Archives For Chicago

Whether it’s spelled Voodoo, Vodou, or Voudoun, this frequently-misunderstood religion of the African diaspora is starting to get a makeover in the American consciousness. A traditionally secretive religion, Vodou has long been represented in movies and television shows as being focused on sticking pins in dolls and making people into zombie slaves. That image is starting to change, however, in ways that could make members of the Pagan community sit up and take notice.

© Canadian Museum of History, Frank Wimart

© Canadian Museum of History, Frank Wimart

In contrast to the Hollywood vision of Vodou, an exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago seeks to present an accurate picture of Haitian Vodou through its artifacts. According to a press release about the exhibition, “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti looks beyond myths and manufactured Hollywood images – exhibition visitors will see no dolls with pins stuck into them. Instead, the exhibition explores the underground history and true nature of a living religion and reveals Vodou as a vital spiritual and social force which remains an important part of daily life in Haiti.” Text and video of members of the religion are used to explain the symbolism behind, and uses of, the more than 300 objects, many of which are on loan from the Marianne Lehmann Collection in Pétionville, Haiti.

Patrons of the Field Museum will come away with some understanding of Haitian Vodou, one of the major branches practiced in the United States today. The other is Louisiana or New Orleans Voodoo, a tradition which evolved in that southern city thanks in part to the fact that slave families were more likely to be kept together than they were in the East. Followers of the two paths kept mostly to themselves in the city, according to a profile of the religion in Newsweek, although initiation into both wasn’t entirely unknown. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina changed all that; many Vodou practitioners lived in the Ninth Ward, which bore the brunt of the damage when the levies broke:

“After Katrina, the remaining members began to forge a new, cross-faith community. The mixed ceremonies and social gatherings served a support network for participants from both sides of voodoo as they rebuilt their lives. “We became more close-knit. Those of us who stayed and didn’t evacuate opened what lines of communication had been closed,” says Michael “Belfazaar” Bousum, an employee of Voodoo Authentica and a priest of New Orleans voodoo.

“The new scene has also encouraged members of the ancient religion to create a web presence —- forums such as “Vodou, Voodou, Vodoun, Vodun” on Facebook and “A Real Voodoo Club” on Yahoo Groups are popular —- as well as welcoming outsiders to their events for the first time. “Before, you really would have had to know who a mambo or a houngan was to participate in a public or private ceremony. You would have to be in the inner circle. Now it’s accessible with a few keystrokes,” says Parmelee. “Plus, people who left are returning. The community is definitely coming back.””

New Orleans Healing Center

New Orleans Healing Center

The most impressive demonstration of this new face of Vodou is surely the New Orleans Healing Center, a 55,000-square-foot complex which has become a focal point for the religion since it opened in 2011. The center hosts public ceremonies, a bustling shop, and has gone a long way towards normalizing perceptions of this religion in New Orleans. It cost a reported $13 million to build, including both public and private funds, and represents the type of infrastructure many Pagans yearn for, and others shun.

There are many reasons why such an massive project was possible in the Vodou community, while similar ideas remain dreams for Pagans. For one, while there are different schools of thought, Vodou is not an “umbrella” of often unrelated faiths, as Paganism is. For another, Paganism is wrestling with questions of money that Vodou has mostly put to rest.

Lilith Dorsey

Lilith Dorsey

“Gardner said not to charge for spiritual services,” explained Lilith Dorsey, who writes the blog Voodoo Universe, but “Marie Laveau was the first to charge for services.” She was referring to Gerald Gardner, whose contributions to Wicca in the 1950s set the tone for many conversations in the Pagan community today, and 19th-century Vodou priestess Laveau, whose impact on New Orleans Voodoo was equally seminal. “Some people may have no other way of making a living,” she said, “they might be uneducated, or crazy, or this is just the only skill they have.” Instead of having a cultural bias against accepting money, in Vodou it’s expected.

One of the interesting details about this mainstreaming of Vodou is the monotheistic bent it’s taking. The Newsweek article is quite clear on that point, saying that both New Orleans and Haitian Vodou “are monotheistic (the highest god is Bondyè, the “good lord”), are mostly oral- instead of text-based and celebrate thousands of cosmic and natural spirits (akin to Catholicism’s saints).” Since Dorsey writes about Vodou for a Pagan site, The Wild Hunt asked her if Vodou is a monotheistic religion.

“That’s a sticky question,” Dorsey replied. “It’s more acceptable to be monotheistic in this culture. I approach it anthropologically: if you offer to it, it’s a god or goddess. I consider lwa and oreshas to be gods. In the Catholic Church they call them saints, but they function like gods.” However they function, though, in her experience, “People don’t want to have a lot of gods.”

