Archives For Biography

[Michael Lloyd is an engineer and writer. He is a co-founder and former co-facilitator (2002-2011) of the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering, an annual spiritual retreat for men who love men. Michael has written for Circle magazine, Outlook magazine, and The Witches Voice, and was the author of Chapter 2 – “The History of Oils” – of Lady Rhea’s Enchanted Formulary (Citadel, 2007). His first book, Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan, will be published later this year. He was interviewed on the subject of gay Paganism by Margot Adler for her latest revision of Drawing Down the Moon (Penguin Books, 2007). A long-time resident of Columbus, Ohio, Michael was named in the 2011 Who’s Who of GLBT Columbus. He has an author page on Facebook, and can be reached at Buczynski.project@gmail.com.]

“The loss of history is always of particular concern in minority subcultures, where change is often rapid and the accurate preservation of historical details is of secondary interest to merely living life and getting by.” – Michael Lloyd, Bull of Heaven, from the Proemium

Many thanks to Jason for his great work here at Wild Hunt and for allowing me the opportunity to address his readership during his absence. As mentioned above, I have completed and am readying for publication the biography of Eddie Buczynski, a Craft elder from New York City who passed away in 1989 from complications associated with AIDS. Buczynski was the founder of three different living Witchcraft traditions in the U.S., including one that is near and dear to my own heart – the Minoan Tradition. Working on the life story of a Craft elder, and reconstructing the history of that portion of the Neo-Pagan movement pertaining to him, has been a personally satisfying experience. It has enabled me to meet fascinating people from all over the world and from many varied backgrounds – artists, playwrights, archaeologists, actors, writers, musicians – in addition to many elders in the Neo-Pagan community. I’ve made some great friends over the nine years that I have worked on this project. However, I am sobered by the realization that, during this process, I have also watched as eight of the more than seventy people I interviewed have passed over to the Summerlands. Several others who survived their battles continue to have serious health issues, many associated with the mundane ravages of time. It is a grim thought that, had I waited even a few short years to begin this project, the effort might have been gutted at the outset.

This brings me to the point of this blog post – we are simply not doing enough to preserve our history. We are steadily losing the elders of the past generation of Witches, Pagans, Ceremonial Magickians, Shamans and the like. Those who were adults in the 1960s and 1970s when they founded traditions, fought for equality, or wrote the texts that shaped and influenced our various spiritual paths are now fast approaching (or have reached) their golden years. That, in itself, is not a cause for alarm for, as we all know, the cycle of life and death is both natural and inexorable. What is alarming, however, is the utter hash we have been making of documenting the history of specific traditions and their founders/leaders. We can thank several dedicated writers and historians for doing a decent job of capturing the general history of the movement, through the auspices of people both within the community (e.g., Margot Adler, Chas Clifton) and outside of it (e.g., Ronald Hutton). But when it comes to preserving the memories or the papers of important historical figures within the Neo-Pagan movement, we are failing, and failing miserably. And future generations will look unkindly upon us for this.

Eddie Buczynski has only been gone for 23 years, so many of his friends and family members are, fortunately, still with us. And while many of the papers which were in his possession when he passed were scrapped long ago, I did manage to locate a surprising amount of material squirreled away in various places throughout the country. What this really means is that I got lucky. But not everyone who ventures down this path with other deceased elders can count on this good fortune, which leads me to address you elders who may be reading this. I appeal to your sense of community and sense of history. If you wish to have some assurance that your legacy will be preserved after you are gone, do a favor for yourself and for those around you – indeed, do us all a favor – and formulate a transition plan that makes arrangements to handle your papers, photos, and other community-related ephemera. And why wait until your will is probated? Consider approaching an archive or university library that might be willing to catalogue and preserve your collection of papers and other materials while you are still alive and before poor health or death makes such arrangements difficult or impossible to carry out.

Even if you do not want to allow others to go through your papers before you pass, do so yourself. I have gone through some absolutely atrocious collections over the years, with papers, photos and books jumbled, folded, thrown into boxes, or exposed to sunlight, vermin and the elements, destroyed by mildew, stained with cigarette smoke, and damaged by spills or floods. If you do not have the money to preserve your papers to archival standards (e.g., acid free boxes and envelopes, mylar sleeves), you can at least organize them neatly in folders and boxes and store them in a manner that keeps them from harm. Do not underestimate the value of your papers to a future historian or writer! Cards, letters, fliers, press releases, interviews, articles, notes, handouts, diaries, datebooks, rough drafts of manuscripts, vouches and other organizational records – and now emails – are all extremely valuable sources of information. Photos are a particular concern, for their lack of preservation is a problem that I have encountered many times over the years. It’s preferable to keep photos in their original paper envelope than it is to place them in a photo album. With the latter, the chemicals in the plastic backing and sleeve eventually react with the photos and glue them into place both front and back. If you can do so, consider digitizing your photographs using a high-density scanner, and then burning them to disc or backing them up in a couple of different places so that they are preserved for posterity. Email is also a preservation priority, with so many people relying on it these days over postal letters. Routinely placing electronic records into pdf format and archiving them someplace safe is probably the best way to ensure that future generations will be able to access them.

