbery in which bandits “attacked travelers on the high road using trickery or deception” and in which the victims were strangled (942), and a campaign was launched to suppress thuggee. Thuggee was also said to be a form of Kali worship, and the murders by strangulation were allegedly carried out as human sacrifices.

Wagner casts doubt upon this narrative on the grounds that “there is no mention whatsoever of thuggee as a religious practice in the material predating […] the campaign to eradicate thuggee,” and argues that “ordinary dacoits in 19th century India, who were never assumed to be motivated by religious fervor, would also hold a ceremony or puja after a successful robbery and make votive offerings to a deity” (953). While her article is focused on deconstructing and reassessing the image of the thug constructed by the British, this particular quote also suggests that religious offerings were indeed the norm for bandits, which is in and of itself and interesting area of study.

Wagner suggests that the conflation of thuggee with extreme religious devotion was an example of confirmation bias, and also of a deliberate legitimization of thuggee on those interrogated by the British who may have been sympathetic to thuggee:

The extreme interest in the subject exhibited by the British prompted the informers to rethink their religious identity. When the approvers promulgated thuggee as a religious practice in worship of Devi they were legitimizing their actions and practices, which conferred a higher moral and social status to the thugs, setting them aside from ‘ordinary’ criminals. (954)

Interestingly, Tupac’s Code of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. essentially sought to do the same thing, to distinguish thugs from “ordinary criminals.” Tupac said in an interview: “Yes, I am gonna say that I’m a thug. That’s because I came from the gutter and I’m still here. I’m not saying I’m a thug because I wanna rob you and rape people.”

[Public Domain]

Thugs about to strangle a traveler [Public Domain]

Problematic Ancestors

Unfortunately, despite being one of the few rappers to express moderately pro-feminist sentiments in his songs and interviews, Tupac himself fell far short of his claims. In 1995, he was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse.

Let us be clear about this. Rape, abuse, and all apologia for and minimization of such acts are categorically unacceptable.

The practice of ancestor veneration does not change that position in the slightest. But the question of problematic ancestors must nevertheless be confronted. When Tupac declared, “only God can judge me now,” was he ready for his god to call his bluff?

The concept of multiple souls allows for the possibility that there are souls that undergo judgment of some sort and then receive the consequences of their actions. In the Egyptian conception of multiple souls, for example, the heart (F34, jb) is weighed after death by Anubis against the feather of Ma’at. If too heavy, it is devoured by Ammit. Furthermore, in the case of particularly hated individuals such as the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaton, human descendants would destroy inscriptions containing that individual’s name and their very memory. The Roman senate is also known to have enacted similar decrees against despised emperors and would-be emperors, a practice that in modern times was given the name damnatio memoriae. And if one honors one’s ancestors as collectives, it may well be that particularly problematic individuals have been removed from that collective by its other members.

Not all conceptions of afterlife judgment and punishment are the same. In Chinese Buddhism, when souls go to Dìyù (地獄), they are tortured for their crimes by the Ten Kings (十王, shíwáng), but the tenth and final king “turns the wheel of transmigration that carries the dead to their new existences as either gods, human beings on earth or in hell, good or bad demons, or animals.” In other words, in this particular tradition, the torture is not an eternal punishment, but a form of purification akin to Catholic purgatory.

Just as Catholics perform masses for the dead in order to “help the departed souls undergoing purification” in purgatory, so can ancestor work be done to help the dead within polytheist and animist traditions. The particular details of how this works vary greatly from tradition to tradition. Within the hypothesis of multiple souls, it may be the ancestral soul that is uplifted and elevated by ancestor work, while other souls or soul-parts are affected to differing degrees. There may be purifications or retributions that must be undergone and cannot be affected by the living at all. None of this should be taken to “cancel out” or minimize the effects of harm caused to others during one’s lifetime. Once the stone has been cast into the water, sticking one’s hand in the water to stop the ripples and pretend the stone was never thrown is impossible.

On the other hand, in “The Fire Is Here,” I quoted James Baldwin about “the crime that is committed until it is accepted that it was committed.” Like the curse on the descendants of Tantalos, which manifested as kinslaying in successive generations from the fratricide of Atreus to the matricide of Orestes, the crimes committed by one’s ancestors weigh upon the descendants and seek, vampire-like, to be recommitted and brought into the world in yet another incarnation. In these cases, the best form of ancestor work is to “put the souls of your ancestors at peace,” as the Chinese god Guan Sheng Di Jun advises, “by doing good.” In other words, to break the cycle in one’s own generation.

In “Tupac’s Law: Incarceration and the Crisis of Black Masculinity,” Seneca Vaught wrote that one of Tupac’s “greatest personal shortcomings was the inability to leave the “plantation of maleness,” a mentality that clinical psychologist Na’im Akbar (1991) characterized in Visions For Black Men” (89). Tupac Shakur’s descendants can never erase his shortcomings, but they can try to overcome those shortcomings in themselves, to themselves escape and destroy the “plantation of maleness.”

Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead. [Public Domain]

Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead. [Public Domain]


  1. Attributed to Chief Seattle.
  2. “Death, Dreaming and Memory” by H. Lauer, quoted in “Arguments in Favor of Universalist Heathenry” by Heimlich A. Laguz.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Column: Black August

Heathen Chinese —  August 20, 2016 — 2 Comments

The dog days of summer are here, marked by the rising of the star Sirius in the morning sky, “the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog, which is brightest among the stars, and yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals.”¹ On August 13, Sylville Smith was killed by a Milwaukee police officer. In the following two nights, eight businesses and numerous cars were burned, rocks and bottles were thrown at the police, and guns were fired on multiple occasions, resulting in at least one hospitalization. Meanwhile, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center has alleged that the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison gang may be planning “to kill correctional officers and Aryan Brotherhood gang members” in commemoration of Black August.

george jackson

George Jackson 

Black August originated in the 1970s following the August 7, 1970 deaths of Jonathan Jackson, James McClain and William Christmas during a prisoner liberation and hostage-taking at the Marin County Courthouse and the August 21, 1971 death of George Jackson during a prison rebellion in San Quentin.

Prisoners participating in Black August “wore black armbands on their left arm and studied revolutionary works, focusing on the works of George Jackson. The brothers did not listen to the radio or watch television in August. Additionally, they didn’t eat or drink anything from sun-up to sundown; and loud and boastful behavior was not allowed. The brothers did not support the prison’s canteen. The use of drugs and alcoholic beverages was prohibited and the brothers held daily exercises.”

Black August also commemorates numerous other significant moments in black history including but not limited to the Haitian Revolution, which began on August 21, 1791 and was preceded by the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, the slave rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser on August 30, 1800 and by Nat Turner on August 21, 1831, the founding of the Underground Railroad on August 2, 1850 and the Watts rebellions in August, 1965. In their article on Black August, the Malcolm X Grassroots movement writes, “if we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.” Like a flowering branch nourished by roots wrapped around the decaying bodies of the dead, the visible manifestations of revolt are supported by a vast invisible network of spirits and subterranean traditions.

A New Birth, At Once Into Life and Into Death

In his study of “The Traditional Chinese Mourning Categories,” anthropologist David K. Jordan notes that mourning is characterized by two indicators: “distinctive mourning clothing” and the requirement to “avoid normal activities, sometimes even subsistence activities.” We see the same two indicators in the black armbands worn by prisoners during Black August, and in their avoidance of a wide range of “normal activities,” including fasting.

The need to mourn the deaths of George and Jonathan Jackson was also seen clearly by both James Baldwin and Jean Genet. The friendship of the two writers and their writings about the Jacksons are analyzed in Bædan: journal of queer time travel. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin compared the grief of Georgia Jackson, Jonathan and George’s mother, to that of the Virgin Mary:

George Jackson has joined his beloved baby brother, Jon, in the royal fellowship of death. And one may say that Mrs. Georgia Jackson and the alleged mother of God have, at last, found something in common. Now, it is the Virgin, the alabaster Mary, who must embrace the despised black mother whose children are also the issue of the Holy Ghost.²

Jean Genet also wrote about Georgia Jackson, but in his “half-waking dream” that he experienced “a few hours after [George] Jackson’s death,” George and Jonathan were reborn from a different womb:

Jonathan and George violently came out of the prison, a stony womb, on waves of blood. […] It was not their mother who gave birth to them that night, for she was there, upright, impassive but alert, looking on. If it was a new birth, at once into life and into death, who but History was delivering the two black men covered, as with every birth, in blood.³

In a strange parallel, Baldwin declared that “an old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives.” He prophesied that “there will be bloody holding actions all over the world, for years to come: but the Western party is over, and the white man’s sun has set.” We are still seeing the “bloody holding actions” today, and we have indeed proven to be “exceedingly clumsy midwives,” but these struggles are nothing new.


Haitian Revolution. Battle of Snake Gully, 1802 [Public Domain]

Dance Groups or Associations Which Foster an Esprit de Corps

The Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, 1791 also served as a kind of bloody Caesarean birth, for the Haitian Revolution began exactly one week later. The ceremony was first written about by Antoine Dalmas, a French doctor who fled to the United States and then wrote a report in 1794 based upon the interrogation of prisoners. That Dalmas’ portrayal of the ritual is unsympathetic is an understatement that should go without saying, but nonetheless, it is the first written account of the ceremony:

[They] celebrated a sort of feast or sacrifice in the middle of a wooded untilled plot on the Choiseul plantation, called le Caïman, where a very large number of Negroes assembled. An entirely black pig, surrounded by fetishes (fétiches), loaded with offerings each more bizarre than the other was the holocaust offered to the all-powerful spirit (génie) of the black race. The religious rituals that the negroes conducted while cutting its throat, the avidity with which they drank of his blood, the value they set in possessing a few of his bristles, a sort of talisman which, according to them, was to render them invulnerable, all serve to characterize Africans. That such an ignorant and besotted caste would make the superstitious rituals of an absurd and sanguinary religion serve as a prelude to the most frightful crimes was to be expected.4

Later accounts, such as that of the French abolitionist Civique de Gastine in 1819, would add further details such as the renunciation of Christianity as “the religion of their masters” and a collective oath “to perish rather than return to slavery,” but these writers were much further removed from the actual events in Haiti in 1791. It is, however, telling that “the second Haitian president, Alexandre Pétion, in 1814 prohibited the gathering of ‘all dance groups…or associations which foster an esprit de corps.’5 In other words, it is indisputable that subaltern religious organizations were seen as a threat by those who gained power after the revolution, which speaks to their significance and power during the revolution itself.

