Archives For Benin

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

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah's Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah’s Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

  • Deseret News reports on Indra Neelameggham, the first Hindu (and first woman) to ever give an opening invocation at a Utah governor’s inauguration. Quote:  “It is a prayer for peace, happiness, harmony and contentment, Sen. (Orrin) Hatch and (former) Gov. (Jon M.) Huntsman both told me after the ceremony that they thought my prayer was inspiring, so I guess it went pretty well […]  So many people believe that in Utah we are just a Mormon community,” she said. “Certainly that is the predominant religion, but we are so much more than just that. And I think they wanted someone to represent that diversity.” Neelameggham is a member of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah, and a pivotal figure in Utah’s Hindu community.
  • So remember last week when I reported on a theistic Satanic group in Florida (The Satanic Temple) that’s planning to hold a rally on January 25th in solidarity with Gov. Rick Scott’s support of a school “inspirational messages” law? At the time I said that “I have no idea if this is serious, or if someone is engaging in some next-level trolling.”Well, it turns out it was the latter:  “[Lucien] Greaves is listed as the casting director of a feature film called …wait for it…The Satanic Temple. […] The casting call said the movie was a mockumentary about the “nicest Satanic Cult in the world.” It was seeking actors for eight speaking roles “to play minions” and 10 featured extras.” So there you go.  It’s a would-be mockumentary.
  • The U.S. Forest Service has found a relationship between the loss of trees and a downturn in human health and life expectancy.  Quote: “The “relationship between trees and human health,” as they put it, is convincingly strong. They controlled for as many other demographic factors as possible. And yet, they are unable to satisfactorily explain why this might be so […] there is something fascinatingly mysterious about the entanglement of our health with that of nature. The suspicion that this may be so, of course, is seen well outside of the scientific literature on the topic […] Henry David Thoreau, writing in The Atlantic in June 1862, said, ‘I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.'”
  • John Beckett, a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) and Vice President of CUUPS National, has joined the Patheos Pagan Portal as a blogger. Quote: “This blog is part of my spiritual journey. Sometimes I write about what’s going on in my life. Sometimes I write about what’s in the news or what’s abuzz on the Pagan internet. There are some recurring themes: the nature of the Universe, the origins of religion, developing relationships with the spirits of nature, with our ancestors, and with our gods and goddesses. Spiritual growth. Magic. Building vibrant religious communities. And perhaps most importantly, how to combine all that into a spiritual practice that builds a better world here and now.” Congratulations to John, Patheos is lucky to have you.
  • Radio Netherlands profiles 18-year-old Adrien Adandé of Benin, a High School student by day, and a Vodun priest by night. Quote:  “As soon as he gets home from school, 18-year-old Adrien Adandé slips out of his high school uniform and into his voodoo priest robes. A large crowd is already queuing outside for consultations. Adandé took over the practice from his father, who initiated him into the Voodoo rites before his death. ‘As a child, I was my father’s only son who was interested in what he was doing at the convent,’ the teenager recalls. ‘Along the way, he taught me things and showed me the secrets.'” It’s an interesting piece, featuring several perspectives on Vodun in Benin.
  • The Telegraph in India check in with  Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, India’s most famous Wiccan. Quote: “Draped in a black cloak, Chakraverti put 70-odd students of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, under a spell on January 9 as she spoke about ghosts and planchettes and decoded Wiccan symbols. “Black is a witch’s favourite colour. It stands for enigma and dignity in Wicca. The broom signifies a woman being liberated from household activities and flying away in search of identity. The conical hat is a symbol of concentration and free-flowing thought,” she explained.”
  • Think Africa Press notes that blaming traditional African belief systems for witchcraft-related crimes and persecutions ignores that most of these harmful and violent manifestations are modern inventions, and that Pentecostal and evangelical churches have had a large influence in their development. Quote: “Today’s witchcraft beliefs and practices are as much products of modern dynamics as they are informed by long-standing tradition. Witchcraft beliefs are not remnants of ‘pre-modern’ cultures but contemporary phenomena embedded in, and partly constituted by, specific and current cultural and socio-economic contexts.”
Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

The remains of a controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

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

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is making a historic trip to Cuba at the end of March, the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. This high-profile trip has many people buzzing as to its significance, and what it means as Cuba’s communist government looks towards a post-Castro era. What is clear, is that the Pope will not be meeting with any leaders or practitioners of Santeria / Lukumi during his three-day stint in Cuba, despite a hurtful snub from the last Pope’s visit.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

“The 84-year-old pope’s schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul’s five-day visit was, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter. A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict’s schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santería representatives. Lombardi said Santería does not have an “institutional leadership,” which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions. “It is not a church” in the traditional sense, Lombardi said.”

During Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Santeria practitioners were blatantly left out. The Catholic Church’s head met with representatives from Jewish, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches, institutions that oversee tiny minorities on the island, while an estimated 80% of Cubans participate in some form of Santeria or other syncretic African religious practice. Can you imagine a religious tour of a land that ignores 80% of the actual religious practice and still be seen as valid? At least one Cuban Santero, Lazaro Cuesta, is bitter over the treatment his faith received from Catholic leaders in the past.

“…we live in the basement, where nobody sees us …we have already seen one pope visit … and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us.”

One should not be surprised, for as much as Pope Benedict likes to talk about dialog with indigenous and traditional non-Christian faiths, he seems hesitant to actually engage in it. Even when perfect opportunities lay before him.

On Saturday, he traveled to Ouidah on Benin’s Atlantic coast, more or less the Vatican of voodoo. Historically, Benin has been the cradle of voodoo in West Africa, and it remains a huge presence. A famed python temple is right across the street from Ouidah’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a reminder of how Catholicism and voodoo live cheek by jowl.

One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism.

Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe. That produced some resentment in a country that’s proud of its unique religious heritage — Jan. 10, for instance, is marked as “voodoo day.”

If Benedict won’t deign to visit practitioners of Vodun in its very birthplace, even after much speculation that he might, what hope does Santeria have in Cuba? One can only imagine that this trend of avoidance goes beyond mere discomfort, or fear of unscripted moments of truth-telling, or even traditionalist furor, into outright animus against any and all non-monotheistic “pagan” faiths. Benedict, when he was Cardinal, lashed out at Catholic interfaith efforts when he thought they might be getting too chummy with African animists, he also called Buddhism narcissistic in nature, and predicted it would replace Marxism as the Church’s main enemy.

This behavior continued once Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizersAt the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism.” During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession.

Only the most blinkered Catholic partisan could look at these instances and not see a unifying theme. A message that true “interfaith” and “dialog” only exists in the Catholic Church between faiths it is forced to respect through social or political power. Or in very rare instances, when it is shamed into changing its behavior. Twelve years ago Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for the sins of the Catholic Church. He apologized to Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and to native peoples. But apologies have to be backed by action to mean something. So long as Benedict continues his trend of ignoring or insulting “non-institutional” indigenous, traditional, and Pagan religions, we all, to paraphrase Lazaro Cuesta, will continue to live in the Catholic basement.

