Archives For Byron Ballard

If there was a dominant theme to the 2014 Sacred Space Conference in Laurel, Maryland, it would be Appalachian folk magic, and the teachers from that culture who have emerged within our community. Featured presenter Orion Foxwood, author of “The Candle and the Crossroads: A Book of Appalachian Conjure and Southern Root-Work” spoke to packed rooms that seemed reluctant for their experience with the charismatic teacher to end. Likewise, Byron Ballard, author of “Staubs and Ditchwater: a Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo” gave a rollicking overview of “the joy of hex” to a standing-room only crowd.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard with presentation materials.

So, it stands to reason that a panel featuring Foxwood, Ballard, and Linda Ours Rago, author of “Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing With Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise-Woman Tradition” (among other works) would come to seem like the capstone of the entire weekend. Moderated by Michael G. Smith, an Elder in The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the resulting experience was one filled to the brim with stories, laughter, more stories, explanations of differences in geographic terminology for similar folk-magic practices, even more stories, and emotional evocations of their land and culture.

The Appalachian Folk Traditions panel participants combining their powers for the camera.

The Appalachian Folk Traditions panel participants combining their powers for the camera.

There’s no way I could accurately capture the experience of this panel, so with permission, I recorded the proceedings and now share them with you here. 

Within modern Paganism, and certainly within the many religious movements that overlap with ours, authenticity is important. I think that these practitioners so inspire students and observers because they bring with them a cultural authenticity born of their own experiences. Naturally, when spiritual technologies seated within a specific cultural context are taught in these events, the issue of cultural appropriation comes up (as it did in the Q&A section of this panel). The goal, I think, is to hold onto values of honesty and transparency when given the opportunity to learn from circumstances like these. Their experience is rooted in the land from which they came, and nothing can replicate that. We may learn new spiritual technologies and viewpoints for which to encounter our own day-to-day practices, but we can never become “Appalachian” in the way they manifest, no matter how fervently someone might wish.

Moments like these are opportunities to enrich our understanding of the vital tapestry of magical traditions, and how similar roots can produce very different flowers depending on where they grow. All of these teachers are here to teach, and we should learn from them, while also remembering that we can never become them. So long as we hold that truth, we will be able to become mutually enriched, and events like the Sacred Space Conference can continue to organize unique moments in time like this from a place of curiosity and respect.

I’m currently at the 2014 Sacred Space Conference in Laurel, Maryland. I’ve been to a lot of Pagan events over the years, big and small, but I’ve never immersed myself into a truly East Coast event, and it has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. My Pagan life started in the Midwest, and then, I gravitated to the West Coast, and while I’ve met many fine East Coast folks, I knew that things were a bit different there. Thanks to a generous offer from the organizers of the conference, I was finally able to find out first hand.

2014-03-15 08.46.12

First off, the hospitality has been top-notch, and it’s clear that the board take their responsibilities seriously. As one of the largest indoor Pagan conferences in this region, one that will get even larger when it shares space with Between The Worlds in 2015, it’s clear they have a vision for growing into something unique. Secondly, everyone has been remarkably friendly, and I’ve been able to finally engage in-person with friends I’ve only known on the Internet. People like Byron Ballard, Beth Owl’s Daughter, Katrina Messenger, and Debbie Chapnick from Datura Press.

Yesterday (Friday), I gave both of my scheduled talks, so I didn’t get to see too much from other folks, but I did sit in on a very interesting talk on Neo-Platonism from Gwendolyn Reece, and I got to see the beginning of the Conjure Dance, featuring an amazing array of altars, drummers, and a number of people ready to trance. 

A detail from one of the Conjure Dance altars.

A detail from one of the Conjure Dance altars.

Today, I’m hoping to see and do more, including a much-anticipated panel of Appalachian Magick Workers featuring Orion Foxwood, Byron Ballard, and Linda Ours Rago. We’ll see what I can share with you here.

What have I learned from this East Coast event? Well, I think there’s a special focus on spiritual work. People here are looking for new technologies, though that isn’t to imply they aren’t interested in other things. Both of my talks were well-attended, and many have been concerned with issues concerning infrastructure, money, and the state of the Pagan umbrella. That said, I sense a keen desire to do The Work of spirit in the air, and there’s a palpable environment of ritual, even in the sanitized environs of a Holiday Inn.

There’s a lot more to come before I return home, but I hope that this short update will give you a taste of my experience so far.

Pagan Voices is a spotlight on recent quotations from figures within the Pagan community. These voices may appear in the burgeoning Pagan media, or from a mainstream outlet, but all showcase our wisdom, thought processes, and evolution in the public eye. Is there a Pagan voice you’d like to see highlighted? Drop me a line with a link to the story, post, or audio.

Margot Adler

Margot Adler

“There was a definite tension between our views on death, a tension I didn’t understand until after he died. I realize now it’s a tension that also exists in many of the most interesting vampire novels. My husband had what I would call the ‘high tech view of death’; it was to be avoided at all costs. He was a runner; he was in perfect health; he took various supplements and anti-oxidants. He drank a glass of wine for resveratrol, never smoked, was fit, and, unlike me, he never did any drugs in his youth. He thought he would live to be 100, preferably even older. A science journalist, he followed all the discoveries and advances of aging research. And he thought that when he did die, he might have his ashes flown up in space. His attitude was definitely, ‘rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ I, at that same moment, had more of an Earth-centered Pagan perspective. ‘We are all part of the life cycle. Like a seed we are born, we sprout; we grow, mature and decay, making room for future generations who, like seedlings are reborn through us.’ As for the persistence of consciousness, deep down, I thought, ‘How can we know?’ Perhaps we simply return to the elements; we become earth and air and fire and water. That seemed alright to me.” – Margot Adler, discussing views on death at Judson Memorial Church. You can see a video of her entire talk/sermon, embedded below.

Laura Perry

Laura Perry

“The goddess in her major forms (Ariadne and Rhea) definitely dominated the pantheon and the culture in ancient Crete, but not in the same way that a male god dominates many other, later pantheons. For me, the distinction is that of authoritarian vs. authoritative. An authoritarian figure dominates through aggression and putting others down. An authoritative leader draws on his or her own inner strength to bring out the strength in others and lead them. It’s that second energy that I encounter when I work with the Minoan pantheon, a certain amount of respect for all the members of the pantheon and their necessary place in the scheme of things that I don’t find in, say, the later classical Greek pantheon with its authoritarian leader, Zeus. Ultimately, all human cultures are flawed because human beings aren’t perfect. No matter how flawless the underlying energies of deity may be, when they manifest through a human society they will reflect the foibles of humanity as well as our potential. We organize the world according to what filters through our psyches, and that includes our experience of deity. Flaws aside, however, I think the Minoan pantheon and Minoan society in general offer an excellent example of how the balance of energies can work, with an emphasis on respect for the divine feminine that that modern world so sadly lacks.”Laura Perry author of Ariadne’s Thread: Awakening the Wonders of the Ancient Minoans in our Modern Lives, discussing Minoan religion and culture.

Annie Sprinkle

Annie Sprinkle

“I think there are a handful of people in the sex industry that are very, very spiritual. There’s a lot of atheists, a lot of people who aren’t interested in anything woo-woo or tantric or magical, that’s for sure. But when you’re doing sex work, you’re so stigmatized and marginalized and prosecuted that anything that can help you cope with the stigma and the stupid laws… we need that. We need those archetypes and images to hold on to, to be able to cope with society’s prejudices and hatred and fear. [...] I think that our society is basically phobic about birth, death, and sex. America is puritanical. On the other hand, millions of people use the services of prostitutes and sex workers and porn. [...] I got spiritual when AIDS hit. I was raised humanist and agnostic, but when AIDS happened I just needed to be able to cope with all the death, and I started to explore really kind of New Age stuff, and spiritual stuff from all different cultures, and it really helped. For me, being around sex and being around gospel singing is the same ecstasy. Ecstasy is ecstasy.” – Annie Sprinkle, performance artist and sexologist, discussing occult, New Age, and Pagan beliefs within the adult entertainment/sex work industry (link might be NSFW, depending on where you work).