A quick survey of cross-cultural and historical comparisons shows that rituals intended to grant invulnerability were also associated with the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, Chinese spirit mediums in general, the Native American Ghost Dance, and the mainads of Dionysos written about in Euripides’s Bakkhai: against the mainads, “sharpened weapons drew no blood at all.”6 While Euripides was a playwright and may be accused of poetic license, the historical record shows that Dionysian worship was seen as a serious threat in Rome. Like Pétion in 1814 CE, the Roman Senate in 186 BCE banned all Bacchic cults not approved by the praetor urbanus, declaring that “henceforth they shall not form conspiracies among themselves, stir up any disorder, make mutual promises or agreements, or interchange pledges; no one shall observe the sacred rites either in public or private or outside the city, unless he comes to the praetor urbanus.”

The fear of conspiracies, disorder and oaths is obvious in the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, and even more so in Livy. Just like Dalmas’s claim that Bois Caïman was a “prelude to the most frightful crimes,” Livy associated the Bacchic rites with criminality and violence:

With the added liberation of darkness, absolutely every crime and vice was performed there. The men had more sex with each other than with the women. Anyone who was less prepared for disgrace and slow to commit crimes was offered up as a sacrifice. To consider nothing wrong was the principal tenet of their religio. Men, as if insane, prophesied with wild convulsions of their bodies, married women in the dress of the Bacchants with streaming hair ran down to the Tiber carrying burning torches, which they dipped into the water and brought out still alight.

Like Dalmas, Livy was clearly an unsympathetic narrator, but the disapproval and disgust of these reactionary writers merely goes to show how seriously “dance groups or associations which foster an esprit de corps” have historically frightened the ruling classes.

Mainad. Kylix, 490–480 BCE, Vulci, Italy. [Public Domain]

Mainad. Kylix, 490–480 BCE, Vulci, Italy [Public Domain]

The Chaplains Corps of the War on Slavery

Rebelliously-inclined religious organizations were present in the Antebellum Southern United States as well, some of which are written about in Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford’s Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. For example, one of the leaders in Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion testified at his trial that he was sent to recruit the “outlandish people” who were “supposed to deal with witches and wizards,”7 and thereby recruit the sorcerers as well.

Furthermore, the early black nationalist Martin Delany (1812–1885) wrote of a council of conjure men and women known as “the Head” located within the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The Head performed rituals in a cave in the swamp, where they also kept a large sacred serpent. The Head played a major role in the initiation of new conjure men and women: “in order to be ordained as conjure men or women, non-maroons were forced to (at least temporarily) escape their bondage and find the council.”8 This initiatory escape, even if temporary, served to forge ties between the maroons in the swamps and the rebels on the plantations.

The Head was involved in numerous slave insurrections and “considered themselves to be the chaplains corps of the war on slavery. The Head deeply revered the memory of Nat Turner, and claimed to have been associated with his effort. As young conjure men they had fought alongside General Gabriel and took pride in that action forty years later.”9 By venerating the ancestors of the struggle and keeping their memories alive, the Head contributed to future revolts as well.

Shirley and Stafford argue that the maroon communities that were rooted in the Great Dismal Swamp were crucial to the exceptionally high number of large uprisings that broke out in the Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina, and that diverse and syncretic spiritual practices were an inherent and central part of maroon social organization.10 Like the Eolh-sedge of the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, the maroon community “is mostly to be found in a marsh; it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound, covering with blood every warrior who touches it.”

Nat Turner. [Public Domain]

Nat Turner [Public Domain]

Let the Crops Rot, Betray the Whites

These are but a few of the stories and ancestors invoked by Black August. And even after August 31, the memory of previous uprisings guides the struggles of the present. On September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, prisoners are calling for a general strike of prison labor across the United States:

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.

This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery, starting on September 9th, 2016. They cannot run these facilities without us.

While the prisoners address their fellow prisoners directly, solidarity actions proliferate outside the walls of the prisons. But the conditions of imprisonment extend beyond the facilities themselves, as Milwaukee demonstrates clearly. Jean Genet’s words after the death of George Jackson ring as true today as they did in 1971:

We must look closely…at all imprisoned blacks—whether in jail or the ghetto—who are in danger at every moment of being assassinated like George and Jonathan Jackson or of being wasted away by the white world. In fact, we must learn to betray the whites that we are.11

Genet, despite declaring George and Jonathan “two black Gemini,” eschewed the language of mythology and instead called this task a “human labor directed against the dense and sparkling mythology of the white world.” Nonetheless, I maintain that the war is waged on all fronts simultaneously, and that the spiritual realms are inseparable from the social and the material.


  1. Homer, Iliad 22.29-31, translated by Richmond Lattimore.
  2. Quoted in Bædan 110.
  3. Quoted in Bædan 111.
  4. Quoted in Elizabeth McAlister, “From Slave Revolt to a Blood Pact with Satan: The Evangelical Rewriting of Haitian History” 9.
  5. Ibid 8.
  6. Euripides, Bakkhai, translated by Anne Carson 40.
  7. Quoted in Dixie Be Damned 43.
  8. Ibid 44.
  9. Hugo Leaming, quoted in Dixie Be Damned 44.
  10. Ibid 21.
  11. Quoted in Bædan 111.

  *   *   *

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

The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Paganisms and Witchcraft traditions in Australia are no less subject to the times as they are anywhere else in the world. While we draw vast inspiration from the past of Europe, Christian and pre-Christian, we are subject to the influences of contemporary pop-culture, public discourse, prevailing political paradigms and social trends as they are manifest in post-colonial Australia. This influence can go one of two ways in terms of our practices. First, as a minority spiritual school(s) of thought, as a sub-culture, or indeed, a counter-culture, standing outside the square and looking in on society writ large, modern Pagans and contemporary Witches can be deeply progressive, revolutionary, subversive and flat out contrarian. Or, our practices change according to the influences of the over-culture.


[Photo Credit: Pöllö / Wikimedia Commons]

Our collective strength is in our ability to inhabit the Janus Head and look both ways, drawing inspiration from that past and being completely free to adapt it according to our present needs and into the future. We are not beholden to a dogma, our focus in on praxis, on the demonstrable, the experience of the individual such that the modern Pagan, or Witch, is free to completely re-examine our relationships with spirit, and indeed, notions of belief entirely. A literal reading of our collective myths is not required as it is in Christianity, nowhere is it written that we must subjugate our Will.

This is particularly true of Witchcraft. Here, the key lessons pertain to power; who has it, what doesn’t, how the web of Wyrd subtlety connects us all and moves us, how to see what has power over us, and how to diminish that influence, and exert our own, according to our Will. This key ability or fundamental lesson is not boxed in and cut off from any sphere of human activity or thought, we can, and do apply it broadly and examine power structures and influences in the broader culture as well.

It is precisely these freedoms and considerations that mean, in Australia, most Pagans and Witches celebrate Samhain at the end of April. Anyone with eyes can see that Samhain is linked to a particular power structure in Nature – a particular shift that allows a moment we often describe as the thinning veil between the Worlds. And anyone with eyes in Oz knows that shift in power doesn’t happen at the end of November, it happens on or around April 30.

That is a kind of power that one does not need to be a Witch to see. Everyone in the Southern Hemisphere is well acquainted with it, as is everyone in the Northern Hemisphere.

In Australia and New Zealand though, something else happens in late April: ANZAC Day. Increasingly, it pops up in reference to Samhain, or All Hallow’s Eve. And in terms of mainstream Australian culture and dominant political paradigms, it has become extremely powerful and, at the same time, increasingly contentious. The question I find myself asking is simply this: How well have Australian Pagans and Witches considered the influence and power of ANZAC Day to either the growth or detriment of the aims of our ancestral based practices at Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve?

Online advertisement for ANZAC Day 2016 including specials for restaurant Bivianos in Dural in regional NSW.

ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day falls on April 25, the anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing in 1915. Historically, it marks the operation of the Allied Forces in WWI designed to capture the Gallipoli Penisula and open the Black Sea to the Allied navies. In terms of engagement, ANZAC Day completely overshadows November’s Remembrance Day, which is the day to commemorate the end of the First World War as well as a day to honor all who have died in war.

In terms of the place, one might be forgiven for thinking Australians had a hand at winning the battle fought on the Gallipoli beaches. But, we didn’t. We lost; the Allies never took the Cove and Çanakkale Savaşı (The Battle of Çanakkale) remains one of the most celebrated WWI victories for the Ottoman Empire.

Since 1990, the annual pilgrimage to the Turkish shore has only increased, and the land suffers yearly from Australians’ collective rubbish, which is particularly lovely given the area is a National Park. The bones of the fallen are exposed due to foot traffic, and various efforts have been made to develop and redevelop the area to accommodate the yearly tourist visits. This big business is threatening smaller local enterprise.

At home, it has become acceptable to crack a tinny (open a can of beer) directly after an ANZAC Dawn Service, which is early even for most Australians. This has somehow become a patriotic duty according to both beer companies and former military leaders who advertise the very tinny that one should patriotically crack. And while Australia’s alcohol problem is conveniently forgotten for ANZAC Day, we also blatantly change the rules regarding gambling, so we can all partake of the (illegal every other day)  “Australian Diggers’ Game” of Two-up. While my tone may suggest that we have a serious gambling problem as a culture, fear not. In 2004, during a debate regarding the legalisation of Two-up, the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, told the House:

One of the charities most involved in problem gambling, the Wesley Community Legal Service, a body dealing with problem gamblers, has confirmed it has never encountered a problem gambler addicted to two-up. That is an interesting bit of trivia for everyone to take home with them. If anything, a slight extension of two-up to other days of significance would fit in with the Australian commemorative tradition when we remember our war dead not with strident nationalism but with a beer, a laugh and a few of these harmless games.

Perhaps that is the story of how Australia came to be known as “the lucky country.”

