Archives For Archdruid

[The following is a guest review by Paracelsian of John Michael Greer's new book The Blood of the Earth (Scarlet Imprint, 2012). Paracelsian is the pseudonym of a UK based Pagan whose practice explores engaged & embodied relationship with the spirits of the land. He is fascinated by the stories that we (as both Pagans and more generally as Humans) tell about ourselves and to give meaning to the world around us, and consequently is involved in interfaith work.]

I’ve never been a great fan of “futurists” (in the sense of those who professionally predict the future), but if you can get past Greer’s self-identification in this category, The Blood of the Earth is a richly rewarding work; provoking, intelligent, timely, and ultimately – in spite of its rather gloomy subject matter – both optimistic and inspiring.

The Blood of the Earth is a valuable contribution towards encouraging people to think about facing what Professor Kerri Facer describes as “the 21st Century Canyon”. This is the period covering the next fifty or so years when the global issues about which so many have warned us for so long (over-population, climate change, exhaustion of water supplies, and the end of cheap energy – all the usual humvee-drivers of the apocalypse) will all begin to simultaneously and profoundly affect the world in which we live.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

Unlike many other writers in the genre, Greer does not devote his work to reheating the scientific narrative of peak oil (though he does point those who remain unconvinced in the right direction). The particular contribution of The Blood of the Earth is that Greer posits a unique narrative framework to analyse the way that we approach these issues: that of Magic, or at least, a Magical approach to thinking. This use of this term might immediately put some readers off, but fear not; this is neither the magic of Dennis Wheatley nor that of Harry Potter (nor, indeed that of Silver Ravenwolf), but Magical thinking as an alternative meta-narrative to that of modernist consumerism; a different way of thinking. Some of the book is spent effectively justifying this usage, and Greer accomplishes this task with elegance and erudition.

Magic, for Greer, is just a different meta-narrative, an alternative way of talking about what is going on in our world. He argues that by adapting this meta-narrative (and thus by dumping more conventional paradigms), we are free to break out of the ruts of thought that constrain our normative approach to the world, and in particular our societies’ addiction to endless consumption. Simply put, by accepting that there are other ways of thinking, we will be able to see things in a different light. Ultimately this is a valuable insight into the current ecological situation; Greer argues that if our conventional ways of thinking are not working, then we need to be using other ways of thinking that will actually have an impact.

Greer uses the neoplatonist distinction between thaumaturgy (magic as wonderworking) and theurgy (magic that transforms consciousness) as a useful method to separate the ways that one can use magical thinking as a way of interpreting our understanding of both the individual and of society in general. He suggests that one can consider industrial capitalist society as a thaumaturgical one – where the masses are governed and controlled by the conscious manipulation of symbols. If you think that this is unlikely, merely reflect for a moment upon the sigils and priesthood of that powerful of spirits: “the Market” – that invisible, uncontrollable power whose unstoppable “forces” control even the destiny of governments, whose priesthood chant the barbarous names of Friedman and Keynes, and to whom is sacrificed the jobs and happiness of so many. Of course, what Greer is suggesting here is that by stepping out of our normal modes of thought the blinkers fall from our eyes and we can see that the Emperor indeed has no clothes. In The Blood of the Earth, Greer uses the magical concept of incantation as an example of the dangers of this way of thinking, which have convinced so many that all one has to do to extract more oil from the ground is to keep on drilling more wells;

The Sarah Palin supporters who turned Drill, baby, drill into their mantra… believe with all their heart hat all we have to do is drill enough wells and we can have all the petroleum we want, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get those wells drilled. (p.66)

Greer expands upon this by warning about the attraction of the emergence of what he refers to (using Wallace’s terminology) as revitalization movement; that is popular movements that spring up as people attempt to deal with, and get control of, radical changes in society; in this case the end of cheap energy. While these will be attractive, and promise much, he argues that they will, in the end, be as much use as the Ghost Dance societies were for those Indigenous American tribes who adopted it as a way of dealing with the European Invasion.