Dorsey, who maintains connections to the Vodou communities in New Orleans and New York City, also said that not everyone is happy with the public face of Vodou that is emerging. “Will it be good? I can’t say. On one hand, the more neighbors you have who practice Voodoo the more okay it seems. I have neighbors who are okay with Voodoo but not with ‘evil Santeria.’ On the other hand, public ceremonies mean cameras, and there are things one should not be taking pictures of. “That’s hard for the average person to determine. I do a class on ritual blessings for camera, and once you start talking about photography, that’s another whole level.”

Art museums and shiny new healing centers are signs that the face of Vodou is changing fast. Dorsey said that, like water, it will find its own level. When it does, it could be possible to draw some conclusions about how Pagan religions may change as they become more normalized, for good or ill.

The Fellowship of Isis Central blog has announced the passing of Deena Butta, an Elder Priestess for the Fellowship in Chicago who was deeply involved in interfaith work, in addition to transmitting her tradition’s teachings. Two of her most notable accomplishments within these spheres was publishing the Isis-Seshat Journal, the “personal post” for the Fellowship of Isis, and her involvement with the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the moment when modern Paganism “came out” to the global interfaith community.

Deena Celeste Butta

Deena Celeste Butta

“In 1993, at the Parliament of World’s Religions held in Chicago, Deena was included in the Fellowship of Isis Procession.  Deena also took part in the FOI Mystery play “Judgement of Osiris” known in the FOI Liturgy books as “Judgment of the Earth” that was presented at the Parliament. She performed an Egyptian Dance as part of a presentation during the FOI workshop. 

Later in the event, Deena was consecrated as a Hierophant, with Olivia [Robertson] acting as Priestess and then ArchDruid Isaac Bonewits (now ArchDruid Emeritus) and founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin, acting as Priest, with Ruth Dillon assisting as Priestess of Isis. Deena’s husband Ray Butta was ordained into the priesthood at this time. During the Parliament activities, Deena and Olivia participated together in an interview for local Chicago Radio.”

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary first met Deena Butta at that Parliament in 1993, and recalls their long mutual history of working together on interfaith projects.

“I first met Deena at the start of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago – we both were among the delegates who walked in the Procession that opened the 1993 Parliament of World Religions.  She was among those representing Fellowship of Isis.  I was among those representing Circle Sanctuary.

Over the years, Deena, I, and Fellowship of Isis founder Lady Olivia Robertson of Ireland collaborated with others on a variety of interfaith and multicultural endeavors.

I connected them with some Native American leaders at a Pow Wow we attended in 2004 the day following the Fellowship of Isis convention in Chicago where Olivia, Deena, I, and others were speaking.  Deena and Oliva also were speakers at a Circle Sanctuary Fall Equinox Festival and assisted with the dedication of one of our Goddess Shrines.”

Fox went on to describe Butta as a “caring friend, Isis priestess, archivist-librarian, writer, and interfaith pioneer.”

In addition to her other accomplishments, Butta was a Reference Librarian, and appeared on the 1998 television series “The Unexplained.” She was also a member of the United Communities of Spirit. For a full biography of her accomplishments within the Fellowship of Isis, and interfaith, see the  Fellowship of Isis Central blog. Here’s an excerpt from the Invocation and Oracle of the Goddess Isis from the Fellowship of Isis Liturgy rite “Dulce Domum: The Soul Returns Home” by FOI Co-Founder Olivia Robertson, posted by the Fellowship in her honor.

“In your originality is your immortality, for nothing that is original can perish. It is an essential part of the cosmic scheme. Manifest your Divine Origin which is born from the Mother of All, Nuit, Whose children are immortal like onto Herself. Nourish then all good gifts in each person and each being and you strengthen the harmony between the Divine Sphere of Heaven with its transient reflection which is this world. There is no death. Love is eternal. Osiris and I are One. So is it with us all.”

May she rest in the arms of her gods.

I arrive in Chicago, now, as an outsider. Though I have lived near Chicago in the past, I’ve become a true transplant to the Pacific Northwest and find myself newly awed by the scale of this city. The buildings, the public art, and even the convention center are massive, sprawling, and alive.  Before I attend any session at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting, I’m able to make it to the end of a day-long pre-conference event on Friday entitled “Mapping the Occult City: Magick & Esotericism in the Urban Utopia.” Co-sponsored by DePaul University and Phoenix Rising Academy.