To many an Aussie, my complaints may just be examples of a lack of honour, duty, and the increasingly sacred tenet of Australian society; mateship. This is symptomatic of the fact I’m not a “digger,” not a patriot, and most definitely un-Australian. Peter Cochrane gathered a litany of such criticisms in his article for The Conversation’s article ‘The past is not sacred: the ‘history wars’ over Anzac.‘ Included in this piece is a quote from The Australian, originally published April 26, 2013. It reads:

The best advice we can offer is that they ignore the tortured arguments of the intellectuals and listen to the people, the true custodians of this occasion. They must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac. It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism. Honour, duty and mateship are foreign to their thinking. They may be experts on many things, but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say.

Arguably, ANZAC Day has become a leviathan of government and privately funded advertising, and the furtherance of an erroneous myth of Australianness that supports and underlies an increased sense of Australia as a military nation. It expresses a nationalism that feeds troubling social trends and promotes Anglo-centric white Australian patriotism.

ANZAC Day is supposed to be a remembrance, not just of the Gallipoli Campaign, but of all wars in which the Australian military have engaged, from the Boer War to Afghanistan. But we must not be confused, ANZAC Day is not for everyone.

The above video shows Murrawarri man Fred Hooper – a man who usually marches in official parades with his non-Indigenous Navy colleagues. Hooper’s grandfather served in WWI, and his great uncle was Harold West, who inspired ‘The Coloured Digger,’ a famous poem by WWII soldier Bert Beros. The poem was written while Beros and West were still on active duty, and it tells of the bravery of Private West, who attacked a Japanese machine-gun pit “single handed.” The final two stanzas read:

He’d heard us talk Democracy –
They preach it to his face –
Yet knows that in our Federal House
There’s no one of his race.
He feels we push his kinsmen out,
Where cities do not reach,
And Parliament has yet to hear
The abo’s maiden speech.

One day he’ll leave the Army,
Then join the League he shall,
And he hopes we’ll give a better deal
To the aboriginal

In 2015, Hooper decided to make the trip to Canberra to lead the ‘undeclared Frontier Wars’ march. As the Australian Federal Police Officer pointed out, “this day is not for you“, Mr Hooper.

In case you thought the AFP officer was just being nasty, or worse racist, he wasn’t really. They are, after all, the undeclared Frontier Wars. Wouldn’t it be disingenuous of us as a nation to recognise an Aboriginal military force as being raised and active at a time when we didn’t actually consider them a people; during a time when we didn’t consider them civilised enough to have so complex an institution as a military or even a guerilla force? Such things would fly in the face of terra nullius.

As Alan Stephens wrote for ABC s ‘The Drum’ in 2014:

According to the Australian War Memorial Act (1980), the AWM’s purpose is to recognise “active service in war or warlike operations by members of the Defence Force”. The act then defines “Defence Force” as “any naval or military force raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth”.

That definition allows the AWM to commemorate the wars of choice fought by white “Australians” in the Sudan, South Africa, and China before Federation, but excludes the war of necessity fought by Indigenous “Australians” for Australia itself between 1788 and the 1920s.

In other words, pre-Federation white volunteers who chose to fight overseas for the British crown and its commercial and colonial interests have been legally defined as “Australians”, while pre-Federation Indigenous warriors who fought invaders for their homeland, their families, and their way of life, have been officially defined out of our war commemoration history.

Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve have always been a way through which the neo-Pagan and Witch engages directly with the Ancestors. We actively feed them, their memory and propagate their wisdom, keeping that which enriches our lives. Not the positive and the happy memories alone, but also the negative, the difficult things as well. We recognise within these lessons and wisdom, which, by keeping, we strive against repeating mistakes of the past, in order to live more whole, healthier, and happier lives.

As ANZAC Day exerts its not so subtle influence on our lives and increasingly becomes associated with our Sabbat, what powers and structures are we feeding alongside our Beloved Dead? Are we so certain that “lest we forget” as a catch-phrase represents a concept wholly aligned with our goals at All Hallow’s? Here are some quotes:

Calypso Apothecary writes, “Today is Anzac Day. Gathering at dawn, today is a day to show respect and honour the men and women that served and died at war, fighting for our freedom. For me, this day also marks the beginning of Samhain. The decent into the dark part of the year and with the whole of Australia honoring those that have died, today they begin to walk among us.”

Coralturner writes, “In Australia Samhain occurs around the same time as Anzac Day. I find this significant as Anzac Day is the time of year that those from Australia and New Zealand remember those who died prematurely in war. Anzac Day is Ritualized across the country with services, parades, people getting together for meals to remember their deceased friends and relatives. Anzac biscuits are eaten and the game of Two-ups is played.”

Frances Billinghurst‘s, author of Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats, wrote,On the eve of 30 April those of us south of the equator pause in silent contemplation and remembrance of our ancestors. Following on the heels of Anzac Day (the day when those fallen in combat from Australia and New Zealand are remembered as well as the increasing number of victims of war), the timing for the Southern Samhain could not really be any better.”

The following was published on Spheres of Light: “It is a time to honour those who have gone before us and it is a poignant co-incidence that Australia and New Zealand’s day of Remembrance for their fallen in war, ANZAC Day on April 25, should be so close to the southern Samhain.”

Venerating the war dead is not new or unusual. Indeed, there are many military uniforms present on my own shrine to my Beloved Dead, and each serves to remind me to be thankful that for two generations, and counting, my family has not known war.  It is never a bad activity to remember the one thing that all wars have in common is a body count. The fact that, as a nation, Australia has troops currently deployed in conflict zones should be more readily discussed. History is written by the victors and we should examine how that fact has resulted in the otherwise contradictory nature of, on one hand, unabashed celebration of a mammoth defeat in a battle in a war we ultimately won, while on the other, denying completely the existence of a war fought on our own soil.

Another quote comes to us from writer Lee Pike, who lives in Perth. Ruminating on Samhain and ANZAC Day together, Pike writes:

I have been thinking a lot, too, about the role that my ancestors have on how I have been shaped and who I am today. How much are we products of our blood or of our soil? Do the dead remain on this plane or another? What can ancestor work offer a magical path? What would the Anzacs truly think about these ‘festivities’? I am sure the answers would be as diverse as they were. War is complex and so is the notion of sacrifice. When remembering the dead, the last thing we should do is boil it down to simple, digestible, and marketable slogans… and brands.

Lest we forget.


If determined enough, the dead can assert themselves to appear nearly as present as the living.

And if one who is noticing and interacting with them does not know they are dead, and/or they are too young to comprehend what dead even is, the distinction between dead and living becomes rather confusing if not at times completely irrelevant.

This was my experience, anyway.

What I believe to be my earliest memory, for example, seems quite average on its surface.

I am a toddler, just old enough to walk and talk. My grandparents are sitting up in their bed, facing the television that was perched on their dresser, and I am sitting at the end of their bed, playing with a pile of coins, babbling enthusiastically to my grandpa about my stacks of pennies. On the television is a rerun of ‘Matlock’, and my grandpa is engrossed in the show, not paying much attention to me. But my grandmother keeps reaching her hands out toward me, trying to get me to sit on her lap. And I keep looking over at her and smiling at her, but I am too distracted by stacking pennies and the sound of my own voice to go to her.


Me at 2 1/2 in the yard where I sometimes saw my grandmother.

It’s a notably clear memory, right down to every little detail. And it wouldn’t strike me as unusual at all if not for the fact that my grandmother died of cancer when I was only a year old, well before I was old enough to climb onto the bed and babble in sentences and recognize Andy Griffith’s face on television.

And yet nobody had told me directly that she had died, and everyone else in the house still talked about her as though she was still there. So it didn’t seem all that out-of-place to me as a toddler that I would see her around and occasionally interact with her. My clearest and most sustained memory of her is of that day in the bed, but I can also clearly recall seeing her hovered over the counter in the kitchen, sitting in one of many antique chairs in the living room, hunched over the dryer in the laundry room, sweeping on the back patio, or in the backyard near the doghouse.

Our dog also had been dead for quite some time, having been my mother’s childhood pet. The backyard had seemingly been abandoned once the dog had passed on. By the time I was a toddler, the backyard was so overgrown with ivy it was barely navigable, and the doghouse still sat in the corner, rotting and collapsing, with a metal bowl still poking out from the ivy. But just as I did not grasp that my grandmother was no longer on this plane, I similarly did not completely grasp that we did not actually have a living dog. I never saw the dog quite as I saw my grandmother, but I sensed that she was there all the same.

It wasn’t until I was around four years old that it started to occur to me that my grandmother was not a current member of our household and that my sightings of her were not shared by my mother or my grandfather. I had overheard a phone conversation in which my grandfather mentioned “the summer before Betty died.” I still didn’t understand what death was, but I could sense what it meant on one level, and it meant that the person was said to no longer be here.

And yet she was. She was all over the house.


My grandmother in the kitchen, exactly as I remember her.


One afternoon not long after that, my mother and I were in our front yard, sitting on the sole boulder that graced the edge of the yard. My mother was watching the road in front of us, waiting for a friend, while I scrambled up and down and around the rock. There were etchings – crude letters carved into the side of the rock, which I had always noticed for their texture but which suddenly held a greater interest to me as I was just learning to read.

“What does it say?” I asked my mother.

“It says ‘Here Lies Elroy’, she said.

“Who’s Elroy?”

“Elroy was my brother’s gerbil.,” she explained. “When he died, Jay buried him under this rock. That was when we were kids, long before you were born. This rock is Elroy’s gravestone.”

“So Elroy is dead like Grandma?”

“Yes, and like your uncle Jay.”

All I knew about my uncle Jay up to that point was that my bedroom was once his room. In a sense, it was still his room. It was often referred to as “Jay’s room” by my mother and my grandpa, and I had always felt that, while it was my designated space within the house, on another level it was not my room at all. I had somehow always felt more like a guest in that room than its primary inhabitant. But unlike Grandma, who was talked about regularly and often as though she was still present, Jay was rarely mentioned, and I had always sensed not to ask questions about him. My room was his room, and that had been the extent of my understanding.

But now, at least I knew he was dead. And on one hand, that knowledge only deepened the mystery, but on the other hand for the first time I felt as if I had some concrete understanding about who was still here and who was not. They were all dead – Jay, Grandma, Elroy and my mother’s old dog who still seemed to live in the backyard. At at that moment the fact that they were all dead was suddenly real where before it had only been abstract.