Set against this thaumaturgical approach is that of theurgy (magic that is about the transformation of consciousness). This the approach which Greer argues is much more useful in facing up to the crisis of Peak Oil, but this is a theurgy that at its heart is about freeing ourselves from the dominant narrative, and taking personal responsibility for our own thinking. Greer quotes Péladan; “fear the example of another, think for yourself… this precept of Pythagoras contains all of magic, which is nothing other than the power of selfhood” (p.102) He stresses that this is not merely jumping out of the dominant discourse of society into that of a convenient subculture, but genuinely trying to find one’s own individual way forward. This simplicity is itself the true magic in Greer’s work, and those who come to it in expectation of powerful rituals to restore the natural world, or accounts of entheogen-fuelled adventures on astral planes, will be bitterly disappointed (and possibly extremely challenged) by the genuinely powerful suggestions for action which Greer puts forward – the real magic here is to get rid of your TV and read some good books, try to live more simply, get rid of your car and use public transport or walk more, learn and practice new skills.

The Blood of the Earth is a well-polished and elegant book. It may be read easily, but it is not an easy read – it contains big challenges and a profound message, made all the more profound by its simplicity and “down-to-earth-ness”, which makes its message more scary than all those screeds that exhort us to go and hole up in the remote forest with all the ammunition and tinned goods we can afford. Greer is gently reminding us that things are going to change (and one would be a fool not to think that this is the case – even the Buddha knew that!), and that it is better to do something to prepare ourselves personally for that change, than to ignore it and hope that it is going to go away (or that scientists, the goddess, the rapture, the ascended masters, the ancient wisdom or anything else is going to save us from the consequences of our societies’ folly).

Greer is, as well as being well known in Peak Oil circles, also Grand Arch Druid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. I think that this is a particularly significant point to note, as when thinking about contemporary Paganism in all its diversity, it is clear that there is a substantial mismatch between the story that Paganism tells about itself (a narrative where nature / Nature figures all too highly), and the level of engagement that most self-identified Pagans have with these issues in practice. Now I’m not suggesting that individual Pagans are never involved with environmental activism, but I am convinced that this is not a priority for the vast majority of individuals who would identify as being Pagan. Greer’s work (and that of other authors who seek to engage contemporary Pagans with these issues: Emma Restall Orr, for example) should at least be encouraging members of the Pagan community to be asking some questions about what it means, in practice, to espouse a nature-based spirituality. This discussion is long overdue, and needed now more than ever, or Paganism will be never be any more than the “virtual religion” critiqued by Andy Letcher. How many self-identified Pagans can honestly live up to Chas Clifton’s challenge to “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth religion”. It seems obvious to me that thinking about these questions is imperative if Paganism is not only going to survive, but also to make a positive contribution to the way that humanity relates to Nature in the future (and I’m not suggestion for a moment here some kind of “Starhawk-ian Paganatopia” – but rather an general attitudinal shift, from cut-throat exploitation to acknowledged inter-relation). Simply put this is a book that everyone should read, but particularly so if you are a Pagan. I suspect that the questions that it asks should make many Pagans particularly uncomfortable, and challenge them even more than other readers.

Yesterday the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the findings of a 50-state survey of prison chaplains.  The survey, which was endorsed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association, interviewed 730 prison chaplains, and has a lot of interesting things to say about religion in the American prison system. At first glance, there are no major bombshell revelations to drive the news cycle, leading to initial headlines like “a lot of religion goes on behind bars.” However, if you start digging into the data, especially the section on what chaplains think about the inmate’s religious lives‘, there’s a lot there that should be of concern to modern Pagans, particularly Pagans engaged in prison outreach and chaplaincy work.

First, we find out that around 1.7% of the national prison population are adherents to a Pagan or earth-based/nature religion. If you extrapolate that to the currently incarcerated population of the United States (around 2.3 – 2.4 million people) it means there’s close to 40 thousand incarcerated Pagans (Native American spirituality averages around 2.7%, or  over 62 thousand incarcerated adherents).  In addition, 34% percent of prison chaplains say that their Pagan populations are growing, with another 49% saying the population has remained stable. Only 8% of chaplains noted a decline in Pagan inmates.

Which brings us to the most contentious section on the religious lives of inmates, extremism. A sizable minority of chaplains (39%) say that extremism is “very” or “somewhat” common within Pagan religions.

No one is going to deny that some Pagan groups in prison are extremist in nature, but I want to push back a bit and contextualize this finding. First, we need to note that the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian. Of that number, an impressive 44% of prison chaplains are Evangelical Christians. I’m not saying that Evangelical Christians can’t be impartial in making judgments about what is and isn’t extremism in non-Christian religions, but I do think that most of them start out with a severe deficit in practical, unbiased, knowledge of our faiths and traditions. Also, as the Christian Post points out, “extremism” isn’t just about race or intolerance towards other groups, it’s also about “exclusivity” and “unreasonable” requests for accommodation. Both of those factors are highly subjective, and could be skewing the number higher than it may actually be. Still, even without those caveats, it should be noted that most chaplains (61%) don’t think there’s a major Pagan extremism problem.