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

  • The New York Times does a profile of Lady Rhea, “the Witch Queen of New York.” The article focuses on how Lady Rhea doesn’t fit the profile of the fantasy witch, noting that she is “no cartoon witch. She is a no-nonsense Bronx native who drives a Ford Focus and tells it like it is. No black robe and pointy hat here. On Wednesday night, she wore slacks, a sweatshirt and designer glasses and jewelry.” Actually, Lady Rhea’s non-pointy-hat wearing fashion sense is pretty much the norm for most Pagans, and it seems strange that the fact that we don’t dress like Elphaba Thropp is still a story hook to hang a profile on. Still, it’s a positive look at a local figure, and I’m glad the NYT devoted time to doing the story.
  • Remember all my talk about Pope Benedict XVI meeting with Vodun leaders in Benin? Turns out it didn’t happen, at least according to the National Catholic Reporter. Quote: “One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism. Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe.” NCR reporter by John L Allen Jr surmises that the controversy over Pope John Paul II’s 1992 meeting with Vodun leaders made Benedict gun-shy about doing something similar. So much for the “importance of dialogue with practitioners of indigenous African religions.”
  • The Los Angeles Times looks at Pagans and Paganism in the Air Force Academy, focusing on the $80,000 outdoor worship center for “earth-based” and Pagan religions that was recently installed. Quote: “Witches in the Air Force? Chaplain Maj. Darren Duncan, branch chief of cadet faith communities at the academy, sighs. A punch line waiting to happen, and he’s heard all the broom jokes.” It’s a fairly decent story, but I have to say, and maybe I’m biased, but I felt Cara Shulz’s recent story for PNC-Minnesota focusing on the same topic (which was reprinted here) was better.
  • Ritch Duncan, co-author of “The Werewolf’s Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten”, writes about the bizarre media panic that ensured after a “Satanic sex ritual” resulted in a man being hospitalized, and his book was listed as being found at the scene. Quote: “Even worse than being misrepresented in the media was how lazy it all seemed to be. If the reporters charged with covering this story actually spent five seconds looking up what the book was about (they certainly had the time to do a Google search and steal an image of the cover), they could have mentioned it was filed under the “humor/parody” section.” The piece is a great look at how moral panics are fueled just by shifts in emphasis.
  • Amanda Marcotte writes an editorial for Reuters on the “increasingly Godless” American future. Quote: “The more that religion can be pushed off into the realm of private practice and out of the public square, the better for public discourse, as we can dispense with the God talk and move on to reality-based discussions about what we want and how we can get it. The Millennials have the right idea when it comes to dismissing the belief that religion somehow improves politics. Now we just have to wait for the religious right to finish with their temper tantrum over this, and then we can move on to the future.”
  • This year the Christmas Tree at the United States Capitol was given a traditional Native American blessing by an elder from the Tuolumne Band of Me-wuk tribe, the first time such a thing has happened. Quote: “It was an amazingly moving ceremony they sang and blessed the tree and blessed the people there on site and blessed our safe journey for the tree.” You can watch a video of the blessing, and the tree being harvested, here.
  • The Guardian looks at the rise and mini-revival of “occult rock,” highlighting Rise Above Records, the return of Black Widow, and Swedish band Ghost.  Quote: “Whether it’s a heartfelt expression of devilish beliefs or simply a good excuse to wear a spooky mask and annoy a few Christians, occult rock can hardly fail to provide a welcome antidote to an increasingly soulless and cynical music world that prizes profit over atmosphere, and perfection over power. Perhaps more importantly, its newest exponents seem to have abandoned shock tactics in favour of a subtle, persuasive approach worthy of Eden’s duplicitous serpent himself.”
  • The Times of India has yet another article about the spread of Wicca in India, this time focusing on Swati Prakash, head of The Global Wicca Tradition. Quote: “In the middle and dark ages, anyone who followed any ancient belief was falsely accused of ‘consorting with the devil’ and was tortured into accepting the new faith. Ironically, you will note that male wizards are always depicted as wise old men in fiction and art throughout history while women witches were shown as cunning and ugly. Clearly, there has been a gender bias in favour of male spiritualists and gurus.”
  • The Associated Press explores American Indian reactions to the James Arthur Ray verdict, with some hoping that it will result in better safety when non-Natives try to appropriate Native ceremonies. Quote:  Bill Bielecki, an attorney representing the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, said the trial would encourage non-Natives to focus on safety when running sweat lodge ceremonies. “They’re going to look at the facts,’’ said Bielecki, who also was party to the lawsuit, “You don’t use a large sweat lodge, you make sure people can leave and you don’t coerce the occupants into staying beyond their limits or capabilities. If you do that, then you avoid gross negligence.’’ You can see a round-up of my coverage regarding this case, here.
  • Why do Catholics think the worship of Maria Lionza is so popular in Venezuela? Why, “poverty and poor education are contributing factors,” naturally. But they better be careful what they wish for, because isn’t Catholicism’s main growth areas with the very same “people lacking education and social services?” Do I sense a double-standard here? Are the poor and uneducated Catholics actually wise, then?

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

News did not grind to a halt while I was away at the AAR Annual Meeting, and I have a few important updates on previously reported stories here at The Wild Hunt that I’d like to share with you before I continue unpacking my AAR coverage.