As I reached grade school age, the sightings of Grandma became much fewer and farther between. And while I couldn’t deny to myself that I was still seeing her occasionally, the part of me that knew that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her would very actively kick into gear, resulting in a tug-o-war in my head between experience and reason every time I thought I spotted her.

‘Ghosts aren’t real’

‘But I saw her!’

Part of me didn’t want to be seeing her at all. Part of me just wanted to believe I was imagining things. And part of me also wanted to tell the world, or at least to talk to someone about it. But part of me also knew that it was very real, and that I was best off keeping my mouth shut.

And so I did keep my mouth shut about Grandma. I also knew to keep quiet about what was in the garden.

My mother had built a garden in the side yard the year before. She would sit me out in a tiny lawn chair with books-on-tape as she worked for what seemed to be hours on end, weekend after weekend, tilling and planting neat little rows of flowers and vegetables.

Within a few months, we had a glorious garden, and it quickly became a favorite spot of mine. I would spend hours out in the garden, examining flowers and bugs and stealthily rescuing/relocating the snails from the saucers of beer that my mother would leave out to drown them.

Garden slug. Photo by I, Colae.

Garden slug. [Photo Credit: I. Colae]

But eventually, I sensed something else there too. Unlike Grandma, I couldn’t see anything concrete, but after a while I felt a constant presence every time I was in the garden. I could sense her; I could hear her,

Maybe this is God, I thought to myself more than once. But God is a man, I would then reply to myself. I knew little about religion or God, other than that my mother had referred to our family as “lapsed Catholics” when I asked her once. But I had taken enough in from the wider culture to know that ‘God’ was also the ‘Father,’ and while I couldn’t see whatever was in the garden, I felt very strongly that it was female. So she couldn’t be God.

But what was she?

I didn’t know, but she was definitely there. And I liked her, and I could tell she liked me back.

Around that same time, I had started to read the book Anne of Green Gables. In the book, Anne refers to God several times as ‘Providence,’ which stood out to me as unusual as I had thought that Providence was a female name. At some point, I was reading the book in the garden, and when I felt the presence of the yet-unnamed entity in my garden, a potential connection stirred in me.

I asked whoever was there if I could call her Providence. And I sensed immediately that the answer was yes.


When I was ten, my grandfather died.

My mother and I had moved out of the house three years earlier. She had remarried, and they were able to buy a house of their own, a small Cape Cod-style bungalow about ten miles away from what then became known as “Grandpa’s house.”

Grandpa had continued to live in ‘his’ house for the next few years until a heart attack rendered him unable to live alone, and he ended up moving in with us for what ended up to be the last few months of his life.


My grandfather, six months or so before he died.

I grudgingly surrendered my bedroom, not really grasping that his life was coming to an end. He recognized my frustration at losing my space and invited me to share the bed with him if I wished. I took him up on it a few times a week.

And it was on one of those nights, when I crawled into bed with him in the middle of the night, that he died peacefully in his sleep with me sleeping right next to him. When I woke in the morning, I turned to shake him awake, and he was cold. I knew instantly that he was dead.

After the wake and the funeral were over, what remained to be reckoned with was nearly as emotional and painful as my grandfather’s death in itself. We needed to do something with Grandpa’s house.

I had assumed when he died that we would be eventually moving back into that house. After all, not only was it bigger and nicer, and in a much better neighborhood, it was our home. My grandparents were the original owners, and both my mother and I were raised in that house. While I didn’t recognize it so distinctly at the time, I considered that house the closest thing I had to an ancestral home, and the land around it was the only piece of land with which I had ever had a real relationship. I wanted to live where I was born and raised, where Grandma and most likely now Grandpa still remained. I wanted to replant the garden where I first met Providence. I wanted to clean up the backyard and fix up the doghouse so that it was a more proper place for the dog that I sensed was still there.

My mother, on the other hand, had absolutely no desire to live in the house again. And while in retrospect I can completely understand why she felt that way, as a ten year old this decision sparked nothing but anguish, anger, and resentment on my part. I sullenly tagged along as she slowly emptied the house. At times, I flat-out refused to help, as I watched her empty it of the antique furniture with which I had grown up. She eventually put the house up for sale.

By the time prospective buyers were beginning to look at the house, it had all become so painful for me that I started to emotionally detach from the process, not able to bear the thought of losing it. During that period, I often took refuge in what was once the garden, by then overgrown with grass and weeds, crying my eyes out to Providence and anyone else who would listen. At one point, it occurred to me that in losing the house I would be losing my relationship with Providence as well, which only brought more tears.

It wasn’t until a few months after the house had been sold, as I finally started to recover from the numbness and grief associated with the entire episode, that I started to notice an occasional and familiar presence as I went about my day-to-day, unmistakably the same presence that I first met in the side garden as a child.


My mother quit smoking the year I started. Ironically enough, her quitting and my starting were both directly related to the same event. She became pregnant with my sister and quit for the obvious health-related reasons. And then a few months later I started it up as a coping mechanism, wanting no part of a life with a younger sibling. I was fourteen years old and an only child, and was dreading the changes that were sure to come.

When my mother was a smoker, she occasionally kept a pack or two stashed in random places, a fact I remembered one day when I was home alone. Inspired by the idea of found treasure in the form of nicotine, I rifled up and down the sides of my mother’s dresser drawers, hoping to find that prized, half-empty pack of stale smokes.

But instead I found an old envelope in the crack of her sock drawer that had a piece of newspaper poking out of it. I generally wasn’t one to pry in such a way, but my instinct told me to look inside, and so I carefully and gingerly opened the envelope and pulled the piece of newspaper out.

It was a clipping from the local paper dated April 1982, summarizing the death of my uncle Jay. He had been killed in a car crash, having driven into a telephone pole only a few miles away from where we lived. The article stated that alcohol was a probable factor in the crash.

I thought of the uncle I never knew, whose room I grew up in, whose death was never mentioned once throughout my entire childhood. I felt a sudden and strange relief, as a mystery that had grated on me for years had finally been answered without my having to actually ask.


My uncle’s college ID card. He died a year before he was set to graduate.

I also immediately understood why it was never mentioned, especially given my mother’s penchant for avoiding uncomfortable subjects. And as I took in and processed this new discovery, I also forgave my mother for her silence.


I had been living on my own in the city for a year or so at that point, and had decided to drive out to Jersey to visit my parents for the day. On the drive out, my mind drifted to thoughts of my grandfather’s house, which I realized hadn’t seen since it was sold nearly a decade earlier. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a detour through my old neighborhood before heading to my parents’ house.

I parked on the street and stepped out of the car, and the moment I stepped onto the property I felt a distinct chill. Instantly, this place and I recognized and remembered each other despite many years of absence. The yard and the house had both been altered with much of the original flora removed, but Elroy’s rock remained as did the tree I planted as a small child. I walked toward the side yard, toward the garden where I first met Providence. The garden was gone.

“Hey, what you doing?” I heard a voice yell behind me. I turned around and found myself face to face with my former next-door neighbor, whose expression went quickly from anger to a smile as he recognized me. I knew him quite well; he and his wife had lived next door to our family since my mother was a small child. My mother grew up playing with their daughter, and I grew up playing with their granddaughter.

“Oh my God you’re all grown up. Look at you. I knew you’d come back one day.”

Without exactly knowing why, I burst into tears.

He reached over to hug me. “You know,” he said, as I tried to calm down. “Maureen talks to your grandpa and grandma constantly. She sees them all the time.”

I immediately stopped crying and jerked back in shock. Maureen was his wife.

“She does?”

He nodded. “Oh yes. Her and Betty have long conversations. I don’t know the details, but she says they’re both quite loud and active.”

I spoke before realizing I was speaking, before realizing that I had never said what I was about to say aloud before.

“I used to see Grandma all the time. She even tried to play with me once. I remember it quite clearly.”

He nodded again and pointed to the house. “Since your mother sold it, its changed hands three times in eight years. I swear, your grandparents are so loud over there that nobody wants to stay for long. The last folks remodeled the entire kitchen and patio before they left… I watched them just pour thousands into it but then just pick up suddenly and leave anyway.”

I thought of Grandma in the kitchen, and suddenly it all became a little too much.

I explained to him that I was on my way to see my mother and that I had just taken a quick detour and should be going.

“Come back anytime,” he said as I quickly walked towards my car. “I’m sure Maureen would love to see you.”

*  *  *

“I went by Grandpa’s house today,” I casually mentioned over dinner.

My mother looked up immediately. “Oh yeah?” she asked. “Does it still look the same?”

“Not really,” I answered, uninterested in talking about the aesthetic changes. “But I saw Bill. And he told me that Maureen talks to Grandma and Grandpa all the time.”

My mother laughed a bit and then was silent for a moment. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Its funny, I always felt like Mom had never quite left that house.”

I stared at her for a moment, not quite believing what I just heard. Until that moment, my mother had never acknowledged anything of the sort to me, had never given any indication that she ever sensed the presence of anything at that house. Suddenly, between Bill’s words earlier and my mother’s words just then, my experiences were validated after nearly a lifetime’s worth of questioning in silence.

“She never left, Mom, trust me. She definitely never left.”

Still stuck on the idea that my mother held any kind of religious belief or superstition, I decided to go all or nothing and ask one of those questions I had never before dared to utter.

“Why are we lapsed Catholics as opposed to regular Catholics?” I asked.

It was almost as though she was expecting the question. “Well, your Grandpa’s mother, your great-grandmother, she drowned in the ocean when your Grandpa was a teenager. And even though she drowned, the Church insisted it was a suicide, and they refused to grant her a Catholic burial.” She paused.

“And then they turned around and said they would bury her for a price. Which the family somehow paid, but once she was buried the family didn’t want to have much to do with the church after that. And so neither do we.”

I had never really thought much about my grandfather’s life growing up, other than the knowledge that he had lived through the Depression. But something hit me hard the moment that my mother told me that my great-grandmother had drowned in the ocean. Our family had spent nearly every summer at the beach as I was growing up, a yearly trip which I always dreaded due to a lifelong and unwavering discomfort of being in the ocean. I could never fully enjoy the water no matter how hard I tried and I could never quite understand why, and I couldn’t help but to reflect on that discomfort in light of what I had just learned.

“What was her name?” I asked. “My great-grandmother, I mean.”

“Her name was Providence,” my mother answered.