During a roundtable discussion on the “psychic city” featuring several local Chicago Pagan and occult leaders, including Angie Buchanan of Gaia’s Womb, one of the current owners of The Occult Bookstore, and a representative of the local OTO Lodge. It was clear that Chicago has a very distinct character, one that defies easy categorization, and one very much tied to the unique landscape of this metropolis. It’s a place where syncretism, religious cross-pollination, and a respect for the deep roots placed here generations ago.

psychic city chicago panel

Roundtable: Re-examining Psychic City.

As fascinating as that discussion was, the real highlight of that evening was a special performance from Terra Mysterium, a local collective of actors, singers, musicians, poets, and magicians, who weave theatre and the esoteric arts in a way that’s captivating, and deliriously enjoyable. Truly you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a banish-off between an un-orthodox Witch and a group of ritual magicians doing the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram (in song)! An extra bonus was seeing Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum, who’s going to be on a panel discussing the Pew Forum’s prison chaplaincy survey.

terra mysterium patrick

Matthew Ellenwood, Patrick McCollum, and Keith Green after the Terra Mysterium performance.

After that enriching evening, it was time to start the AAR Annual Meeting proper, and the Pagan Studies programming track began bright and early with “Contemporary Pagan Theology and Praxology.” This panel, which featured papers from Michael York, author of “Pagan Theology,”  along with Christopher Chase, Michelle Mueller, and Morgan Davis, mirrored conversations that have been happening with increasing regularity in the Pagan community. The tensions between practice and theology, between community and individuality, and what the best lens is to view these issues. It shows how Pagan scholarship isn’t disconnected from what concerns us, but is instead deeply interconnected. Their work helps us move forward.

Contemporary Pagan Theology and Praxology panel.

Contemporary Pagan Theology and Praxology panel.

Tomorrow I’ll recount the experiences and interactions I had on Sunday and Monday, and talk more about how what happens in the academy not only mirrors our experience as Pagans, but informs and shapes it as well.

I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the campaign to send me to AAR, including the underwriters who joined us during that time: A Modern Druid, Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, Brotherhood of the Phoenix, Egregores, Ix Chel Wellness, Mill Creek Seminary, Solar Cross Temple, Stone City Pagan Sanctuary, Teo Bishop, The Summerlands, Urania’s Well, and Wiccanwoman. Thank you. You make this possible.

Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note, a new series more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce 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 lets get started!

The Bonewits Papers: On their official Facebook page, Isaac and Phaedra Bonewits have announced that Isaac’s personal papers will be donated to the American Religions Collection at the library at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It’s been a rough week, but we’d like to share one piece of good news. Isaac’s personal papers will be going to the American Religions Collection at the library at University of California, Santa Barbara. So all you researchers will be able to rummage through his stuff :-)”

Bonewits has been, and continues to be, an influential author, ritualist, theologian and thinker within modern Paganism. It is heartening to know that as he continues to struggle with cancer, his rich legacy will live on for future generations to benefit from. For those who’d like to support Isaac and Phaedra during this trial, you can still donate to offset their mounting medical bills.

Pagan Pacifists Speak: A month ago I announced a new initiative, the Voices of Pagan Pacifism project, and now their first issue of interviews, essays and articles has been released.

“Part monthly newsletter, part educational archive, part resource directory, the VoPP project hopes to further the causes of peace, nonviolence, social justice, ecological balance and creative living. By providing a forum for conversation and connection, VoPP seeks to dispel misconceptions about the philosophy of pacifism and the spiritual traditions of modern Paganism. To encourage Pagans and non-Pagans, pacifists and non-pacifists alike in pursuing the challenging work of confronting and engaging authentically with that place in all of our lives where the political meets the spiritual, and both are transformed.”

Contributions include an interview with Dana Rose, an article on pacifism in ancient Greece by Jeff Lilly, a meditation from Alison Shaffer, and more. This looks like a strong start to the project, and I look forward to many more issues in the future.

Exploring Pagan Theology: The Pagan Portal at Patheos has posted three new essays exploring Pagan (poly)theology from different angles. First, portal manager Star Foster looks at the challenges of discussing and exploring theology in a pluralistic (and polytheistic) manner. Then, Alison Shaffer examines the problems of relating to the gods through an American capitalist framework. Finally, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (boy that name sounds familiar) discusses syncretism, Process Theology, and “polyamorotheism”.