Gus DiZerega

Gus DiZerega

“I do not see a revival of American civil religion until new moral and spiritual underpinnings support it. I think these underpinnings exist, and one of the most perceptive early observers of our country intuited what they are, though he did not approve. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Pantheism was a natural outgrowth of Democracy. I think he was correct. Spiritual traditions in harmony with a Pantheistic sensibility are in greater accord with the new society America’s principles helped bring into being than are the spiritual traditions of our Founders’ time. Those traditions have atrophied, undermined by the society they helped to create. Hope rests with a new spiritual sensibility that is not necessarily a new religion, but rather can shape the way in which many spiritual traditions are practiced. This sensibility emphasizes divine immanence and the importance of the Sacred Feminine as well as the Masculine. It is within this context that the best of America’s civil religion can be renewed and given life again [...] Hope for us lies in those Christian and other long-established religions opening themselves up to immanentist and feminine insights, as well as new religious movements, NeoPaganism in particular, which explicitly emphasize those values as central. It is for these reasons that I think Pagan insights carry far more weight than our rather modest numbers might suggest.” – Gus diZerega, on the future of America’s civil religion. 

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

“Teo has indicated that what may result from all of this is a kind of blended religious practice, a Christo-Paganism as many have called it previously. I don’t have a problem with this, as long as it doesn’t end up being monotheistic or monistic, and subordinating all other deities to the “One God” of Christianity. There is nothing which says that the Christo-Paganism of any given person needs to accept a monotheistic theology, or to prioritize Christian views on any given subject. (Indeed, the prevailing Christian thoughts on queerness of various sorts are nothing to emulate or admire, for starters.) Thank all the gods that there is no such thing as the Christo-Pagan pope, and that people can take that particular path as experientially as they wish to, and can avoid the worst excesses of creedalism in doing so. Getting to a religious viewpoint that has Jesus as an important part of its practice from the viewpoint of paganism or polytheism is a good thing, I think, because even knowing that there is as much diversity amongst divinity as there is before evaluating Jesus within such frameworks gives a lot more options and a great deal more freedom to those theological viewpoints than has been the case with almost all of modern Christianity, and that has to be construed as a positive step, I think. Thus, I wish Teo, with all sincerity, the very best of luck with whatever comes in the future on his path. You shall always be welcome under my roof and at my table, wherever it may be!” – P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, on the recent spiritual changes within Teo Bishop’s life.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard

“As you get older and dig into these vibrant spiritual traditions that dangle from the vaguely “Pagan/Heathen” umbrella, I am here to tell you it gets easier. And it gets better. Decades of practice give you a handle on how to deal with honest seekers, scary bullies, dizzily pompous Self-Proclaimed BNPs. It gets easier as you find your footing.  You may find your practice itself getting simpler…and deeper.  You may even stop asking all those angst-and fear-ridden philosophical questions that seem to make up so much of online Pagan discourse.  You may find that you don’t care so much what other people believe or don’t believe, but you care more that they are kind and sensible and helpful when help is needed. You can hit the month that contains Samhain without a lot of sturm und drang, and may even find yourself enjoying speaking to different kinds of people about the spiritual path you love and follow.  It gets easier…unless what you love about this path is the sense of drama you can evoke and your ability to stir the proverbial pot. If your every mood must be reflected in your online outrage, and your ability to ground and focus is not highly developed, you may not find it getting either easier or deeper. You may begin to feel that you don’t quite have a handle on this “Pagan” thing–it all seems too complex, too ephemeral, more Air and Fire and not nearly enough Earth.” – Byron Ballard, on how it gets easier.

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

Joseph Merlin Nichter

“Prison is not exactly a safe environment to express sentiment, to show emotion is often interpreted as a weakness and weakness not something you want to display while sharing a cage with predators. Therefore, many of those emotional and communal needs to grieve and mourn the loss of a loved one go unfulfilled. In addition, there is also an element of guilt involved. Guilt for their absence in the lives of their friends and family, guilt for not being there in their last moments and guilt for not being able to pay them their proper respect. Over time, the combined weight and pressure of their withheld emotions, lack of closure and incarcerated guilt can be very damaging and diminishes the very concept of rehabilitation.  Over these past six years I have seen the power of Samhain change lives; relieving the pressure of unexpressed emotions and lifting the burdens of incarcerated guilt. Giving inmates an opportunity to share the leaves that have fallen from the trees of their lives. The circle gives them a safe space, a sanctuary, to finally release what they’ve been withholding for so long. It’s never a dry ceremony, emotions so powerful don’t just exit the body through words from the mouth alone, they are always found streaming from the heart and bursting forth through the eyes. On several occasions over these past six years, the leaf, the life that an inmate had chosen to honor was the very life they had been imprisoned for taking. And to that, even I lack the words.” – Joseph Merlin Nichter, on Samhain seasons spent in a cell.

relationshipcore.001

 

Donald Michael Kraig

Donald Michael Kraig

“The first classes I taught at the shop nearby were four-weeks long. Later, it extended to eight weeks. The people in the area were very much into the subject and they would do homework assignments and share their work for comments in class. One of the first practical magick techniques I shared involved creative visualization. Most teachers and practitioners don’t get into the Kabalistic secrets of the technique in the way that I do, and both I and many of my students have had a great deal of success using it. Being able to have longer series of classes was a wonderful luxury. I’d get to know more about the students and we had chances to build up relationships. They’d get to see what others are doing and we’re able to share. But in the third week of a four-week class the shop informed me that one of my students had to drop out. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘For over a year he’d been trying to sell the mobile home where he lived,’ I was told. ‘He put your ideas for creative visualization into practice and he sold it within a couple of weeks. Now he has to spend his time moving out.’ I understood, but I wished he’d remained in class. Still, telling the class that he’d followed directions and his magick worked was an effective inducement for the others to stay in class.” – Donald Michael Kraig, on the unintended consequences of your class being successful.

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

Pagan Voices is a spotlight on recent quotations from figures within the Pagan community. These voices may appear in the burgeoning Pagan media, or from a mainstream outlet, but all showcase our wisdom, thought processes, and evolution in the public eye. Is there a Pagan voice you’d like to see highlighted? Drop me a line with a link to the story, post, or audio.

Crystal Blanton

Crystal Blanton

“And so I sit here, reconciling my fear of the reality that they are living today…. And acknowledging the guilt that I feel for this. I struggle to hold faith and hope for change in a world that invests in technology before human lives, and I wonder the plan of the Gods in a world that is so broken. So I take this primal rage inside of me, and I send that energy to the universe for the Martin family and for our collective grieving communities; for a mother without her child, a father grieving the loss of his legacy, and an entire community without justice. What I have come to truly understand is that there is no separation between my spiritual self, my ancestral culture and the path the Gods have put me on. My spirituality is deeply embedded within a framework that includes the divine sacredness of all beings, equally as important as the others. And so this type of injustice is sacrilegious to my belief system, and irreversibly detrimental to the Black community. Tonight I offer prayers and hold energy for a deeply wounded family, and a hurting community.” – Crystal Blanton, sharing her thoughts regarding the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial.