A friend and I had spent the day endlessly talking and catching up, and trying to plan out the pilgrimage that we would be taking in just a few months. Both of us were under a lot of stress, both coming off of traumatic experiences, trying to piece together what had happened with our lives and what was being triggered by our upcoming journey. After hours and hours of back and forth, he eventually passed out on the couch. I passed out in my bed not long after, and slept better than I had in weeks.

And when I woke up, I felt a strange familiar presence, which I noted but didn’t put much thought into until he woke up a few hours later.

“I felt so safe,” he told me. “Safer than I had in ages. And I actually slept. And when I woke up early this morning, I heard this lovely voice telling me that I could go back to sleep, that it was safe. And I did. And I feel so well-rested. And whoever that was, it was such a wonderful feeling. Do you know who or what that was?”

I thought back to the presence I sensed when I woke up and I smiled. “Yes,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that was Providence.”

“Who’s Providence?” he asked.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted. “I once thought she was a land spirit, or more specifically a garden spirit, nowadays I think she might be an ancestor spirit but again I’m just not sure. What I know is that she’s been around me since I was very small and she’s always nurtured and protected me. She’s just… around. I don’t think about her for a long while and then she’s just there and reminds me she exists. I’ve never seen her, but I feel her and I hear her and that’s been a constant for most of my life. She never wants anything. She’s just around, and she’s warm and she’s wonderful.”

“Yes, she’s quite wonderful,” he said with a smile.


I woke suddenly, not knowing why. It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t remember anything that I was dreaming which could have stirred me awake. I sat up and looked out the window, and immediately felt the urge to be outside.

Quietly so not to wake my partner, I slipped on my shoes and my coat and went downstairs. I stepped out the front door of my building, and felt myself being pulled toward the river. A minute later, I was lying on by back on the dirt by the riverbank, suddenly overtaken by a stream of visions and messages that seemed to be pouring out directly from the full moon above me.

Full moon over Portland. Public Domain.

Full moon over Portland. [Public Domain]

Under the Scorpio moon, just a week before Beltane, the dead filed through and thoroughly between my ears. I closed my eyes and saw generations’ worth of flashes through my mind, scenes that I can only assume were connected to my ancestors. And then, my grandparents. And then, my uncle Jay. And then the scenes changed sharply, and I was back at the house in which I was raised complete with all the familial spirits and old furniture, and as I saw myself as a child in the garden. I felt the presence of Providence nearby.

I opened my eyes for a to stare at the moon, and then closed them again. This time I saw what I only can assume to be the future, with flashes and aerial scenes of myself and a dear friend backpacking over mountains as the dead stirred beneath our feet. Every step we took echoed both above and below, an echo I physically felt in my feet throughout the course of the vision.

It then morphed into darkness, and we were in a cave-like setting. And then, he is gone, and it is only I. And there she is. Not a ghost, not an ancestor, but a god.

I knew what she was about to tell me. I also knew why he had suddenly disappeared, as he had not only received this exact message from Her before, but had related it to me only a few weeks prior. There was also a small part of me that knew that if I opened my eyes at that moment, that it would all disappear, that I technically did have a split-second option to escape this moment.

But I also knew that, while I may be able to escape the first-person utterance, I didn’t get to escape its consequences. And I realized in the moment that the message, though delivered before, was incomplete in its overall meaning until now. For the words were not just about the future, but also about the past.

So I kept my eyes closed and stayed, anticipating her words.

“Do not look there, unless you’d leave.”

*  *  *

I returned home and back into my bed. When I fell asleep again, I deeply and vividly dreamed about the house for the first time in years.

We were all sitting at the dining room table, all having what looked like Thanksgiving dinner. And when I say all of us, I mean all of us: Grandpa, Grandma, my mother, my uncle Jay, and myself as an adult. In my sleep, straddled between worlds, we were talking and laughing and drinking wine and breaking bread without any concept of the barriers between life and death. We were just together, enjoying life, as the family that never quite was.

Even the dog was there, in the corner, patiently waiting for scraps.


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

Column: The Fire Is Here

Heathen Chinese —  November 29, 2015 — 49 Comments

Five people protesting the police killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, are shot and injured by a group of white men in Minneapolis. A candidate for the United States Presidency says that a database for all Muslims is “certainly something we should start thinking about.” When asked the difference between such an idea and Nazi Germany’s registration of Jews and other minorities, his only reply was, “You tell me, you tell me. Why don’t you tell me.” The same candidate’s white supporters physically attack a black heckler at a rally; the candidate states in an interview, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” In Greece, the neo-fascist political party Golden Dawn, which has no relation to the occult organization, became the third leading party in the country by winning 7% of the vote in the elections this September, approximately 500,000 votes.

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

What do Pagans and Polytheists see when they read the news; when they look at history? Do they see deviations from an inevitable progressive march from animism and polytheism to monotheism to atheism, from savagery to barbarism to civilization? Or do they see the snake of the ouroboros choking on its own tail time and time again? Do they see what Walter Benjamin described in 1940 — what the Angel of History sees? “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” Or as Rhyd Wildermuth wrote recently, “History doesn’t really ‘repeat itself,’ but it’s full of repeating forms.”

Benjamin, looking at the current events of his own time, wrote that those who viewed the rise of fascism as a regression from some sort of historically-ordained “progress” only hindered the struggle against it. He wrote, “The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

When the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains the demographics of his newly-appointed Cabinet by saying “Because it’s 2015,” he displays the same kind of historical blindness that Benjamin critiques. Have the Laws of History decreed that sexism, racism and fascism are not possible in 2015, that they are mere fossils from the past? Should we greet fascism’s continuity and its re-emergence with astonishment? Or with preparedness?

In a fragment from The Arcades Project, Benjamin suggested an alternate conception of history. “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” Can you hear the reverberating echo of the final prophecy of The Morrígan at the Second Battle of Mag Tuired (section 167)? Do you hear the last gasps of the Race of Iron described by Hesiod in Works and Days, as Aidos (Shame) and Nemesis (Retribution) “forsake mankind” (lines 170-201)?

An anti-progressive conception of history requires radically different ideas about death and ancestry as well. Pagans and Polytheists tend to think about these ideas frequently anyway…and what’s more, to live them, to embody them, to experience them directly. These ideas are powerful and dangerous, as can be seen by the popularity of Evola among fascists. From an anti-racist and anti-fascist position, however, we can claim James Baldwin as an Ancestor and Prophet who spoke about these same ideas with refreshing clarity.

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

James Baldwin. [Photo Credit: Allan Warren / Wikipedia]


In his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote that the veneer of politics is used by white Americans to conceal the inescapable fact of death:

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality—the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.

The word “tragic,” of course, traces its etymology back to worship of Dionysos in ancient Greece, to the views of fate and limited human agency put forth by ancient playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The philosopher Albert Camus defined the “tragic” condition as being characterized not just by death and absurdity, but by self-awareness of one’s situation: “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

The awareness and acceptance of the inevitability of death can be seen in many different cultures, in many different traditions and texts. For example, in Homer’s Iliad:

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
dies. (6.146-150, trans. Lattimore)

Or in Óðinn’s words in the Hávamál:

Cattle die,
kindred die,
we ourselves also die;
but I know one thing
that never dies,
judgement on each one dead (section 77, trans. Thorpe)

These themes of successive generations and enduring judgement shall return later in this essay. But first, we must look at the conclusions Baldwin draws from this basic fact. Far from despair, Baldwin exhorts his readers toward an ethic of celebration and passion and responsibility. His words read like the invocation of the Descendants that they are:

It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

Baldwin sees white Americans’ collective willful refusal to acknowledge and “earn” their deaths as the underlying fear that dominates race relations in America: “But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction.” In other words, he speaks of the need to acknowledge the mortality of an entire country or civilization, not just of the individuals within its power structure.

The concept of “race,” after all, is ultimately tied to a question of power, an attempt to guarantee a certain societal and cosmological order. The link between the fear of death and the desire for control can be seen in ancient texts as ancient as the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the powerful king of Uruk searches for the plant of immortality, only to have it stolen by a serpent as he slept. Power, Baldwin reminds us, is in fact inherently unstable, even though many people think that it is a guarantor of stability:

It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal.

But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.

Walter Benjamin might say that the possibility of freedom has in fact been betrayed time and time again throughout the history of class-stratified societies, and that “progress” is yet another “chimera.” And in the 7th century BCE, Semonides of Argos wrote of the folly of clinging to false hopes, which are always projected into the uncertain future:

There is no mortal who does not believe that next year
he will arrive as a friend to Wealth and material goods.
But one man is first overtaken by hated old age
before he reaches his goal. Other men are destroyed
by wretched disease. Others, overcome by War,
Hades sends down under the black earth. (trans. Mastronarde)

Or as Medea said in Seneca’s version of her story, “Whoso has naught to hope, let him despair of naught.” (163)

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

Frederick Douglass. [Public Domain / Wikipedia]


Death, however, is constant. And so too are the dead, and the ancestors. In a 1971 conversation with the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Baldwin described the experience of drawing upon the strength and legacy of one’s ancestors, a feeling that is difficult to define but which can be recognized by anyone who has experienced it:

Baldwin: One’s ancestors have given one something, just the same. It is something difficult to get at. You know it when you are in trouble, in real trouble […] It is not exactly that you hear a voice. It’s just that you pull yourself together to confront whatever it is according to some principle which does not exactly exist in your memory but which has been given to you.
Mead: In the name of your ancestors.

Baldwin made clear that when he speaks of ancestors, he is speaking not only of those ancestors who are biologically related, “Let us say I can claim Frederick Douglass as one of my ancestors. I am very proud of him because I think he was a great man and in some way handed something down: his indignation was handed down; his clarity was handed down.” The key concept, then, is that he “handed something down,” something that future generations can draw upon.