James Arthur Ray Sentenced: Perhaps the biggest news to break while I was away is that New Age guru James Arthur Ray, who was convicted in June of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony he led at a retreat in Sedona, has been sentenced to two years in prison (three two-year concurrent sentences) and fined nearly $60,000 in restitution for his crimes.

Prosecutors had sought consecutive three-year sentences for James Arthur Ray on each of the three counts of negligent homicide on which a jury convicted him. The judge instead imposed three two-year terms, to be served concurrently. Ray and his attorneys asked for probation, but Judge Warren R. Darrow said the evidence shows “extreme negligence on the part of Mr. Ray.” “A prison sentence is just mandated in this case,” he said.

Victim’s families and Native American activists alike are both unhappy that Ray didn’t get a longer sentence, though Lakota elder Marvin Youngdog did hope the conviction would act as a deterrent to others appropriating and misusing Native ceremonies. Quote: “Now, he’s a convicted felon; let the word go out to others.” From all accounts an appeal seems likely. This story has been covered extensively by The Wild Hunt, as I feel this case, and the issues it raises have ramifications for the wider Pagan community. Here’s some highlights of my past coverage: “Reactions to Ray Verdict from Native Voices, Victim’s Families, and Pagan Community,” “James Arthur Ray Trial Begins,” “Checking in With James Arthur Ray,” and “The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy.” You can be sure we’ll be following future developments.

Pope Benedict XVI and Vodun Leaders: While I was heading to San Francisco to be among religion scholars, the head of the Roman Catholic Church was headed to Benin for a three-day visit to the West African country of Benin, birthplace of Vodun (aka Voodoo). Anticipating this planned visit, I wondered what the pontiff would say to Vodun leaders in a planned meeting.  As the BBC notes, Vodun is “completely normal” there, an interwoven part of the culture, and Vodun leaders like Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala (mentioned previously on this site) were hoping for words of reconciliation and bridge-building.

High-ranking Voodoo priests have been invited to meet the Pope. One of the Voodoo leaders, Dah Aligbonon, said he hoped the pontiff would urge Roman Catholics to be more tolerant of Africa’s traditional religions. “I invite the Pope to tell his followers to stop acts of provocation against the Voodoo culture,” he said, Reuters reports.

So what happened? So far I haven’t been able to find any accounts of the meeting(s), and what was said. However, there’s been some side-coverage of the Pope’s interactions with Vodun and African Traditional Religions in Benin. The National Catholic Reporter notes that Benedict “urged Catholics to resist a ‘syncretism which deceives’ and to uphold a Christian faith that ‘liberates from occultism’ and ‘vanquishes evil spirits.'” On a somewhat more positive note The Washington Post reports that the new papal document unveiled in Benin,  “Africae Munus” (”The Commitment of Africa”), “stresses the importance of dialogue with Islam and practitioners of indigenous African religions.” I’ll be writing more about this topic once first-hand accounts of the Vodun meetings emerge.

Haiti’s Vodou Tourism: Turning from Vodun in Benin to Vodou in Haiti, we pick up on a story I first noticed back in SeptemberHaitian President Michel Martelly wants to “rebrand” Haiti, and Vodou tourism is part of that vision. In Martelly’s first address to the United Nations he said: “Do you know how many people would like to come to Haiti and try to understand what Voodoo is?” This was no idle rhetorical question as Haiti’s new tourism minister, Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, is already utilizing the allure of Vodou to boost ambitious plans for a new tourism industry for the island nation.

“Because we are talking of Voodoo, and there again, it is an initiation to what makes us unique and gives us the force to propose, Haiti on the most popular tourist routes as is now the Caribbean basin. Haiti as a must-visit, because its cry at the world is and remains “Unique Haiti, magic Haiti ! (bewitching, fascinating)” Although recognized as a religion and institutionally to the equal of all others, since 1992, Voodoo is more that this normative and formal status ; it marries and inspires all fields of conscious as the unconscious of every Haitian. It is the starting point of the Foundation of our Nation. Voodoo is in Everything, it is tautological in the expressions of each, both at the level of the laborious daily, than at the level of representations of the artistic creation (dance, music, literature, cuisine, cinema, painting and sculpture) both traditional and modern.”