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

“We are tearing ourselves asunder. The cost is high. Systemic racism means that every 36 hours an African American is killed by police or private security forces. Systemic racism means that when a black woman fires a warning shot into the air in an attempt to scare off her violent husband, she gets 20 years, despite the same Stand Your Ground Laws at play in the Zimmerman trial. Systemic racism means that every black and brown man in New York City has been stopped and frisked multiple times for no cause. Systemic racism means that African Americans are four times as likely to be arrested and jailed for marijuana possession than whites. Systemic racism means that more African Americans are in prison than were ever held as slaves. [...] This is a spiritual issue. This is all a spiritual issue. Matter is not fallen. The material world is sacred. That includes all of us. And yet we forget. We say that this portion does not deserve the light of the sun. We forget that even things that live in darkness can be beautiful and true. We say we have no power. We say it’s not our problem. We forget: we too are sacred. We are touched with divine fire. We forget that we co-create the cosmos with the Gods. We forget that every moment of every day, we get to choose: this magic, or that magic? We forget the flow of love. We forget that for love to flow freely, becoming the great connector, we must be open to it. We must open to love. In opening to it, love flows through us. Love flows on. This is a time for prayer. This is also a time for action. This is a time to open the floodgates of love. This is a time to act for justice.” – T. Thorn Coyle, asserting that “confronting racism is spiritual work.”

Donald Michael Kraig

Donald Michael Kraig

“I know, some people reading this will say, “But I can’t find a group” or “I can’t afford the travel, the costs, the time off from work, etc.” These are all good, legitimate reasons for choosing the easier, AI-2 type of initiation. I would like to point out, however, that there is another word that means “reasons.” It’s “excuses.” You can come up with all the reasons/excuses you want. But let me ask you this: If I were to say to you, “If you will travel across the country and come to my home, I’ll give you ten million dollars. It will change your life forever,” would you be willing to figure at a way to earn or borrow some extra money and get some time off in order to reach my house? I would say 999 out of 1,000 people would absolutely do this. Suddenly, those reasons/excuses given in the previous paragraph just vanish—if you really want the experience that will change your life. Similarly, you are more likely to receive a life-altering AI-1 experience by taking part in a physical initiation. I would say it’s worth it, wouldn’t you?” – Donald Michael Kraig, opining on the types and efficacy of astral initiations at the Llewellyn Worldwide blog.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard

“Thought I’d check in and let you all know we’re grounding, centering, focusing our wills down here in the sinking ship that is North Carolina. We know the country is watching us, wondering how much farther we can fall. Much farther, I’m afraid.  Some of you are aware of my conceit called “Tower Time.” It is my theory and experience that we are living in the time of the fall of empire (ours), in fact, I see it as the crash of several ancient toxic systems that are coming to the end of their time. Death to the patriarchy! Down with Oppression! Sic semper tyrannis! What that means in our Pagan communities is that we have some handy tools that can help us in the chaos of our General Assembly and its general assholery. The tools and techniques that many of us use in our daily practice are admirably suited to help us during this Tower Time. We have grounding and shielding and setting wards. We have Divines for healing and vengeance, and justice.” – Byron Ballard, a North Carolina resident, discussing ”Tower Time” and recent political happenings in her state, at the PaganSquare.

Sam Webster (with Herm), photo by Tony Mierzwicki.

Sam Webster

“The only point in saying that a person has had a UPG, an Unsubstantiated (sometimes Unverified) Personal Gnosis, is to be dismissive and demeaning to them, and on examination the claim or criticism of UPG has no worthy intellectual basis. [...] Experience is the center of all spiritual and religious life. Text is at best derivative. By creating and using such a term as UPG, “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” we privilege text over experience. (This is a rather Christian move, and those who have been following my writing know how I feel about that. . .) Even more damagingly, by framing someone’s experience as a UPG we dissociate ourselves from the primary data of spirituality. We can then bracket and set aside the immediate real, and go back to our books. In the process we may have damaged both the knowledge we could have shared in, but also possibly the recipient of that knowledge, who could have been another culture bringer, but instead was told their experience was of diminished value, or of no value at all, simply because we can’t substantiate their insight in a book.” – Sam Webster, on why he doesn’t like the term “UPG” (Unverified Personal Gnosis).

Chas Clifton

Chas Clifton

“Within the academy — and here I speak mainly of the American Academy of Religion, the largest body for such study on this continent (it includes many Canadians too) — even the study of new religious movements was way off to the side. Those scholars themselves were relative newcomers to the AAR, which had its origins in the study of Christianity and which devoted most of its program sessions to textual matters. York not only situated Paganism  as “a religion, a behavior, and a theology,” he argued that Pagan elements were found in other “world religions” too — not just “Pagan survivals” but behaviors, primarily. I don’t mean to suggest cause and effect — one book did not do that  — but it was at about the same time that the AAR’s leadership, which had rejected a proposed Pagan Studies program unit — a permanent slot, in other words — in 1997,  relented in 2004 and granted it. So York helped to forge a sort of non-sectarian (not Wiccan, not Asatru, not Roman reconstructionist, etc.) definition that would change people’s minds to where they no longer thought that the P-word meant “having no religion” or “follower of an obsolete religion from long ago.” Instead, it would be a type of religion or a way of being religious. Paganism (academic definition) was everywhere.” – Chas Clifton, on the the influence and importance of Michael York’s definition of Paganism.

Morpheus Ravenna

Morpheus Ravenna

“We know that it was a common practice among the warrior traditions of the Gaulish Celts to offer dedications to their war Gods prior to a battle, and we know that human and animal sacrifices were among those offerings. It stands to reason, and I think has been shown, that these Gods (or at the very least our Goddess) still expect some kind of blood sacrifice. Modern Pagans love to talk about how the Gods evolve with us, and how forms of offerings can be different in modern times. I agree – but I think the important thing that has shifted isn’t whether or not living sacrifice is needed or useful. What has shifted is the importance of the individual soul and the idea of consent, the willing sacrifice. Everyone whose blood went into that cup offered it of their own volition. Similarly, when we organized the blood donation drive at PantheaCon last year, that was a form of sacrifice which was purely volitional. That focus on volition with regard to human offerings is reflective of how sacrifice can evolve in a modern context – a religious practice now shaped by modern values on individual liberty, but still preserving the core function of the act, which is the offering of vital life.” – Morpheus Ravenna, on blood sacrifice, and whether certain gods still want/need/desire it.

Erick DuPree

Erick DuPree

“Refuge in the Goddess however meant that I had to cast aside that I might be seen as less than magical, less than “witch” or less than what media labels “Pagan author” simply because I do not follow the traditional year in a day to initiation mold. I had to give myself permission to dare, because the one thing I am not ashamed about or worried about the world knowing is this… I was raped. I was raped over and over again and the only reason I am alive is because of Goddess.  Goddess from above and Goddess from within. That is not a feeling, or a belief, that is a documented clinical fact. On more than one occasion, trauma therapists have noted that ‘something’ kept me from a darkness. They call it “inner light” and my mother might call it Jesus, but we witches know it is Goddess [...] Many people who have been Sexually Assaulted ask themselves, “Why me?” I too, asked that very question. I too, asked, will another man ever touch me? I too, asked why Goddess?” - Erick DuPree, Dharma Pagan, on why, as a survivor of sexual abuse, he contributed to the forthcoming anthology “Rooted in the Body, Seeking the Soul: Magic Practitioners Living with Disabilities, Addiction, and Illness.”