Mead responded, “We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors. […] They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.” The concept is familiar to many Pagans and Polytheists, many of whom have their own terms for these types of ancestors as well: ancestors of spirit, ancestors of tradition, the Mighty Dead. And in ancient Greece, the war dead as well as certain cult heroes were honored by entire cities, not just by their immediate families. Tyrtaeus of Sparta wrote of the honors due to both warriors who died in battle and to their descendants:

This man they lament, young and old alike,
the whole city is affected with a painful longing
and his tomb and children are conspicuous for fame among men,
and his children’s children and race thereafter.
Never are his noble fame and his name forgotten,
but he is immortal, though lying under the earth. (trans. West)

This notion of fame—or infamy, or any other type of experience—being passed down a line of descent is important. This can particularly be seen when Baldwin discusses his relationship with Christianity.  He was a Christian preacher in his youth, but left the church after three and a half years. He framed his relationship to Christianity as one of personally “being there” or not in certain historical situations:

Baldwin: I wasn’t there among the early Christians in the Middle East.
Mead: That’s right.
Baldwin: But I was on those cattle boats which brought me here, brought me here in the name of Jesus Christ. […]
Mead: They did not bring you here in the name of Jesus Christ! That is a perversion.
Baldwin: One of the boats was called “The Good Ship Jesus.”

What did Baldwin mean when he said “he was there?” He didn’t mean reincarnation of an isolated individual soul. He seems to have meant a certain type of ancestral experience, a certain collapsing of time, an expanded definition of the self, and most importantly, the undeniable and ongoing impact of history on the present. “By the time I was five,” he said, he had been “handed down” his ancestors’ suffering not just by genetic descent but by his first-hand experience of that history continuing to play itself out:

Baldwin: I had to accept that I was on a slave boat once.
Mead: No.
Baldwin: But I was.
Mead: Wait, you were not. Look, you don’t believe in reincarnation?
Baldwin: But my whole life was defined by my history […] by the time I was five by the history written on my brow.

In his 1940 Dusk of Dawn, W.E.B. Du Bois similarly called skin color a “badge” of “a common history,” “a common disaster” and “one long memory.” (p. 33) Du Bois wrote that this badge symbolized an experience shared over time and space:

The physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas.

Though his life was “defined” by it since he was five years old, Baldwin still spoke of having to “accept” that history. And what happens when people are unable or unwilling accept their histories? In the words of Walter Benjamin, “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

At the same time, however, Benjamin wrotes that “fine and spiritual” qualities are present in the class struggle “as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness,” and that “they will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question.” Similarly, in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin described the black children who walked through hostile crowds to newly-integrated schools as “improbable aristocrats” possessed of true nobility of spirit. He wrote:

The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced. I say “this country” because their frame of reference was totally American. They were hewing out of the mountain of white supremacy the stone of their individuality.

Walter Benjamin. [Fair Use / Wikipedia]

Walter Benjamin. [Fair Use / Wikipedia]


Baldwin’s ideas about “accepting” his history are closely related to his ideas about responsibility. We have seen Baldwin’s call to be “responsible to life.” Now we see the idea of taking responsibility—which is often conflated with guilt, but is in fact a different concept—for history, and for the failures of the present moment. In his conversation with Mead, Baldwin not only identified himself with the slave on the boat, but with the Africans who sold other Africans to Europeans as well:

Baldwin: I’m not guiltless, either. I sold my brothers or my sisters—
Mead: When did you?
Baldwin: Oh, a thousand years ago, it doesn’t make any difference.

Ironically but tellingly, Baldwin begins The Fire Next Time with an epigraph from Rudyard Kipling, which was originally intended to be a “measured” encouragement of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. But subsequently it was used by Baldwin to call for a true reckoning, a true judgement:

Take up the White Man’s burden
Ye dare not stoop to less
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Taken as a justification for colonization, the “White Man’s burden” is a disgusting lie. Taken as a commentary on collective responsibility, however, it bears further thought. In his conversation with Mead, Baldwin asked, “How does a civilization distinguish from an individual? It’s a loaded question.”

Enlightenment thought has led to the glorification of the rational individual. In Benjamin and Baldwin, however, we find traces of older views of the relationship between the individual and society. Michael Löwy, for example, called Benjamin “a prophet; not like someone who tries to see the future, like a Greek oracle, but in the Old Testament sense: that is, one who calls the people’s attention to future dangers.” Baldwin willingly adopted the same term for himself:

Mead: You’re being an Old Testament person.
Baldwin: Prophet.
Mead: You’re taking an Old Testament position, that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children.
Baldwin: They are.

This position, though, is far from unique to the Old Testament. For example, the Athenian lawmaker Solon wrote in his hymn “To the Muses” that Zeus’s punishment for greed and injustice could be intergenerational as well:

Such is the vengeance of Zeus. […]
One man pays the price at once, another later on. For those who escape
In themselves, and gods’ approaching doom does not reach them,
It comes in any case thereafter. Innocents pay the price,
Either their children or their later descendants. (trans. West)

Similarly, Herodotus relates that when Gyges usurped the kingdom of Lydia, the Delphic Oracle of Apollon predicted “that the Heraclids would have their revenge on Gyges in the fifth generation: a prophecy to which neither the Lydians nor their kings paid any attention, until it was actually fulfilled,” in the reign of Croesus (1.13, trans. De Selincourt). And a Chinese prayer to Guan Di warns that those who “entice others to do evil, and do not even a bit of good” themselves will bring down consequences for their entire family: “Retribution will fall upon them, their sons, and their grandsons.”

Baldwin’s position, however, is more nuanced. He speaks of the way in which a crime committed once can be committed over and over again, by the act of forgetting, by the act of refusing to accept:

Mead: A crime that was committed a long time ago.
Baldwin: The crime that is committed until it is accepted that it was committed. If you don’t accept, if I don’t accept whatever it is I have done— […] I ‘m doomed to do it forever. If I don’t accept what I have done.

He points out the paradox of an entire system that denies personal responsibility: who is responsible for creating such a system—a system not just political or economic, but a “system of reality?” It can only be “all of us:”

We agreed this morning that guilt and responsibility were not the same thing. But we have to agree, too, that we both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in an any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time. [emphasis added]

And thus, he returns to the importance of a personal ethic, of personal honor:

What I am trying to get at is if any particular discipline—whether it be Christianity, Buddhism or LSD, God forbid—does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off. If it is not interiorized, as we would say these days, then it really is meaningless.

Joshua Tree National Park, June 2015. [Public Domain / NPS]

Joshua Tree National Park, June 2015. [Public Domain / NPS]

Vengeance and Salvation

If the “system of reality” we have constructed lies beyond the responsibility of any one person or organization, if history itself is “a way of avoiding responsibility,” what can cut through this Gordian Knot? In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin warns of “historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance.” A divine vengeance, an ancestral vengeance:

The intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable—a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.”

Baldwin had already written these words by the time he sat down with Margaret Mead. He had written, too, of the mistake of “clinging to chimeras.” And so, Baldwin sought to slay the “chimera” of American self-importance, shocking Mead greatly:

Baldwin: From my point of view, America does not matter so very much.
Mead: What does?
Baldwin: Mexico matters.
Mead: You think—
Baldwin: Vietnam matters.
Mead: You think that Mexico and Vietnam can save the world? I mean for the future?
Baldwin: I know that we will not.
Mead: Well, if we don’t save it—
Baldwin: We won’t.
Mead: Jimmy, if we don’t save it we will destroy it.
Baldwin: We won’t. My point precisely.
Mead: And Mexico and Vietnam will have nothing to do with it.
Baldwin: My point precisely.
Mead: All right. You are saying, then, the world is going to be destroyed; there is no use doing anything about it?
Baldwin: No. I don’t intend to be passive. But America will not save us.

Like Semonides of Argos, Baldwin accepts the reality of the present without delusion about the future: “The future doesn’t exist for me. […] I am not romantic. I am not at home here and never will be.”

Let us, too, take a clear look at the time we find ourselves in. The Fire Next Time is couched as a warning of an impending apocalypse, which could perhaps be averted if the “intransigence and ignorance of the white world” are abandoned. But this has not happened. And just as the crime is committed anew until it is accepted, so is the destruction of the world an ongoing process, not a “future” one.

Let us avoid the pitfall of the Christians who are eternally trying to predict the date of the Rapture, forced to forever re-calculate as the proclaimed date arrives and passes. Time is not linear progress, but cyclical, compressed and eternal. The fire is not coming “next time,” it is already here, and it has been here.

And as we began this article with reference to the police shooting of Jamar Clark, so we end it with a final quote from James Baldwin:

I don’t care how well the cops are educated. I know what their role is in my life, and I will not accept it.

What more needs to be said?

Selected Bibliography

  • Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963.
  • Baldwin, James and Margaret Mead. A Rap On Race. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1971.
  • Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” 1940.

[We have changed the monthly “Walking the World” column to “Around the World.” Today we return to the UK with Christina Oakley Harrington, the founding director of Treadwell’s Bookshop in London. Do you like this column and others that feature perspectives from outside the U.S.A.?  If you do, please consider donating to our ongoing Fall Funding Drive. All of the money donated goes back to building The Wild Hunt and expanding our reach so we can feature more international stories and columnists. Please donate today!]

Hallowe’en approaches. Here in London we are in autumn at last. Golden brown leaves are underfoot on the sidewalks of our tree-lined streets here in Bloomsbury, my neighbourhood. Yesterday I walked down to the open market on East Street to buy ten yards of orange fabric to decorate the front window of my occult bookshop. We’re scouting for pumpkins to carve to put around on the display tables amidst the books.

[Courtesy of Treadwell's Bookshop London]

[Courtesy of Treadwell’s Bookshop London]

Halloween is a time for remembering ancestors and, this week, I am honouring the ancestors of the wonderful tradition of the magical store, where ancient tomes, kindly conversations, and recommendations come together. Pagans and mystics of the western traditions historically don’t have churches or congregations. We’ve found one another in these book-lined spaces. It’s from the occult bookseller that we’ve received our guidance for reading; we’ve got our introductions to the local coven or the address of the local magical lodge.

In my own city of London, the ancestor booksellers are many and indeed illustrious. John Watkins, a friend of occultist Helen Blavatsky, set up his bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the early 1890s. His occultist customers used his shop as a meeting place and pressed him into publishing some of their work. Among them were members of the Golden Dawn, including WB Yeats and MacGregor Mathers and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Eventually Watkins’ son Geoffrey took over for his father. Carl Jung was a friend. Aldous Huxley was also known to be a bookshop regular. The famous poet Kathleen Raine wrote this of the son who inherited the bookseller mantle:

He welcomed his customers as his guests, assuming that we were seekers for wisdom, and meeting each of us at the level of our learning (or our ignorance) as he was well able to do. He seemed always to have time to listen.