Former Haitian presidential candidate Jean H. Charles has lauded the appointment of Villedrouin, calling her one of three Haitian women who represented the country’s “highest good,” and noting that Haiti has “immense” potential as a tourist destination, specifically listing Vodou-related events. So it looks like Vodou tourism is full-steam ahead in Haiti. What this will mean for Vodou, both in Haiti and abroad, should be an interesting question to follow in the months and years to come.

That’s all I have for now, but stay tuned for more AAR-related coverage and other great Pagan-oriented news updates!

Welcome to The Wild Hunt’s semi-regular round-up of news and opinion, unleash the hounds. As you read this I’ll be on my way to San Francisco, California to attend the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting. The AAR is the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion, and their annual meeting has become a vital place to hear about the latest scholarship in the field of Pagan Studies (and just about every other religious and philosophical tradition as well). This year will feature an abundance of Pagan-friendly events, including the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s stellar-looking line-up of presentations. I’ll be attending as many Pagan-oriented presentations as I can, and will report back with some initial thoughts, photos, and hopefully some interviews.

In the meantime, here’s some links of note to tide you over!

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

This Friday the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, will be heading to Benin for a three-day visit where he is expected to unveil an “important document” relating to the Catholic Church’s role in Africa. What makes this visit distinctive is that Benin is thought to be the birthplace of Vodun (aka Vodou/Voodoo), and it is the third largest religion in that country (after Christianity and Islam). Indeed, the pontiff’s visit will feature a “a speech to non-Christian leaders” which can only mean he will be addressing practitioners of Vodun in some capacity. The Religious News Service speculates that Benedict’s message may not be one of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation.

Ouidah is also an international center for the indigenous religion of Vodoun, or Voodoo, which is practiced by more than 17 percent of Beninese. Catholicism’s relationship with traditional African religions is of particular concern to Benedict, who has warned against the danger of melding faiths in non-Catholic cultures. Late last month at the Vatican, Benedict lamented to bishops visiting from Angola and Sao Tome and Principe that African converts to Catholicism often persist in “practices that are incompatible with adherence to Christ,” including the “marginalization and even murder of children and elderly people, condemned by the false diktats of witchcraft.”

It is increasingly clear that Benedict is unafraid of using important interfaith moments to engage in triumphalism. At the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. It’s also hard to forget that in 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were “silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizers; does he believe that practitioners of Vodun hold the same longing?  Will he publicly comment on the new code of conduct for Christian missionaries approved by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) that calls on Christians to reject all forms of coercive behavior and misrepresentative slurs?

“Christians are called to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power in their witness. They also reject violence, unjust discrimination or repression by any religious or secular authority, including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts. […]  Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions. […]  Christians should avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different religions.

Finally, while the Pope will get to make a speech to non-Christian leaders, will Vodun leaders get a chance to address Benedict in any format whatsoever? In 1993, during the reign of Pope John Paul II, Vodun leaders voiced their displeasure with the “denigration” of their faith by Catholic missionaries directly to the pontiff.

“Two days into his 10th African tour, Pope John Paul II tacitly acknowledged vodun’s hold tonight, meeting in Cotonou with a group of its practitioners and leaders and telling them that, while they would certainly gain from converting to Christianity, “the church considers freedom of religion to be an inalienable right, a right that brings with it the responsibility to seek the truth.” In response to his proselytization, the vodun leaders made their own point about some members of the church that seemed to reflect strains. “One cannot but bitterly deplore the campaign of systematic denigration to which the practice of vodun is subjected by certain churches and parishes,” said Senou Zannou, a spokesman for the group of 30 senior vodun priests who met the Pope and placed him on a carved wooden throne to address him.”

Since then, some Vodun leaders have become evangelists for their faith, streamlining initiations,  in an effort to stem the erosion of their beliefs under constant missionary activity.

So what will the Pope say to Vodun in its birthplace? Will he strike a conciliatory note with non-Christian faiths, or will he use this opportunity to bolster conversion efforts in Benin?

A few quick news notes to start off your Wednesday.

Problems With Summer Solstice at Stonehenge: Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones lashes out at Pagans and other revelers who congregate each year at Stonehenge, noting the lack of (ancient) historical grounding and implying that it is only permitted now to avoid “public violence.”