“The insurmountable divide that people put between humans and gods in terms of our ability to understand them (e.g., “the Gods’ ways are not our ways” — a passage here paraphrased from the Hebrew Bible!), and of our abilities to communicate and negotiate with them, therefore, is not necessarily in operation. The gods may have a great deal more power, or knowledge, or freedom due to their position and their conditions of existence, but if they cannot be understood, communicated with, or related to, then the entire enterprise of religion and spirituality is useless entirely.”

All are well worth the reading, and should provide some food for thought (and discussion). Kudos to Star Foster and Patheos.com for working to bring us quality Pagan content at this multi-faith religion site.

AREN’s Action: The latest issue of the Alternative Religions Education Network’s (AREN) newsletter, ACTION, is now out, and features a wealth of interesting interviews. This includes Selena Fox, Brian Ewing of the Pagan Pride Project, and Cathryn Platine of the Maetreum of Cybele.

“Throughout this mess the “reasons” for denial have been almost impossible to pin down. Apparently the Town attorney is under the mistaken impression that I am the religion and my not living on the property for a short time is significant. He also has argued in his legal opinion that the fact we have always done charitable work, even before formal incorporation, housing women in need is some sort of proof of not being an exclusive religious property which is absurd given that the New York tax law covering mandated exempt classes is quite clear that charitable work, education and other activities are all equal and any two or more activities on the property are still in the mandated exempt class.”

Christopher Blackwell at ACTION is like a Pagan interviewing machine! Seriously, his efforts really do deserve more attention, and I hope that the ACTION archives can be saved for posterity since they provide such a fascinating snapshot of modern Paganism in the last decade.

Finding Eleusis at Fringe: The Chicago-based Pagan/magical performance troupe Terra Mysterium will be performing their new Fall show “Finding Eleusis”, an urban and modern take on the Eleusianian Mysteries, at the Chicago Fringe Festival September 1-5th. Here’s a clip from their previous show, “Professor Marius Mandragore’s Salon Symposium regarding Spirits, Spells, and Eldritch Craft”.

If you’re going to be in the Chicago area, you can buy tickets for the performances now. I wish I could afford to jet-set to the Midwest and catch this show!

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

The Cook County Crackdown: If you thought unconstitutional and redundant laws against fortune telling only happened down south, think again. The Cook County Illinois board of commissioners (that would be the county Chicago is located in) are proposing a new ordinance that would ban “fraud” under the guise of spiritual services for pay.

“The proposal, from Commissioners Edwin Reyes, Bridget Gainer and Gregg Goslin, includes a swath of spirituality. It would affect mediumship, palmistry, card reading, astrology, seership, “crafty science,” and fortune telling that might take place as gatherings, circles and seances. “This was something that was highlighted to say there is a variety of different things out there that could be covered by certain deceptive practices,” Gainer says. She says the measure was suggested by the sheriff’s department, and that more people dealing with a tough economy might be hoodwinked by frauds posing as spiritual leaders.”

First off, there are already laws against fraud and deceptive business practices in Illinois, and I can’t see how this new ordinance would have protected a recent high-profile Chicago-area victim of the old-as-the-hills “cursed money” scam. Further, how will this ordinance, if passed, be enforced, and who gets to decide what’s fraud? If you pay for a reading at a party, can you call the cops the next day? If you drop $20 when the local Pagan group passes the hat and you later have buyers remorse, can you press charges? The language is so broad (“circles”, “gatherings”), that it easily includes any Pagan ritual where any sort of money changes hands. Since this proposed ordinance doesn’t seem to ban charging for “spiritual services” per-se, how will it actually prevent the most outrageous instances of blatant grifting?

Another Interview with Alex Mar: “American Mystic” director Alex Mar is interviewed by MTV Tr3s about her documentary, which features Pagan priestess Morpheus Ravenna, and discusses gaining the trust of her subjects, her own background, and resources for folks interested in modern Paganism.

“That’s an interesting question. First off, let me say that I’m not advocating any one spiritual path over another. But that said, I know WitchVox to be a useful site for pagans or people who are pagan-curious to connect locally. I was told over and over again how much easier it’s become for people who are curious about different forms of witchcraft to find mentors now that the Internet exists. The Wild Hunt is a widely read pagan blog about the latest politics and culture that’s relevant to the pagan community. And there are major conventions a few times a year where young witches, warlocks, Druids, you name it, get together and mix and network and learn new techniques and dance to gothic metal bands.”

I’d like to thank Alex for the plug, and note that the “gothic metal band” she’s most likely referring to is Pandemonaeon, who played at this year’s Pantheacon. “American Mystic” is currently playing at the The Tribeca Film Festival, and is one of twelve entries in the festival’s World Documentary Feature Competition for 2010.