The Atlantis Bookshop

The Atlantis Bookshop [Courtesy Photo]

London’s Atlantis Bookshop was founded in 1922 by Michael Houghton, a Jewish immigrant with a passion for the mysteries and poetry, and who reputedly held ceremonies in the basement room of his shop on Museum Street. Caroline Wise, who owned the shop through the 1990s, related to me that, during the second world war, Houghton took in refugee Jewish children who had been smuggled out of Nazi Europe. Houghton’s customers included Gerald Gardner, for whom he kindly published his book on Wicca – which apparently took a while to sell.

Atlantis and Watkins are both still flourishing in London. We at Treadwells, having opened in 2003, are the new kids on the block. We are honoured to have such predecessors as those booksellers. This is my town, these are my ancestors of place. I owe them honour for their help in cultivating the traditions of my spiritual vocation and my bookselling profession.

The young Christina visited the occult bookshops of London for the first time in early 1990, when still fresh off the overnight train from Northern Scotland. The noticeboards listed groups, meetings, conferences. These scrappy bits of paper and cards were a key to the places I would find real witches, real magicians. The booksellers at these shops looked knowledgeable and kindly, but I was always too daunted to strike up a conversation. In those days I was embarrassed to be the new kid. So I hid behind the books as I’d done since childhood, silently bringing my purchases to the check out and equally silently scribbling down the phone numbers and addresses of the contacts on the community board  I’ve learned that my story is a common one for that era.


Magickal Childe [Public Domain]

This summer I traveled to New York City and looked along the streets for the site of the old Magickal Childe, where so many gathered in the seventies and eighties, to find one another, find adventure and misadventure, and to connect for magic, for withcraft, and for personal explorations. Here, gay men met up and gave birth to a men’s initiatory tradition of witchcraft known as the Minoan Brotherhood. Here teenagers came through the doors to nervously browse and buy their first black-covered paperbacks – Michael Bertiaux’s Voudon Gnostic Workbook or Doreen Valiente’s ABC of Wicca. And although the bookshop’s doors closed years ago, its precedent continues to inspire those of us who run esoteric bookshops today.

When I travel around America or around the UK, I can’t help but pop into every small city’s esoteric shop. Whether it’s Nottingham or Norwich or Albany, I have to go in. Usually I end up having a chat with the owner, who is commonly the friendly person behind the cash register. We talk about “how business is” and about the effect of the internet on bookstores. But, most of all, we talk about our spiritual calling – to have an open door for the community of Pagans, magicians and seekers in the place where we live. It’s a hard life. We commiserate with one another, but all our conversations come back to the fact that we feel we have to do it.

In our conversations, we reminisce about the good old days, remembering those who did it before us. And, though we don’t always say it to one another, I get the feeling that we all look to the ancestors of the occult bookshop tradition for strength when we don’t know how we’re going to make the rent this month. They give us patience when obstreperous occultists lecture us on what we’ve known for years. They hover as benign presences over our book launches and watch over us from the upper corners of the dusty book cases.


[Courtesy of Treadwell’s]

And so, as I unlock the door of my own shop this morning, this prayer is in my mind:

Bless us, ancestors of the occult bookshops, and we in turn bless you and thank you for all you did in your lifetimes. We try to do you proud, and stand in your shoes as best we can. May the bookshop continue to be the circle between the worlds, a meeting place of joy and peace and communion.

A Blessed Samhain

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 31, 2013 — 4 Comments

Tonight and tomorrow is when most modern Pagans celebrate Samhain. Samhain is the start of winter and of the new year in the old Celtic calendar. This is a time when the ancestors are honored, divinations for the new year are performed, and festivals are held in honor of the gods. It is a time of final harvest before the long winter ahead. It is perhaps the best-known and most widely celebrated of the modern Pagan holidays.

An ancestor altar.

An ancestor altar.

“[Samhain] marks the beginning of an entire new cycle. With the return of Darkness, the Year itself returns to the Otherworld womb from which it will grow to blossom again. All true growth takes place in darkness: the source of vitality is in the unconscious, before consciousness discovers the limiting forms of rationality.” – Alexei Kondratiev, The Apple Branch

This time of year also sees the celebration of Velu Laiks (“the time of spirits”) by Baltic PagansWinter Nights by Asatru in mid-October, Foundation Night in Ekklesía AntínoouFete Gede by Vodou practitioners, Día de los Muertos for followers of Santeria and several indigenous religions in Mexico and Latin America, Diwali for Hindus (November 3rd this year), and astrological “true” Samhain on November 7th for some Witches and Druids. In addition, Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere are currently celebrating Beltane.

It is a time when some communities acknowledge the Mighty Dead.

“The Mighty Dead are said to be those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil. They have pledged to watch, to help and to teach. It is those Mighty Dead who stand behind us, or with us, in circle so frequently.”

Zan's memorial with Gary Suto (left, with flaming mandala) and parents Kay and Bruce Skidmore (to right of Gary).

Zan Fraser’s memorial.

Many who have been dear to our communities have crossed the veil this past year, joining the ranks of the Mighty Dead, including Layne Redmond, Nevill DruryMestre Didi, Zan Fraser, Allan Lowe, Peggy Hall, Lee Thompson Young, Barbara MertzRituparno Ghosh, Laura Janesdaughter, Victor Elon Anderson, Kyril Oakwind, Dennis Presser, Deena Celeste Buttta, George Lee, and Patricia Monaghan.

“I love that story about Susan Anthony that Zsuzsanna Budapest tells in her book. Some journalist asked Susan Anthony, because she didn’t believe in orthodox religion, I suppose, “Where do you think you’re to go when you die?” She said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay around and help the women’s movement.” So even if I don’t live long enough to see these things, I’ll be around to make a nuisance of myself.” –Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft.

Below you’ll find an assortment of quotes from the media, and fellow Pagans, during this holiday season.

Joseph Mugnaini’s cover illustration for The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury (1972)

Joseph Mugnaini’s cover illustration for The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury (1972)

  • “It’s appropriate to do a saining of the home with juniper — a New Year tradition in the highlands of Scotland — and to set up altars or shrines for the ancestors. On the night of Oíche Shamhna, many of us hold a feast with our friends and family where we invite the honored dead to come and feast with us. A place of honor is laid at the table or on the altar, where the first food of the feast and cups full of drink are placed for the dead. This portion of the food is never eaten by the living, but is instead offered outside when the feast is done. Candles are often lit for the dead, and their names are spoken. Tales about their lives are shared and toasts might be made in their names. Divination is another common feature of this festival, and readings are often done to get a feel for the luck of the coming year.”The CR FAQ
  • “We’ve been doing the Ancestor Vigil here for about 20 years and every year it is a little different but the intention is always the same. It is not a Samhain ritual, it is not a celebration of Hallowe’en, it does not glom onto the trendy love of Dia de los Muertes. It is a ritual commemoration of the Recent Dead, the Beloved Long Dead and the Mighty Dead. We set up a central altar, a candle-lighting station and a place to get more info on Mother Grove Goddess Temple and to leave your food donations for the food pantry. People are invited to place mementos on the altar and there is a place in the ritual where we speak the names of the dead that are closest to us.”Byron Ballard
  • “We see the Hallowmas Woman in the stark November landscape, with its muted tones of olive, ochre, sienna brown. We find her in a cold statue in a graveyard, garlanded with dead roses, thorns, and blood-red rosehips. We see her in fogbound mornings when there is no distinction between sea, stones, and sky, and the Otherworld is just a step away. She lives within the brief days and long nights that draw us toward withdrawal and cocooning. The Hallowmas woman rests. She withdraws into herself. It is not a time of connection. She prefers her own company, turning down invitations to gather with others. The midwinter holidays will be here soon enough.” – Joanna Powell Colbert
  • “In Afro-Caribbean Religions like Voodoo, Vodou, and Lukumi or Santeria the true spirits of Halloween are the ancestors. Festivities run from October 30th to November 2nd. There are delectable dumb supper feasts, elaborate ancestors altars and offerings galore. It’s a time for reconnecting, remembering and honoring all those who have gone before. It is their blood that runs through our veins, they are the primary reason we are here.”Lilith Dorsey
  • “When I think of Samhain I think of the thinning of the veil between the worlds. In my grand model of the Universe – the constantly revised mental map I use to orient myself and make sense of my experiences – the veil is less a thing and more a condition.  It’s possible to travel from this world to the Otherworld at any time.  Drumming, dancing, and ritual can facilitate a meditative journey, as can skilled guides.  But at certain times and places these journeys are easier than at others. Traditionally, in-between times and places are most auspicious:  twilight, seashores, doorways – neither day nor night, neither land nor sea, neither within nor without.  Samhain, which literally means “Summer’s end,” is neither Summer nor Winter.  This is an ideal time to journey to the Otherworld to visit with our ancestors, to gather knowledge and wisdom, and to perform divinations.”John Beckett

May you all have a blessed Samhain, blessings to you, and your beloved dead on this season. Let this new cycle be one of great blessings for all of you.

A photo of the farm. Photo by William Scott.

The farm. Photo by William Scott.

I grab two pieces of firewood at a time from Alaric’s grandmother’s pile and throw them into the back of the trailer. Wood lands on wood with a solid clack, like the woodblock in an orchestra.

“Who cut this, anyway?”

Alaric drops a log onto the trailer. He is a few years older than me, old enough that we were never close until we were both adults. “Me and dad. We cut her three cords of wood for heat last winter – this is the leftovers from that. We’ll cut her another three this year.”

“Oh,” I say, setting my last load into the back. “So we’re not really stealing it from her.”

I lumber into the trailer and sit on a bale of straw. Then Alaric starts up the tractor and we’re heading across the grass and down a gravel road, traveling down into a valley, coming to rest at a circle of just-mown grass with a depression in the center.

“Fire pit,” says Alaric with a self-congratulatory grin. “For later. I just made it yesterday.”

It’s Lammas, or the Saturday closest to it, anyway. We’re at Alaric’s family farm, somewhere in Jefferson County, Missouri, where his grandmother and several other relatives live in houses scattered across the property. Alaric lives a few minutes away, on the outskirts of Imperial, but for the past few years he’s farmed wheat and vegetables out here on the weekends and after work at his day job as a tech and data guy for a law firm. Most of his farm equipment is a hand-me-down from his deceased grandfather; he’s constantly taking it apart, rebuilding it, scavenging parts from other machines. His latest acquisition is a new combine. The one he had been using was made in 1955. The new one’s from ‘65. Practically just off the assembly line.