In conjunction with Eddie Buczynski’s biography, several years ago I interviewed Harold Moss, co-founder of the Church of the Eternal Source. At some point during our correspondence, Harold lamented that no one would probably bother to write his biography (Moss passed away in 2010). If any other elders out there have a similar concern, then I would like to tell you what I told Harold at the time – consider writing your autobiography, or at least setting down your memoirs on paper. They don’t have to be published, but it is vitally important that your oral history be recorded in some manner, even if in audio/video recordings or a simple draft manuscript. Oral histories (lore) are fine for the campfire, but they are generally unreliable sources of history, as anyone who has played the game of telephone can understand. If your words are recorded, then at least they will be preserved when you are no longer able, or present, to answer questions.

And here is where I make my second plea of this article. If you do go to the trouble of recording your story, please be honest in its telling. Shading the truth (or manufacturing it out of whole cloth) may preserve your dignity and the party line while you are alive, but in the long run you’re only fooling yourself. It’s a safe bet that some future historian, researcher, or writer will eventually come along, dig out the facts, and point out the glaring inconsistencies (or worse, misrepresentations) in your story. So it’s best just to be honest. One should also try to be as accurate as possible. Memories fail us; it’s a fact of life. And we are notoriously bad at recalling dates. But details and dates matter in history and what is a biography/autobiography, if not the history of a person? If you can’t remember or reconstruct a believable timeline for your story, then your efforts will be of limited interest or use (or veracity) to others. So do the best that you can on this score.

I understand that writing one’s life story can be a daunting task. And not everyone is up to it. That is where an independent biographer may come into the picture. Speaking from personal experience, writing the biography of another person is a long, tedious and financially unrewarding process. But from the community’s viewpoint it is a necessary one, and on a personal level it can be highly satisfying intellectually. If you are an aspiring writer who is thinking of tackling the biography of a Neo-Pagan leader, I urge you to think carefully about the task that lay ahead of you. Do it only because a particular story calls to you, not because you hope to become famous or rich at the end of the process – the reality is that neither is likely to happen. It is that passion that will sustain you when nothing else does, believe me.

Approach your subject and the task at hand with humility, patience, perseverance, and gratitude. Unless you’ve been hired to write the book, you must be prepared to pay your own way, whether it’s copying and postage fees, travel expenses, long-distance phone calls, the purchase of reference materials, or any of the multitudes of miscellaneous expenses that may appear along the way. Remember that no one owes you anything, and that you will oft-times be relying on the kindness of strangers. Be respectful and fair to all, but mindful that you are beholden to history, as well as to the future generations who will be relying upon you for the truth (or as close as you can get to it). A story that unquestioningly and unrealistically praises its subject is called a hagiography, not a biography. It is the mirror image of a smear and, in my personal opinion, both are the product of hacks. Be better than that. As one of my interviewees demanded of me early in my own project – “Do a good job!”

Top Story: Alejandro Amenábar’s film “Agora”, based on the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, finally saw a limited release in art-house theaters at the beginning of the Summer season. The film, despite doing very well in Europe, and getting generally positive reviews from American critics, has failed to draw a big audience or expand beyond its very limited release schedule. In These Times wonders why a film rife with conflicts that should resonate with American audiences has instead fallen flat.

“[Rachel Weisz’s] star turn as Hypatia, a scholar and astronomer of pagan background who preaches tolerance and brotherhood in late fourth-century Alexandria while scientifically probing the secrets of the solar system, is apparently not the stuff that draws Americans to the box office … highly prized internationally and Spain’s highest grossing film in 2009; yet it struggled for distribution in the United States before its release here on May 28. With a female intellectual as its hero and Christian fanatics as its villains, Agora’s limited American appeal is perhaps understandable.