“Eighteen thousand pagans, druids and – for all I know – modern Aztecsgathered at Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice. There were some drugs arrests, but judging from reports, English Heritage seem pleased with the numbers. Er, why? And why is this daft festival even allowed? In the 1980s hippies fought the police for their right to revel. So that is why it is permitted: because otherwise there would be public violence on Salisbury Plain. But there is no historical tradition justifying the pagan takeover of Britain’s most celebrated ancient monument every midsummer. There is not even a theological justification, for no connection exists between Stonehenge and modern paganism.”

Jones bemoans Stonehenge becoming “a stage for feeble pseudo-religious, pseudo-communal fantasies,” calling the gatherings “abusive” and “ugly.” I’m not sure why Jones is so against Summer Solstice gatherings at Stonehenge, he doesn’t seem to be arguing from a stance of preservation, simply aesthetics. Anyone who actually studies religion or folk tradition will tell you that a solid grounding in current historical information isn’t required for a popular tradition to form. Allowing the Druids, Pagans, hippies, and tourists to gather in a managed fashion harms no one, and indeed creates important liminal moments of communal sentiment that helps bind a nation and its people together. Stonehenge is a symbol of Britain now, something the national tourism industry knows full well,  and it’s bizarre to discourage people from having celebrations around it.

Direct Action at the San Francisco Peaks: While this week saw a lot of attention on the issue of protecting and preserving Native sacred places in the United States, particularly the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, one event seemed to get overlooked in the coverage. Last week six activists were arrested in non-violent direct action in an attempt to halt construction of water pipeline that will be used to pump treated waste-water snow on the mountain, a move many indigenous peoples and Tribal Nations see as a blasphemy.

Kristopher Barney, Dine’ (Navajo) & one of the six who locked himself to an excavator stated, “This is a continuation of years of prayers and resistance. It is our hope that all Indigenous Peoples, and all others,  throughout the North, East, South and West come together to offer support to the San Francisco Peaks and help put a stop to Snowbowl’s plan to further destroy and desecrate such a sacred, beautiful and pristine mountain!”

“What part of sacred don’t they understand? Through our actions today, we say enough! The destruction and desecration has to end!” said Marlena Teresa Garcia, 16, a young Diné woman and one of the six who chose to lock down. “The Holy San Francisco Peaks is home, tradition, culture, and a sanctuary to me, and all this is being desecrated by the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort.  So now I, as a young Diné woman, stand by Dook’o’osliid’s side taking action to stop cultural genocide.  I encourage all indigenous youth to stand against the desecration that is happening on the Holy San Francisco Peaks and all other sacred sites”, said Garcia after being arrested and released.

There are accusations that police used excessive force in removing the protesters. You can read a press release sent out by the activists, as well as suggestions on how you can support their efforts, here. You can read all of my coverage concerning efforts to protect the San Francisco Peaks, here. Thanks to Kathryn Price NicDhàna for bringing this to my attention.

Vodun and Vaccines in Benin: CNN features an editorial from columnist Michael Gerson on efforts to get life-saving vaccines to people who need it in the developing world. In the piece Gerson promotes a new documentary collaboration between ONE and VBS called  “Voodoo and Vaccines” about how health workers reached out to Vodun and traditional healers in Benin to overcome skepticism and misinformation.

“Voodoo and Vaccines” shows how government and health officials have reached out to religious leaders, and how many traditional healers are now carrying a pro-vaccination message. They are combining a belief in traditional medicine with an acceptance of modern medicine. And this is benefiting the people of Benin.

This is not the first time activists and health workers have reached out to Vodun healers in order to reach the people of Benin, and it is encouraging to see a politically connected conservative Christian talk about the necessity of involving Vodun practitioners without descending into the smears and triumphalism that so tainted some outreach efforts in Haiti.

That’s all I have for now, perhaps more later. Have a great day!