“I agree that there can be extremism, depending upon your definition. Very, very few offenders were raised Pagan; almost all converted while inside. Now, converts in general are more fervent than cradle raised believers, but there is an extra issue for Pagans; many converted to a Pagan faith because they felt the church of their childhood failed them. This can result in some rigid attitudes. But extremism does not automatically mean a security threat. A hard nosed, rigid member of a pacifist faith is only a threat as a speed bump, for example. Yes, there have been problems in some places, some times- but a lot of that is caused by two factors: first, we ARE talking not only about fallible humans, but fallen ones as well; prisons aren’t the place to go for demonstrations of wise decision making.”Joel Monka, volunteer with Indianapolis Pagan Prison Ministry

For Pagan clergy, volunteers, and organizations trying to provide chaplaincy services to incarcerated Pagans, these statistics simply underscore the many challenges inherent in providing guidance to an often misunderstood religious movement. In 2008, Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights, saying he “found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere” and that the problem was “endemic.” Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. However, when Pagan clergy are allowed in, and Pagan inmates are given the same consideration as other inmates, truly healing moments of fellowship can happen.

“The Pew Center study on the opinions of prison chaplains was a fascinating read. I found it interesting that Earth-based religions were listed by some of them as being extremist. I volunteer with the Druids in a minimum/medium security prison in Washington State, and I can state categorically that none of my men have ever expressed extremist views in my hearing. I can’t speak for the Wiccan or Asatru inmates, but based on discussions with my fellow volunteers from the Paganfest we held in the prison last summer, these other groups in this prison aren’t particularly extremist, either.” – Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF)

Robert Keefer, High Priest of Crossroads Tabernacle Church – ATC, who’s on the Advisory Council for the State of Michigan’s corrections department, noted that relations with the local prison chaplain have been “friendly and helpful,” though he points out that ritual meetings are “limited to the 8 Sabbats currently,” and that expanding that to include Full Moon rituals and educational services have been “slow going.” Aside from bureaucratic hassles, and dealing with hostile or simply misinformed chaplains, the biggest problem we face is finding enough volunteers to deal with the large and growing number of incarcerated Pagans who want or need religious services. Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF), pointed out that “in the prison I volunteer at, if there is no volunteer, the men of that religion are not allowed to meet. This can truly be a hardship.” Thomas says that he “can only pray that our Gods will inspire the hearts of my Pagan brothers and sisters to step up and volunteer to help our incarcerated men and women lead valid and fulfilling spiritual lives.”

The data given to us here by the Pew Forum is a boon. Even taking into account the Christian lens through which most of this data was obtained and filtered through, it gives us needed information is discussing and addressing the needs of Pagan prisoners. It underscores the challenges, and affirms what many already suspected: that the Pagan population in prison is growing, that the institutional chaplaincy is disproportionately Christian and conservative in makeup, that extremism (whatever its true extent) is an ongoing concern, and that we simply don’t have the volunteers or institutional muscle in place to properly address prisoner’s needs. Just as it is on the “outside” our growth continually outstrips the pace in which we can train clergy or build institutions and services. In short, we have a lot of work to do.

This report is a first foray into the many issues and concerns raised by this data, and I’m committed to continuing this conversation for as long as it needs to happen. I’m already in communication with several other voices from within the Pagan community on the issue of prison chaplaincy and the topics raised by this survey, and hope to spotlight them in the coming weeks and months.

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion's Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Three days into the campaign and I'm less than $150 dollars from reaching my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven't pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]

Top Story: Circle Cemetery, located at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve, just north of Barneveld, Wisconsin, has become America’s first National Pagan natural burial ground and contemporary Green cemetery to be platted and recorded in Wisconsin.


Selena Fox at a memorial for Marion Weinstein.