Is it as simple as that? Christian villains and an intellectual hero? If so, Dan Brown’s thrillers (Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons) wouldn’t have drawn hundreds of millions at the box-office. I think the answer is more complex than that. It is partially the fault of a timid distribution market, afraid of courting controversy (or at least the wrong kind of controversy), which allowed the film to wait in limbo for months. I also think the nature of the “Christian villains” is significant. It isn’t a few elites pulling strings and hatching evil plans, “Agora” certainly has those but it also shows Christian mobs killing pagans and Jews. It holds up a piece of history that many would like to forget, when the persecuted minority, now risen to power, started inflicting its own evils on the wider world.

The article ends with a note that “Agora” is “a warning of what happens when a single religious authority seizes total state power”, so it’s little wonder it’s not drawing crowds from the demographics who think we are indeed a “Christian nation”, and yearn for the primacy of Christian morality. So I fear I’ll have to wait for the DVD to see this film with the message a bit too prickly for mass public consumption.

A Biography of Sybil Leek: The Orlando Sentinel’s religion blog reports that a biography of Sybil Leek, one of the world’s most famous Witches, is being published. Leek was the prototype “media” Witch, appearing on Johnny Carson and in hundreds of other television programs and newspaper articles.

“Christine Jones, 73, of Satellite Beach,  says she wrote Sybil Leek: Out of the Shadows as a tribute to the woman she says was a teacher and a warm and gentle friend. “She was like Mother Earth,” Jones said. Leek was one of the most famous practitioners of Wicca, a pagan faith sometimes known as Witchcraft or Craft. She made hundreds of television appearances in the U.S. and the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s and wrote dozens of books, including Diary of a Witch. She even reportedly was an astrologer for former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Leek died in 1982 in Melbourne Beach. Jones said she met Leek in the 1970s, after an out-of-body experience led her to contact Leek for help understanding what had happened to her. After moving to Florida in 1977, Jones, then a nurse, studied one-on-one with Leek — the last such student, Jones said. The biography, which Jones said took her several years to write, is a personal look at a woman who was simultaneously larger than life and “so normal.”

You can pre-order the book at Pendraig Publishing. I suspect you’ll also be able to order it through Amazon soon enough as well. Biographies are a rare thing within our communities, so I’ll always welcome one more.

Equal Reactions to An Atheist Prime Minister? Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars looks at religious reactions to the ascension of a female atheist, Julia Gillard, to Australia’s highest office. In his mind the rantings of Christian fire-breather Danny Nalliah (who I’ve mentioned here before) are equal to a rather more peaceful reaction by local Wiccans.

Pastor Danny Nalliah of the Catch the Fire Ministries. He claims that a godless Gillard is out to ”destroy our Judeo-Christian heritage,” outlaw worship altogether and turn Australia into another ”Communist China” … Melbourne witch and high priestess Lizzy Rose and her coven will invite Ms Gillard’s energy into their magic circle to speak about ”her intentions of where she is taking the country”. Ms Rose says her divinations ”will prove to us whether Julia is going to govern through ego or through her heart space”. If Ms Gillard, an avowed atheist, passes the ”heart-space” test, Ms Rose says she’ll get the endorsement of her Order of Wisdom, Learning and Light. ”We’re not trying to recruit her against her will,” she says. ”We see her as a high priestess anyway, regardless of her atheism.”

Now, I can see that an atheist might think both are equally loony. But Brayton goes on to call the Wiccans “creepy” and “every bit as bad as the egregious stupidity being offered by the fundamentalist Christians”. Really? Every bit as bad? One thinks Gillard is a devil who wants to impose Communist rule, and the other wants to speak to her energy body in a circle and honors her as a priestess, and those reactions are equatable? I mean, I get that he thinks all religion is crazy, but these reactions are not coming from the same place, or have the same intentions. In all honesty I think Lizzy Rose might have chosen to keep that ritual to herself, but she is harming no-one and is certainly not the provocateur that Nalliah is. To equate them is silly at best, and at worst drives wedges between atheists and other religious minorities that might find common cause.

Restoring Native Lands: The latest issue of National Geographic Magazine has a fascinating feature on how several Native American Tribes are reversing years of environmental abuse on their ancestral homes, restoring the lands that were once taken from them.

“In 1979 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana became the first in the nation to set aside tribal land—92,000 acres of the Flathead Reservation’s mountains and meadows—as wilderness. Since then, the Nez Perce have acquired 16,286 acres of ancestral lands in northeast Oregon that they will manage solely to benefit fish and wildlife. The Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in northeastern Montana are working to bring back bison on the Fort Peck Reservation. In Minnesota the Chippewa, or Ojibwa, have restored a ravaged walleye population at Red Lake. And on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona the threatened Apache trout is finding a new home, and the forest is now managed with ecology, not just lumber, in mind.”