The African country of Benin is thought to be the birthplace of Vodun (aka Vodou/Voodoo), and it is the third largest religion in that country (after Christianity and Islam). But despite the enduring popularity of Vodun in Benin, it has been slowly losing ground to Islam and Christianity, particularly in places like Cotonou, the country’s economic hub and largest city, where Christianity is prevalent. Enter Vodun priest Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala, a direct descendant of the semi-mythical princess Aligbonon, who’s become an evangelist and advocate for a new openness within his faith.

“Mr. Aligbonon takes it a step further. He regularly speaks on radio and television in Benin, a priest with a will to electronically diffuse the wisdom of ancestors from centuries past. The aim, in his telling, is to bring voodoo and associated teachings out of the closet and up to date, just like with the rapid-fire training he is developing to create initiates in three months, instead of the usual three years. Even though voodoo is widely followed in Benin — “The double practice persists, even among university people,” says Mr. Iroko — an unjustified stigma still comes with it, Mr. Aligbonon says indignantly. “Voodoo is not the devil, and still less Satan,” he writes emphatically in one of the pamphlets for sale in his storefront, a detailed guide to the religion’s principal divinities.”

Vodun priests in Benin have long complained, even to directly to the Pope, about smear campaigns by Christians against their faith.

“Two days into his 10th African tour, Pope John Paul II tacitly acknowledged vodun’s hold tonight, meeting in Cotonou with a group of its practitioners and leaders and telling them that, while they would certainly gain from converting to Christianity, “the church considers freedom of religion to be an inalienable right, a right that brings with it the responsibility to seek the truth.” In response to his proselytization, the vodun leaders made their own point about some members of the church that seemed to reflect strains. “One cannot but bitterly deplore the campaign of systematic denigration to which the practice of vodun is subjected by certain churches and parishes,” said Senou Zannou, a spokesman for the group of 30 senior vodun priests who met the Pope and placed him on a carved wooden throne to address him.”

It seems things have reached a point where some aren’t content with this status quo any longer. Aligbonon, according to the New York Times, has become quite popular with young people in Cotonou, and a quoted historian and sociologist both agree he’s become an influential figure within the Vodun community in Benin. Could this mean the dawning of a new activist spirit within the Vodun community in Benin, the cradle of that religion? Will his new, faster, training process swell their ranks? Perhaps a new day is dawning in the person of Mr. Aligbonon? It will be interesting to see how this affects not only Vodun in Benin, but Vodou in Haiti and the diaspora.

Now that the initial shock of the massive earthquake hitting Haiti (see here for information on sending financial support) has filtered through the media, and the news-cycle starts to move on from Pat Robertson, more in-depth analysis and commentary are starting to emerge. Starting with more articles and editorials that explore the religious character of Haiti, like Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado’s essay for Religion Dispatches.

“What I wanted to say is that Vodou is not some sort of sorcery, or the product of some “pact to the devil” (thank you Pat Robertson). I also wanted to correct his erroneous assumption that Haiti is a nation of Vodou practitioners. It is, and continues to be, overwhelmingly Christian.”

Maldonado, author of “Afro-Cuban Theology: Religion, Race, Culture, and Identity”, predicts that Christian Pentecostalism will receive a big boost in the wake of this tragedy, just as it did in Guatemala after a massive quake in 1976. Its apocalyptic theology and literalism appealing to a shell-shocked and traumatized people. Meanwhile, Rachel Tabachnick at Talk To Action notes the long history of Christian missionaries demonizing Haiti’s history and Vodou religion,  placing Robertson’s comments in a long and sordid context.

“The mythology of Haiti has played a significant role in its recent political struggles.  While many people go to Haiti to provide humanitarian relief, there have also been floods of missionaries, of both the religious and political variety, who have responded to the call to save Haiti from the pact with the devil.”

Another Vodou-related aspect to this ongoing tragedy is what to do with the thousands of dead. In the Vodou religion, no-one but relatives are supposed to touch the dead until the proper ceremonies have been performed. Reaching out, neighboring Brazil has offered to provide a graveyard, while respecting the religious concerns of Vodou practitioners in Haiti.