Peter Dybing

Peter Dybing

“It has been pointed out that these references do not refer to us “big P Pagans” but rather to the march towards a post Christian society. This line of reasoning urges us not to perceive these statements as a direct confrontation of our collective religious identity. Meanwhile the public is being bombarded with the demonization of the word Pagan with out any information to dispel these statements. Our community cannot afford to jeopardize the progress we have made by choosing to not confront those whose intent is perceived as “not talking about us”.  Such a course of action will only result in more misplaced distrust and discrimination. This attempt by the religious right to frame the conversation in a way that replicates the “satanic panic” of past decades provides a perilous framework for future discourse. [...] To the general public, the intellectual exercise of differentiating between big P and little p Pagans does not exist. In defense of all we have collectively accomplished we must respond if we wish to avoid being marginalized by a reframing of the debate that has the potential to diminish our community’s voice.” – Peter Dybing, on why Pagans need to formulate a response to the increasing use of the term “pagan” as a slur by conservative Christians towards their cultural and political opponents.

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

“The entirety, however, is billed (both in the book and in the beginning of the film) as “a story that will make you believe in God.” Let’s read that sentence again: a story that will make you believe in God. That’s sort of a bold statement for any religion, and for any story. So, did it succeed? Well, for me, no, and not just because I already have particular religious commitments. Without entirely ruining the film, the end of it comes down to a choice: “which story do you prefer?” Does one prefer horrific humanistic (in the sense of “strictly human,” not “friendly atheist” or “Italian intellectual rediscovery of Greek culture”) realism and Darwinian disaster, or religion and myth and allegory that is ultimately escapist fantasy? It doesn’t really amount to “making” one “believe in God,” then: it means “does one accept the world as it is,” or “does one retreat to imagination?” And, the latter option, which seems to be the preferred one of the characters in the film, is essentially to “believe in God,” according to this film. Can you see how problematic this is, even on the surface, for anyone who actually has a religion that puts them in touch with how things actually are, even independent of the presence of the gods in such a world?” – P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, on why he was not overly fond of the film “Life of Pi” and its “slippery” theology.

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

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

 Solar Cross Temple Organizes For Oklahoma: In the wake of the massive and deadly tornado that struck Oklahoma on Monday, the pan-Pagan/Magickal organization Solar Cross Temple is partnering with a local Pagan and a consortium of activist organizations to raise money for those affected.

Debris covers the ground in Moore, Oklahoma. Photograph by Brett Deering/Getty.

Debris covers the ground in Moore, Oklahoma. Photograph by Brett Deering/Getty.

“Solar Cross Temple is organizing to help Oklahoma. We are working with Marcia Carter Tillison, a Pagan in Norman OK, and with OpOK, a consortium of Occupy, Food Not Bombs and other activist groups working together to get supplies and help with on the ground clean up efforts in Moore. Marcia has on the ground experience in disaster relief from her work in Haiti and is someone I trust.

OpOK needs supplies to help people keep the rains that have followed the tornado off of what goods they have. They need supplies to help with clean up and salvage. To this end, Solar Cross is now taking donations for this project.”

You can find more information about donating, and what the needs are, at T. Thorn Coyle’s blog. If you know of other Pagan-initiated efforts to help Oklahoma, please let us know in the comments. May all those affected find safety, shelter, and the means to rebuild.

Looking for Pagan Responses to the UK Census: Vivianne Crowley, a Jungian psychologist, and faculty at Cherry Hill Seminary, has been invited to present a paper on Pagan responses to the 2011 UK census, which released religious data on modern Pagans in December of last year. Crowley is hoping to get collect as many UK Pagan responses via an online survey form in order to look at why there is a disparity between actual census counts and educated estimates that are often far larger.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

“I’ve been invited by the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion group to give a paper next month on Pagan responses to the UK Census 2011. There is a big difference of course between the survey numbers and those quote for number of Pagans in the UK and I’m trying to tease out some of the reasons. One might be that numbers have been inflated of course. The other might be that Pagans for various reasons were under-reported. I wonder if you’d be kind enough, if you completed the Census, to answer the survey.”

You can find the survey link, here. A responses are anonymous. This could be important work, as many people have guessed the number of Pagans in the UK to be in the hundreds of thousands, while the 2011 census data placed modern Pagans at around 80,000 (which is a large increase from 2001, but not near the estimates). So if you’ve taken the UK census in 2011 and you’re a Pagan, please help out.

Mythic Pagan Band Hits Fundraising Goal: The American mythic-Pagan band Woodland announced yesterday that they successfully raised their $10,000 dollar Kickstarter goal to fund the completion of the band’s upcoming 3rd album “Secrets Told.”

Woodland Co-Founders, Emilio and Kelly Miller-Lopez

Woodland Co-Founders, Emilio and Kelly Miller-Lopez

“Our first CD since SEASONS IN ELFLAND: SHADOWS in 2010, SECRETS TOLD delves deep into new regions of inspiration and ancient landscapes of legend. Rich with romantic Mediterranean and classical themes and imbued with the mythos and folklore of Southern Europe, our music and lyrical poetry have incarnated within new songs and new instrumentation. The music of SECRETS TOLD is exotic and evocative, rhythmic and romantic, sensual and mysterious.”

The new album is due out on July 26th, and a new incarnation of the lineup featuring acclaimed ethereal cellist Adam Hurst and former Cirque du Soleil drummer, Jarrod Kaplan will be a headlining performer at the 2013 Faerieworlds Festival this Summer. There’s still about a week left in the fundraising drive, and the band says they’ll introduce stretch funding goals for those who donate, so don’t miss out! Check out the promo trailer for the fundraiser/new album, here.

In Other Pagan Community News:

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

Today is the second Sunday in May which means its Mother’s Day for Americans as well as others around the world.  Writers often attribute this modern celebration to ancient festivals honoring the mother Goddess or Christian tributes to the Virgin Mary. While most religious cultures did or do recognize maternity in some way, the connections between any of these sacred celebrations and our modern secular holiday are tenuous at best.

Julia_Ward_HoweSome believe that the American holiday finds its earliest roots in an old English religious tradition called  “Mothering Sunday.”  On the fourth Sunday of Lent, Christians journeyed far and wide to a “mother” cathedral rather than worshiping in their local “daughter” parish. Over time the day evolved into a secular holiday during which children gave gifts to their mothers.

It wasn’t until the late 1800′s that there was a call for a uniquely American Mother’s Day celebration. After seeing the horrors of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe, a suffragist, abolitionist, writer and poet, began an aggressive campaign for a national Mother’s Day. On the second Sunday in June of 1870, Howe made a passionate plea for peace and proclaimed the day Mother’s Peace Day.

We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience….The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

Not only did Howe call for a national holiday, she also called for a women’s council that would “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, [in] the great and general interests of peace.”

Unfortunately, her dream never came into being. For ten years, Howe personally funded most of the Mother’s Peace Day celebrations.  When she died so did Mother’s Peace Day.

Around the same time, in a small town in West Virginia, a similar idea was being cultivatedAnn Maria Reeves Jarvis, a Civil War nurse, had actively organized a series of “Mother’s Day work clubs.” Their mission was to teach women proper childcare, provide war relief, curb infant mortality, and tend to the battle-wounded. Like Howe, Jarvis advocated for peace and neutrality. She insisted that her mothers’ clubs treat both the Union and Confederate soldiers. After the war, Jarvis and other women created a “Mother Friendship Day” when mothers and former soldiers, from both sides of the war, came together in reconciliation.

After Ann died in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother’s work. In 1907, on the second Sunday of May, Jarvis held the first Mother’s Day celebration in her own home. Then, in 1908, Anna convinced two churches, one in Philadelphia and one in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, to celebrate the new holiday. Each mother was given a white carnation, her mother’s favorite flower.

Photo courtesy of Flickr's play4smee

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s play4smee

Anna began a campaign for a national Mother’s Day celebration. By 1911, forty-seven states were celebrating Mother’s Day. Then in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson named the second Sunday in May “Mother’s Day,” a nationally recognized holiday.