“For its first fifteen years, Circle Cemetery took the form of an area on a ridge top where cremains were placed and Green funerals were conducted.  In 2005, Selena, along with her husband Dr. Dennis Carpenter, Circle Sanctuary church attorney Chip Brown and others in the Circle Sanctuary Community began the legal process of permitting body burials and expanding the size of the cemetery to 20 acres.  Circle Sanctuary minister Rev. Nora Cedarwind Young of Washington State assisted with Green cemetery platting research. In Spring of 2010, Selena, Dennis, and Chip took the expanded cemetery proposal before local government officials through a series of meetings.  Circle Cemetery zoning was approved by the Town of Brigham Zoning Committee on April 20, by the Brigham Town Board on May 4, and the Iowa County Zoning and Planning Committee on May 26.  On June 15, Circle Cemetery’s plat was approved by the Iowa County Board, and the following day the remaining official signatures were added to the plat and the plat was recorded, completing the process.”

While there are other Pagan sites that allow for cremains, this is the first Pagan-run cemetery in the United States that will also allow for full (non-cremated) body burials. Circle Cemetery currently  holds the cremains of seventeen Pagans. Celebrations for this development are planned at this year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering Summer Solstice festivities in Missouri and at the Solstice Full Moon evening at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve in Wisconsin.

If you are interested in supporting Circle Cemetery fiscally, you can donate here. For inquires relating to arrangements for cremains placement, body burials, and memorial markers, you can contact Selena Fox.

A Pagan Buddha Killer: The long-running religion e-zine Killing the Buddha features an essay by Eric Scott about growing up in a Pagan family, and gathering the children of his parent’s coven years later to celebrate Lughnasadh.

“We sat in the den of the house in the suburbs, chewing on scalloped potatoes and roast beef, and wondered what to do. We longed for the mystery we felt when we were young. We longed for the magic that turned TV rooms into temples. We longed to feel something again at the moment the scimitar carved the mystical from the mundane. We talked, and we frowned, and we decided that next year, we would take the festival of Lughnasadh.”

An excellent look at growing up Pagan in a Pagan family; I recommend reading the entire thing. Also worth checking out is his piece Hrafspa, which also appears at Patheos.com.

Andrew and the Archdruid: Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic references a recent essay by John Michael Greer (Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America) that talks about peak oil (a favorite topic of Greer’s) and the revitalization movements that will emerge as the reality of peak oil sinks in.

“The optional features [of revitalization movements] range all over the map from the harmless to the horrific. A focus on purification, for example, is one common optional feature, but purification can mean a great many things. In the Native American revitalization movements of the twentieth century, for example, it usually meant abstaining from alcohol and other toxic products of white culture, and did a great deal to help First Nations communities begin to recover from the ghastly experiences of the previous century. In the European revitalization movements that sprang up in the wake of the Black Death, by contrast, it usually meant getting rid of Jews and other social outsiders who were blamed for spreading the plague, and helped lay the foundation for the witch hunting mania of the following centuries.

It seems uncomfortably likely to me that such movements could be set in motion by the emergence of peak oil as a publicly acknowledged crisis. Tendencies in that direction are already welded firmly in place in popular culture across the industrial world. The Sarah Palin supporters who turned “Drill, baby, drill” into their mantra du jour are engaging in incantation, to be sure, but there’s more to the slogan than a comfortable thoughtstopper; a great many of the people who mouth it believe with all their heart that all we have to do is drill enough wells and we can have all the petroleum we want, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get those wells drilled. That plan of action can’t deliver the goods; they might as well be out there with the cargo cults, building mock airfields on isolated Pacific islands hoping to bring back the DC-3s full of K-rations and cheap trade goods that landed on a hundred archipelagoes during the Second World War. Still, that’s not something they are likely to grasp any time soon; mere reason has essentially no power against a nascent revitalization movement.”

In a follow-up essay, Greer discusses ritual and magical thinking within revitalization movements, and drives home the point that the time of brighter futures is rapidly drawing to a close (you may also want to look at his essay explaining why magic won’t solve our problems).

URI at 10: Don Frew at the Covenant of the Goddess (COG) Interfaith Reports blog discusses the United Religions Initiative, COG’s history of participation in the interfaith organization, and its upcoming tenth anniversary on June 26th. Frew makes a request for a the Pagan community to take part in a joint working of protection for the URI so that its work can continue.

“Every year, my coven celebrates Samhain.  Our ceremony usually includes a trance journey to the island of the Dead to speak with the ancestors.  I often encounter recently passed interfaith friends on the shore.  A few years ago, right after his death, I encountered Gary Smith [an NA/Oneida URI representative] on the shore.  He was intent upon impressing upon me that that the protective work we did at the founding of the URI wasn’t a one-time thing; that such work needed to be done on a regular basis, especially on the anniversary of the URI’s founding: June 26.