“Brazil is offering to build a cemetery in Haiti for the thousands killed in this week’s quake, and promising it will respect the Voodoo beliefs of part of the Caribbean country’s population, officials say. The proposal stemmed from the “great concern over the presence of abandoned bodies in the streets, which could create epidemics,” the defence ministry said in a statement on Thursday … “A special attention will be given to adherents of Voodoo, a religion with a strong following in Haiti,” the statement said. One of the considerations in that regard is that “relatives do not accept that anybody touches their dead until their rituals are over.” Voodoo was brought to Haiti from Africa during the time of slavery. A version of it called Candomble exists in Brazil, which also became home to a large African slave population.”

Meanwhile, Benin, the African nation that shares strong cultural ties with Haiti, partially due to it being the acknowledged birthplace of West African Vodun, is holding special rites and ceremonies in solidarity with the victims (the president is also organizing aid).

“In an outburst of solidarity with the victims of the earthquake, the people of Benin and particularly those of Allada have organised traditional ceremonies to appease the spirits and seek the blessing of their ancestors for the Haitians. “A purification ceremony is planned for Haiti and a trip to the devastated island is even possible. We will continue to pray that it never happens again,” says the Queen of Allada.”

Sadly, it also sparked some unfortunate theodicy along with the solidarity.

“Queen Djehami believes that this week’s earthquake has happened because Haiti’s ancestors failed to carry out sacrifices. She explains that during his trip to Haiti six years ago, King Kpodégbé had warned the then President of Haiti of the need to organise sacrifices to appease angry spirits and ward off evil ones. His trip was part of bicentenary celebrations marking the death of Toussaint L’ouverture. Although the Haitian authorities probably didn’t ignore the king’s warning, they did put off organising the rituals. “Haiti is profoundly African and these things should not be underestimated,” exclaims Queen Djehami.”

Implying that the earthquake may have been caused by angry spirits is little better than saying it was all due to an imaginary pact with the Devil. Sadly, disaster seems to almost invite such wrong-headed thinking. Witness actor Danny Glover’s assertion that global warming, and the failure to do something productive at Copenhagen, caused the earthquake.

“When we see what we did at the climate summit in Copenhagen, this is the response, this is what happens, you know what I’m sayin’?”

While there is some speculation that global warming could affect earthquakes, there is no evidence that Haiti’s earthquake was triggered or made worse because of it. Glover’s attempt to politicize this disaster while bodies are being dragged out of collapsed buildings, and millions are in crisis, is seriously misguided.

Finally, the Pagan blogosphere has been commenting on this situation. The Immanence blog, while not reacting specifically to Glover’s comments, does a splendid job of rejecting theodicy in the name of Gaia/nature (he also recommends the Haitian charity Fonkoze).

“That said, nature is also never merely nature either. We are part of the nature that acts, part of the system of relations by which the earth twists and moans and writhes in its sleep. There’s little point in looking for a global warming “signature” here. Rather, it’s about vulnerability — and its just (or unjust) distribution among us. As the world globalizes, as we come to see and feel the pain on our screens, we come to build the body of humanity. But the building of it is highly, deeply, radically uneven. An anthropologist working in Haiti, whose e-mail was forwarded to me by a friend, laments the news coverage, “which depicts this as a natural catastrophe, when the real problem is substandard housing and lack of infrastructure.”

Over at Beliefnet, Pagan blogger Gus diZerega, while criticizing Pat Robertson’s assertion that Haitian Vodou is demonic, recalls a Vodou ceremony he attended in New Orleans, and Thorn Coyle avoids trying to find an explanation for the suffering, and instead sticks to what she can fathom.

“What I can fathom is that humans are suffering. Yesterday I donated money to Yele Haiti because all of the funds go directly to the victims of the earthquake. I have heard that the website is overwhelmed today (there were already volume issues yesterday, when I visited the site) but Wyclef Jean reports that one can text “YELE” to 501501 and $5 will be added to your cell phone bill. $5 is not too much to ask from most of us, but for those who cannot afford it, we are also being asked to send our prayers. Might I also recommend we honor the shifting earth and count our blessings where we find them?  May the Gods, humans, and Loa be with Haiti in this time of extraordinary need.”

Fathoming that people need help, and then acting on it, is the strongest form of magic one can do in this circumstance. Remember, I’m keeping an updated list of Pagan and Pagan-friendly efforts to raise funds for aid in Haiti, here.