Unfortunately, success brought way more than Jarvis ever wanted. Mother’s Day fell victim to commercialization. Themed Cards and other products were produced and sold en masse. The Post Office printed stamps depicting Anne Reeves Jarvis’ with a white carnation. Mother’s Day was big business. By 1940, the disillusioned Jarvis had turned her back on the holiday completely. She was even arrested for protesting a few Mother’s Day events. Jarvis reportedly died poor, blind and alone in a Philadelphia sanitarium.

While modern Mother’s Day contains only tenuous connections to spiritual practice, the holiday is not without its own profound importance. It is possible to extend a spiritual sense to a secular holiday by extrapolating upon its basic meaning.  Anna Jarvis conceived the holiday as an intimate day to thank one’s own mother for her sacrifice  For activist Julia Ward Howe and Anne Reeves Jarvis, Mother’s Day was a symbolic celebration of motherhood. They saw women, specifically mothers, as the healers and peace makers.

For many Pagan and Heathen women, Mother’s Day is a unique opportunity to connect a mainstream secular tradition to their own spiritual journeys as mothers. On this day, Pagan mothers can reflect on their maternal roles, examine their mundane responsibilities and witness their role and how it is mirrored within their theology.

Reflections on Motherhood from Pagan women:

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard

I came to biological motherhood in my mid-30s–elderly prima grava–and was already known as a Pagan in my community. My daughter is a “cradle Pagan,” and because I knew there would be questions as she went through public school, we were always very open about our spirituality. It made me a somewhat reluctant ambassador for my religion and gave me the opportunity to talk to all sorts of people about Paganism… Being a mother has made me a better advocate, a better priestess. And being those things has also made me a better mother. – Byron Ballard, Pagan author, Advocate, Priestess.

Crystal Blanton

Crystal Blanton

A mother is a child’s first experience with the Goddess in this incarnation. That makes the role of mothering more important than just a set of expectations, but it is a spiritual obligation that will support a growing child in connecting with the feminine aspect of divinity, and with the miracle of manifestation. The lineage of love and extension of the Goddess that is before you in the eyes of your child should be the most motivating factor for living a healthy life. We teach what we are to our children by what we show. Crystal Blanton, Author and Priestess

R. Watcher

R. Watcher

As Witches and Pagans who truly believe in the Earth as a sacred and living being we must do all that we can every day to live that belief. Nowhere can we better put that belief into practice than in the kitchen. From catching the running water from the tap while it’s heating, to using left-over food… Nowhere is there a more frequent and clear reminder of how close to and dependent upon the Earth and all it produces, than the kitchen and its proper management on a day to day basis. – R. Watcher, Mother, Aunt, Great Aunt, and kitchen manager both professionally and personally for over 40 years.

Raising my three children as a Pagan, rather than raising my kids as pagans, was critical to my concept of choice and personal freedom. For a time, I had an Atheist, a Buddhist and a Christian on my apron strings–today, only the latter claims Paganism as his faith, but all understand the universe as the inter-connective tissue of the magic of humanity. As a Pagan mom, I have experienced the heartbeat of the universe from within my own belly, have seen my heart walk away on tiny feet and have known the fear and thrill of knowing that my children echo a cosmos so sacred, not even I could contain its sound with my love.  My advice to them when they become parents will be simple:  don’t damage baby wings with labels, institutions or expectations. Let them explore and feel that sacred thump for themselves . . . and take lots of pictures.Seba O’Kiley, High Priestess of the Gangani Tribe of Alabama

Seba O'Kiley with her sons

Seba O’Kiley with her sons

My favorite quote is from my son Owl at age seven, [He said,] “If reincarnation is real, that means my dead body is out there!”  My advice [to new Mothers] is to always be honest with kids, even about complicated things. They’ll get it in their own way. - Sirona

Sirona

Sirona

Although the American Mother’s Day is in itself not historically religious, the job of motherhood is most certainly more than mundane drudgery. In fact, becoming a mother can be one of the most transformative initiatory experiences. The raising of a mother comes day-to-day with the raising of the children. The entire experience is shaped and colored by one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and of course, spiritual beliefs. In honoring our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and any other woman who has stepped into a maternal role, we also honor the many colors of motherhood, the many faces that it holds, the many forms that it takes and the very personal spiritual journey that it brings.

Happy Mother’s Day!

[The following is a guest post from Holli Emore.  Holli Emore is the founder and priestess of Osireion and Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary for Pagan Ministry, where she previously served as Chair for the Board of Directors. Committed to building interfaith relationships, Holli is a member of the board of directors for the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina. Holli often teaches public groups about the rapidly-growing NeoPagan religions, and has served as a regional resource for law enforcement and victim services since 2004. Holli is the co-founder of the original Pagan Round Table. Osireion is a Pagan tradition which draws its inspiration from the religions of ancient Egypt.]

“Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes” was the first academic symposium presented by Cherry Hill Seminary, in partnership with the University of South Carolina. More than a year in the planning, Sacred Lands took on a topic which turns out to be very popular this season for other academic groups (ASWM Regional Symposium, St. Paul, MN; ). It’s a subject which can also be puzzling for contemporary Pagans, mobile, multi-rooted and fiercely self-determining as we are.

SacredLands100dpi

The range of papers illustrated the complexity of the theme:

  • “Traveling the Land Within” (Wendy Griffin, about the lesbian land movement in 1960s-70s America)
  • “Spiritual Landscapes: An ecofeminist process philosophy view” (Lisa Christie)
  • “Into the Sacred Woods: The inner and outer value of a Pagan sense of place” (with a focus on boys’ experiences in woods) (Elinor Predota)
  • “Born Again Pagans: An industrial band discovers ‘sea, hill, and wood’” (Hayes Hampton on the band “Coil”)
  • “Betwixt and Between the I-and-Thou: Imaginal dialogue and the psychic cartography proposal” (Jeffrey Albaugh)
  • The Tour as Pilgrimage: The seduction of Avalon” (Christina Beard-Moose)
  • “Song of the Chattahoochee: On being a southern (Pagan) Witch in Atlanta’s urban landscape” (Sara Amis)
  • “Rock-Candy Cairns: How the Irish and Scots-Irish diasporas produced Pagans in Old Appalachia” (Byron Ballard)
Ronald Hutton (center) with symposium presenters and CHS staff.

Ronald Hutton (center) with symposium presenters and CHS staff.

Sacred Lands opened on Friday with greetings by Holli Emore (CHS Executive Director), Wendy Griffin (CHS Academic Dean), and greetings by proxy from Jonathan Leader, Chair of the USC Department of Archaeology, and South Carolina’s State Archaeologist. Jonathan had a back injury on Thursday which prevented him from attending any of the symposium, much to his and our disappointment. He has plans to present his paper to a small group on campus soon and videotape it so we can share with symposium attendees. On Saturday, Carl Evans, Chair Emeritus of the USC Department of Religious Studies, was able to join and address the group briefly.

Our guest keynote speaker, Ronald Hutton of Bristol University in England, then gave a talk about his current research on the actual records of the witch trials in Europe. As might be expected, the information was tantalizing; unfortunately, it will not be published for several years. Meanwhile, the group in attendance heard fascinating insights:

  • It appears that more men than women were killed in several areas;
  • Most victims were not burned alive, but after execution by another means, such as strangulation or beheading, to dispose of a body deemed unworthy of a Christian burial;
  • Where there was strong centralized government, there were fewer executions of witches: the body counts soared wherever a heavily localized system of justice effectively put the accusers in charge of the trials. Small German states were one example of this latter situation, Scotland another.
  • Areas of Celt cultural influence had far less witch trials;
  • Professional inquisitors made very little money from witch trials.