There has been much talk lately on how Pagans can be leaders and agents of change regarding our current environmental problems, perhaps the quiet good stewardship of these tribal nations can become a model for our own modest lands. An ethic of responsibility and interconnectedness.

Revival of Folk Religion in China? NPR has been running a series on religion in China, and today’s segment on All Things Considered is supposed to cover the revival of folk religions in that country. Here’s a small bit about that subject in the introductory segment from July 18th.

Across China, religious belief has blossomed and flourished — far outpacing the government’s framework to control it — with a profusion of charismatic movements and a revival in traditional Chinese religions. Two-thirds of those who described themselves as religious in the 2006 survey said they were Buddhists, Taoists or worshippers of folk gods such as the Dragon King or the God of Fortune. Another popular goddess is Mazu, who is believed to protect sailors. Although she is included in the Daoist and Buddhist pantheons, she — and many other indigenous popular gods — falls outside China’s five official religions. However, the worship of Mazu recently has been reclassified as “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice, making it acceptable even for Communist Party members. Academics say that model is being used elsewhere in China for other indigenous folk religions. There are also government attempts to support traditional Chinese practices such as ancestor worship, by changing the public holidays. In 2009, the government declared the Qingming Festival — the traditional day for sweeping graves — a public holiday for the first time, allowing much larger numbers of people to sweep their ancestral graves. “Now the government supports us,” says Shao Longshan, his cheeks still tear-stained after bowing deeply in front of the grave of his late wife, Zhu Jiefen, at a cemetery on the outskirts of Shanghai during the Qingming Festival in early April. “Not only does this let the people who are alive remember those who have gone, but [it allows us to] keep the Chinese traditions and culture.”

So be sure to tune in to your local NPR station and give a listen. The transcript will most likely be up tomorrow, here. What will a revival of indigenous religion in China mean for the future? A simple counter-balance, along with Buddhism and Taoism, to the growing influence of Christianity? Or will their be a new political consciousness among those who adhere to these deities? Will these believers form new ties outside of China with Pagan, Hindu, or indigenous groups?

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

Watching the Witches

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 16, 2008 — 8 Comments

As we get closer to Halloween, Witch-themed media becomes a more and more popular subject for television programmers. We already know about the upcoming Salem-themed episode of “Opportunity Knocks” featuring Laurie “Official Witch of Salem” Cabot, but now cable television will be getting into the act. The Biography channel will be airing a special on Witches (ancient and modern) on October 30th (part of their October “Boo-ography” promotion).


Witness the disembodied floating head of Silver! Spooky!

According to Llewellyn Worldwide publicist Jennifer Spees, the show will be “an exploration of witchcraft from medieval times through the present”, and feature interviews with Christopher Penczak, Stefani “Spiral” Barner, and Silver Ravenwolf. It isn’t known at this point who else the Biography team interviewed, but it has been confirmed that they visited Salem (naturally), so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Laurie Cabot or Christian Day pop up as well. I’ll refrain from speculating on what the sensationalism/accuracy ratio will be.

For those wanting to see some real live Witches on the big screen, you might want to head over to the 15th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival, and check out the Midwest premiere of the documentary “Hoopeston” (screening, coincidentally, on October 30th). The film, directed by Thomas Bender, looks at the struggling town of Hoopeston, Illinois, and the conflicts that emerged when Witch School (and the Correllian Tradition that runs it) moved in (check out my original post on this documentary).

Hoopeston – Trailer from Synydyne on Vimeo.

“Witches will come out a day early this year. “Hoopeston,” a feature-length documentary about an Illinois town and its Witch School, will play in the Chicago Underground Film Festival on October 30, the night before Halloween. Produced by SYNYDYNE, “Hoopeston” tells the story of the former Sweet Corn Capital of the World through the lives of its residents: a laborer struggles to find work, a young entrepreneur buys the only motel in town, the police chief battles a drug epidemic, and the Correllian Chancellor lays plans for a vast Crystal Web. The film balances the stark beauty of rural Illinois with candid and moving interviews from a variety of subjects. It features an original score by composer Todd Mazierski.”

After the Midwest premiere, Synydyne will start selling DVDs of the film. They have a mailing list you can sign up for to be notified when copies are available. As for the Witch School folks, they’ll be in Salem teaching free classes through November 1st.

So whether you want to attend a movie out (in the greater Chicagoland area), or stay inside and curl up on your couch (if you have cable television), you’ll be able to gage how far forward (or back) depictions of modern Pagans have come since the days of fog-machines, strobe lighting, and the morning talk-show circuit. Happy viewing!