I have tried to live up to this, and have shared Gary’s message with those folks in interfaith who wouldn’t be too taken aback by messages from the dead about magical protection rituals.  On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the URI’s founding, I feel moved to share Gary’s message with the wider Neopagan / Pagan / Indigenous community who might read this blog and invite you to share – in whatever way your path does so – in the magical / spiritual protection of the URI, that its work “to promote enduring interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings” might continue to grow and prosper.  So mote it be!”

The United Religions Initiative is one of few modern interfaith organizations that had modern Pagans involved from the very start, and has done a lot to spread awareness of our faiths, and to build bridges with indigenous groups around the world. So protecting it for another ten years seems like an excellent idea. For information about the official 10th anniversary celebration in Amman, Jordan, click here.

Pagans on Godspeed: The Progressive Radio Network show Godspeed has had a run of Pagan guests recently. On 05/30 they interviewed Galina Krasskova, on 06/06 they interviewed Phyllis Curott, and this week they’ve interviewed Pagan scholar Sabina Magliocco author of “Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America”.

“In this hour, topics include: Italy and regional folklore; ‘Strega Nona’ or Grandmother Witch; religious festivals in Europe as economic and political opportunities; how they changed when the economy changed; how the role of women also changed; the “old religion” and old ways of healing; a brief history of Wicca in England; the rise of Wicca in Europe and the U.S.; core beliefs of Wicca; alignment with the natural world and cycles; conflict with Roman Catholic clergy; Neo-pagans in America; Harry Potter – reaching out to reconnect with our magical, mystical being; individual and group worship; holidays and festivals; the importance of folklore — why is it a continuing inspiration and guide.”

All the shows seem available for download, so load up your mp3-player and enjoy!

That’s all I have for now, I’ll be leaving for PSG tomorrow, so stay tuned for the coming week’s line-up of guest-posters!

The international Druid organization Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), founded in 1984 by Isaac Bonewits (who served as its first Archdruid), and now one of the largest modern Pagan organizations in existence, has elected a new Archdruid. Rev. Kirk S. Thomas, the new Archdruid, was elected effective May 1st, with a formal Installation ceremony taking place May 28th at the ADF Nemeton at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, NY. Thomas previously served five years as Vice-Archdruid, and succeeds Rev. Robert “Skip” Ellison as Archdruid. Thomas is the ADF’s fifth Archdruid, preceded by Ellison, Rev. John “Fox” Adelman, Rev. Ian Corrigan, and Rev. Isaac Bonewits.


The presentation of Rev. Kirk Thomas as Archdruid.
Photo by Rev. A.J.Gooch, used with permission.

“The ritual was very moving and magical for me. For my ordination I was presented with a new Stole to symbolize my commitment to my vocation, and for the installation I stood with a bare foot on a stone with a footprint carved in it, the other foot still in a sandal on the ground. This liminal posture was to connect me to the lineage of all those Archdruids who have served before me.”

In addition to being the ADF’s new Archdruid, Thomas also serves on the Board of Directors of Cherry Hill Seminary, and is in the process of creating an ADF Order and seminary at Trout Lake Abbey in Washington. In a statement on his vision for the future of ADF, Thomas emphasized the need to grow and reach out to isolated individuals and smaller groups.

“One of the things that attracted me to ADF was Isaac’s vision of the future – a time when ADF congregations support their own buildings and land, their own day-care centers, their own retirement homes, etc. and become visibly active and respected parts of the community. As a public religion, we reach out to the Pagan community with our open, public rituals and activities. But we need to grow. Member services need to be streamlined and made more efficient, and our clergy need to reach out beyond their own groves to those solitaries and smaller groves whose members can never make it to an ADF festival. I believe that with careful management and attention to detail our church can continue to grow and once we reach critical mass, the future will be ours. I am committed to a strong and vital ADF, and with the help of the Kindreds, we shall make Isaac’s vision a reality.”

To find out more about ADF, you can check out their website, follow them on Twitter, or “like” them on Facebook. On a personal note, I’d like to extend my congratulations to Rev. Kirk Thomas. I had the pleasure of briefly serving with him on Cherry Hill Seminary’s Board of Directors, and I found him to be capable, good-natured, and detail-oriented. He will no doubt lead this Druid organization to ever greater heights, and be the kind of responsive and forward-thinking leader the modern Pagan world needs now more than ever.