A subsequent reception at the S.C. Institute for Archaeology & Anthropology gave attendees the opportunity to discuss Professor Hutton’s talk and meet the man himself, as well as visit with each other, before walking down the street for dinner out. Columbians Pam and Mary put together a lovely reception, assisted by volunteers Deb and Jeff of North Carolina.

Ronald Hutton

Ronald Hutton

On Saturday morning presentations began in earnest, with critique offered by guest respondent Chas Clifton, editor of The Pomegranate. Professor Hutton delivered his keynote address, “Britain’s Pagan Heritage” with astonishing mastery and aplomb. The speech used the story of the Lindow Man (a bog body) discovery and subsequent controversy to illustrate the nature and value of historical research to society in general, including those of us who call ourselves Pagan. For years Lindow Man has been used as evidence that ancient druids practiced human sacrifice when, in fact, several forensics experts gave the opinion that the body was more accurately dated to the Roman period of Britain. The original assertion that Lindow Man showed wounds indicating ritualistic killing was challenged by several scholars, among them Hutton. About a decade’s worth of visitors to the British museum read display materials about druid human sacrifices before the exhibit was finally changed. (Unfortunately, the misleading copy is still found on the museum’s web site.) Note that Professor Hutton does not dispute ritual sacrifice as one possibility, but rather he insists that the actual evidence be examined without bias. Lindow man may have been the victim of a mugging, or an executed criminal, or simply an unlucky victim of an accident. Professor Hutton also devoted as much time to discussing interpretations of Stonehenge, and ended with a plea for individual people to be left ultimately to make up their own minds about the nature of ancient British religions; he also recognized how difficult in practice this was.

After more papers by independent scholars in the afternoon, the group moved outside to close the symposium with a drum circle. Many who stayed overnight gathered for brunch on Sunday morning before scattering back to the 18 states and one country overseas from which they had journeyed. More thanks go to volunteers who managed the registration and support areas at the symposium: Susan, Elizabeth, Sabina, Gin and Doug. Melissa, Juan, Destiny and Clyde loaded up drums and rattles, carried them onto campus for our drum circle, then packed them back up and took them away again on Saturday.

While “Sacred Lands” was an academic symposium, it was marked by a distinctly celebratory mood. Jon Leader of USC was genuinely pleased to be approached last year about collaborating on the symposium; he teaches the undergraduate anthropology course “Magic and Religion” using Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon as a text, as well as a film documentary of the Pendleton witch trial, and had met Hutton in England during a past visit. We at CHS were very happy to be deemed worthy of such a collaboration by our esteemed colleagues at this more than two centuries-old institution.

While some of our participants sat through the de-icing of their plane before departure, and others skirted tornadoes and flooding rains, Columbia, South Carolina, was dressed to impress in a spring display of flowering trees and swelling green. With weather in the low 80s, visitors soon shed their jackets to enjoy the sweet air on the historical part of the campus. (Professor Hutton commented that he loved the humid, warm air, which reminded him of his native India.) Spin-off outcomes from the symposium included discussions with potential new board members, CHS being approached by two publishers, the possibility of a new library volunteer, and many new relationships. While no plans have been made yet, USC has invited CHS to return in 2015 to do a next symposium, and Professor Hutton has offered to serve on our CHS Advisory Board.

What did we learn from this experience? Professor Hutton reminded us that we should be continually testing our assumptions, and that history is never completely written because we continue to learn and adjust our theories of the past. Hutton was also strongly affirming of Pagan practitioners, reminding us that the authenticity of our religion need not rest on ties with antiquity, though we may be proud that such ties exist.

An account of the symposium would be incomplete without reporting the two comments most frequently heard: that Hutton was “brilliant” and that he is one of the kindest and most courteous people one could ever hope to meet. But the event was about more than our illustrious keynoter. The variety of presenters and guests gave a rich texture to the weekend. Even with the depth of paper topics, a great many more aspects of the topic remained unaddressed, a fertile field for future gatherings and discussion.

[I would like to thank Holli Emore for taking the time to write a report on this symposium for The Wild Hunt's audience. For those wanting to hear more from Ronald Hutton, Cherry Hill Seminary has just posted a short interview with the historian.]

Meanwhile, outside the walls of PantheaCon, I have been busy tending the Wild Hunt’s hearth fires and watching the news….

The sheer number of stories describing the intersection of faith and public education has been overwhelming in recent weeks.  In fact, Americans United (AU) believes that 2013 will be a “pivotal year for church-state separation.”  According to AU, the country’s increasing religious diversity and the recent failures of evangelical Christian politics are fueling the fight to force religion back into public schools.

Since January, five states already have anti-evolution bills “in play” including, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma and Indiana.  AU writer Simon Brown remarked, “The mantra of Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) seems to be:  ‘Darn the Constitution, full speed ahead!’”

Just last week, the ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District for refusing to remove a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School. The School Board’s justification for non-compliance was that the portrait was a gift.  However, there’s that darn Constitution again. Now, the Jackson City School Board is being sued.

Jackson Middle School

Portrait Hanging in Jackson Middle School

There are similar cases across the country. Whether it’s Creationism, school prayer, religious displays or school vouchers, the challenges continue. As such, it is very easy to get caught up in the contentious discourse surrounding these cases.  From a media perspective, conflicts are considered more “ sell-able” because they stir emotions and keep us tuned-in. The positive outcomes are often quite boring.

As a result, we forget to adequately acknowledge these “happy-endings” or record the positive gains. When one battle ends, another always seems to flare up. It’s much easier to watch the new fires than see the sprouts rising through the ashes of old battles.

However, I have and will always argue that it is essential for all of us, especially those on the front lines, to purposefully acknowledge positive progress; no matter how small, how subtle or how utterly boring. Once in awhile, it’s nice to have the opportunity to do an “end-zone” victory dance and fly a flag or two.  With that in mind, I’d like to update two stories that involved challenges to liberty within the public schools.

Let’s start in the South. One of last year’s top ten stories was the struggle to protect religious freedom within the Buncombe County School (BCS) system of North Carolina. This was the case that began when Ginger Strivelli, a local Pagan mother, challenged the presence of Gideon Bibles in her daughter’s school. Over multiple contentious meetings, the school board finally enacted policies that would ostensibly prevent any First Amendment violations and, in addition, would pave the way for interfaith talks.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

During the early days of this case, I worked as Lady Liberty League’s Media Adviser. As such, I have written numerous case reports and articles; the last of which was just published in Circle Magazine’s latest issue (#112). That article contains the full scope of the Board’s newly enacted policy changes.

Here are some of the highlights. The Buncombe County School Board (BCS) has created a Faith-Based Advisory panel to act as consultant for all faith-based issues. Local Pagan, Byron Ballard, who has been actively involved in this case, now sits on that panel. In addition, the Board encouraged all teachers to celebrate  National Religious Freedom Day on January 16th.  On the first of January, the Board formally announced this intention and stated that all children will watch the newly produced BCS program called: “The 3Rs of Religion.”

Byron has confirmed that the overall progress has continued to be very positive. In fact, for the first time in a year, Byron will not be attending the Buncombe County School Board meeting. We are witnessing the evolution of a community and recognition of social change. However Byron did add:

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the relationship with the county school system, but I am aware that it will have to be monitored forever after. Vigilance, like strong fences, makes for good neighbors.”

Buncombe County’s story may not yet be fully written.

Now, let’s move over to Utah. In November, I reported on the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Davis School District in Utah.  One of its schools, Windridge Elementary, had restricted access to the book In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polocco because of its depiction of gay marriage. The restriction was initially supported by the district and encouraged for all lower grades. In November, the advisory council stated, “Members of our Community Council feel that the book is non-offensive, but agree that it should be restricted.  It can be found behind the Librarians desk.”  Shortly thereafter, parent Tina Weber challenged the legality of the decision which resulted in the ACLU’s lawsuit.