Guess Who Else Didn’t Like That Episode of  Supernatural: It wasn’t just Pagans who were a bit annoyed by the Supernatural episode “Hammer of the Gods”, where various non-Christian deities were portrayed as shallow flesh-eaters getting worked over by Satan, Hindu activist Rajan Zed (you may remember him as the Hindu priest who got heckled by Christians on the Senate floor) blasts the show for its portrayal of Ganesha and Kali.

“Acclaimed Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that Lord Ganesh and Goddess Kali were highly revered in Hinduism and such absurd depiction of them with no scriptural backing was hurtful to the devotees. Ganesh and Kali were meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines and not to be thrown around loosely in reimagined versions for dramatic effects in TV series.”

Even Annalee Newitz at io9, a fan of the show, slammed the episode, saying it should never have been made.

“My point is just that this episode, in attempting to answer that “what about other gods?” question, made things infinitely worse than if we’d just been left wondering. Now we’re left thinking that somehow Christian deities are more powerful than any other deities in the world. Dean goes so far as to call them “just monsters.” Which A) doesn’t really fit the show’s premise, which is that Christianity is one mythological system among many; and B) makes it seem that Supernatural buys into the idea that Christianity is somehow the “best” or “most powerful” mythological system out there. Thumbs down on that one.”

Many have defended Supernatural as an “equal opportunity offender”, but I’m not sure that’s true. While Christian themes are treated lightly and irreverently at times, it still acknowledges and reinforces the inherent supreme power of the Christian mythos. It has also been careful to steer clear of the third rail of secular pop-culture fantasy portrayals of Christianity by not making Jesus (or even God for that matter) a character. Supernatural, in other words, doesn’t mind being flip about Hinduism, Taoism, Vodou, or Paganism, but won’t court real controversy by having Jesus (or the Virgin Mary) show up and throw down.

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

I’m out on the road today, but I did want to share a few news items of interest. First off, the Chicago-based web publication Gapers Block features a review of a recent Pagan unity ritual and appearance by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. While starting off pretty snarky, the journalist is ultimately taken in by the experience.

“People are circling the candlelit altar, clapping and stomping and screaming with abandon. Suddenly, the chant drops out, giving way to a wordless, pulsating hum. It’s a totally spontaneous, genuinely moving moment, and it sends shivers down my spine. I forget, for a moment, all about wizards and unicorns, forget that I mostly came here looking for a cheap laugh; the simple joy of being in a room full of people, singing and dancing and feeling at one, is more magic than I could have hoped for, and if this is the sort of spell that Oberon Zell-Ravenheart is capable of casting, then perhaps his claims to wizardry are not as far-fetched as I’d believed.”

You have to wonder how many skeptical journalists have been won over by better-than-expected rituals over the years. If you want to see the ritual in question, it’s up on Youtube.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Lisa Rose of the Star-Ledger explores if the economic downturn has been good for  New Age and Pagan belief systems and businesses.

“Like Reynolds, who is a Wiccan, a growing number of Jerseyans are exploring alternate routes to their spiritualilty — rather than joining a church, synagogue or mosque — to cope with the economic tailspin. While she’s been studying the stars and worshiping the earth for decades, there are plenty of novices shopping for inner wisdom at New Age stores and botanicas. “People are looking for something,” says Kim Sandak, owner of Whispers of Enlightenment, a New Age store in Hewitt. She reports healthy sales since she opened in October.”

Apparently “green”, “healthy”, and other counter-cultural businesses are also weathering the current downturn well. Whether this perceived trend continues, or even really exists outside individual cases, remains to be seen.

In a final note, we have an update on the controversial case of a Canadian mother and Odinist who had her child taken away after she was sent to school with a swastika and “white supremacist symbols” drawn on her arm.

“On Tuesday, another social worker testified the girl said she was missing school because her mom and stepfather didn’t wake her up on time. She told the social worker that her stepfather made the rules in the house, that he was angry and would get drunk, and that he didn’t make meals, or change her brother’s diaper often enough. The girl, now eight years old, went to school with white supremacist symbols drawn on her skin in March 2008. Her teacher scrubbed them off in the afternoon, but the girl showed up again the next day with another one, along with other white supremacist symbols drawn on her body. CFS caseworkers were alerted and went to the family’s apartment, where they found neo-Nazi symbols and flags, and took custody of the couple’s two-year-old son. CFS officials picked up the daughter at her school. The children have been in foster care since then.”

The stepfather is filing a constitutional challenge, while the mother is hoping to tell “her side of the story” and says that the social workers are lying about her and her daughter. You can read my original coverage of this issue, here.

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