I grew up in the city, and that’s still where I’m naturally drawn to live; when I moved back to St. Louis, a little over a year and a half ago, the idea of living in the suburbs, much less the country, never occurred to me. Alaric, who grew up out here, likes to mock me for my city-boy ways: “You feel okay out here, buddy? I know everything’s not all paved over, the way you like it.”

Still. Riding in the trailer, looking out at the tree line rising up all around us, at the creek, at the weeping willow off in the distance… It’s hard to think anything else.

This place is paradise.

*     *     *

This is the first sabbat we’ve held at the farm, mainly because Alaric’s grandmother is severely Lutheran and would have certain reservations about her property being used as the site for witchcraft. She is at church all day today, though, which is apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Alaric told her he and his wife, Amanda, would have some people over for a party at the barn. Further details were omitted.

After we unload the wood, Alaric drives the tractor across a muddy stream to an ancient barn. Our family has gathered outside, drinking beer and bantering from their camp chairs. Inside the barn, a handful of them set out the feast. There are no lights in there, and shadows overtake the interior even though it’s only six in the evening.

We spend the next few hours discussing the dangers of smoking in the barn and the extent of the property line. There is a brief episode wherein bearded men spirit away the Baby Julian so Amanda, his mother, can have a rest. And then we pile into the trailer, seated on the bales of straw, and ride off to one of Alaric’s wheat fields for the ritual, singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we go.

Most of our rites, it must be said, are citified. We mention the harvest, yes, but usually in a metaphorical sense: we talk about the kinds of seeds we have planted in our lives, the kinds of bounties we can expect to reap. We mention the struggles our forebears endured, but we do not live off the land, as they did. We must find other ways to connect with the meaning of the festival.

This one, however, was different: we were performing it in an actual wheat field. Alaric and Amanda had actually harvested wheat here – the communion bread was made from that crop. For the first time in my memory, our harvest sabbat was literally about the harvest.

I don’t have any illusions about Wicca being an ancient religion; I know the specific things we do were not done by any mythical set of ancestors in the Times Before. But in that bread, made from wheat reaped by my brother and his wife, I could taste just a touch of the life my people must have once lived.

Perhaps it’s coincidence: my father had been telling a story all weekend of a man he’d met at work. He saw the man had a Celtic cross tattooed on his shoulder, and dad congratulated him on our mutual Irish ancestry. Then the man admitted, while rolling up a pants leg to reveal another tattoo of the Red Lion of Scotland, that he wasn’t pure Irish – he was Scots-Irish. Again, just like us. So they started comparing notes: where their families came from, where they settled. The similarities were uncanny: they both had relatives buried in the same tiny graveyard next to the Huzzah Baptist Church, a church that serviced a town that hadn’t been there in decades. “I think we must be cousins,” my father had told the man.

The bread made me think of those Scotts, the line of our tribe that had made its way here, to the heartland of America, who had resulted in me: their lives, and their struggles, and their hopes and dreams and failures. And thinking about that, as it always does, made me think about my other family: my coven, the family of choice that I never chose.

When we finish our bread and wine, Alaric and Amanda send us out to the fields to take some wheat, like the gleaning once allotted to the poor. I take Alaric’s knife and cut nine blades.

I don’t take the hay ride back. I walk with my father back to the barn, mostly in silence. We cross through the woods, over shallow streams and bridges, over grass and gravel. I am thinking about the harvest to come.

*     *     *

Every time I’m near a bonfire now, I find myself singing the runes into it. I don’t have any justification for this, other than it seeming like a thing worth doing. It’s simple: start with fehu, work your way to othala, sending each rune into the flames and then out into the world with the smoke.

I throw each of my wheat blades into the fire as I sang. Sometimes I miss – overshoot the fire, or toss with too little force, so that the blade ends up near the edges instead of the heart. But when the flames catch one, the blade erupts in bright orange light, then blackens, crumbles into the ash. These were my sacrifices, my gifts to the gods. Something for the future.

The fire spreads out of the pit, a tiny orange finger in the living grass. As one of the only people wearing good shoes, I stamp it out before it can get out of control. My friend Megan scolds me afterwards. “Be careful!” she says, pointing a finger from me to the fire. “I saw what you were doing over there.”

I smile and stand next to her. We watch the fire for a moment before she asks the question.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I say. “We’re picking up the U-Haul tomorrow and heading out as soon as we can load up the furniture and the books.”

She nods. “I’ll miss you,” she says.

“Columbia’s only two hours away,” says Web, one of my parents’ generation, on the other side of the fire. “You act like you’re moving to another continent.”

He had a point, of course. The problem wasn’t really the distance. It was what the distance implied about the future.

In the morning I would be leaving St. Louis again, so soon after returning. I was starting a PhD program at the University of Missouri, something I thought I had put behind me until I read the acceptance email while laid over in a Dallas airport en route to Pantheacon this year. The program was scheduled to take five years to complete. After that – assuming the academic job market still exists, which sometimes seems like a big “if” – I would be searching for work any place that would take me. A place that, undoubtedly, would not be St. Louis.

Since I became an adult, since I really understood what it meant to be a second-generation Pagan, I have begun to realize just how wonderful the circumstances of my life are. I knew that I wanted to inherit the coven from my parents, to shelter it, to give it to my own children someday. That’s such a rare gift, to have something like that, to pass it down. I know now that I probably won’t be able to do that, at least not as directly as I had hoped.

But then again, I can look across the fire and see Alaric and Amanda there, cradling little baby Julian.

Families are never about one person; they are about all of us, together. And if it so happens that I can’t be with them as much as I’d like, well, my family doesn’t live in Huzzah anymore, either. This is something every family experiences.

I kiss my family good night, pack up my bags and my trash, and set off towards home. I still have things to throw in boxes and furniture to get ready for the move. I won’t fall asleep until three hours before I need to wake.

It is Lammas, my last night in St. Louis, the night of the first harvest. I pass by the Weeping Willow tree and Alaric’s grandmother’s house. I turn from the gravel road onto the pavement, and make my way out of paradise.

Meeting the Pagans

Stacey Lawless —  February 14, 2013 — 8 Comments

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in four years. She moved up north for a while and we fell out of touch, so when she moved back we had some catching up to do. The last time we’d seen each other, I was calling myself Heathen and thought that I might become a Freyrswoman. Needless to say, I had to explain that my spiritual journey had covered some ground since then. The strange thing was, as we talked, I realized that it felt like far longer than four years since I last lifted a horn in blót – even though I never lost contact with my local Heathens, and attended a blót as a guest only a few months ago. I also told my friend about getting ready for PantheaCon, and the contrast between how I felt about PCON and how I felt about my own Pagan past gave me some food for thought.

The road to PantheaCon opened for me in December, just a few weeks after my rayamiento. My Tata (Palo godfather) announced that he was going to be on a panel about minority religions and the media (“Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press”), and checking the schedule, I saw that Jason Pitzl-Waters was also on that panel. I wound up getting into an online conversation with Jason about PCON that left me thinking I just had to try to go. Crowds aren’t my favorite, but I was thrilled about the Giant Pagan Event, plus I had the sense that here was a door that I had to try to get through. When my boyfriend agreed that yes, we should go, I was stunned (he’s so much more of a hermit than I am). We bought the various necessary tickets and made the plans and I’ve been thoroughly excited since . . .

But the funny thing is, I can’t quite figure out why I’m excited. I mean, it’s great to be stepping out, finally, into the wider world of Pagandom, meeting people, experiencing different traditions, and delighting in the gathering of the tribes. I find it very ironic, though, that I’m entering this world not as a Pagan, but as a Palera. For whatever reasons of destiny or personal quirks, I never found an expression of Paganism that resonated well with me, or provided a good vessel for my hopes, fears, personal growth or spiritual yearnings. I confess I got rather frustrated with the search, too, and there were more than a few times when I was tempted to write the whole thing off. And apparently the process left a few scars, because I realized the other day that although my identity is still oriented towards Paganism, in a general way, I think of you guys as “you guys” and not “us.”

This is an uncomfortable thing to write, not least because I’m writing it here on The Wild Hunt. The flip side, though, is that I am writing about it on The Wild Hunt, at the same time I’m talking about heading out to PantheaCon. Clearly, those scars don’t run all that deep. And I suppose this could mean that I’m going to PCON to find out why I’m going to PCON – that this is the part of my journey where I get to discover what Pagan things are like outside of my little corner of the Southeast.

There are definitely worse quests to undertake. And I do have some concrete goals and desires for PantheaCon which will keep me busy. There’s the glorious opportunity for networking, for example. I think Pagans and the African Traditional Religions are, or at least should be, natural allies in the contentious religious environment of the U.S., and I hope I can accomplish a little work to that end, even if it’s just swapping a few email addresses. Given that I’m going to meet the redoubtable Wild Hunt-ers in person, I anticipate this will be pretty fun and effective.

I want to see how the other ATR practitioners on the schedule present our religions. And, speaking of events on the schedule, I’m hoping to learn more about how different Pagan groups are doing Ancestor veneration and spirit-work. (Healing the dead, and healing with the aid of the dead, are old interests of mine that I now have the tools to pursue in earnest – and I may be on the verge of becoming something of an evangelist for Ancestor veneration. But that is definitely a topic for another post.) The Circle of Bones ritual, in particular, looks intriguing.

I’m completely stoked about the fact that I’m finally going to be able to meet friends in person who I’ve only ever known online. Also, this is the big opportunity to introduce my boyfriend to my Tata and some of the other folks in my Palo community, which is a small triumph considering we can’t afford to travel to the West Coast very often. And, of course, there’s that  one panel I simply must attend . . .

Roads opening, doors to walk through, quests to undertake. That does sound kind of Pagan, doesn’t it? I’ll be making notes on the journey, and will no doubt write about the adventures when I return. If you’re going to be at PantheaCon too, look for me – my hair’s not blue anymore but is still spiky, and you can’t miss the spiral tattoo on my neck. Come on over and tell me your story. I’m here for the gathering of tribes, after all, and I do want to meet you.