In Our Mothers' Houseby Patricia Polacco

On January 31, the ACLU reported that the Davis School Board has reversed that 2012 decision and put Our Mothers’ House back on all library shelves.  In a letter to the Board’s legal adviser  Assistant Superintendent, Pamela Park wrote, “I agree with and support the Committee’s conclusion regarding the book as follows:

  • Removing the book completely is not a good option.”
  • “We all know many non-traditional families” with students attending our schools.
  • “It could help those children in same-sex families see their family in a book.”
  • “[T]his book teaches acceptance and tolerance.”
  • “The book could help prevent bullying of kids from same-sex families.”
  • “It could be used by families to discuss the issues….” 

Park also confirmed that the book’s presence does not violate Utah educational policies because it’s not used as instructional material. She continues to advise that any parent who feels the book is inappropriate can contact the librarian and have the book restricted from his or her child only. You can read the letter in its entirety here.

The Utah case wasn’t necessarily a church-state issue. The school was restricting Patricia Polocco’s freedom of speech more than violating religious liberty. However, it could be argued that the case did have a religious freedom element. The Board restricted the book based on what could be considered a faith-based opinion. It’s opponents complained that In Our Mothers’ Housenormalizes a lifestyle we don’t agree with.”  Removing the book on such a basis promotes one faith’s value system over another. Facilitating parental choice supports the values of all people; no matter their religion or position on gay marriage.

Celebrating the work done in both Utah and North Carolina, and other similar cases, does not at all detract from the serious nature of defending First Amendment freedoms allowed by the darn Constitution. Nor does it show disrespect for those cases not yet closed.  Acknowledging progress strengthens our spirit and allows us to stand again.  It restores our faith in the American system.  We need this time to breathe.

So, in honor of the work done by those in Buncombe County and Davis County, “Way to Go!” Take your victory lap.

[You can read part one of this entry, here.]

 05. Ginger Strivelli, School Bibles, and Buncombe County Schools: The story began at the end of 2011 when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. Strivelli, along with local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard, and a growing coalition of local residents, made clear that the board needed to remain neutral on matters regarding religion. So began a year of contentious school board meetings, death threats, and mainstream media coverage.

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

For awhile there seemed to be a balance of people who supported and opposed the policy. But then some preachers got up and made direct personal attacks to Ginger. They claimed she was the only one with a problem with the bible distribution. Little do they understand how many pagans in the county that fear coming out and speaking up. And after that meeting, I completely understand!  Then it got even worse when a preacher spoke up that only bibles should be allowed in schools. And that is when the preaching began. People after people felt the need to quote scripture. One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture. - Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog.

Eventually Buncombe County Schools passed a new religion policy that stressed neutrality, and will allow distribution of religious materials, but only once a year, along with non-religious community groups, and after regular school hours. All of these changes came about because one Pagan mom decided to speak up, and her bravery inspired a community to hold true to the secular and pluralistic principles our country was founded on.

04. Pew Forum’s Landmark Prison Religion Survey (and How That Affects Pagans): In March of this year 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.

Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum, who testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights in 2008, was deeply involved in this survey and helped shape some of the survey’s questions, and helped shift “the perspective of the main researcher’s goals in ways that I feel benefited our community and minority faiths in general.”

 

chaplains chp4 5

“The inclusion of Pagan & Earth Based religions as a category in the survey carries several huge benefits for us as a community. First, for many years, correctional systems, courts, and other governmental agencies have been able to deny us our rights, by simply making the argument that we either don’t really exist, or that if we do, we are so insignificant in numbers that there is no need to legislate or accommodate in our favor. Now with the survey, that argument is irrefutably null and void.”Patrick McCollum

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.

03. Chaplaincy for Pagans in Canadian Prisons: The controversial move this Fall by Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to retract a paid position for a Wiccan prison chaplain was merely a harbinger of much bigger things. In October the CBC reported that Toews, who oversees Canada’s penitentiaries, eliminated all paid part-time chaplain services, effectively making government prison chaplaincy a Christian-only affair.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

“Inmates of other faiths, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance, according to the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada’s penitentiaries. [...] Toews’ office says that as a result of the review, the part-time non-Christian chaplains will be let go and the remaining full-time chaplains in prisons will now provide interfaith services and counselling to all inmates.”

Toews’ office said in a statement to the CBC that “[Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.” This lead one Sikh chaplain to ask the obvious question: “How can a Christian chaplain provide spirituality to the Sikh faith, because they don’t have that expertise.”

So from this point forth, all non-Christian chaplaincy services to federal prisons must either be provided by volunteers, or the prisoners: Wiccan prisoners, Pagan prisoners, Buddhist prisoners, First Nations prisoners, must all turn to the full-time (Christian) chaplains for spiritual guidance and resources. I wasn’t overly surprised when Toews decided to engage in a little discriminatory Witch-kicking, our community has weathered those slings and arrows for years, but this is something far more audacious. Toews and his office are essentially doubling down, saying that a full-time Christian chaplaincy is enough to handle all faiths, no matter what their history or relationship with Christianity might be. It’s stunning. Whether he’ll be allowed to get away with it is, I suppose, up to the Harper administration and Canadian voters.

02. Census Data From Australia and the UK Show Paganism’s Growth:  In 2011 I reported on efforts in Australia and Britain to encourage more accurate census counts of Pagans by asking respondents to use a uniform Pagan-[tradition/faith] format. This year we got to see the fruits, if any, of these efforts. First, Australia’s numbers came in, with over 32,000 modern Pagans (up from around 29,000 in 2006), then, we got to see the number of England and Wales where over 80,000 individuals identified with some form of modern Paganism (depending on how forgiving you want to be with labels). In addition, the base number of people identifying as “Pagan” shot up to nearly 60,000. This is about double the numbers from the last British census.

sctrfigure1 tcm77 290493

“Compared with the 2001 Census the most significant trends were an increase in the population reporting no religion – from 14.8 per cent  of the population in 2001 to 25.1 per cent  in 2011, a drop in the population reporting to be Christian – from 71.7 per cent  in 2001 to 59.3 per cent  in 2011, and an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent  in 2001 to 4.8 per cent  in 2011.”

These figures point to some success for the Pagan Dash campaign, though they were not the far larger estimates many were hoping for. Still, this shows encouraging growth for modern Paganism, particularly in England and Wales. The growth of Pagan and minority faiths, along with the rapid increase of those who claim no particular religion point toward an imminent re-alignment of the status quo when it comes to matters of faith and belief in the Western world. The new census data will provide a lot of new information for Pagan activists, and for Pagan scholars, and may have repercussions we haven’t anticipated yet.

01. The Rise of Post-Christian Elections in the United States: After the 2012 elections here in the United States I posited that this was a post-Christian election, and that the results could be a glimpse into the future of America’s electorate. Now, as information from the election is further dissected and analyzed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something significant has indeed shifted in the religious outlook of our voting public. The Public Religion Research Institute calls it the “end of a white Christian strategy.”

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

“The foundation of Romney’s base consists primarily of white evangelical Protestants, who constitute 40% of his coalition. Obama’s coalition rests on two very different groups: minority Christians—a group that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race Christians—(31%) and the religiously unaffiliated (25%). [...] Notably, Obama’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of younger voters, while Romney’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of senior voters. For example, 26% of Millennial voters are white Christians, compared to 72% of senior voters.”

The unaffiliated were a big chunk of Obama’s religious support, and a whopping 70% of “nones” and 74% of “others” (which would include us Pagans) voted for the President. For all the analysis focused on race or gender during this election, it’s become clear that it is also disastrous for any candidate to so completely alienate non-Christian voters (it should be noted that Obama also garnered nearly 70% of the Jewish vote as well, despite efforts to undermine that support).  The more pluralistic and religiously diverse American becomes, the harder it will be to ignore non-Christian voices.

Sifting through the results from November can start to see the realignments. Hawaii sends the first Buddhist, Mazie Hirono, to the US Senate, and the first Hindu, Tulsi Gabbard, to the House. Washington state approved gay marriage by referendum, an initiative that I paid particular attention to because it would be decided by the religiously unaffiliated majority there. In that piece from September I said that: “it’s Washington that I’m most interested in because of the trends that point to the “nones” in the Pacific Northwest being more like “us” Pagans in inclination and spiritual orientation. If you want tea leaves to read over what a “Pagan” vote might look like, this might be our chance to witness it in action.” 

I think we’re going to see a lot more elections that look like this one. That doesn’t mean that Democrats automatically win all the time, or that Republicans are always doomed to lose, just that the playing field will never again be like it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The slowly shifting demographics have started to turn a corner, and savvy politicians, no matter what their political orientation, will adapt to these emerging realities. Yes, that means reaching out to racial minorities, and women, and younger voters, but it also means reaching out to the “nones” and the religious “others” instead of banking everything on the evangelical Christian vote (or the Catholic vote for that matter).

Welcome to the beginning of the post-Christian American future.

That wraps up our top ten news stories about or affecting modern Paganism in 2012. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join us for another year of sifting through the news and views of interest to our communities. See you in 2013!

Blue Ridge Mountains

Courtesy of JSmith on Flickr

The Appalachian Mountains conjure up images of rustic living, long-distance hiking and banjos. The range formed back in the Paleozoic Era and now stretches from Newfoundland, Canada to Alabama.  Wandering through its rough terrain is the famous 2,174 mile Appalachian Trail. Throughout time humans have been nurtured by these mountains, developing vibrant cultures within their shadows.

While the northern Appalachian culture has lost much of its unique regional flavor, the communities nestled in the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains of southern Appalachia have clung to their rural roots. These areas are far more isolated and distant from growing urban centers. As a result, their traditions have been well-preserved.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard
at the Celtic Tree Workshop

Deep within the heart of this southern world, there lives the unexpected: a thriving Pagan community. To get a better understanding of this area and just how the Appalachian way informs the practice of Paganism I turned, quite literally, to a Village Witch. Byron Ballard, a senior priestess of Mother Grove Goddess Temple, lives in the small city of Asheville, North Carolina. She was born and raised in the Appalachian countryside and has since become a recognizable and respected figure in the community.

Heather:  Southern Appalachia has a rich culture that is distinct and recognizable.  Do you see this regional color influencing the practice of Paganism in the area?  How?

Byron: Here in Appalachia we are not far from our agricultural roots as in other parts of the country.  We remain close to the land. I grew up in a rural cove where most people gardened and preserved food. The use of curative herbs and food was common less than a generation ago–many of us don’t think of it as merely a historical leftover.  So for Appalachian Pagans, being close to the land is an accident of birth that is beautiful and significant to us.

H:  Historically speaking, the Cherokee Indians populated this area prior to European colonization.  Their influence is still felt up and down the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains.  Does traditional Cherokee culture inform the Appalachian Pagan’s spiritual practice today?

B: I am currently researching what I call the three strands of Appalachian Folk magic: one of which is Cherokee. Unlike other regions, southern Appalachia saw a gentler transition from the dominant Indian culture to American culture. What I mean by that is that the colonists here did not aggressively push into the region. The two cultures lived peacefully and independently which led to gentle integration and cooperation. This continued for over a century.

Meaders Face Jug

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Folk Artist Lanier Meaders
Appalachian Face Jug

As a result, we share many traditions with the Cherokee, such as herbalism and oral storytelling. I also believe that the folk tradition of healing waters comes from Cherokee roots.  In addition, because of Appalachia’s isolation, people have a strong sense of self-reliance which has allowed for the development of wonderful folk art, music, and textiles. This is common to all the cultures of Appalachia.

H: Today, most of the southern Appalachian chain is within the Bible belt. But yet, you live in an area with a thriving Pagan population.  What does the Pagan community look like in Asheville?

B:  I do not have exact figures.  In the Buncombe County area, I suspect about 1000 people self-identify as Pagan of some sort.  Specifically speaking, Asheville has long been an eclectic enclave and is known for having a vibrant Pagan influence.  In addition, there is a segment of the local population that doesn’t identify as Pagan but rather defines their spirituality in terms of nature.  These Jews, Christians, and New Age enthusiasts do not go to church or temple to unite with their concept of the divine.  They go hiking.

You have to understand that the mountains here are some of the oldest in the world.  We have two of the oldest rivers, the New River and the French Broad, running through the area.  It is almost as through you can hear the area hum with a deep low sound.  It calls people in. People that hear become connected to it.

H: As with most of the country, there has been a growing need for interfaith work.  You’ve been a key player in making this happen in Asheville.  Despite the southern setting, your interfaith work has been tremendously successful.  How did a small southern mountain city find its interfaith movement?

B: The interfaith community was born when a woman named Mary Page Sims, the wife of an Atlanta Episcopal Bishop, retired to Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the 1990s, she started a local cooperative circle for United Religious Initiative. I met her shortly after and a group of us began a second circle–Greater Asheville URI Cooperation Circle.

Byron Ballard

Around 2005, the Asheville circle was disbanded, due to a lack of leadership and general interest in interfaith work. Several years later, the Brotherhood at our local Reform congregation wanted to widen their long-term Jewish-Christian dialogue group.  They chose congregational leaders from a very diverse cross-section of the Asheville spiritual community and hired a consultant to lead the group through a process to determine whether there was interest in interfaith work. We formed the Mountain Area Interfaith Forum which is now in its fifth year of operation.

H:  I met you through our work with Lady Liberty League on the Bumcombe County school case that concerned religious freedom.  After working on this particular case, you became involved in yet another very focused interfaith board.  Tell me about that.

B: After the Buncombe County School Board met to establish a protocol for dealing with religious material within the schools, the superintendent, Tony Baldwin created a Faith-Based Leadership Advisory Council.  I serve on the committee with other leaders from all faiths.  Now, when anyone in the school district has a concern or question about a religious observance or tradition, we are available to provide information and support.  Tony Baldwin has been extremely supportive as the County moves through this cultural transition from assumed religious homogeneity to the embracing of its diversity.

H: Thank You, Byron.

Over the years, Byron has worked tirelessly to educate others about beauty of Goddess spirituality and its symbiotic relationship with Appalachian folk tradition.  This fall she taught classes at the Southeast Woman’s Herbal Conference, a weekend celebrating folk tradition, herbalism and the ways of the wise woman, held in Black Mountain, North Carolina.  Byron also co-founded The Coalition of Earth Religions for Education and Support or CERES, a social networking organization for local Appalachian Pagans. She has been interviewed for or contributed to numerous Pagan magazine including Witches and Pagans and Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly.

Hillfolk HoodooMuch of her outreach work has been done through her writing.  She was a columnist, the Village Witch, for the local Gannett daily paper, The Asheville Citizen-Times and the Mountain Xpress.  More recently, Byron published a book Staubs & Ditchwater:  An introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo. The book included her paper entitled “Hillfolk Hoodoo and the Question of Cultural Strip-mining” which, in 2007, she presented at the Harvard Colloquium “Forging Folklore: Witches, Pagans, and Neo-Tribal Cultures.”

Not all regions of the U.S. are fortunate enough to have such a rich culture heritage, one that lends itself so well to the practice of a Pagan spirituality. In that way, Southern Appalachia is a true national treasure.  Byron herself would be the first to admit, there’s just something in the spirit of those mountains.  Having visited, I would have to agree.